Debating a possible U.S. anti-missile base in central Europe

For weeks now, the issue of a possible U.S. anti-missile defense base in central Europe has ignited much discussion in both the Czech Republic and in neighbouring Poland. According to official statements from Washington D.C., one or both of these countries will be offered the possibility of hosting an American anti-missile facility. Such a base would house only defensive missiles, and be under the administrative control of the United States. We take a look at both sides of this sensitive topic.

At a recent seminar sponsored by the Czech Euro Atlantic Council, politicians and scholars in favour of a U.S. base housed on Czech territory presented their various arguments. Among the guests was the American Ambassador to Prague, H.E. William J. Cabaniss, who explains just how the vision for a U.S. anti-missile defense base in central Europe came about:

"We've been looking and investigating anti-missile defenses for a long time in the United States and when our focus turned to Europe and what it would mean to enhance a missile defense system security-wise for not only the United States, but our allies in Europe, then sites were under consideration and two countries that offered a possibility of location were the Czech Republic and Poland."

Where do things stand now that the professional technical teams have checked-out potential sites in Poland and in the Czech Republic? It's early September—when do you anticipate that the United States will make an offer to one or both of these countries to potentially house a base?

"We expect the decision to be sometime this fall. It was originally anticipated that the decision would be recommended to Mr. Rumsfeld by the end of August but that did not happen. There are more discussions taking place in Washington and so it's going to be later in the fall; we don't have a specific date."

In terms of Czech participation in this project, in your presentation today you stressed Euro-Atlantic cooperation and the United States' concern for the protection of its allies. Could you explain that philosophy?

"Well, there are rouge nations in different parts of the world, and I stated, from information presented to Congress this year, how many ballistic missile launches there were in 2005, how many nations have the capability to launch ballistic missiles. There are rouge nations that we are concerned about and that Europe is concerned about, and we feel like it's very important for us to devise a defensive capability against a rouge nation firing a ballistic missile causing harm to not only the United States, but to one of our European allies, or our allies anywhere in the world. So we are communicating, we are negotiating, we are discussing a world-wide anti-missile defense system where our allies would be partners in this whole process. We are here, in Europe, discussing this proposal now with the Czech Republic and Poland and we'll have to wait on the decision of our team in Washington."

While the analysts in Washington discuss the issue of which country to offer the anti-missile base to—the Czech Republic or Poland—there are groups protesting in both the central European states. Jan Tamas, spokesman for the Czech-based No to Bases group, explains the position of his initiative:

"Well first of all, we don't see many reasons why we should even have a U.S. military base here in the Czech Republic. Just like we don't see a reason why we should have a German military base, or a Russian military base, or a Chinese military base—in the same way we don't see a reason why we should have a U.S. military base. That's number one. But then, why are we against the base? Well, for many reasons. One, we don't believe that going the way of armaments, building more weapons, is going to bring peace.

Protest march against the U.S. military base,  photo: CTK
Secondly, we don't think that it would be appropriate for us to have a military base here in the Czech Republic, over which we would have no control. It would be up to the military personnel of the United States—the people at the Pentagon and the White House—to decide when and if these weapons would be used, and of course it would also be up to them to decide against whom these weapons would be used. It doesn't matter whether this would be a radar base or an interceptive base, it is the same. It is the same system and it is not possible for the radars to exist if there are no missiles, and also the missiles can not exist if there is no radar. So for us this is a very strong issue—we are strongly against this. Also because we don't believe that the policy of President Bush is going in the right direction internationally."

Over the weekend there was discussion in newspapers and on the TV debate programs that it is possible that this proposal to house a U.S. anti-missile base somewhere in central Europe—be it in Poland or the Czech Republic—could come within the framework of NATO. If that were to be the case, how would your organization react if the offer were to come within this framework?

"Well, first of all, this is not an official statement from NATO so we are talking about some hypothesis and let's talk about them when NATO officially declares this intention. It's not the case, so we are only speculating about something. If that would be the case then of course the initiative No Bases, which consists of more than 30 organizations—Czech and international--would then have to sit down together and see about our common position. However, I believe that if this would be an effort of NATO it would be less likely that we would be against it than if it's a unilateral effort of the United States."

Regardless of NATO's official involvement in the anti-missile base project, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs has formulated a position. Political director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, Martin Povejsil, explains the official standpoint:

"Well, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been supporting the project of situating elements of the American missile defense system on Czech territory for security policy reasons mainly, because this is our domain and our major concern. And we do think—or we are convinced—that the presence of elements of this system would enhance Czech security as the system would protect Czech national territory too."

William Cabaniss and Alexandr Vondra,  photo: CTK
Minister [Alexandr] Vondra mentioned that there may be a need for compromise on this issue, and that the compromise may very well come in the form of splitting the missile defense base responsibilities between Poland and the Czech Republic. Is there any official discussion between the Czech Republic and its neighbour on this issue, outside of the negotiations and discussions with the United States?

"No, we have not been discussing the issue with Poland so far, and I do not think we ever will since the system is a U.S. system, and it's basically a decision of the U.S. government whether it prefers this or that country. The possibility of splitting the system into two parts technically exists, it is technically viable and it may be the case hypothetically, if the U.S. government considers that it would be more helpful to engage two central European countries rather than one only."

The coming weeks will produce an official statement from Washington, D.C., and observers can expect the debates about an anti-missile base in central Europe to become more intense once an offer is actually made.