- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

This week, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek will visit Washington to discuss his country’s participation in the U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) program. Unlike recent Polish delegations, the Czechs come bearing no news of delay or demands for concessions; in fact, their chief aim seems to be to wrap up negotiations on U.S. radar installations as quickly as possible — by some accounts, as early as April, with a treaty signed sometime in June.

Prague’s urgency can be explained partly by Czech domestic politics (Mr. Topolanek needs spring progress to win NATO backing at Bucharest and retain the support of his coalition partners, the Greens and Christian Democrats), but may have more to do with U.S. politics.

Like Warsaw, Prague knows President Bush’s time is running out and worries that the last four years of diplomatic toil will be forgotten and the calculus of missile defense altered when his replacement takes office in 2009. They are right to worry.

Unless modified, the BMD stances of the leading presidential contenders could leave the Czechs holding the bag on a discarded U.S. weapons project — or worse, holding the line in fresh U.S. feuds with Russia.

For Prague, the first of these scenarios looms largest. Though neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton has specified their plans for the shield, both seem likely to discard the program. Mr. Obama has long questioned the reliability of BMD technology, saying the system should be deployed “only when [it] works.” Mrs. Clinton has criticized the administration for its “expensive and unproven missile defense technology.” Both appear to view the shield as a stumbling-block to better relations with Western Europe and Russia, removal of which would bring an early diplomatic boon.

Imagine, however, how such a move would look to the Czechs. In 2004, Washington asked Prague to host radar installations it said were needed to protect the West from a looming existential threat. Against the wishes of its own people, European neighbors and Moscow, Prague labored to meet Washington’s request. A sudden U.S. change of heart would leave Mr. Topolanek and his center-right confederates vulnerable to the charge they had been sherpas for a fickle superpower.

But an abrupt withdrawal of the U.S. request may not be the worst scenario facing Prague in 2009. Another tricky situation may unfold if America selects a president who keeps the shield while adopting a more confrontational approach toward Russia. For John McCain, BMD is more than a last redoubt against Iran; it’s a “hedge against potential threats from possible strategic competitors like Russia.”

For months, Mr. Bush has worked overtime to convince Moscow of the opposite, saying the system is aimed at “real threats” and that “Russia is not our enemy.” A McCain administration would be unlikely to issue similar reassurances; as the senator said in October, “I don’t care what [Vladimir Putin’s] objections to it are.”

Such a stance would pose problems for the Czechs. As President Vaclav Klaus told Mr. Bush in June, Prague needs Washington’s “maximum effort” to bring Moscow onboard. A skeptical Czech public needs to see that the shield will not leave their country diplomatically isolated or undermine its security. Both propositions become harder to defend with each new salvo of threats from Moscow — threats likely to increase if Mr. McCain comes to office with his current position on BMD unaltered.

All this will probably be on Mr. Topolanek’s mind this week. There are two things the United States can do that would serve both nations’ interests while easing any evolutions in U.S. thinking on BMD down the road. The first is easiest: President Bush needs to make a strong statement, in public, before the Czechs leave town that he intends to make good on the pledge to boost U.S. investment in the host of Czech firms capable of supporting the shield. Such a statement would help bring to the fore the benefits Czechs will receive from the shield (Prague has not sought kickbacks a la polonaise). It would propel Czech efforts to gain momentum before Bucharest, and send a needed signal of the administration’s seriousness (conspicuously, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are out of town) at a crucial eleventh hour in negotiations.

Second, Mr. Bush’s successor should seek continuity on BMD, at least in the early days of their his or her term. Any changes must not be done in a way that leaves Prague politically isolated — either by cutting a deal over its head or treating it as a foot soldier in East-West confrontation.

For all three candidates, this will require giving something up: for Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, the instant gratification of discarding the broken policies of their predecessor; for Mr. McCain, the appearance of toughness with Russia.

But doing so could give Democrats the leverage they may need for a new diplomacy with Iran, give the Republicans the international help they may need from Russia, and give the Czechs good reason to help a president from either party, next time he or she comes calling.

Wess Mitchell is director of research at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington, D.C., policy institute dedicated to Central European studies.


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