On June 22, international opposition to a US-proposed missile defense system based in the Czech Republic and Poland ratcheted up as thousands of people around the world participated in a 24-hour hunger strike.
This action comes on the heels of a three-week hunger strike by two Czech peace activists, Jan Tamas and Jan Bednar, followed by a "chain hunger strike" that began on June 2 and continues today with Czech politicians, journalists, actors, dissidents of the former regime, athletes, intellectuals, and singers fasting for 24 to 48 hours. The people want a national referendum on the issue and an end to negotiations that subverts the will of the people.
I've written in the past of the folly and popular opposition to the missile defense scam. The Bush Administration -- as Ploughshares Fund President Joseph Cirincione described to me -- is "rushing to deploy a technology that does not work against a threat that does not exist."
Joanne Landy and Thomas Harrison write in a recent and valuable Foreign Policy In Focus article that Tamas and Bednar "are part of the new wave of Czech activists" -- activists who didn't grow up in the Cold War or under Soviet occupation, but are a product of the grassroots, understand the power of organizing, and want no part of the Czech and US governments going over their heads to build a US military radar base that 70 percent of the Czech population opposes.
These activists are part of a great tradition of Central and Eastern Europeans who have sought a third way -- independence and peace for their countries -- and a way out of the endless arms race between the US and Russia. (As the great, late British historian EP Thompson described in his July, 1982 Nation cover story, "East-West -- Is There a Third Way?") They are building public pressure that challenges the sense of inevitability that US and Czech leaders are trying to create in order to deploy these weapons. Like dissidents in the Cold War, these new activists are forging a movement on behalf of citizens, their voice and their rights.
Landy and Harrison note that while the Bush Administration feigns a commitment to global democracy it demonstrates a pattern of contempt for the will of the people. We see it not only in the Czech Republic and in Poland -- where the vast majority of people oppose the proposed US missile interceptor sites so that the US is now exploring possible sites in Lithuania), but also in Iraq where the Administration is hell-bent on building permanent US bases and continuing the occupation against the will of the Iraqis and their elected representatives.
In early July, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in Prague to sign the radar base treaty (a day Tamas refers to, with a keen sense of historical irony, as D-Day), Tamas will deliver an online petition calling for a referendum on the Czech radar site (sign on here). Currently over 120,000 people have signed on, and the simultaneous actions this weekend all over the world have created more momentum for this movement. Protests, hunger strikes and letter-writing campaigns were held in Athens, Brno (Czech Republic), Turin, Madrid, Albacette (Spain), Amsterdam, Munich, Milan, Florence, Valencia, Reykjavik, Rome, Toulouse, Koln, Budapest, Malaga, Brussels, and Guadalajara. In the US, there were actions in New York City; Saint Paul; Bangor and Brunswick, Maine; Blue Hill, Nebraska; Albuquerque; Tucson; and California.
But this tremendous grassroots opposition has received zero coverage from the US mainstream media which tends to paint what former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld called "new Europe" as uniformly pro-American. Given the exorbitant costs of missile defense, its destabilizing impact, and the popular opposition in the host countries, greater attention needs to be paid to this issue during this presidential campaign (also because the Bush Administration is attempting to paint Bush's successor into a corner by rushing deployment.)
A look at a side-by-side comparison between Senators Obama and McCain shows that the stakes are high when it comes to missile defense and the new arms race. Senator McCain will -- at best -- stay the course with Bush-like lunacy. Senator Obama's opposition to missile defense isn't as strong as it should be, and his campaign e-mailed me this statement:
"If we can responsibly deploy missile defenses that would protect us and our allies we should -- but only when the system works. We need to make sure any missile defense system would be effective before deployment. The Bush Administration has in the past exaggerated missile defense capabilities and rushed deployments for political purposes. The Bush Administration has also done a poor job of consulting its NATO allies about the deployment of a missile defense system that has major implications for all of them. We must not allow this issue to divide 'new Europe' and 'old Europe,' as the Bush Administration tried to do over Iraq."
But Senator Obama's statement does open the door to stopping deployment -- the fact is that the system hasn't proven effective in the least -- even against the most basic countermeasures. On that basis alone a President Obama would need to stop any deployment.
But stopping deployment based on performance issues misses the more powerful political and moral point here -- we need the next President to lead a US that truly respects and supports democracy. That's good politics and good policy. Residents of the host countries simply don't want this weapon. It's time we listen to the will of the people and fight to chart a more sane course.
Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.
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