BERLIN — U.S. relations with its key allies were thrown into turmoil this week by multiple parallel Trump decisions, including a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the abandonment of the Syrian Kurds and other groups. A short time later, Trump’s Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced his resignation in a letter that left no doubts of his disdain for the president’s treatment of allies abroad.
But there are U.S. allies, and then there are Trump allies.
The Polish government has in recent months tried to position itself in both categories, with efforts that culminated in a special offer this September. If you move troops to Poland permanently, Polish President Andrzej Duda told Trump at a news conference at the White House, we’ll name it after you: “Fort Trump” — designed for a unique era in U.S. relations with the world.
The Polish government offered Trump money, fame and an opportunity to portray himself as an ally against Russia.
Months later, those efforts are now starting to become a case study on how far allies are willing to go in luring Trump into smaller concessions, even when he so vehemently acts against their broader interests.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is a clear winner of Trump’s tumultuous decisions this week. Amid the U.S. withdrawal, Putin is set to become the “undisputed international power broker in the war-torn country and win an opportunity to consolidate a countrywide victory for its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” according to my colleagues. Putin didn’t make a secret out of his approval, calling Trump’s decision “correct.” Separately, the Russian leader is also interested in weakening NATO, and European commentators warned on Friday that Trump’s decision to withdraw about half of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan does just that.
Yet, somewhat curiously, talks about a permanent U.S. presence on Polish soil with the aim of deterring Russia appear to be moving ahead even as Trump is raising questions over the future of the NATO, according to recent interviews with government representatives. Last month, Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak told Polish radio that it was not a question of whether but of how the base would be constructed. Top officials repeated those claims this week.
The discussions appear to have moved on from the idea of one or several major bases — as it is the case in neighboring Germany — to a more hybrid approach that could result in U.S. personnel being based in existing buildings across the country. In an emailed statement to The Washington Post, the Polish Defense Ministry on Friday only confirmed that “plans to increase the presence of U.S. military presence in Poland are a permanent element of the policy conducted by the Polish Ministry of National Defense,” without providing further details.
The Polish president’s naming proposal for a major base always appeared to have been in jest, and Polish officials have lately refrained from referring to the planned base as such, much to the dismay of the Polish media.
But the remarkable news conference in September will be remembered as a metaphor for a bigger question Poland has shared with other European allies of the United States ever since Trump became president: Does he care about a rational strategy — or does he care about pleasing people who praise him?
Poland still has some of the highest approval ratings for Trump in any foreign country, which has allowed the right-wing government to publicly and repeatedly praise Trump in ways that would have triggered an immediate backlash elsewhere.
To the Polish government, the potential security benefits of a permanent U.S. presence on its soil so far appear to outweigh the risk of domestic embarrassment. Poland is located right next to Russia, and, given its long history of foreign occupation, concerns over Russian military activity have long been more pressing here than in neighboring Germany, for instance.
But in a week in which Trump so easily abandoned other allies in the Middle East, more officials in Warsaw and other European capitals are asking themselves whether “Fort Trump” or some variation of it would be worth anything if theoretical threats ever became more pressing. Trump himself provoked those speculations when he suggested in an interview with host Tucker Carlson on Fox News that the United States may not fulfill its obligations under NATO treaties if one of the alliance’s members were ever attacked.
“Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?” Carlson asked in the interview, to which Trump responded: “I understand what you’re saying; I’ve asked the same question. . . . You know, Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. . . . They are very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III. But that’s the way it was set up. Don’t forget, I just got here a little more than a year and a half ago.”
Mattis was credited by the United States’ NATO allies for controlling most of his president’s instincts, and for acting as a mitigating factor and as a filter between them and the raw Trump.
But with the Pentagon now headed into an uncertain future, Poland’s moderate Rzeczpospolita newspaper wondered on Friday whether the “Fort Trump” talks could still falter: “Now [our negotiators] will have to wait for a new partner. May they not be disappointed with him,” the paper concluded.
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