On October 3rd, I attended a panel discussion about the recent controversy to erect a U.S.-owned defensive radar system 40 miles east of Prague as part of the Pentagon’s proposed anti-missile “shield” designed to protect the United States from missile attack by “rogue states.”
It was a blessing because the panel, in theory, would give me the chance to learn directly from people with a personal stake in the discussion. Czech government officials, non-government organization representatives, even a representative of the American Embassy would all be available for Q&A (but thankfully, given their average appearance, not T&A).
However, the panel would be moderated by Dinah Spritzer, my journalism professor. While Dinah had gone to the trouble of organizing the debate, her sandpaper personality didn’t exactly make for the ideal debate moderator. To be honest, though, I knew Dinah would if nothing else guarantee a lively evening. You can’t say things are boring when she’s around.
Representing the five sides of the issue (which, ironically, makes it a pentagon) were Mary Thompson Jones, representative for the U.S. Embassy here; Ondrej Liska, Green Party member (the Greens actually have political strength here, unlike back home), Veronika Kuchynova Smigolova, from the security policy department of the Czech Foreign Ministry, Jan Tomas, of the originally titled “No To Bases” initiative, and Dan Macek, a half-American half-Czech friend of Dinah’s who claimed to be a member of a pro-base organization. I only knew him as the “interpreter” who Dinah sent to help us on our first assignment interviewing Czechs but proceeded to get drunk within the first hour.
The debate started off well: Dinah asked the panelists what, exactly, would be wrong with installing a radar system here. Tomas quickly replied that installing a radar system would do nothing to make the world safer, and that instead of building new bases the world’s nations should concentrate on disarmament.
“We feel if this system is implemented it will lead to a new arms race in Europe,” he said.
Liska said in response that he has nothing against such optimism…and little else of value. He ticked off a variety of related facts about the subject, such as the fact that any decision among the parliament to condemn or condone the decision would not come until next year at the earliest and that it would ultimately be decided by the Czech president, not the people.
To sum up, he said he was neutral on the issue. And that was about it for his total contribution.
Smigolova said she agreed with most of what Liska said, and stressed that threats do exist out there – but nobody knows what they are yet.
She ruled out using NATO to control the system, even though she said it would provide defense for the entire continent, as the system was “too complex.” Apparently NATO is actually staffed by a large contingent of talking squirrels.
However, Smigolova said the NATO member countries were all for the system – at which point Dinah injected her first truly confrontational remark of the evening.
“That’s not what they’ve told me on the phone,” Dinah said to Smigolova. “The Germans must be lying to me.”
Of course, Smigolova did very little to explain why the installation would be directly good for Czechs, either. She cited improved job opportunities and increased business in the small town where the base would be located. But she seemed to be reaching for answers.
“It’s always difficult to talk to local people about a military installation,” she offered.
When it was Jones’s turn, she stressed that this American military installation, funded by American tax dollars, as part of an antiballistic missile umbrella designed specifically to cover America from nuclear rain…was ultimately not up to Americans.
“This is absolutely a Czech decision to be decided by the Czech people,” she said to the audience – which included more than a few Czechs.
Talk turned to the primary stress point in the construction of the radar – pressure from an increasingly paranoid Russia over whether the radar was designed to block missiles from “rogue states” such as Iran, or ICBMs from the heart of the former Soviet Union.
Smigolova said it is irrelevant – so long as the Russians aren’t planning to launch, there’s no threat to them.
Jones admitted the system was an “irritant” in Russian-American relations, but pointed out the Bush administration did want Russian help in the project.
(Of course, this did not stop American scientists from immediately dismissing the contribution personally suggested by Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former Soviet radar installation in Azerbaijan.)
Tomas took the opportunity to fly off on an anti-American rant, saying the U.S. was responsible for 40 percent of the world’s $1,000 trillion annual defense expenditure, and Iran poses no threat to such “giants on steroids” as America.
