Sikorski Is No Savior

Warsaw's liberal diplomat is not the man to take on Russia. And Poland isn't going to save Europe.

Poland has just buried its last communist leader. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski died in a Warsaw hospital at age 90 on the same day that more than 5 million Poles voted for their representatives in the EU Parliament and in the same year that Poland marks the 25th anniversary of the "Round Table Talks," which paved the way for democracy. As Warsaw's last Moscow-loyal authoritarian ruler passed away peacefully, its neighbor Ukraine elected a pro-European president amid months of ongoing standoffs with Russia following the country's Maidan revolution. In a move laden with symbolism, Ukraine's new president, Petro Poroshenko, announced that his first trip abroad as head of state will be to Poland.

Events in Ukraine have struck a nerve with Polish citizens and the government. When Kiev's Maidan protests began in November 2013, Poles could not resist drawing comparisons to their pro-democracy movement of the 1980s, Solidarity. From slain protesters in the streets to the threat of Russian intervention to prop up a leader loyal to the Kremlin, the scenes in Ukraine felt all too familiar to many in Poland.

Democracy eventually triumphed and Poland broke free from Moscow's rule. Today's Polish parliament is full of Solidarity veterans who have gone separate ways across the political spectrum and are freely elected. Within a mere four years, the country made a rapid and relatively complete transition to electoral democracy and a market economy. And Poland's government has made efforts to push other post-communist countries in similar directions. In the West's eyes, Poland is seen as "Eastern Europe's success story."

And it's because of their similarities that the ongoing Ukraine crisis has thrust Poland to the center of European foreign policy amid the biggest security threat to the continent since the Balkan wars. The Polish success story has become something of a fantasy among Western European liberals who are now arguing that Poland can be a catalyst for reform in Eastern Europe and that the happy outcome of the Polish transition can serve as a reminder to the Euroskeptics in London, Paris, and Berlin of the privileges of European democracy, the importance of having friendly neighbors, and the good fortune of not sharing a border with Russia. One man has been put forward to do this: Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister. Sikorski has been described as "Mr. Perfect from Warsaw" and the man who might "save Europe." That's not only overly optimistic -- it is wrong.

It's not that Sikorski's diplomatic achievements in Ukraine aren't real -- they are. He went to Kiev in February with the foreign ministers of Germany and France to meet with Ukraine's now-ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in a series of negotiations that helped resolve the crisis. His persistent stance with the West in support of Kiev in this time of need should be applauded. But not only is the concept of Poland saving Europe absurd, but Sikorski is not the person for this job.

Poland has announced that it will nominate Sikorski to replace Catherine Ashton as the European Union's top diplomat when she leaves her post in October. But Sikorski seems to belong to a group of people who believe Russia will never be anything but autocratic. Like the thinking of many onetime Solidarity activists, his inability to see Russia as anything other than a continuation of the Soviet Union will blind him to the nuances of the situation.

Furthermore, Sikorski is not the liberal prince that his Western admirers, in awe of his Queen's English, Oxford degree, and impressive career, believe him to be. The Polish foreign minister is much more socially conservative than the "center-right" leanings he himself claims to have. Polish politics can be deceptive. There are few genuinely liberal politicians in Warsaw, and the Polish opposition, under an increasingly nationalist Jaroslaw Kaczynski (in whose government Sikorski actually served while defense minister between 2005 and 2007), is so far removed from reality that anyone seems liberal by comparison. Sikorski -- a man who once praised a counterfactual history novel by a right-wing amateur historian about how Poland and Nazi Germany could have teamed up to defeat the Soviet Union -- is not the person to lead European diplomacy. And neither is Poland, no matter how far it has come.

When the Eastern Bloc fell in 1989, Poland decided to leave behind the burden of an Eastern European identity and view itself as part of the West, even though Poles remained very much aware of their 20th-century status as a satellite state. The idea of Warsaw assuming a more active role gained new momentum when Poland entered the European Union in 2004 -- "the accomplishment of a century-old Polish dream of belonging to the Western world," as President Bronislaw Komorowski put it during 10th-anniversary celebrations this year. But with membership to the clubs of the West came an uncertain future: Was Poland to be merely a fringe gatekeeper or a dynamic member state and a catalyst for enlargement?

