- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 21, 2007

Last week, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg visited Washington. During the trip, he was expected to repeat his request, made in Germany two weeks ago, for a U.S. security agreement in return for hosting anti-ballistic missile radar sites (intended to counter future rocket attacks from Iran) on Czech soil. Critics claim the proposed agreement would undermine NATO and further antagonize Moscow, which has threatened to target its former satellites if they cooperate in the planned U.S. missile defense system.

On both counts however, a renewed U.S. pledge to NATO’s smallest and most exposed eastern members — if properly framed — has the potential to do more good than harm, regardless of what becomes of missile defense.

First, U.S. officials need not worry about undermining NATO. As one Czech official put it, “We have full confidence in NATO guarantees under Article Five. At the same time, common sense tells us that increased cooperation with the United States in different fields could be helpful, and in those fields not covered by NATO, maybe even necessary.” In contrast to recent Polish requests for a full-scale bilateral defense treaty, the Czechs appear to be looking for an enhanced cooperation agreement similar to those the United States has with Britain and Denmark — both of which also host U.S. defense sites. Far from diluting NATO, these arrangements have strengthened vital communication channels and pushed member relations toward a higher practical cooperation — a direction in which the whole alliance should move.

Second, while it may provoke Russian complaints in the short-term, a formal U.S.-Czech security agreement could help to reduce overall tension in the relationship with Moscow by providing a visible demonstration of the depth of Washington’s strategic commitment to its allies in the region. Such a statement is long overdue.

When Russian generals threatened in February to aim missiles at Warsaw and Prague if they participated in the missile defense project, NATO — and the European Union — failed to issue a meaningful response. This prompted the Czechs to look, as Mr. Schwarzenberg put it, for “an affirmation of the alliance” from the United States. Any reluctance on Washington’s part to provide such an affirmation would only stoke growing Central European anxiety and embolden Moscow to push even harder next time — whether it’s on the next round of missile defense or in a future Russian-initiated energy crisis.

But Moscow would not be the only intended audience for the new U.S.-Czech agreement. Through its negotiations with the Czechs, Washington may be able to set a precedent for what it will provide its Central European fellow-travelers in the missile defense program, establishing a standard package that could be offered to the rest of the alliance as part of an eventual, joint U.S.-NATO missile system. This could be especially helpful in future dealings with Warsaw. In recent months, senior Polish officials have begun lobbying for an increasingly elaborate package of U.S. concessions in exchange for Poland’s participation in the missile system.

Most recently, former Minister of Defense Radek Sikorski called on Washington to provide measures “like those they offered Japan: a bilateral alliance and PAC-3 anti-missile batteries.” Additional demands have been made in some quarters for a cash payment as high as $200 million. Unlike the Czechs, the Poles seem interested in a literal, 1930s-style entente — a concept that raises fundamental questions about Article Five and is adamantly opposed in Moscow.

By comparison, a U.S.-Czech security agreement may not be such a bad idea after all. The details of the Czech proposal may resemble the U.S. Senate’s recent Voinovich Amendment, which would require countries to provide increased intelligence cooperation before qualifying for the U.S. visa waiver program. If Washington wants greater behind-the-scenes candor before allowing Czech visitors on U.S. soil, it should provide the same cooperation in order to build radar stations on Czech soil.

Ultimately, Washington’s request for sites faces as much of a challenge in the notoriously fickle Czech and Polish parliaments as does funding for the system in the U.S. Congress. Regardless of what happens to the shield, however, coming away with an improved security agreement — one that adds another NATO member to the short list of Washington’s most trusted allies and meets the mutual U.S. and Czech desire for closer cooperation — would be well worth the trouble, for both sides.

Wess Mitchell is director of research at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a policy institute devoted to the study of Central Europe.

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