Just as Prague was settling back into a predictable flow, another summit is on the way to turn this already battered town into a temporary police state.
Media circuses, street protests, and high politics are three of my favorite things, but the timing of this one is all wrong. After the devastating August floods, this town needs some rest, not riot control; it needs a functioning subway system, not another city-wide tank-enforced lockdown.
Prague doesn't need military snipers posted on its rooftops. It doesn't need 500 surveillance cameras following my sneakers. It doesn't need Interior Minister Stanislav Gross squawking about the primacy of security over rights in a "post-9/11 world." And it really doesn't need George W. Bush. His real-estate mogul in-law Craig Stapleton is U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Rep, and his daughter Jenna spent July on her knees wiping puke off her chin at Prague's Klub Lavka with her sorority sisters. The city's Bush family quota is more than filled.
Why can't NATO have their party in Brussels? Because Brussels sucks, and large organizations like NATO are always looking for an excuse to come here. Of course, the point of going to a lovely convention city is lost if you're hounding day and night by a guerilla opposition army and you can't leave your hotel because the tear gas and concussion bombs give you red-eye.
But they're coming anyway, and everyone's getting ready in their own way. My friends with families are planning to head for the hills; my activist friends are planning to avoid getting plunger-raped by the cops; my journalist friends are planning to get their bright orange PRESS vests cleaned; and my stoner friends keep asking me what NATO means.
It means North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and slow recall is understandable. NATO has kept a ground-level profile since it added three countries to its portfolio and bombed Serbia in 1999. That was a long hot NATO summer, featuring very angry Russian prime ministers (Primakov was en route to Washington for talks when the bombing started), downed U.S. B-2 Stealth bombers (for which the Serbs used the Czech-made Tamara radar), and a daring "accidental" U.S. direct hit on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade (the CIA swore there was a spaghetti stain on the map).
You might also remember NATO from the absurd U.S.-Russian race for the Pristina airport after the Kosovo cease-fire. An overzealous U.S. General named Wesley Clark wanted to take back the airbase by force after Russian peacekeepers beat his troops to it by an hour. His plans were thwarted only when the gruff British commander Sir Mike "Vader" Jackson pulled rank and ordered Clark to back off. Thus did Jackson prevent a U.S.-Russian firefight and emerge as the sole hero in NATO's war with Serbia.
After Kosovo, the Alliance reverted once again to a dormant Cold War relic with an identity crisis. The Warsaw Pact was gone, and there wasn't much to do in Brussels. NATO's first and much discussed "out of area mission" in Kosovo was followed by a protracted yawn fest of behind-the-scenes negotiations with backward NATO-applicant states like Romania. Desks at Alliance headquarters were piled high with painfully dull reports about the progress of structural reforms in the Slovakian military.
To keep busy, NATO encouraged expansion and monitored the reforms in candidate countries. But even as Brussels prepares to consummate the promise of membership next month, NATO struggles with the question of membership towards what? Europe is fully at peace and the Administration in Washington prefers to work alone.
NATO's last media splash came on September 11th last year, when America's European allies invoked the collective defense clause Article 5 of the NATO Charter. Commentators painted the invocation as a moving gesture of solidarity with a grieving ally nation, but in fact it was just proper procedure. For the first time in the Alliance's history, a NATO member was attacked. By the time Article 5 was active, though, the enemy had disappeared. NATO was built to fight a traditional war with the Red Army in Central Europe, and appeared useless in asymmetric conflict with terrorist groups.
After 9/11, the Bush Administration cared even less about the Alliance than it did upon assuming office. The Bushies stood alone in full warrior dress in front of the mirror -- why consult pansy NATO Allies about bombing targets when you can just do it yourself? Operation Enduring Freedom is a U.S., not a NATO, project.
And so this November an expanding, rudderless and sidelined NATO returns briefly to the news, and with it, the battle-hardened convention city of Prague. What will happen inside the Congress Center is more or less decided, and in any case nobody cares about Slovenia. No, all local eyes are on the cobblestones: Prague survived the flood of the century, but can it survive the locust swarms of anti-NATO anarchists?! Will Praha be pillaged?! Will al-Qaeda show up and break stuff, like Minister Gross fears? Will nose-picking foreigners come and flick boogers at the police? At Tony Blair?
A few will. But mostly they'll just march around, wave homemade peace signs and chant slogans against the war industries, against the idea of war itself, and most of all, against George W. Bush, who'll be in town along with fourty-five other heads of state.
The X factor in the mix is border control. If police effectively shut protestors out of the country -- and Interior Minister Gross says the tightening of borders will be "drastic" -- then 3,000 conference delegates and 3,000 journalists may yet spend a quiet few days together in Prague enjoying the opera, Budvar and the company of pretty ladies who specialize in entertaining tired convention goers.
But if the Czechs bungle their border clampdown, and if a U.S. war against Iraq looks imminent, then activists of all stripes will flood Prague's streets next month. There will be chaos, violence and very little opera going among the attendees. The target of the protest will be Bush more than NATO -- most of whose member states disagree with the current U.S. Administration on almost everything -- but the result will be the same for Prague: bloody prison cells, rancid gas in the streets, and Czech politicians waxing stupid on why the protestors had it coming.
I think NATO should have their summit and I think Europeans should go and express rage where they feel it. I just wish it was happening in Brussels this time. Snipers make me nervous.