- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The U.S. and the Czech Republic are three words short of an agreement on missile defense, President Bush and Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said today after a meeting at the White House.

Mr. Topolanek said that the remaining disagreement is over environmental standards for the radar tracking system, and that it is only “a technical matter which is going to be resolved very soon.”

Mr. Bush, in remarks to reporters in the Oval Office, with Mr. Topolanek sitting next to him, spent several minutes trying to allay concerns about the missile defense system which are held in the Czech Republic, in Russia, and in other eastern European countries.

Mr. Bush said that the system would be “in the context of [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization],” but did not yield to demands within the Czech Republic that the missile defense be run by NATO.

“It fits into the concept of NATO, and will honor the sovereignty of the Czech Republic or Poland,” Mr. Bush said.

But he also said that remaining discussions will include negotiations over “a status of forces type agreement.”

“We will be coming to their country,” Mr. Bush said. “‘Under what conditions, how will people conduct themselves?’ These are all very legitimate questions that the Prime Minister is asking.”

After more than a year of intense bilateral negotiations, and an often acrimonious public debate in Prague, many Czech citizens and government leaders have concerns about the system, which would put a tracking site in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles in Poland.

Public opinion polls show about 70 percent of Czech voters oppose the missile defense system. Russia is also suspicious of the plans.

But the Bush administration has made missile defense bases in Europe a foreign policy priority in the waning days of its administration. Mr. Bush today tried once again to pacify Russian concerns that the system is aimed at them, and he appealed to Europe’s self interest.

“Russia could overwhelm a system like this,” Mr. Bush said, indicating that the system is to protect against rogue leaders such as in Iran, or terrorist groups such as al Qaeda, who may obtain nuclear weapons.

“The interesting opportunity is for Russia to realize the benefits of such a system by extending the radar coverage into their country, because they will be under the same threat of radicalism that we will be — ‘we’ collectively,” Mr. Bush said. “If some of these countries develop a weapon that’s capable of developing a nuclear warhead, free nations, nations such as Russia, do not want to be in a position of political blackmail.”

Leading opponents of the missile defense system have said they may support the effort if it is under control of NATO and not the Pentagon.

“We are not against missile defense as a concept but we would rather like to see it debated and carried out under the alliance,” said Jan Hamacek, a member of the opposition Social Democratic Party, who chairs the foreign affairs committee in parliament.

“What’s missing here is a substantial debate on the alliance level to what extent the threats we are talking about are real, and to what extent a global, layered, missile defense system is the answer to the threats that we are facing.”

The Czech Republich’s Green Party, a junior member of the governing coalition, also supports NATO leadership of the missile defense system.

“NATO is the perfect platform for discussing collective security,” Ondrej Liska, the Greens’ vice-chairman for foreign affairs said in an interview.

Mr. Topolanek, before leaving Prague for the U.S. yesterday, minimized the importance of the missile defense issue.

“If the missile defense were to be the only purpose of my trip to the United States, I would not have gone to the United States for that purpose,” he told The Washington Times. “It could have been arranged by the offices. So it is not so crucial for me.”

However, Mr. Topolanek’s government has hired public relations executive Tomas Klvana to work exclusively on the missile defense issue.

Mr. Konviser reported from Prague.

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