July 30, 2012 | Foreign Policy

How Obama Lost Poland

Can Romney win back America's old post-Cold War ally?
July 30, 2012 | Foreign Policy

How Obama Lost Poland

Can Romney win back America's old post-Cold War ally?

After the “Romneyshambles” of his London visit, the U.S. Republican presidential candidate has a good chance to end his European tour on a high note as he arrives in Poland on Monday, July 30.

Since U.S. President George W. Bush left office, Polish officials have grown increasingly uneasy with what they view as a fair-weather friendship from Washington. Mitt Romney has sought to allay the Poles' fears of abandonment through the language of transatlantic solidarity, praising Poland as one of the “pillars of liberty” and describing his visit as “locking arms with allies.”

He may find a very receptive audience. From their perspective, the Poles have made a series of outsized commitments to U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, only to watch as President Barack Obama sacrificed their interests on the altar of the Russian “reset.”

In late 2010, WikiLeaks released U.S. State Department cables revealing that Obama had scrapped a Bush-era plan to station missile defense systems in Poland to intercept Iranian missiles in hopes of securing Russia's support for sanctions against Iran. The cables confirmed Poland's worst suspicions and contradicted the administration's denials that the change in plans was prompted by concerns about Russia.

The Bush plan was of such paramount importance to the late Polish President Lech Kaczynski that he rapidly announced after a telephone conversation with President-elect Obama in 2008 “that the [U.S.] missile-defense project would continue.” Obama's transitional team, however, flatly rejected Kaczynski's account that there would be no departure point from the Bush agreement.

Adding insult to injury, it was revealed that Obama had pulled the plug on the interceptors on Sept. 17, 2009, the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union's invasion of Poland. At the time, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk noted bitterly that “I can only have the satisfaction of being the first prime minister over the past 15 years who isn't so enchanted with our ally.”

Poland joined NATO in 1999 and, like Germany during the Cold War, is caught in a vise between Russia and the West. Although it has done reasonably well (Poland's GDP is expected to rise nearly 2.7 percent this year) amid the European economic crisis and survived the near-total destruction of its government in a 2010 plane crash, Poles have looked eastward uncomfortably as Russian President Vladimir Putin has reasserted Russia's influence in its near abroad, and westward to Washington with growing anxiety.

Against this backdrop, Romney will meet with Prime Minister Tusk, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, and Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, as well former president and 1983 Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa. Romney's aggressive anti-Russian rhetoric — this year, he declared that Russia is America's “No. 1 geopolitical foe” — will certainly resonate in this crowd.

Yet even Poles who would ordinarily welcome Washington's support have grown cynical.

“We should not triumph in self-satisfaction that Romney is coming to Poland,” wrote columnist Bartosz Weglarczyk in the conservative Polish daily Rzeczpospolita. “He needs Poland in order to attack his rival Obama.”

While a sizable rift has opened between Poland and the United States during the Obama administration, it is a far cry from the dire warnings of Arthur Bliss Lane, Washington's first ambassador to Poland after World War II, who wrote in his 1948 book, I Saw Poland Betrayed, that the Western powers had thrown the country under the Soviet bus in exchange for stability in continental Europe. Nonetheless, as the Economist opined on July 19, “The golden age of Polish-American relations has passed.”

There are competing schools of thought on whether the Obama administration made the right call in canceling the planned Poland-based missile defense system. The Russian reset has delivered little of the reciprocity the Obama administration envisioned: Moscow may have agreed to meek U.N. sanctions against Iran, but Russian engineers have simultaneously helped jump-start Iran's nuclear plant at Bushehr and Russian actors have made themselves handy to Iranian-controlled companies looking to acquire sanctioned energy and nuclear technologies.

Meanwhile, Iran has made remarkable progress — with help from Russian companies — in developing its missile technology. According to the Pentagon's latest “Annual Report on Military Power of Iran,” the country “may be technically capable of flight-testing an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015.” BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus noted in May that NATO “has watched the spread of ballistic missile technology with growing unease. If there is a potential ballistic missile threat to NATO countries then it can be summed up in one word — Iran.”

In 2009, Obama defended his decision to scale back the Bush-era long-range missile defense system with a mobile anti-missile plan designed to counter short-range rocket attacks from Iran. “To put it simply, our new missile defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter, and swifter defenses of American forces and American allies,” said Obama.

