A series of briefings by General Patrick O’Reilly of the Missile Defense Agency, Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Nacht at the Atlantic Council on Wednesday provided a strong case and rationale for the administration’s recent decision on missile defense in Europe.

Since the unveiling of the new missile defense architecture, the President’s national security team has gone to great lengths to explain the benefits of the program to Americans and U.S. allies alike.  It has dispatched a team of talented, articulate national security officials from across the interagency to appear at briefings, hearings and conferences to explain why the new system offers a stronger and expedited missile defense capability than the Bush plan.

Nevertheless, the administration is struggling to win the battle of the narrative against vociferous criticism from conservatives.

The new European missile defense policy is highly controversial first and foremost because it marks one of the President’s most concrete, decisive acts on national security since taking office.  While the President has postponed tough choices on a number of foreign policy challenges such as Afghanistan and Iran, his decision to overturn Bush administration missile defense policy relatively early in his term guaranteed significant attention and criticism.  To be fair, many NATO allies and leading national security experts in the United States support the new policy despite substantial criticism from leading conservatives.

The fact that missile defense in Europe is interlinked to some of the most pressing items on the U.S. foreign policy agenda is a second reason that the administration has faced a great deal of scrutiny and pressure from its critics.  Specifically, the administration’s decision is closely linked to highly contentious issues such as the nature of the Iran threat, the state of U.S. relations with Russia, and the level of U.S. commitment to Central and Eastern Europe.

The Obama administration has clearly articulated that a key factor in its decision to scrap the Bush missile defense architecture was updated intelligence showing a greater imminent threat from Iran’s short to medium term missiles than from its intercontinental missiles.  Recent intelligence demonstrating previously undisclosed Iranian nuclear infrastructure has elevated tensions with Iran and worsened fears and suspicions over Iran’s intentions.  However, Congressman Michael Turner of Ohio, in his lunchtime address at the Atlantic Council, argued that recent briefings from senior military and intelligence officials led him to conclude that Iran’s short-term ability to develop intercontinental missiles cannot be discounted.

Closely linked to the question of Iran’s nuclear program and its military capabilities is the state of the U.S.-Russia relationship.  The Obama administration seeks improved ties with Russia in the hopes of securing Moscow’s cooperation on major foreign policy challenges, especially pressuring Iran to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons.  Although the notion of ‘quid pro quos’ has been denied by the Obama administration, Russia is highly unlikely to cooperate on pressuring Iran if the U.S. does not address what Moscow sees as irritants to the U.S.-Russia relationship.  Despite the administration’s denials that it seeks a ‘deal’ with Russia, some implicit recognition of leading Russian security concerns would have to be taken into account to secure much-desired Russian cooperation on matters of interest to the U.S.  No matter how much the administration argues that the missile defense system is ‘not about Russia,’ Russia has made it quite clear that it sees the decision as one of many concessions needed to reset relations.

What is less clear is whether or not Russia will reciprocate Obama’s missile defense policy with cooperation on Iran.  Leading Republicans opposed to the ‘reset’ policy in the first place have argued that the U.S. made a major concession to Russia without gaining anything in return.  Still others believe that Russia has no intentions of trying to influence Iran’s intentions in the first place.

Finally, the Obama team has struggled to counter criticism that its missile defense decision undermines its Czech and Polish allies and weakens Central Europe’s confidence in U.S. leadership. Critics say that the administration’s rollout of its policy and its poor consultations with allies left much to be desired.  Even Under Secretary Tauscher admitted as much in her remarks at the Council.  The ‘reset’ policy, the decreased emphasis on democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy, and the administration’s new missile defense policy have left some leading Atlanticists in Central and Eastern Europe worried about the Obama administration’s commitment to its security. Leading Republican commentators, particularly figures from the previous administration, have been highly effective in their criticisms of the Obama administration’s awkward diplomacy towards its Central and East European allies.

Much has been said about Obama’s missile defense policy in the three weeks since the administration made its decision, a good deal of it critical. Nevertheless, the decision has been made and now the White House must take steps to put the system in place and provide greater reassurance to allies who feel undercut by it.  In the meantime, the Obama administration needs to focus on other difficult decisions that must be made in the months to come.  The President and his team would be wise to learn from the mistakes it made in presenting and articulating its rationale and policy for missile defense to avoid losing the battle of the narrative on far tougher decisions it will have to make on Afghanistan and Iran.

Jeff Lightfoot is assistant director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Jeffrey Lightfoot and Patrick O’Reilly