National Security

No, Obama Did Not Abandon Poland

How the administration has tightened relations with Warsaw.

In the foreign policy debate last week, Governor Mitt Romney repeated an assertion he's made throughout the campaign: that, in "pulling our missile defense program out" of Poland, President Obama failed to stand by a key NATO ally. This charge is simply untrue. Not only does Obama still plan to deploy missile defenses in Poland, he has done as much, if not more, than his predecessor to bolster the security of U.S. allies in Central and Eastern Europe.

Despite Polish fears that he would throw their country and its neighbors under the bus in his rush to "reset" relations with Russia, Obama has pressed ahead -- in the face of opposition from Moscow -- with a new missile defense plan that will better protect Europe. Obama has also proceeded with deployment of the air defense assets that President George W. Bush promised Poland in connection with the earlier agreement on missile defense. In addition, Obama has moved to enhance joint training between American and Polish pilots, and he has pushed NATO to update its plans for the defense of Poland and to develop similar plans for the three Baltic states -- a task the Bush administration left undone when it convinced the alliance to admit those countries in 2004.

This is not to say that bilateral relations with Poland have been perfect over the past four years. Early on, the Poles and other Central and East Europeans leaders worried that Obama was more interested in Asia and in signing arms control deals with Russia. They chafed at the fact that they don't receive quite as much face time with Obama as they enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. In addition, the public announcement of the shift on missile defense plans in September 2009 did go awry.

Central East European governments knew from the outset that the Obama team was skeptical of the $4 billion Bush system -- consisting of fixed, ground-based interceptor missiles and radars -- and intended to re-examine it in its Quadrennial Defense and Ballistic Missile Defense reviews. They also knew the system did more to fill a gap in missile defense coverage for the United States -- hence its designation as the "Third Site," complementing existing sites in Alaska and California -- than it did to protect Europe. And, as their reviews were unfolding in the summer of 2009, senior Obama administration officials discussed possible changes with allies, particularly the Poles and Czechs, who were slated to host elements of the Bush system. Because of this uncertainty, the Polish government never ratified the agreements it had signed with the Bush administration allowing deployment of the interceptor missiles on its territory.

Ultimately, the Obama reviews concluded the Bush design did not deal with the more immediate threat posed by Iranian medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. It opted instead for what it called the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), which would provide a transportable system that was more affordable and capable of dealing with a wider range of possible Iranian ballistic missile threats than the Bush plan. Rather than being a bilateral initiative, EPAA is the U.S. contribution to a wider NATO missile defense program that actually began interim operations to protect southern Europe and U.S. forces deployed there at the end of 2011.

Word of the reviews' conclusions began to leak in September 2009, before the Obama team could complete final consultations and develop joint public affairs campaigns with the Poles and the Czechs to head off predictable criticism (on both sides of the Atlantic) that Obama was bowing to Russian objections. So, Obama was forced to make late-night phone calls to Prime Ministers Donald Tusk of Poland and Jan Fischer in the Czech Republic as news stories were breaking in the United States. Tusk reportedly refused to take Obama's call. Fischer took the call and informed his president, Vaclav Klaus, who stated that he was not surprised and was "100 percent convinced that this decision...does not signal a cooling of relations." But the timing, and lingering concerns about the Russia reset, led Polish tabloids and opposition leaders to speak of "betrayal," and former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek, who had bucked domestic opposition in agreeing to the Bush plan during his tenure, roundly criticized the Obama decision.

Senior Obama officials were chagrined and privately admitted that they could have done a better job preparing the ground for the final announcement. So there is truth to Romney's debate comment that the way this policy shift was announced did strain an already wary relationship with Warsaw. But the Obama team moved quickly to allay Polish concerns. Vice President Biden and other officials were dispatched to Warsaw and Prague. Obama reaffirmed the 2008 Bush commitment to deploy a Patriot air and short-range missile defense battery in Poland along with about 100 troops, and he left open the door to stationing new types of missile defense interceptors in Poland, an offer the Poles later agreed to accept. Under the Obama plan, Poland will have 24 improved SM-3 interceptors and an Aegis target acquisition radar deployed on its territory by 2018, compared to the 10 interceptors it would have had under the Bush design. A similar site in Romania is expected to be operational in 2015. These two sites, together with a radar now deployed in Turkey and four U.S. Aegis ships to be stationed in Spain from 2014, will provide missile defense protection for all European members of NATO.

