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.