In reality, while Tomas’s fraction was nearly correct, he was off by a couple of decimal points. The United States in fact spent 48 percent of the global total spent on militaries in 2005 – that is, 48 percent of a global total of $1.18 trillion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Macek countered that it was impossible to know what threats would come into focus by 2012, the projected completion date for the project.
Liska said he didn’t see any reason for the radar system to be used as a way of leveraging the Czech Republic out of the Russian sphere of influence. As far as he was concerned, he said, there is no real security separate from one nation or the other.
“Putin goes fishing with George Bush,” he said. “Why should I choose between the two of them?”
“I don’t think you can avoid irritating Russia,” said Macek, and said Russia’s wounded pride over losing the Cold War and many of their satellites makes them easily annoyed.
Jones then proceeded to say two things I never, ever thought I’d hear a representative of the Bush Administration say in my life.
First of all, she admitted the American government was wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Had I been drinking water at that moment, the person in front of me would probably have been drenched.
Secondly, she cited the need for journalists to serve as a check and balance on the government’s actions, much as Congress does. Whether this was a complement to the journalists in the room or an insult to the 535 legislators in Washington, D.C., I don’t know.
At this point, the floor was opened for questions, and a hypertensive NYU professor named Jan Irving leapt to his feet.
“I am a little disturbed with the approach of the panel,” he said, before firing off a volley of insults at the panelists.
Irving, who seemed to consider himself an expert on military technology, threw around terms like “technological development probability” while declaring Iran doesn’t need ICBMs because they can fire their medium-range Sharp-3 missiles from ships, or how the missile ‘shield’ will provide no protection from high-altitude electromagnetic pulse weapons (think Goldeneye).
“This debate is just outdated nonsense,” he said. “What are we talking about? We don’t need a radar installation here!”
While my mind tore off on thoughts of Iranian cruisers in the Atlantic lobbing nukes at New York and EMPs knocking all of Europe back to the Dark Ages in a millisecond, the panelists were back to their old game of debating the minor issues of the matter – will it annoy Russia? Why is it going in here?
And despite the efforts of audience members to turn the debate towards a wider scale, the panelists continued to quibble all the way until the end of the debate.
Ultimately, the whole experience – while somewhat interesting for entertainment value – seemed irrelevant. This missile shield, in my opinion, is probably going up just because the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about now has enough power to get multi-billion dollar projects like this put through.
It doesn’t matter that Iran doesn’t have any weapons that can hit America from the Middle East.
It doesn’t matter that the weapons haven’t even been proven effective yet.
It doesn’t matter that Iran presumably knows better than to launch any WMD against America, because within an hour the whole country would be turned to glass by atomic fire.
It doesn’t matter that ten interceptor missiles have absolutely no hope of stopping a full-scale Russian nuclear attack.
And it sure as hell doesn’t matter what the Czechs care about.
Because ultimately, the president of the Czech Republic will do what he (or she) wants in regards to the issue. With a public as divided as the Czechs, any leader who makes the decision will get shit on no matter what he or she chooses.
But signing up for the radar will bring jobs and American dollars to the Czech Republic at absolutely no cost to the Czechs.
And it will greatly strengthen American-Czech relations, thus ensuring the CR’s place as the Central European foothold for what will likely remain the planet’s greatest superpower for at least fifty more years.
So what if it makes an inviting target? The headquarters of Radio Free Europe, one of the top 10 targets of Islamic jihadist terrorists, is located one Tom Brady pass away from the National Museum in the heart of Prague.
And if Iran was that serious about trying to blow up Washington with a nuclear bomb, it wouldn’t make sense to do it with a super-Scud missile that leaves a trajectory trail leading straight home. If they really wanted to unleash their wrath on some American city, it’d be far more logical to sneak whatever bomb they wanted into the country and place it wherever they want.
So in the end, this radar debate is just a useless waste of time and resources. Christ, at this rate, D.C. will be an estuary of the Potomac by the time Iran gets the Bomb, anyway. Why don’t we start worrying about things that really matter?
Good night, and good luck.