WASHINGTON — For months, the Bush administration has courted Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to gain assent for its plans to build a long-range missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
But the focus on Moscow may be misplaced. In the three capitals where legislatures must approve the system before ground is broken -- Washington, Prague and Warsaw -- support is thin and fading.
This growing opposition, detailed in interviews with current and former officials in the three countries, reflects what politicians and analysts view as the administration's mishandling of the issue and President Bush's rapidly declining influence both on Capitol Hill and among once-stalwart allies in what his administration has called "new Europe."
"The U.S. clearly mismanaged this rollout," said Bruce P. Jackson, a former Pentagon official and administration ally who has worked closely with the new democracies of Eastern Europe. "There weren't clear talking points, there was no interagency discussion about this, and we blindsided ourselves and also blindsided the governments in question. It's embarrassing."
Bush's meeting with Putin today at the Bush family compound in Maine is his latest chance to seek the Russian leader's blessing. Over the last three months, Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates each have traveled to Moscow or met with Putin on the issue.
But problems with Bush's missile defense plans exist elsewhere. In Washington, the House has approved legislation that strips funding for the tracking radar in the Czech Republic and silos for 10 interceptor missiles in Poland, meant to defend against a possible Iranian missile attack. Senate approval of a plan to cut funding could come within weeks, a reflection of both chambers' concern that allies have not been properly consulted and that the Pentagon has yet to prove the system actually works.
In Poland and the Czech Republic, governments publicly back the proposal but hold shaky parliamentary majorities and are facing growing opposition.
Senior Bush administration officials argue that there is still time to regain momentum. They note that the legislative fight in Congress for next year's defense budget is not over and that, despite surveys showing that 60% of both Poles and Czechs disapprove of the program, advocates in those countries have yet to make a concerted effort to sell the system.
"I don't think there's been a lot of informed public discussion about this, which gives me, as someone trying to make this work, a lot of hope," said one administration official involved in the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing U.S. strategy. "We do think we have good arguments."
Time is not on the administration's side, however. Officials at the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency said they would need to break ground within the next year to ensure the system was ready by 2013. Iran may be capable of deploying long-range missiles by 2015, based on U.S. intelligence estimates.
More important, the Bush administration has just over a year and a half left in office, meaning delays could be fatal.
Russia regards the proposed system as a potentially hostile move, prompting the U.S. efforts to reassure Putin. But Gates and Bush also have visited Eastern Europe over the last two months.
Hard sell in E. Europe
There, the most heated debate has come in Poland, where many believe Warsaw has done a series of favors for the U.S., including sending troops to Iraq, without reciprocation.
"There is this general idea that Poland has supported the United States in Iraq in 2003 and we got very little in return -- or we got nothing in return -- and we should not repeat the same mistakes we made then," said Piotr Maciej Kaczynski, an analyst at the Institute for Public Affairs in Warsaw.
One powerful opponent is former Polish Defense Minister Radoslaw "Radek" Sikorski, an Oxford-educated senator from the governing Law and Justice Party who resigned his Cabinet post in February.
Sikorski, who also has close ties to U.S. policymakers, has argued that the system actually could endanger Poland. Russia has threatened to aim short-range missiles at Poland if the U.S. base is allowed. Sikorski has insisted on sweeteners, including increased American protection against any Russian aggression.
"This will be the first pro-American decision that I believe the Polish public will simply not take," Sikorski said during a recent visit to Washington, noting that Iran was not seen as a threat by most Poles. "If we get nothing at all ... the public and the Parliament will not forgive us."
The Law and Justice Party's two junior governing coalition partners, the far-right League of Polish Families and the populist Self Defense party, both are skeptical of the missile shield, Kaczynski said.
Many U.S. and European observers consider Sikorski the key to the outcome in Poland.