May 30, 2007

The Unpopular U.S. Missile Shield

Source: Angus Reid Global Monitor
May 28, 2007

The defence plan faces new challenges as domestic pressure against it mounts in other countries.

Gabriela Perdomo - One of the goals of United States president George W. Bush is to implement a ballistic missile defence strategy in Central Europe before his term in office ends. But the plan involving three continents has not been easy to sell at home or abroad and it is unclear if it will be executed any time soon.

The idea of installing military equipment to deter a potential attack from "rogue states" such as Iran or North Korea against the U.S. or its European allies has both subtle and noticeable geo-political implications. So far, the U.S. has approached the governments of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary as possible partners in the missile defence system. The Poles have accepted to harbour 10 interceptor missiles on their soil, while the Czech will host a specialized radar. Bulgaria and Romania—who joined the European Union (EU) this year—might also become part of the strategy, since they already host American military bases inside their territories.

The Russians are unimpressed. President Vladimir Putin has repeated to exhaustion the American program is an open attack to his country’s security. Last week, he declared while in Austria: "What has happened in Europe that is so negative that one should need to fill central Europe with arms? (…) (Missile defence) will lead to nothing else than a new arms race and we find this completely counter-productive." The plan has also sparked controversy and tensions between the participant countries and the EU, but official talks between the U.S. and the other parties are under way.

Washington’s rhetoric seems to point at an imminent implementation of the missile defence shield. But this is not so clear when taking a glimpse at what is happening domestically in the Czech Republic, Poland and even in the U.S.

Public opinion polls have shown that the Czechs are not in favour of their country—which belongs to both the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—getting involved with the American defence plan.

Over the course of this year, Czech prime minister Mirek Topolanek and his Civic Democratic Party (ODS) have consistently lost public support, and many attribute this at least partly to Topolanek’s stand in favour of hosting the radar. Conversely, the opposition Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD) has been gaining momentum, almost tying the ODS in the most recent Factum Invenio poll.

CSSD leader and former prime minister Jiri Paroubek has been critical of placing the American radar on Czech soil, and has called for further dialogue before the government seals its decision of going ahead with the installation. Some factions of the Green Party (SZ)—a member of the governing coalition led by the ODS—have also publicly voiced criticism to the plan. The public demonstrations against the radar are sure to increase when Bush visits the Czech Republic next month.

A similar political climate is also affecting Poland. More than half of Poles think the country should abstain from participating in the U.S. anti-missile plan, according to a recent GFK survey.

While Polish prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski has endorsed official talks with the U.S. about a role in their defence plan, other government officials are telling the press that nothing has been decided yet. In March, Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) trailed the opposition centre-right Civic Platform (PO).

In the U.S., things are not any easier. A test of the intercepting missiles over the Pacific Ocean was aborted last week. While the "target" was not engaged because it did not reach "sufficient altitude," Air Force lieutenant general Henry Obering acknowledged that an investigation would be conducted to "determine the cause of the malfunction."

The test had already been delayed for months over technical difficulties, and this latest setback will fail to impress skeptical members of Congress as they ponder the Pentagon’s defence budget. Some lawmakers in Washington critical of the government’s plan argue the technology is not ready to guarantee functional equipment, while others are simply not in favour of allocating resources to fight a threat they say is not entirely imminent. Last week alone, the U.S. House of Representatives approved cutting over $764 million U.S. on missile defence from the administration’s proposed spending plan of $8.9 billion U.S.

In all, it seems like the public discussion on the U.S. missile defence shield in Central Europe is far ahead of the plan itself. There is still time for country leaders from all parties involved to assess if it is worth spending so much political capital before going ahead with this particular project.

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