US ambassador Richard Graber: "History will be the judge of whether or not American policy is right"

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Early in June US President George W. Bush will visit the Czech Republic. The American Head of State will be meeting with his Czech counterpart Vaclav Klaus and other senior politicians. Washington's visa policy and its plans to build a radar station on Czech soil are topics expected to be discussed the most. To get the US position on both issues ahead of Mr Bush's visit, our colleague Daniel Raus from Czech Radio 6 met with the US Ambassador to Prague Richard Graber.

He began by asking Mr Graber whether the United States would mind if its planned anti-missile radar and interceptor rockets were part of a NATO defence system:

"In fact, over time, it could be a contribution to a future NATO system and it would be very complimentary to a future NATO system and there is a great deal of discussion in Brussels on that right now. With respect to your question 'why not NATO now?' is a question of timing. We believe that there is a significant threat coming out of the Middle East, specifically from Iran. We believe that there may be capabilities within the next several years to launch long-range missiles at our country, at Europe, and NATO simply won't be ready within that timeframe. We hope, we know, that this would be compatible with a future NATO system. We hope that the discussions move in that direction and that, with the United States' contribution being the ability to protect against long-range missiles and perhaps with NATO contributing short-range capabilities, so that all of Europe would be covered as well as our country."

If you were Czech, what would be your reasons against the radar - sincere answer please...

"There are many legitimate questions that have been raised, by people all over this country, ranging from health concerns to basic day-to-day questions about whether televisions and radios and cell phones will function. There have been questions about the nature of the threat and the NATO questions that we just discussed. They are all legitimate questions but I think that there are very good responses to all of those questions and I hope over time that people will take the time and will listen to those responses and I think that they will learn that, in fact, there is no health threat. The United States will be very, very careful so that there won't be damage to the environment. We've talked about the NATO situation and the fact that over time perhaps it will be a NATO system."

The biggest critique internationally is from Russia. How do you read the statements of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals against this installation?

"Well, we've been a little puzzled by the Russian reaction. What is being proposed is in no way a threat to Russian missile capabilities. A radar facility in the Czech Republic and ten interceptors in Poland are simply not able to in any way serve as a threat against Russian capabilities. We can all speculate why the statements are being made and I'm not sure it's worth trying to guess. What I can say is that the United States will continue to speak with the Russians. President Bush has been speaking with President Putin and there have been a series of meetings with the Russians where we've talked about why the United States would like to proceed with this...and we will continue to do that. We want a partner with the Russians and we hope ultimately that the Russians will agree to co-operate because we think that we have a mutual interest in protecting against threats."

The other question in Czech-American relations is the unbalanced visa policy. US citizens do not need a visa to the Czech Republic and they are welcomed here but Czech citizens do need a visa to the United States. Where is it in your agenda and in the agenda of Czech-American relations?

George W. Bush, photo: CTK
"It's a very, very important issue. It's very high on the agenda and President Bush would like to see a change. What has to happen to change the current policy is a change in the law in the United States. The President has proposed a change in the law, which would make it easier for countries such as the Czech Republic to participate in the visa-waiver programme. But now it's up to the Congress and it is, without question, unpredictable what the United States Congress will do with this.

"It primarily revolves around the issue of security. After September 11th in the United States, really everything changed and, understandably, there is a big concern about safety and security in the United States. What the President is trying to do is two things: to address those security concerns and to change the law in a way that strengthens the security aspects in the law but at the same time address the very significant concerns that our allies such as the Czech Republic have with this requirement. Maybe there is a way that we can do both."

Can we expect President Bush to make a statement on this when he comes to Prague next month?

"I expect there will be a number of issues on the President's agenda. Certainly, missile defence will be a topic, I would expect that visa-waiver will also be a topic - I know it's something that he cares deeply about. And I suspect that the President will also talk about democracy building and the Czechs have been so wonderful helping in places like Cuba, Belarus, and Burma. So, there will be a number of topics in the bilateral discussions and we look forward to it."

Probably the most interesting process since WWII in Europe is the integration of the continent. We can hardly imagine anything like that without the involvement of the United States. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, your army stayed in Germany and after the collapse of Communism, several voices suggested that this could end. What do you see as the reasons for American presence in Europe today?

"I think it's a changing partnership between the United States and Europe and a critically important partnership. It's not so much about Europe anymore as it is about the rest of the world. I think it is critically important that on a whole number of issues from human rights to democracy promotion to market promotion to safety and security that there will be a very strong transatlantic co-operation and I think we're making progress. If we're going to fight the very difficult enemy that we have right now in the war against terrorism, no country can do it alone. Everyone has to contribute and the most likely partners to do that are the United States and the countries of Europe."

It is no question that the mission of NATO is changing. How do you see its mission in the years to come and what do you think will be the main emphasis in Europe and outside of Europe?

"I think that there will be some traditional roles for NATO in protecting the safety and security of the member nations. But in Afghanistan, I think we see a changing role - a role that is getting outside of that traditional role that we have seen in the past. What we will see in the foreseeable future is a very important role of NATO in Afghanistan for many years. I think we all wish that Afghanistan's situation will be resolved quickly but I think it's going to be an extended period of years."

What about the image of the United States, of its foreign policy in the last years. You would probably agree with me that the image is not an ideal one in the world today. I'm speaking about Western Europe and not the Middle East or Islamic countries. What do you think went wrong in this respect? Is it that there should be more information from the United States? How can you change that image?

"I don't know whether there is a single answer to that. When you say: 'what went wrong?' I'm not sure that those are the words that I would use. We are facing a very difficult time right now and we - collectively - are facing an enemy, the likes of which we haven't seen before. It is an enemy that doesn't know boundaries, doesn't behave rationally, and that is difficult. It is difficult for all of our people and in all like-minded democracies to be patient with what is a very tough situation right now.

"I think history will be the judge of whether or not American policy is right or wrong and what the impact of these policies will be. I believe that history will show that these policies are the right policies and that in the end we have created a safe and more secure world for future generations. But as I said, there is no single answer and it's just a step by step incremental conversation dialogue between the United States and the countries of Europe to talk about these issues and to, when necessary, change direction. But it's a process and it doesn't happen quickly overnight."