By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
PARIS, July 8 -- The United States and the Czech Republic signed an initial agreement Tuesday allowing the U.S. military to build a radar station southwest of Prague as part of an antiballistic missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
"It is an agreement for friends and allies who face a common threat in the 21st century and wish to address it through the application of the best defensive technologies that we can bring to bear," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said after signing the agreement at a ceremony in the Czech capital.
The United States and its allies say the system will protect against attack by Iran and other enemies, but the plan has drawn intense criticism from opponents in the Czech Republic and from Russia, which calls the missile shield unnecessary, destabilizing and a threat to its security.
Rice turned aside those criticisms Tuesday. "We have made the point to our Russian colleagues," she said, "that we all face the threat from states like Iran that continue to pursue missiles of ever-longer range, and we must be in a position to respond."
Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek told reporters that the bilateral agreement, which was endorsed by the NATO alliance at a meeting in April, reflected a "joint desire to protect the free world."
But the proposed $3.5 billion defense system, which U.S. officials hope to start constructing next year and complete by around 2012, faces considerable hurdles.
Recent opinion polls show that about two-thirds of Czech citizens oppose hosting the missile-tracking stations. Many members of the Czech Parliament, where the government controls just half of the 200 seats, oppose the plan, including the Green Party, which is a junior member of the coalition government. In addition, a second agreement between the United States and the Czech Republic to allow U.S. soldiers to be stationed at the radar site has not yet been signed.
Moreover, Poland, which the U.S. government hopes will host a base with 10 interceptor missiles, has so far refused to agree, reportedly demanding multimillion-dollar security guarantees -- including upgrades in its air defenses -- from the United States. Critics of the shield in both Poland and the Czech Republic have expressed concern that basing the network in their countries could place them at risk from Russia.
Rice had initially planned to visit Poland as part of her current trip but canceled those plans when it became clear that the government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk was not ready to complete an agreement. Negotiations are continuing.
Russia contends that, whatever the United States says, the defense shield could target its missiles, thus weakening Russia's military deterrents and heightening regional instability. The system's radar, the Russians say, could peer deep into Russian airspace. U.S. officials have insisted that the defense shield would be useless against the massed strategic missiles of the Russian arsenal, and effective only against the relatively few of a regional power such as Iran. The officials have offered to give Russian military experts access to the facilities.
The Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed senior official in Russia's Foreign Ministry as saying Tuesday that the agreement "in our view has not added to security on the European continent. More than that, it has complicated problems of security."
Rice said that ultimately it would be up to the next U.S. president to give the system the final green light. But, she added, "it's hard for me to believe that that's not a capability that an American president is going to want."