PRAGUE | Poland urgently sent its chief diplomat to Washington on Monday for talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to salvage an elusive missile-defense deal, just hours before she flew to Prague to sign a similar agreement with the Czech Republic.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski also planned to discuss the latest U.S. proposal for basing 10 interceptors in Poland - which his government rejected Friday - with the presumptive Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, respectively.
“Poland presented a new variant of what stationing Patriot batteries in Poland could look like,” Mr. Sikorski said after his meeting with Miss Rice, referring to the short- and medium-range U.S. anti-missile systems that Warsaw seeks to modernize its air defenses.
In its proposal, on which tentative agreement was reached last week, the Bush administration offered to station Patriot batteries on Polish soil for a year. In exchange, Poland would host the interceptors as part of a defense shield aimed at countering a missile attack from Iran.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, however, said his government looks for a more permanent arrangement involving the Patriots. Warsaw is trying to negotiate a package worth billions of dollars in U.S. investment.
Both Mr. Sikorski and State Department spokesman Sean McCormack indicated that no breakthrough was reached Monday, saying the negotiations will continue.
“We did not conclude them in time for the beginning of the secretary’s travel, but that does not mean we are not going to keep working on it,” Mr. McCormack said, leaving the door open to a stop in Warsaw should the situation change.
A spokesman for Mr. Sikorski, Piotr Paszkowski, was more optimistic, saying, “We are preparing for the visit as if it were to take place.”
Miss Rice is scheduled to sign an agreement Tuesday to base a tracking radar, another key part of the $3.5 billion system, in the Czech Republic. The accord, opposed by many Czechs, faces a tough ratification process in Parliament.
Even if the Czech deal receives that final approval, many analysts - and apparently the Polish government - are looking beyond the Bush administration and focusing on what Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain might do.
“While negotiations [with Poland] are ‘ongoing,’ I think it’s clear that the decision will ultimately fall to the next administration,” said Julianne Smith, Europe Program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Baker Spring, national security fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said that if a deal on the interceptors is not reached by the end of the summer, “it is unlikely that the administration will be able to conclude a deal before President Bush leaves office.”
Mr. Sikorski’s attempt to determine what Mr. McCain’s and Mr. Obama’s plans for the shield might be is understandable given the significant commitment Poland would be making, Mr. Spring said.
Mr. McCain supports the program, but Mr. Obama does not.
“I will cut investments in unproven missile-defense systems. I will not weaponize space,” Mr. Obama said last year.
Critics of the system say that there is no proof it works and that the Iran threat is too distant. The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency estimates that Iran could develop a long-range missile capable of striking the United Sates by 2015.
“I don’t believe it is within the power of either McCain or Obama to promise anything, and it would be premature to do so, since the system doesn’t work,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
Last week, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said former Soviet republic Lithuania is a “good alternative” to Poland as a site for the interceptors. Both countries are members of NATO, which formally endorsed the missile-defense project in April.
Russia has said the shield would pose a direct threat to its territory, an assertion the United States has repeatedly denied. Moscow, which rejected Washington’s proposal to cooperate, has threatened Poland and the Czech Republic with pointing Russian missiles at them if they agree to host the U.S. bases.