There is still some discontent with the United States in general and Obama administration policies in particular in various quarters in Poland. But this reflects a much more complicated tangle of domestic political agendas in both countries, which surfaced even before the U.S. presidential campaign.

Poland's centrist Civic Platform government, led by Prime Minister Tusk and President Bronislaw Komorowski, has pursued a successful bilateral reconciliation with Russia and pro-EU policies in the face of tough resistance from the opposition Law and Justice Party. Komorowski faced a difficult electoral challenge in July 2010 from Jaroslaw Kaczynski, brother of the late President Lech Kaczynski, who died in the tragic Smolensk air crash in 2010. Kaczynski sought to capitalize on Civic Union's acceptance of the Obama missile defense plan as a sign of weakness vis a vis Moscow and a compromise of Polish interests. Komorowski won a narrow victory, but the shift in U.S. policy led him to call for Poland to develop a tactical missile defense capability separate from the NATO system.

Polish Foreign Minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, a former resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who is close to prominent Republican leaders in the United States, has also made little secret of his mistrust of Obama and preference for Republican policies. Sikorsky's comments after the missile defense decision was announced fed the sense of betrayal and need to go it alone: "After today, I think we all know that if we are to look to somebody, we have to look to ourselves."

In July, former President Lech Walesa invited Romney to visit Poland. Walesa, while revered for his leadership of the Solidarity trade union in the 1980s, is no longer an influential political figure in Poland. Following their meeting, Walesa essentially endorsed Romney. However, before Romney's speech at the Gdansk shipyards, Solidarity's current leadership issued a press release making clear that Walesa was not acting on behalf of its rank and file in inviting Romney and that it stood with the U.S. AFL-CIO in strong opposition to Romney's anti-union stances.

Polish discontent with the United States also reflects a larger shift in alliance relations. Poland's leaders showed great courage in undertaking the difficult reforms required to get into NATO. It has been one of America's most reliable allies, generally contributing well above its weight to transatlantic and international security. However, recent polling by the German Marshall Fund has revealed growing disappointment among the Polish public with the United States and NATO and skepticism about the value of foreign interventions. There is a sense that Poland's engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, which cost many lives and considerable wear and tear on the country's military capabilities, has been under-appreciated and did little to address its main security concern -- a re-assertive Russia. That is why Warsaw refused to join NATO operations in Libya.

Polish leaders know the United States remains their most capable and dependable ally and that NATO remains the best way to safeguard their security in an unpredictable world. Polish pride looms large, and given the country's history of conquest and partition, even the smallest slight can quickly develop into a major political flap. What they want from either an Obama second term or a Romney presidency is regular consultations and recognition as a valued European player in transatlantic and global affairs. Whoever occupies the White House next year would be wise to maintain that kind of engagement with Warsaw.



We Are All Venetians Now

Are the world's major cities ready for the rising waters and freak storms of tomorrow?

We are a coast-hugging species. About 44 percent of the world's population live beside the seaside, and that number is set to rise. Why? Maritime commerce and easy access to all that lovely seafood spring to mind. But maybe there's a more fundamental reason, a human instinct touched upon by the sailor Ishmael, explaining his aquatic affection on the very first page of Moby Dick: "If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me."

Unfortunately, the sea doesn't always return that tender affection. Like the number of coast-huggers, it too is set to rise. Between 1950 and 2009, global coastlines rose between 0.6 and 1 millimeter annually. Taken together, those two trends spell global disaster, albeit of the very, very gradual kind. So what if the sea swallows up a low-lying atoll here and there? Who cares if entire (albeit tiny) Pacific nations may be engulfed in a few decades? If it happens slowly enough for the victims to row away to safety, it surely happens too slowly for anyone else to notice. So, if you're a low-lying island nation, you probably need a clever media stunt for the world to pay any attention.

But add a noticeable rise in extreme weather to those creeping sea levels, throw in a high tide surge, and you've got Superstorm Sandy. Suddenly, New York looks eerily like it does in all those apocalyptic movies that were enjoyable because they seemed distant enough. Director Roland Emmerich's cinematic schadenfreude feels like a guilty pleasure now. It won't forever.


