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Senators Disagree on Obama's New Missile Defense Policy in Europe

Several U.S. senators have blasted President Barack Obama's decision to change U.S. missile defense policy in Europe, accusing the president of "abandoning" U.S. allies there. Senior Pentagon officials and some other senators defended the new strategy at an Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday, saying the new plan is the best way to deal directly with the nuclear threat from Iran.

President Obama surprised the world last Thursday when he announced plans to cancel a missile defense system in Europe proposed by the Bush administration.

The Bush-era program would have placed ground-based interceptors in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic to counter any long-range nuclear threat posed by Iran. The Obama administration's plan will replace Bush's anti-missile plan with a re-designed sea- and ground-based system, which destroys short and mid-range missiles instead of intercontinental missiles.

Opponents of the president's plan expressed outrage at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday, led by ranking member, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona.

"The decision by the administration to back away from its missile defense commitment to the Czech Republic and Poland can only demonstrate to the rest of Europe that the United States is not prepared to stand behind its friends, that the United States views resetting its relationship with Russia more important than commitments made to close friends and allies, and that the administration is willing to let Russia have veto power over the disposition of our missile defense architecture," he said.

Senator McCain, who competed for the White House against then-candidate Obama last year, also harshly criticized the way the Obama administration announced this major policy change.

"But a late night phone call wa s all it took to tell our friends to take a hike," he said. "According to news reports, the Polish prime minister was called at midnight."

Some centrist Democrats, such as Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, also criticized the way the president rolled out the new defense plan, and some questioned the intelligence behind the change in strategy to focus more on short and mid-range missiles from Iran.

Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan rejected the criticism from McCain and other Republicans that the decision had "bruised" U.S. ties with Eastern Europe, saying that NATO already supports President Obama's decision and that Poland and the Czech Republic are satisfied with other missiles they have been offered.

Michèle Flournoy is the Pentagon's top policy chief. She testified at the hearing, calling the new missile defense plan for Europe a "dramatic improvement" over the old Bush administration plan, and rejecting criticism that it is a unilateral concession to Russia.

"In short we are standing by our allies in Central and Eastern Europe, and we are in fact increasing our commitment to their defense in very real terms," she said. "While we certainly welcome Russian interest in the new approach, as well as potential Russian cooperation in sharing data from their radars, this is not about Russia, it has never been about Russia."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has praised President Obama's plans to scrap the old missile defense system for Europe, which it bitterly opposed, calling the move a constructive step in the right direction.