The conservative end of the punditry have been jumping up and down for a couple of days now, accusing the president of taking action detrimental to the interests of US and European security, and caving to Russia diplomatically. This is silly.
There are three issues issues here I'd like to touch on -- feasibility, actual threats, and diplomatic links.
Well, does the thing even work?: feasibility
Shooting down long-range missiles is significantly harder that shooting down short- and medium-range missiles. What's more, the Bush system had major flaws:
The system that former President George W. Bush was rushing to build in Eastern Europe did not work. The interceptors slotted for Poland have not yet been built, let alone tested, and their sister systems deployed in Alaska have demonstrated serious operational problems. The radar intended for the Czech Republic has been shown to have major shortcomings, as documented by Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other independent experts. In short, it could not see the warheads it was suppose to track.
There was no "shield." There was no defense capability to "give up." It did not exist.
So, the thing just didn't work. Canceling a program that doesn't work is not a loss, to national security or the global world order. It's really just good sense.
Moss and rolling stones: Cold War inertia and actual threats
The fact the thing wasn't feasible, to any meaningful extent, brings us to the actual threats the Bush missile defense system was supposed to protect against. Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense for both presidents Bush and Obama, has this to say:
The new approach to European missile defense actually provides us with greater flexibility to adapt as new threats develop and old ones recede. For example, the new proposal provides some antimissile capacity very soon — a hedge against Iran’s managing to field missiles much earlier than had been previously predicted. The old plan offered nothing for almost a decade.
Moreover, the system proposed by Obama defends against the real threats more quickly than the Bush system would have. Our security guarantees to Europe must be focused on the Iranian threat -- no system proposed since the original SDI pushed by Reagan could reasonably talk about completely blocking Russian nukes. The Bush system explicitly did not have the numbers to pose any real deterrent against Russia. The threat from Russian missiles is being dealt with through diplomacy and treaties cutting the number of missiles; Russian nukes have not posed a real threat to the world since the Cold War, except insofar as they could be accessed and used by non-state actors (read: terrorists).
Guaranteeing our commitments: the diplomatic angle
This leaves us, then, with the question of how the whole thing looks: are we backing down and selling out allies, or are we adjusting our assets to best uphold our commitments and the security of ourselves and our allies?
La Russophobe has one answer:
A destabilized eastern flank... A more contentious NATO... An emboldened Russia... Cheapened alliances.But is that bearing out?
Well, not really. Actually Russia has already reciprocated, without even being asked, thereby removing an actual threat to our Eastern European allies and actually stabilizing the "eastern flank" (although it should be remembered, of course, that World War II has long since been over).
Nor is the US "backing down" in the face of Russian threats -- if that had been the case, we would have scrapped the plan before Obama went to Russia first, as a sign of obeisance before a strong rival. Instead it comes now, at a point when Russia has not made any significant negative overtures to us. And the ambivalence of the Central European feeling for the missile shield must be taken into account as well:
Far from seeing America as a leader, the citizens of these countries tend to be more skeptical of American power than almost every other NATO country. The government of the Czech Republic hadn't even ratified the agreement.
Nor, it should be noted, has the US taken off the board the possibility of installing missile bases in these countries when our security and intelligence assessments determine that such bases are feasible and necessary. And not all of our allies are so upset as the Poles seemed to be.
This is the first real move in the vaunted "reset," and puts the US in a much better negotiating position to bring Russia to the table on our policy toward Iran, where the bear's cooperation will actually be necessary, and where they have been recalcitrant in the past. Far from losing a zero sum game, the US is simply ending an egregious case of institutional inertia in Cold War thinking. There has been no weakening of our position, but rather a repositioning to best respond to the actual threats at hand. Positive consequences have already been borne out. The hawks should be applauding.