Czech Mate

Bush's agreement with the Czech government is too little, too late to save his plan for anti-missile bases in Europe. The Czech people and the American Congress have already blocked his rush to deploy a technology that does not work against a threat that does not exist.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg signed a agreement in Prague on Tuesday allowing the US to deploy a tracking radar in the country, part of an anti-missile system that would include interceptors based in Poland or another country. It is a huge political gamble for the government headed by Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek and it could lead to its downfall. The Czech public is overwhelming opposed, with 68 percent expressing their disapproval of the base in the latest's polls. Thousands of demonstrators filled Prague streets Tuesday night to protest the plan.

With just 100 seats in a 200-seat assembly and several in the majority party saying they will not vote for the unpopular plan, the government says it won't even try for approval until after new elections in 2010. That means no funding from the U.S. Congress. The House has fenced off construction funds until all the government parliaments approve deployment and it gets a report from the Pentagon showing that the proposed interceptors have passed realistic tests. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate. Neither successful tests nor ratified agreements are likely for several years.

As Rep. Ellen Tauscher, (D-CA) said in supporting the restrictions she put into the defense authorization act, "We don't believe the American people should be digging holes in Poland for a system that will eventually cost over $4 billion when we don't have ratified and signed agreements with their government." Tauscher chairs the strategic subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee and is deeply skeptical of the European bases. "I am concerned that we are proposing to deploy a new system," she says, "that as of today has not demonstrated the capability to defend Europe -- let alone the United States -- against an enemy attack under realistic operational conditions."

Poland, meanwhile, has balked at the plan and Bush officials are now shopping in Lithuania for a partner. But time may have run out on the administration. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to put the best face on the paper pact, "It is hard for me to believe that that's not a capability an American president is going to want to have." Really? The capability is just as meaningless as the agreement she signed. Neither the threat nor the technology justify a rush to deploy.

The administration's main motivation is political: Bush is trying to box in the next president, to create facts on the ground that the next president would find difficult to reverse. He had hoped to build bases in Europe--as he already has done in Alaska and California--that would institutionalize his enormously expensive and technically unproven weapons system before he leaves office.

The main justification for the bases is the Iranian missile program. Iran now has missiles whose 300- to 600- mile range could reach targets in southern Europe and Israel, but the proposed U.S. system is not aimed at this threat. The bases would counter missiles that exists only in the rhetoric of Iranian and American officials. Iran boasts of building a long-range missile and the Americans cite the claims to justify moving out now on anti-missile bases. Both are exaggerating.

It is high unlikely that Iran will be able to build an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead that could threaten America in the next ten years. Only five countries have been able to build weapons in this range, and there is little reason to believe Iran would be the sixth. Its test program has been mediocre at best. Tests of the 600-mile range Shahab-3 missile (based on the North Korean Nodong) have been mixed, with at least two blowing up in flight. Iranian officials claimed the last test, February 4 of this year, was a success, but video footage clearly showed debris flying from the missile shortly into the flight, suggesting that Iran still faces serious technical hurdles. The vehicle seems to have only reached an altitude of 70 to 100 miles, far short of the capability required.

Over the past ten years there have been repeated claims of the imminent appearance of longer-range Iranian missiles. These continue today in the media and from some foreign officials. It is possible Iran is making progress, but there is no publicly available evidence to support these claims. Congressional expert Steven Hildreth explained the history of crying wolf on new missile programs in recent testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform:

Since the early 1960s, there have been any number of intelligence assessments and studies that predicted there would be more than five nations that could have accomplished this capability at various times in the past 40-50 years...Why has this number not increases as many had predicted? I believe that no small part of the reason lies with the serious technical challenges that countries face in building an operational ICBM armed with a nuclear warhead.

Still, the administration is doing its best to convince everyone that there is an imminent missile threat from Iran. It has to. The Iranian program is a key justification for the rush to deploy. Of the $60 billion that the Bush plans to spend on anti-missile weapons over the next 5 years, $10 billion is solely to counter the hypothetical Iranian missiles.

Our interceptors do not appear to work any better than the Iranian missiles. The administrations designs and grades its own tests and then usually classifies the results, so it is difficult to judge their real progress. They celebrate "successes" after firing interceptors at missiles traveling along precisely calculated and controlled trajectories. None have been tested against realistic targets deploying the kind of decoys and jammers our intelligence agencies say any nation would likely use to defeat a U.S. anti-missile system.

The rush to deploy has also strained NATO relations--by trying to negotiate bilateral deals that skirt the alliance decision-making process--and our increasingly shaky relationship with Russia. Russian leaders contend that the missile bases on its borders are a threat to their national security. Newly-elected Russian President Dmitry Medvedev expressed his hopes for continued dialogue on the issue, while making it clear that a base in Lithuania is entirely unacceptable. No nation should have a veto of U.S. national security. But these bases are not worth the derailment of vital national security items, like the renegotiation of arms reduction treaties. Russia, after all, has 14,000 nuclear warheads. At last count, Iran had zero.

The next president would be wise to pass on this "capability." He will have enough problems on his desk without being handcuffed by hyped threats, phony weapons and angry allies pressured into shady deals.

Joe Cirincione is the president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.