As a relative latecomer to the EU with a communist past, Poland has long felt insecure about its position in the EU. (Its exclusion from the euro area hasn't helped either.) But since joining the European Union, Poland has amply shown its commitment to pro-democracy movements in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Warsaw stood by Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 -- even though now-deceased Polish President Lech Kaczynski and Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili had little in common beyond their anti-Moscow views.* Poland's then-president endorsed Kiev's (failed) Orange Revolution in 2004, and the current president is assisting Moldovan reforms. Warsaw is the most vocal agitator for change inside the Belarus of Aleksandr Lukashenko, Europe's last remaining dictator. Within the EU, Poland has been a vocal advocate of bringing Ukraine into the European fold going back as far as Poland's accession to the union in 2004.

The Polish commitment to democracy movements and an orientation toward the West come easily to Poles as they reflect on their history. It's in many ways natural that the Ukraine protests would be compared to those that ignited the Solidarity movement. But in the end, they are flawed. The Maidan is not the Gdansk shipyard, and 2014 is not 1984. Solidarity evolved over the course of almost a decade. And by 1989, Poland was not alone; the rest of the Eastern Bloc was also undergoing transformation. By that point, the Soviet Union was weak and on the brink of collapse. The West actually cared about and needed Poland. Europe and the United States were rich, strong, and confident -- there were no recessions in sight, no calls for austerity. In 2014, Ukraine stands alone; the West is divided, weak, and poor; and a self-confident, self-righteous Russia is stronger than it has been since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Despite Warsaw's optimism, the Polish prescription may not work in Ukraine. Warsaw has been so blinded by the successful transformation of its economy and the rise of a functioning democracy that it believes every other corrupt post-communist regime can have an equally fast mend. Efforts to integrate Russia's other neighbors into a wider Europe are unrealistic. The Eastern Partnership, a Polish-initiated EU project intended to promote democracy, grouped six disparate states into one category: post-Soviet. Warsaw's optimism was awe-inspiring for the Ukrainian revolutionaries, who championed closer ties to Europe and less subservience to Moscow. But the goals of the Maidan revolution will fail if EU leaders lack a realistic vision for Kiev's European future.

As Poland buries Jaruzelski, it bids farewell to one chapter of its history. But the past year has also seen the return of national fears with roots in the last century. Russian aggression in Ukraine and Moscow's descent into Putinist authoritarianism revived anxieties Poles had buried for two decades. Warsaw believes its quarter-century-long golden age is threatened. Sikorski sees Europe through this prism of Polish historical misery, but Brussels deserves more than that. There are many things Europe needs. Polish conservatism is not one of them.

*Correction, May 31, 2014: Georgia's Rose Revolution occurred in 2003, not 2012, as originally misstated. (Return to reading.)



Obama's Light Touch and a Heavy Hand

The president's proposed counterterrorism plan might appear underwhelming, but doing more -- or doing less -- is not an option.

This column will not be about President Barack Obama's foreign policy address at West Point. This columnist does not want to contribute to the perverse dynamic in which critics scorn the president as irresolute and his policy as incoherent; wherein an increasingly thin-skinned Obama insists that he is, in fact, very resolute and coherent; and the critics, certain in advance of the president's response that he will merely reformulate the old formulations, line up their spitballs in a row. Maybe it's true that Obama has nothing new to say; in that case, me neither.

I do, however, think it is worth asking what recent experience tells us about Obama's announced plan, which strikes me as the heart of his speech, to build a "network of partnerships from South Asia to the Sahel" in order to stem the rising tide of Islamic terrorism in the region. If it is true, as a number of Obama's detractors have written, that the foreign troops the United States hopes to train are bound to be feckless or corrupt or both, and that whatever counterterror operations the United States conducts are bound to make more terrorists than they wipe out, then the United States should save its money for "nation-building at home," to use Obama's own phrase. 

The United States has learned a great deal over the past decade about the limits of what it can do in places beset by terrorism. Iraq did not have a terrorism problem when the United States invaded in 2003; now it does. The much more limited form of military intervention in Pakistan and Yemen -- that is, drones -- has made many people in both countries furious at, rather than grateful to, America. Billions of dollars of development assistance in Pakistan has had zero effect on public opinion in that country, and done little observable good. Some of the soldiers the United States trained in Mali helped overthrow the elected government; others deserted their post under attack by insurgents. 

