How Obama Lost Poland

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

BERLIN — 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.


National Security

Trip Wires

Domestic politics follow Leon Panetta to the Middle East.

CARTHAGE, Tunisia — If the timing of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's trip to Israel and the Middle East this week is a "coincidence," as White House spokesman Jay Carney asserted on Friday, it's one of the most politically convenient in presidential campaign history. President Obama's Pentagon chief arrived from Washington on Sunday for high-level talks in Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, and Jordan during Mitt Romney's highly publicized visit to Israel between London and Poland.

Panetta's visit follows trips to the Middle East and North Africa this month by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and other administration officials. They're part of an Obama administration blitz designed to demonstrate at home and abroad U.S. support for new democratic governments, in Tunisia and Egypt, and old: namely Israel. President Obama himself cannot wade into the morass with a regional visit 100 days from Election Day; it would only invite a lost week of campaign distractions, and probably sway few votes. But he doesn't have to. After the diplomats and White House advisors comes Panetta, bringing the full-throated, frank-talking, multi-billion dollar support of the U.S. military.

In the run-up to Romney's trip, conservatives had slammed Obama's handling of the Middle East as ignoring Israel -- the president has not visited Jerusalem and the administration, Romney argues, has discouraged Israel's threats to use military force to halt Iran's apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons. Obama, the charge continues, is too soft for relying on economic sanctions and international coalition building to stymie Iran, too reluctant to intervene militarily on behalf of Syria's rebels against the hated Bashar al-Assad, and too weak in his inability to stop the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi in Egypt.

Despite a campaign pledge not to criticize President Obama while abroad, the Republican candidate wore a thin veil in Israel. The Romney photo-op visit to the holy city -- his call for "further action" against Iran received a warm welcome from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and on Monday Romney is to headline a $50,000-per couple fundraising dinner at the famed King David Hotel -- is the culmination of who-loves-Israel-more conservative politicking. In his keynote speech, Romney said he recognized the hardships of "the Jewish people" and said U.S. policies should not create "diplomatic distance in public" with Israel.

He also supported Israel's claim to Jerusalem as its capital, which Israeli press called an "easy applause line" and a Palestinian official called "disturbing." The entire spectacle served its purpose: to show that Romney can look like a world leader, especially to the Jewish voters important to winning Florida's electoral votes, and to evangelicals, whom Romney will need to show up at the polls to unseat Obama. 

Panetta, a former member of Congress, knows plenty about stumping himself. In his speeches to troops slogging it out in Afghanistan, he often invokes his American experience story of being the son of Italian immigrants, sounding more like a pol at a whistle-stop pep rally than the dry "I love you like my own sons" speeches of his soft-spoken predecessor, Robert Gates. And, unlike Gates, Panetta has not hesitated to wade into politics, bantering publicly with his former Capitol Hill colleagues over the size of the defense budget and the direction House and Senate party leaders should take on taxes and spending. 

But Panetta suddenly lost his voice when he was asked Sunday aboard his plane whether Romney's Israel visit was fair game for politics or if there was a national security concern to having a Republican candidate put daylight between the president and foreign allies. "I'm just not going to get into that game of commenting on what candidates do," he told reporters in a press briefing aboard his plane en route to Tunisia. "As secretary of defense, I have a responsibility to defend the security of our country. And in order to do that I've got to have the support of both Democrats and Republicans to get that accomplished; and for that reason I try my best not to get involved in the politics."

Instead, the administration seems to be trying to let the facts speak for themselves.

Aides stressed that on this trip Panetta will have his ninth meeting with Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak since taking office last year, more than any other foreign counterpart. Panetta also will visit a site of Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system, which on Friday received Obama's signature for $70 million in aid. Republicans earlier this year had pushed the White House to approve significant funding for the system, but the president turned the tables by holding a relatively rare bill-signing ceremony on the day Romney entered Israel. "I'm proud of the defense partnership that we've built over the last several years," Panetta said on the plane. "The U.S.-Israel defense relationship, I believe, is stronger today than it has been in the past."

On Iran, also, Panetta repeated the administration's position that it remains united with Israel to "bring every bit of pressure we can" to sway Tehran from nuclear weapons. But the real issue for conservatives is timing -- and Israeli pronouncements that military action would be necessary sooner than Washington publicly admits. For years, Israeli officials have claimed that time is running out military action before Iran can develop nuclear weapons or facilities buried deep enough to survive missile strikes. And for years, U.S. defense and intelligence leaders have respectfully disagreed at how fast that clock was ticking. 

Netanyahu, with Romney at his side, said on Sunday that a "strong and credible military threat" was needed in addition to sanctions. In speech excerpts released Sunday, Romney argued that Tehran was testing those "who will look the other way" and said he wanted to hear "further actions." Panetta would not engage in further questioning on Monday about the difference between the U.S.'s and Israel's sense of timing. "The president has made clear and I've made clear that the United States will not tolerate an Iran that develops a nuclear weapon, and we are prepared to exercise all options to ensure that that does not happen," he said at a press conference in the North Africa American Cemetery, where he laid a wreath in honor of World War II dead.

"While the results of that may not be obvious at the moment, the fact is that they [Iran] have expressed a willingness to try to negotiate with the P5+1" -- that is, the permanent five members of the UN Security Council and Germany -- "and they continue to seem interested in trying to find a diplomatic solution. I think what we all need to do is to continue the pressure on Iran economically and diplomatically." Sanctions are fomenting discontent in Iran, U.S. defense and intelligence leaders have told Congress this year, and Panetta noted that more are coming, though he danced around a reporter's question asking him if sanctions are swaying Iran's leadership. 

Beyond the Romney side-show, Panetta said on Sunday that Syria would permeate his week in the region. Syrian tanks reportedly shelled rebel-held neighborhoods in Aleppo days after State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland publicly warned of a pending "massacre" there. Should the Aleppo assault continue, Panetta said, "I think it ultimately will be a nail in Assad's coffin; that he's just assuring the Assad regime will come to an end." He cited the combination of increased "indiscriminate violence" against civilians in recent weeks and the ability of rebel opponents "to assert themselves." 

Observers also worry a sustained Aleppo battle or massacre could cause 3 million residents to flee for the borders, further pressuring the United States and the international community into more directly supporting refugees with military action such as cover fire or no-fly zones. A refugee flood also could force Netanyahu to explain at the podium with Panetta later this week Israel's decision to close its the border into Golan Heights. Panetta applauded Jordan for keep its borders open.

It's unclear exactly what else Panetta publicly will say about helping Syria during his stay. The White House still opposes directly arming the rebels, creating a no-fly zone, or providing any air support against Syria's hardened air defenses. But Washington's distance is being felt on the ground, where fighters have complained that the guns and ammunition being sent from Arab states are not good enough. Last week NPR radio aired an interview with grieving wives of fallen rebels; they vowed to defeat Assad and never forget what the Americans refused to do.

In the United States, conservatives aren't holding back. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers accused U.S. intelligence services of being "very slow" to get organized on Syria, according to Reuters, and Sen. John McCain argued, "They have no policy." 

For all the talk of not engaging in politics abroad, Panetta's trip has a decidedly domestic subtext. Soon, he will become the second Obama cabinet member to shake hands with the Muslim Brotherhood. He will meet Morsi in Cairo on Tuesday. 

Mark Wilson/Getty Images