40 years after Prague Spring, a new invader
What do Darth Vadar and Franz Kakfa have in common? An obsession with the darker side of life, you could say. But you’d also be right if you answered “Czech Republic,” the proposed site of a U.S. anti-ballistic missile defense (ABMD) radar base, known locally as the “son of Star Wars.”
The Czech base, along with 10 missile interceptors placed in Poland, would be the third prong in the global “missile defense shield,” a network designed to knock out intercontinental ballistic missiles headed for the United States or Western Europe in mid-course. The Czech base would employ sensitive X-band radar to track the missiles while the interceptors in Poland prepare to launch. Since the operations are controlled by satellites, the program is also dubbed “Star Wars,” provoking nightmares of a futuristic space war.
According to the Pentagon, a missile threat is imminent from one of the remaining “axis of evil” members, North Korea and Iran. The Rumsfeld-created Missile Defense Agency wants to have the European system ready by 2013, two years ahead of when they say Iran will have a long-range nuclear missile capability (so far, Iran has tested a missile with a 3,200 mile range). Even more pressing are the November elections, which may throw the missile defense program’s future into question.
Spanning from the US, UK, Greenland and now possibly continental Europe, the Pentagon boasts the shield as largest industrial program in history. Along with a $150 billion price tag accumulated since 1983—and counting to the tune of $10 billion per year—critics are skeptical that the system will actually do anything to protect the United States. Recent tests have made only seven out of twelve intercepts in what missile defense expert Wade Boese calls “scripted and unrealistic experiments.”
Boese is research director with the Washington, D.C.-based Arms Control Association. He suggests the Bush administration’s efforts to secure bases in Eastern Europe are part of a political agenda rather than military necessity.
“As we have seen with U.S.- deployed nuclear weapons under NATO, weapons systems become symbols and signs of political commitment,” says Boese. ”The European deployment in my eyes is simply a way for the Bush administration to help insulate missile defense against possible future efforts to cut back or scrap what has been a tremendous waste of money and effort over the past several years.”
As Boese infers, that could be just what the Pentagon is after. American mobilization in former Eastern Bloc countries is not taken lightly by Moscow, which views the Eastern European bases (including those in Romania and Bulgaria) as a direct security threat to which they must respond in kind. A renewed arms race means renewed Cold War-era profits for the major arms companies involved in missile defense: Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon. It also means a regression from the anti-proliferation treaties into a dangerous game of political poker.
Contending that NATO has already come too close for comfort, Russia pulled out of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty last December, which prevents Russia or NATO from mobilizing forces in the European border region. In 2001, the Bush administration pulled out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and has failed to seriously negotiate other Cold War-era treaties such as START, due to expire in 2009. While it’s possible that the missile bases don’t pose a direct security threat to Russia, their placement in Eastern Europe is an audacious provocation.
Ted Postol is a professor at MIT, who first made waves when he proved that the Patriot missiles deployed in the first Gulf War were incapable of shooting down an Iraqi Scud. In 2001, to the Pentagon’s further chagrin, he showed that missile defense would never work, since decoys could simply overwhelm the system. More recently, Postol calculated that interceptors in Poland are not actually in an advantageous position to guard the West from Iran, but are rather strategically placed to intercept missiles coming from Russia. As other commentators have noted, ten interceptors are hardly enough to attack Moscow with—but could be useful in the event that the U.S. launches a first strike and Russia retaliates against NATO targets.
Having experienced a nasty Soviet occupation forty years ago, Czechs are quite wary of foreign troops on their soil. Independent polls show over two-thirds of Czech citizens are opposed to hosting a U.S. radar base.
Many Czechs say they fear becoming a target of terrorism for cooperating with the United States. But the real threat, say activists, is to Czech Republic’s fledgling, 18-year-old democracy.
Two days after the Topolanek government was elected in 2007, the base was announced to the Czech public for the first time. It hadn’t been revealed during the election campaign, says Dana Feminova, an organizer with the Prague chapter of Europe for Peace. Because of this suppression, Feminova says, the government has no mandate to allow foreign bases on Czech territory.
“If it was before the elections a discussed topic, the people could decide [for whom they’re] going to vote with this information. But they hid it. And that's not democracy,” says Feminova.
