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Trump elevates Poland at the expense of Germany with troop decision

While discussing a potentially expanded military role in Poland June 12, President Trump praised Poland and criticized Germany. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump announced an expanded military relationship with Poland on Wednesday, including the likelihood of additional U.S. troops serving at what Trump called a “world-class” new Polish base, as his administration rewards a like-minded and increasingly authoritarian NATO ally.

The plan, although vague and incomplete, was announced as part of a day-long White House visit for Poland’s right-wing leader that included a F-35 jet turning loops near the Washington Monument as Trump and his guests clapped on the White House lawn.

“I just have a very warm feeling for Poland. I always have,” said Trump, adding that he may make his second trip to the country as president in September.

Trump was explicit that his goal was to boost Poland and punish neighbor and close U.S. ally Germany, where about 34,000 U.S. forces are stationed.

Poland, which has said it wants to buy 32 state-of-the-art F-35s, meets its NATO defense- spending commitment while Germany falls far short. Trump pointed to the NATO shortfall several times during public appearances alongside Polish President Andrzej Duda, and also criticized Germany for its planned purchase of large amounts of Russian natural gas.

“Germany is not living up to what they are supposed to be doing with respect to NATO, and Poland is,” Trump said. “I have to congratulate you. Thank you very much.”

Trump initially said about 2,000 troops would be added to Poland, but later used the figure of 1,000, which aligns with a joint statement signed by the two presidents Wednesday.

“We’d be taking them out of Germany or moving them from another location,” Trump told reporters as he sat with a smiling Duda and the leaders’ wives in the Oval Office.

It was not clear whether his initial figure was a mistake or a foreshadowing of future troop reductions from Germany.

The White House did not offer additional details, but Trump said Poland would pay for a base or other facility. It’s up to Poland, Trump said, whether to call it “Fort Trump” — an idea earlier floated by Duda.

Poland is the most significant member of an informal Trump fan club among right-wing and populist Eastern- and Central-European governments.

The Trump White House has made a show of praising Poland and elevating Duda at the expense of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom Trump has a chilly relationship.

Duda visited the White House in September, a short turnaround for a leader who does not represent a key ally such as Britain, Germany or Japan.

On both visits, Duda was accorded the honor of an Oval Office meeting and a joint news conference. Vice President Pence visited Poland in February and met with U.S. forces stationed there.

Trump said he was not worried about the erosion of democracy in Poland, saying he is confident Duda understands that his country’s economic success is linked to its democratic standing.

“They’re like us: The U.S. has never done better economically than we’re doing right now. They don’t want to backslide. They won’t backslide,” Trump said.

Duda’s government has cracked down on the judiciary and the press, and refused to admit more migrants. His policies have rattled the European Union and NATO.

“There is no problems with democracy in Poland,” Duda added in the Oval Office. “Really. Everything is excellent.”

Duda said the increase in forces is a sign that the United States trusts Poland to be a permanent host for the U.S. military. About 4,500 U.S. forces rotate through Poland as a deterrence to Russia, but are not permanently based there.

“I think the commanders of the U.S. Army are convinced that this is possible,” Duda said during the Rose Garden news conference with Trump, where Polish reporters joined Duda in complimenting Trump’s attention to Poland and warmly recalling the speech he gave in Warsaw in 2017.

Trump waxed nostalgic about that July 2017 address, in which he criticized European bureaucracy, warned about the dangers of migration and questioned whether Western civilization is willing to fight for its survival. The speech solidified Trump’s nationalist worldview for queasy European leaders who had hoped some of the then-new U.S. leader’s rhetoric was just for show.

“The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” Trump said then. “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”

On Wednesday, Trump called the Warsaw address “special, from the standpoint of the people of Poland.”

“I could say it, but I don’t want to say it, but some people said it was the best speech ever made by a president in Europe,” Trump said to laughter. “But I did not say that. I’m just quoting other people.”

The joint statement signed Wednesday says the United States agreed to establish a small forward command headquarters for a few hundred American forces in Poland, in addition to combat training centers in a few locations in the country, with the stipulation that Poland would pick up the bill for those facilities.

In addition, the United States agreed to establish a U.S. Air Force drone squadron in Poland, which will operate the MQ-9 Reaper and conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities.

The joint declaration also calls for the establishment of facilities that would help American forces flow into Poland more quickly in the event of a conflict or contingency.

The initiatives mark a win for Poland, which has long sought greater U.S. involvement on its territory in its long-standing effort to deter Russia, but also falls far short of the permanent base that Polish leaders had envisioned. Under the plans, the United States will not be stationing any U.S. troops permanently in Poland; instead, they will continue to rotate through the country on training missions but remain based elsewhere.

Ahead of Duda’s trip to Washington, Poland submitted a request to purchase the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and in recent days Polish officials visited Eglin Air Force Base in Florida to become acquainted with the aircraft. Their request for the F-35 also played into Trump’s effort to increase the sales of U.S. weaponry abroad.

The rotation of American troops in Poland is part of a program the Obama administration established to bolster allies on Europe’s eastern flank after Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Forces from other NATO nations rotate through the three Baltic nations; U.S. troops rotate through Poland.

In 1997, the United States and Russia struck a political agreement known as the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security, which said that for the foreseeable future, NATO would take steps to make sure troops could reinforce member countries in a conflict and avoid stationing additional substantial combat troops in those countries on a permanent basis.

Senior administration officials said Tuesday that the agreement with Poland abides by the Founding Act. They also noted that it was a political agreement rather than a treaty.

In May 2018, the Polish government offered to spend up to $2 billion to establish a permanent U.S. military presence in Poland. The idea rankled other European allies, who worried that the establishment of any permanent U.S. presence in Poland would prove exceedingly provocative to Moscow, with the risks of a Russian response outweighing the benefits.

The United States is also in the middle of building a missile defense installation in Poland. John C. Rood, undersecretary of Defense for policy, told reporters on Tuesday that the United States was committed to continuing construction of that missile defense base, and that a plan was in place to recover from delays that the Pentagon encountered.

“We’re confident in our ability to complete the project,” Rood said.

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office said that the system is slated to be delivered in May 2020, though it initially had been planned for completion in December 2018.