Poland's defense minister, Jerzy Szmajdzinski, told the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza last week that Poland planned a 40 percent reduction of its forces in Iraq by the end of January 2005 and to have all its troops out by the end of that year. While Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said a withdrawal is in the discussion stage and could not be finalized until after the Iraqi elections scheduled for January, his words come amid signs that the coalition is fraying.
Several Central European countries that have joined the United States in the war are developing plans to withdraw from Iraq. Poland, which has the fourth-largest contingent in Iraq, is one of the first countries to suggest that it will not stay through the full transition period to a permanent government.
Ukraine and Moldova are also reportedly considering a reduction of their troop commitments. The Polish defense minister's statement was especially important because some of the United States' earliest and most committed partners in Iraq have been the former communist countries. Nine of NATO's newest members have troops serving in Iraq.
Poland commands one of four military zones, where it has 2,500 troops deployed. Lithuania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Ukraine together have contributed 2,446 troops. Their governments now face the possibility of political backlash as hostages from their countries are taken or troops are killed.
Central European leaders joined the United States in Iraq despite the reservations of their own publics and in the face of intense pressure from certain European leaders. But throughout Central Europe there is growing uncertainty as to why they are involved in Iraq. As early as March, Kwasniewski commented that "naturally I also feel uncomfortable due to the fact that we were misled with information on weapons of mass destruction." A public opinion poll conducted in June found that 61 percent of Hungarians surveyed wanted to bring their 350 troops home rather than renew their mandate when it expires at the end of this year.
Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to Central and Eastern European countries in July in a bid to shore up support for the U.S.-led coalition. Speaking on Hungarian television, Powell urged coalition members not to "get weak in the knees" because of kidnappings in Iraq or public opinion polls at home. But if the United States is to sustain the involvement of "New Europe" in the coalition in Iraq, it must go beyond words and take steps to address its allies' main concerns. One is the stiff visa requirements imposed on travelers from Central Europe to America. Even today, when they are members of both the European Union and NATO, every Pole, Czech, Slovak and Hungarian must pay a $100 application fee and be personally interviewed before a visa is issued.
During his visit to Washington in August, Kwasniewski asked President Bush about this publicly and directly. The administration responded by increasing consular staff at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw and establishing a program to "pre-screen" Poles traveling from the capital, but the Poles eventually want to see their country admitted into the visa waiver program. To his credit, John Kerry issued a statement in September saying that he would "work with Poland and the other newly free democracies of Central and Eastern Europe that are members of both the European Union and NATO to include them in the Visa Waiver Program."
The other bone of contention that has emerged between the United States and Central Europe concerns postwar Iraqi contracting. While Halliburton Co. and several other U.S. companies have reportedly been awarded contracts worth billions of dollars, comparatively few contracts have been awarded to companies from Central Europe. Although the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw held a workshop in September to help Polish companies understand Iraqi contracting regulations, there is widespread disappointment that the eagerness of the Bush administration to draw Poland into the war was not matched by sharing the business of postwar reconstruction. Progress in these two areas -- modernizing travel from Central Europe and opening up the contracting process to our allies -- would go a long way toward bolstering the transatlantic alliance, not only for our purposes in Iraq but in other hot spots. If current policies don't change, U.S.-Central European cooperation has the potential of becoming another example of the Bush administration's diplomatic failures.
The writer served on the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration. He is an informal adviser to the Kerry campaign.