“I will not weaponise space” – will Obama’s words return to haunt him?

Barack Obama, photo: CTK

Barack Obama has been congratulated on his election victory by President Václav Klaus, opposition Social Democrat leader Jiří Paroubek and Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek. But what does Obama's victory mean for the controversial missile defence project, a subject that has so divided Czech politicians? Is the new U.S. president for missile defence, or against?

Barack Obama,  photo: CTK
Prime Minister Topolánek, who’s currently on a visit to Poland, was among the first to congratulate the new president. Mr Topolánek was asked by Czech Television how Czech-American relations would be affected by the change in the White House.

“It always depends on what kind of U.S. president we have, whether he shares the same values, and in this sense I have absolutely no fears at all. I am also interested as to whether there will be a change in American foreign policy, or not. I believe there will not, but this is a matter for the months to come.”

Everyone in Europe has watched this election with particular interest of course, but the Czech Republic and Poland perhaps have more at stake here than anywhere else. The governments of the two countries have signed agreements with the Bush administration to let the Americans place elements of the controversial missile defence shield on their territory – a battery of interceptor missiles in Poland and a tracking radar in the Czech Republic, about 70km south west of Prague.

Neither Poland nor the Czech Republic has ratified the plan in parliament; there is opposition in both countries and the political situation in the Czech Republic is particularly difficult. What President-elect Obama says about missile defence is therefore hugely significant, both to opponents and supporters of the plan. So what’s he said so far? Well, this is Barack Obama pledging to cut military spending in a campaign ad earlier this year.

George Bush,  photo: CTK
“Second. I will cut tens of billions of dollars in wasteful spending. I will cut investments in unproven missile defence systems. I will not weaponise space.”

That seemed to fit the Democratic Party line, which has criticised President Bush’s plans to expand the shield into Central Europe, and Congress’ Democrat-controlled Armed Services Committee has indeed slashed spending on missile defence.

Then came August, and the brief war between Russia and Georgia. Russia of course has threatened to target the Czech Republic and Poland if they let the U.S. build the shield here. In September, Barack Obama was interviewed on the Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News, where he seemed to be changing his mind.

Barack Obama,  photo: CTK
“Given what has happened in Georgia, I think that we have to send a clear signal that Poland and other countries in that region are not going to be subject to intimidation and aggression.”

I just want to get this on the record – you’re elected president, you’re keeping the missile shield in Poland.

“I believe the missile shield is appropriate. I want to make sure it works though. I want to make sure it works. Because that’s one of the problems that we’ve got.”

“I want to make sure it works” – that’s the key phrase. Supporters of missile defence here in the Czech Republic seized on those comments as evidence Obama would not halt the project. But Congress – which now has their man in the White House and a noted missile defence sceptic, Joe Biden, by his side - says it will not release large sums of money for missile defence until the Pentagon has proven with real working prototypes that it does indeed work.