To help shed light on the base, a coalition of Czech groups formed the No Bases Initiative, calling for a referendum to let the people decide the issue once and for all.
After two years, exhausting the usual avenues of democratic protest—demonstrations, letters to politicians, and a speaking tour that included the United States–– organizer Jan Tamas and his colleague, Jan Bednar, went on hunger strike. They went for three weeks without food but the government wouldn’t budge.
“I had maybe some hopes in the corner of my heart that the government would be more democratic that it turned out to be,” said Tamas, one month after he and Bednar suspended their strike. “It reminded me of when I was growing up during communist times. When it was impossible to criticize the government, when it was impossible to have a different opinion, and whoever opposed the will of the government was portrayed as a traitor.”
Despite their government’s lack of recognition, Tamas and Bednar’s action spurred a nationwide, if not worldwide, show of sympathy. Once the activists resumed eating, a series of prominent Czech figures took up the hunger oath for 24-48 hours each. Solidarity strikes took place across Europe, North America and Australia, culminating with an international day of action on June 22. Demonstrations were held in 30 cities around the world in front of empty plates.
For Feminova, this show of support was crucial to bring the missile defense issue to an innately human level.
“People have to gain a voice in saying ‘no’ when the are being led towards destruction. They clearly support the protest against the missile defense system of the U.S. but it's more wide than that. It's showing that people would like to resolve the issues that are touching food, health care for everybody in this planet and we are not accepting to spend another million, billions of dollars for other armaments.”
Proponents of the base say that the Soviet occupation is a good reason to ally with the U.S. Standing on the same cobblestones in Prague’s Wenceslas Square that Soviet tanks rumbled over in 1968, Daniel Richter dismissed the fears many Czechs have about a foreign army on their territory.
“Czech citizens think they are neutral to international affairs, that they are somehow aside from what is going on in the world,” says Richter, a political science student at Charles University. “I personally agree with the radar in this country because it would put Czech Republic to where it historically belonged. It means, in Western Europe. We are either on one side or we are on the other. There is no other way.”
There are important differences between 1968 and 2008, however. The U.S. military sets a new precedent of sovereignty infringement: U.S. personnel would be immune to Czech laws, as they are in the 823 U.S. military bases around the world. And since it’s not a NATO base, Czechs would not be allowed on-site. Even the Soviet army didn’t have this kind of protection.
Despite the government’s slick PR campaign, which Feminova alleges was produced by the same agency representing several arms corporations, Czechs are skeptical that the base will generate the promised economic benefits. Part of the base agreement stipulates that the United States will fund and use Czech technological research. But the top contracts will go to American companies: Raytheon and Boeing have already been awarded millions to transport and build the radar station.
On July 8, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice signed the Czech base deal while thousands protested in the streets of Prague. Rice underlined the benefits of the treaty in no uncertain terms:
“This agreement is not just about missile defense. There will be an accompanying agreement very, very shortly that will help us to take advantage in the private sector, to help our private sectors take advantage of the research and development opportunities that this agreement will bring into being,” said Rice at the signing ceremony.
David Kostelnik, a rail industry representative from Ostreva, laughs at the thought that military cooperation might improve the Czech economy, pointing out the Czechs haven’t been able to sell their passive-radar systems to China and Iran due to NATO objection.
“When Americans come here, this is business for them. They say, ‘ok, we’ll rent your land, we’ll give you contracts, just don’t ask we do there,’” says Kostelnik.
Negotiations in Eastern Europe aren’t going as well as the outgoing Bush administration might hope. At the time of printing, eighteen months of talks with Poland’s eastward-leaning President Donald Tusk were on shaky ground. Poland’s request for a costly military upgrade in exchange for the base have prompted the United States to enter talks with Lithuania, a territory of the former USSR—and triggered reports that Russia could place a nuclear bomber in Cuba.
The final verdict on the radar base will come after a vote in Czech Parliament. Due to a weak minority government, four Green Party representatives may have the deciding votes. It remains to be seen whether or not the new democracies of Eastern Europe will remain accountable to the people’s will or a foreign policy tug o’ war.