New York will survive, get on with business, and Sandy will recede in memory. But from now on, New Yorkers won't be able to say Mother Nature didn't give them notice. Folks in New Orleans got a similar, albeit more distressing, wake-up call in 2005 from Hurricane Katrina. In both cases, the storms are forebodings of the cities' future demise. Nothing is eternal. Like people and countries, cities too eventually kick the bucket. The likeliest scenario for New Orleans and New York is that they will die a watery death, swallowed up eventually by the otherwise life-giving sea. The waters will rise, steadily but imperceptibly, while Poseidon will occasionally reach into his war-chest for tempests to whack their defenses with -- until they break.

Not that the Greek sea god is a sort of pagan Osama bin Laden, who has a special bone to pick with the United States. The list of metropoles threatened by rising seas and freak storms is alarmingly long, if (from a U.S. viewpoint) reassuringly international. Some of the world's other great cities regularly threatened by coastal flooding, and long-term candidates for watery extinction, are:

  • Mumbai, India: 2.8 million inhabitants exposed to flooding
  • Shanghai, China: 2.4 million exposed
  • Miami, United States: 2 million exposed
  • Alexandria, Egypt: 1.3 million exposed
  • Tokyo, Japan: 1.1 million exposed
  • Bangkok, Thailand: 900,000 exposed
  • Dhaka, Bangladesh: 850,000 exposed
  • Abidjan, Ivory Coast: 520,000 exposed
  • Jakarta, Indonesia: 500,000 exposed
  • Lagos, Nigeria: 360,000 exposed

But this accounting doesn't include several notable cities. London is not on the list, perhaps because of its state-of-the-art Thames Barrier, the world's second-largest moveable flood gate (after the Dutch Oosterscheldekering), which is nevertheless predicted to lose its protective function by 2050 due to rising sea levels. The artist Michael Pinsky earlier this year provided a poignant reminder of that future threat: his project Plunge encircled noteworthy London monuments in blue neon at the sea level predicted for the year 3111 --  90 feet above its current height.

Also absent from most soon-to-be-inundated lists is St. Petersburg. The former Russian capital was built on the marshy meeting point between the River Neva and the Baltic Sea, an area so flood-prone that it inspired one of Alexander Pushkin's most famous poems, The Bronze Horseman. It tells of a grief-stricken flood survivor whose girl has drowned, cursing the equestrian statue of the city's founder, Peter the Great, who promptly comes to life to chase the protagonist to his death. To combat the recurring floods -- more than 300 since the city's founding in 1703 -- Russia's "Window on the West" is now framed by a sea wall that doubles as part of the city's ring road.

Sea walls are the most expensive solution, and the only one enabling coastal cities to claim a victory over the sea, however tenuous and temporary. But while Manhattan could feasibly find the money to construct such fortifications, other flood-prone cities might not have the financial wherewithal to construct similar defenses, and may have to resort to strategic accommodation. According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, coastal cities can either choose to work around the rising water by staying put, elevating parts of the natural and built environment; or beating the retreat as the shoreline inevitably advances inland.

In the Netherlands, which pioneered the expensive sea-wall solution, public debate nevertheless occasionally flares up about giving parts of low-lying wetlands, marshlands and farmlands -- won so dearly over the centuries -- back to the sea. Rising tides do imply a rising cost of maintaining the status quo.

Nowhere is that lesson more keenly felt than in Venice. Since its founding in the 6th century on an Adriatic archipelago as a refuge from the marauding Ostrogoths and other barbaric invaders, the city whose streets are paved with water has been sinking at an average rate of 1.5 inches per century. But now rising sea levels are combining with the area's naturally soft foundations to accelerate the sinking by as much as five times the previous rate.

The MOSE Project, slated for completion in 2014, is a sea wall similar to the British, Dutch, and Russian examples. When finished, it will be able to close off the laguna containing Venice, safeguarding it from high tides. The project is controversial (not to mention expensive, at some 4.7 billion euros), though, and its critics continue to push alternatives, like the scheme to pump the Venetian underground full of sludge to stop the city from subsiding.

Until it's saved -- or disappears beneath the waves -- Venice will remain the emblematic Sinking City. But maybe the romance of the place will wear off a bit as more and more coast-huggers start to relate to it after their cities experience their own defining Katrina/Sandy moment. As coastal cities grow, sea levels rise, and extreme weather increases, we're discovering that we are all Venetians now. There's still time for governments and civic leaders to embark on the serious projects needed to protect their cities from Mother Nature. But this is a tale that doesn't always end well. Just about every folklore tradition in the world has a story about a sunken city, the bells of which can still be heard during storms. Perhaps some day those bells will toll for us.

David McNew/Newsmakers