National Security

Published — November 21, 2008 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Eastern Europe to U.S.: Wait, wait, now we want your missiles!


The controversy over the missile defense system the United States plans to build in Eastern Europe has taken almost a 360-degree turn recently. Until November the Bush administration had been courting our “new Europe” pals, the Poles and Czechs, offering planes, missiles, discounts, and other goodies to help smooth the way for the Star Wars installation. But on November 4, the tables turned.

Polish and Czech ministers have been touring Washington in recent days, quietly meeting with advisers to Prez-Elect Obama and encouraging him to maintain Bush’s plans – though they’re being tight-lipped about it. “I can’t tell you whom I’ve met; I am not a fool,” Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Vondra told PaperTrail after his closed-door meeting at the Brookings Institute on Tuesday. Poland’s foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski, spoke the next day at the Atlantic Council of the United States. Poland will “wait until the new administration makes its assessments,” he said, but “we would like to see the project continue.”

That may be a hard sell. The missile defense project is among the top candidates for Pentagon budget cuts. The system hasn’t been proved effective, argue some experts, and it gives angry Russians an excuse to deploy more missiles themselves. Obama’s aides have said repeatedly the new president would support the system only “when the technology is proved to be workable.”

The European branch of the system is meant to protect America and other NATO countries from the potential launch of a ballistic missile by Iran or North Korea. But protecting Americans and other foreigners is not exactly a top priority for Poles and Czechs, so their governments have had to sell the system as a security guarantee and a shield against Russian influence. That’s worked in Poland, where Washington has faced only minor opposition from the center-left government, but less well in the Czech Republic, where two-thirds of Czechs oppose the presence of any foreign military base.

Still, their leaders seem wedded to the idea of hosting the U.S. missile defense program. As Sikorski said at the Atlantic Council presentation: “Everybody assumes that countries that have U.S. soldiers on their territory do not get invaded.”

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