The diplomatic fissures over the abandoned missile defense project were recently widened by Obama's May 30 unfortunate reference to “Polish death camps” rather than Nazi death camps in occupied Poland. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor scrambled to defuse the row, which had blanketed major Polish news organizations, stressing, “The president misspoke — he was referring to Nazi death camps in Poland. We regret this misstatement.”

Nonetheless, the Obama administration's clarification did not ameliorate Polish outrage over misattributed culpability for the Holocaust and the murders of Poles. Tusk responded, “I am convinced that our American friends can today allow themselves a stronger reaction than a simple expression of regret from the White House spokesman — a reaction more inclined to eliminate once and for all these kinds of errors.” The back-and forth-government exchanges would result in Obama sending a formal letter of apology to the Polish government.

It's perhaps not an exaggeration to say that relations between the two countries have ebbed to their lowest point since Warsaw broke free of communism in 1989.

Not all observers see such gloom and dismay. In email exchanges over the last few days, veteran Polish diplomat Jacek Biegala observed that Poland's ties with the United States remain “traditionally strong.” Biegala, who serves as the spokesman of the Polish Embassy in Berlin, said that the relationship had matured, such that “in Polish society, relations between Warsaw and Washington are no longer emotional, like in earlier periods.”

He added that Poland “is focused on Iran on the EU level” (addressing the Iranian threat through collective action in Brussels, including tougher bank and oil sanctions against Tehran) and is satisfied about the NATO resolutions adopted at the group's May summit in Chicago, which set in motion plans to defend NATO countries against ballistic missile attack. The resolutions are meant to signal to Russia and Iran that the West will defend its territories, whether they like it or not. Yet the Poles now consciously acknowledge their need to wean themselves off Washington.

In a May interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Foreign Minister Sikorski alluded to the new dynamic and the drift away from America. “The USA remains an important ally for Poland, Germany, and all of Europe. It is important for both our countries that the U.S. remains engaged in European issues,” Sikorski said. “But Poland is in Europe, and our fundamental interests are here.”

For Sikorski, a Washington fixture whose wife, Anne Applebaum, pens a regular column for the Washington Post, to suggest that the Poles don't need the United States is a big deal. The Poles may worry about Russian hostility, but they worry more about the European financial crisis and do not wish to be taken for granted in Washington.

Nonetheless, Poland has continued to bear burdens in support of U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. This February, after the United States recalled its ambassador to Syria, the Polish government assumed responsibility for representing U.S. diplomatic interests in Damascus. Poland had served in a similarly useful capacity in Iraq, representing U.S. interests there between 1991 and 2003, when a U.S.-led coalition toppled Saddam Hussein.

That same month, Michal Murkocinski, Poland's ambassador to Syria, helped identify the body of slain American journalist Marie Colvin and arrange for the transport of her remains back to the United States. Colvin and her French photojournalist colleague, Remi Ochlik, had been killed by a government rocket attack while reporting in the besieged city of Homs.

Since the end of the Cold War, Poland has become the United States' strongest European ally, fighting enemies like the Taliban and al Qaeda up close and personal. Writing from Ghazni, Afghanistan, last year, journalist Aleksandra Kulczuga noted, “Poland is one of America's few allies with troops in Afghanistan whose mission, without caveats, is to fight. Poland, unlike Germany and France, deploys its soldiers to the war with the full expectation that they will find and kill enemy combatants.”

Yet for all their contributions, the Poles have received no major favors in Washington.

In Warsaw, Romney will surely praise the Poles for contributing great blood and treasure. At Walesa's side, he will lay claim to the mantle of Ronald Reagan, and of Solidarity, the movement that blossomed into the strongest post-communist partnership across the Atlantic. But even if Romney became the next president, his well-intentioned words won't change underlying realities.

The European Union has turned inward to rescue its monetary union, and Poland's continued economic growth is inherently linked to its European partners, particularly its financially powerful neighbor, the Federal Republic of Germany.

The Poles will hardly abandon the United States. They do, after all, share America's desire for a world without terrorism, communism, and an Iranian nuclear weapon. But no matter who's elected in November, they won't be looking for new opportunities to stick their necks out on Washington's behalf.

Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a European affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post.


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