Don't Take Poland for Granted

By Radek Sikorski
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

WARSAW -- The U.S. proposal to place radar and interceptor sites for a new missile defense system in Central Europe -- respectively, in the Czech Republic and Poland -- may generate a new security partnership with the countries of the region. Or it could provoke a spiral of misunderstanding, weaken NATO, deepen Russian paranoia and cost the United States some of its last friends on the continent.

Early omens are worrisome. Some genius at the State Department or the Pentagon sent the first official note describing possible placement of the facility with a draft reply attached -- a reply that contained a long list of host countries' obligations and few corresponding U.S. commitments. Natives here tend to think they are capable of writing their own diplomatic correspondence. But in a region where goodwill toward the United States depends on the memory of its support in resisting Soviet colonialism, this was particularly crass. If the Bush administration expects Poles and Czechs to jump for joy and agree to whatever is proposed, it's going to face a mighty crash with reality.

The administration might have gotten away with this five years ago, when the memory of Ronald Reagan's steadfast support for our freedom fighters had just been bolstered by American advocacy of NATO enlargement, despite Russian hostility and some hesitation among Western European nations. But the war in Iraq has dented Central European trust. The spectacle of the U.S. secretary of state at the U.N. Security Council solemnly presenting intelligence that proved unreliable shook our faith. Our old-fashioned expectation that the United States would show gratitude for our participation in Iraq also proved misplaced. Public perceptions of America are plummeting, while opposition to U.S.-led military operations, and above all to the proposed missile site, grows. We have decided that the United States is a foreign country after all.

Meanwhile, membership in the European Union has reoriented our foreign and domestic policies. Few in the United States realize that Poland, to name one example, is receiving $120 billion to upgrade its infrastructure and agriculture under the current seven-year E.U. budget. By comparison, American military assistance to Poland amounts to $30 million annually, a fraction of what we spend on missions in Iraq and Afghanistan that we regard as acts of friendship toward the United States. Perhaps the best illustration of the changing dynamic is the fact that the visa issue that once vexed Polish politicians -- Americans come to Poland without visas, while Poles need them to enter America -- has lost its urgency. There are a lot more proverbial Polish plumbers working legally in Britain and Ireland than illegally in Chicago.

While U.S. influence and esteem have diminished, strategic stakes in the region are rising. Awash with oil money, Russia spends seven times more on procurement and modernization of military equipment than it did just five years ago. Russia recently deployed several batteries of S-300 missiles near our border -- the first such provocation toward NATO in 20 years -- yet this elicited not a squeak of protest from the alliance. Russia is also threatening to deploy scores of intermediate missiles aimed at Warsaw in response to the missile defense base, a threat no Polish politician can ignore.

Our American colleagues say not to worry, that NATO will protect us, but rhetorical assurances are too easy. Just as the Holocaust is the formative experience even for Jews who are too young to remember it, so Poland is haunted by the memory of fighting Hitler alone in 1939 while our allies stood by. Never again will we allow ourselves to be egged on by paper guarantees not backed by practical means of delivery. Therefore, if relations with Russia are to deteriorate because of the proposed missile base, the United States must demonstrate that it will do for Poland what it is doing for Japan in the face of its confrontation with North Korea: tightening formal security arrangements and deploying batteries of Patriot missiles or the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. Placing the main operating base of allied ground surveillance in Central Europe would also reassure the region that its countries are truly NATO territory. Finally, the United States should tell NATO how it intends to include the Central European base in the alliance's missile defense architecture. Otherwise, we will suspect that America, having protected itself, will not devote further resources to a NATO system.

The worst outcome would be for the Czech and Polish governments to yield to diplomatic arm-twisting only for the agreements to fail in our famously independent parliaments. Such a scenario would repeat the crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations over the transit of American forces to Iraq in 2003, which has never been resolved. To forestall such an outcome, the United States needs to once again see the world through the eyes of its allies and offer them a partnership that enhances the security of both.

Radek Sikorski, a senator in Poland's Parliament, was secretary of defense from October 2005 to February 2007.

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