So what's the point? Why spend $5 billion on a counterterrorism partnership fund if the partners in question are so hapless, and so despised by their own people, that they simply pull their benefactor down into the mire? The New York Times editorial board thinks that Obama should be fostering good governance rather than killing people in these vulnerable places. But wasn't that the plan in Afghanistan? 

I think there are answers to these questions. Obama even supplied a few examples of successful partnerships -- supporting U.N. peacekeepers in Somalia and French forces in Mali. Despite serious setbacks, training and equipping armies in fragile states is not, in fact, a fool's errand. The very mixed experience of AFRICOM, the U.S. Africa Command, in training West African armies and coast guards to interdict criminal and terrorist networks provides evidence that the venture is hard but not hopeless (Sierra Leone okay, Guinea not). The cost of training the Afghan military now runs into the tens of billions, which is insane as well as insupportable; but the Afghan army is now at least a match for the Taliban, which it certainly wasn't a few years ago. The job could have been done faster and cheaper.

The question the administration needs to pose, especially now that it's asking Congress for $5 billion, is what kinds of partnerships actually strengthen the host country without doing the United States serious collateral harm. It's easy enough to rule out the fully kinetic end of the spectrum (military intervention, land wars) and to pick the benevolent end of the spectrum (humanitarian assistance, emergency relief). The hard questions are the ones in between.

For example, the United States has already forged a comprehensive partnership with Yemen, which includes military training, support for political dialogue, economic assistance -- and drones. Last year, a group of American experts on the region wrote an open letter to Obama praising aspects of the administration's effort but arguing for more development and fewer drone strikes, which were undermining the political goals of the effort. That sounds right -- for Yemen. But you can't have the same mix in Somalia, where the government is fighting even to hang on to the capital city of Mogadishu. Last year, a Navy SEAL team raided a house on the Somali coast hoping to kill or capture a jihadist leader. (They failed and retreated.) Perhaps in Somalia the political costs of direct, if small-scale, U.S. military intervention are worth incurring.

Another way of thinking about this question is: What is the counterinsurgency effort of the future? The Afghanistan model, with over 100,000 troops and tens of billions of dollars of assistance, is already a relic of another era. But the United States is fighting insurgencies with micro-scale versions of Afghanistan in places like the Philippines, and you don't hear much complaint about either American arrogance or naiveté. Sarah Sewall, the COIN theorist who now serves as an undersecretary of state, has called these missions "counterinsurgency-lite," and they may well serve as a model for Obama's proposed network of partnerships.

It's probably true that in some places the United States and other Western actors can do very little besides watch with bated breath. In Libya, American military trainers can take soldiers to some neighboring country for training, but American diplomats -- or for that matter, U.N. diplomats -- can do very little to persuade warring militias to accept the authority of the government in Tripoli, or to actually get that government to take some action to win the loyalty of citizens. Outsiders can help fortify governance in places that already have some, and can move along the process of reconciliation among factions prepared to talk to one another. Right now, that puts Yemen on the plus side, and Libya on the minus. Niger, good; Mali, bad.

Even in Libya, the situation might be less dire today if the administration had delivered a package of assistance in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi. But Obama hesitated because the Libyans themselves were ambivalent about further American assistance in the aftermath of the NATO bombing campaign that deposed Qaddafi, and perhaps because he was himself ambivalent about plunging America deeper into a Middle East morass. Of course, Congress treated Libya as a toxic site after U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was murdered there in September 2012. This combination of presidential diffidence and congressional intransigence has undermined American involvement across the region, very much including in Syria.

So, yes, the proposed counterterror partnership may wind up embarrassing Obama either because the partners misbehave or because Congress refuses to comply. It's a risk. But it's a small one compared to the risk of pulling back to "the homeland," or despairing of the whole enterprise of building capacity in fragile states. Jihadists with al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, in Yemen, have already tried on several occasions to target the United States. Eventually those in Iraq or Libya, or Afghanistan or Pakistan, will try to do the same. The American people will punish a president who has failed to do whatever he can to suppress those extremists, even though it is Americans' apathy and their surly suspicion of the world beyond our borders that makes the president want to do all his nation-building at home.

OK, I, too, wish President Obama had found the language, and the passion, to demonstrate that the world offers the United States opportunities to be seized as well as calamities to be mitigated. He does seem to have lost that knack, or perhaps even that faith. I am, however, prepared to judge him by his actions.