WikiLeaks overshadows Polish president's US visit


WARSAW, Poland — The diplomatic revelations of WikiLeaks have strained relations between the United States and many of its allies, including Poland, which has rapidly shed what illusions remained about the special nature of its ties with America.

The awkwardness was on full view during this week's visit to Washington by Bronislaw Komorowski, Poland's new president.

Although Komorowski had the traditional Oval Office chat with U.S. President Barack Obama, there was a strong sense on the Polish side that this was a visit that could accomplish very little.

“We never gave the impression that we have had some sort of great breakthrough and America thinks of nothing but how to defend Poland,” Komorowski said sarcastically to the Polish press in Washington, when asked about Obama's promise to base some U.S. fighter planes on Polish territory.

The offer came after WikiLeaks revealed the extent of Poland's disappointment over a previous U.S. offer to send a Patriot anti-missile battery to Poland, after it turned out that the battery was not armed, and that the Americans had no intention of sending a working weapons system to Poland.

“We don't need garden planters,” was the furious comment on the unusable rockets by a deputy defense minister.

The Patriots were supposed to soothe Poland's anger over last year's decision to end a missile defense program that would have been partly based in Poland. The clumsy announcement killing the project was made on Sept. 17, the anniversary of the day when the Soviet Union attacked Poland in 1939, and was made with U.S. assurances that it was a purely technical decision that had nothing to do with Russia's opposition to the project.

Again, U.S. embassy documents posted by WikiLeaks indicate that the decision to scrap the missile defense program was done to keep Russia on board with planned sanctions against Iran.

The revelations buried what little remained of Poland's hopes that it is one of the tiny band of countries that are intimate U.S. allies.

Poles have harbored enormous affection for the United States for more than a century. In part this was because millions of Polish migrants made the country home. Then Poles appreciated U.S. advocacy of Polish independence during World War I. While all the western Allies betrayed Poland during World WAR II, the United States received less blame than the British for selling Poland out to the Soviets, and the American role in leading the West during the Cold War made it a beacon of freedom for Poles living under communism.

After Poland regained its independence in 1989 and joined NATO a decade later, the alliance with the United States became the centerpiece of Polish foreign policy — prompting the country in recent years to send troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, both missions have left Poles feeling increasingly bitter about how little they have received from the United States in return.

During his visit to Washington, Komorowski returned to an old theme, wondering why Poland is one of the few European nations whose nationals are required to get visas to travel to the United States.

“Polish public opinion completely does not understand why all the neighbors of Poland, the neighborhood of Poland, can use that visa waiver program and we can’t,” Komorowski said during his joint news conference with Obama.

Obama promised to try to end the restrictions during the remainder of his term — but the decision lies with Congress and with the Poles who still overstay their visas, which disqualifies Poland from the visa waiver program.

As the WikiLeaks revelations have made clear, Poland's main security concern is still a possibly resurgent Russia, and that is why it wants U.S. military boots on the ground, to provide a security guarantee even more binding than the NATO common defense pact.

Polish concerns may be partially satisfied with Obama's promise to move some military aircraft to Poland, but Warsaw now sees that it ranks very far down the list of U.S. priorities and allies.

“That our comrades the Americans are not spoiling us was not and is not a secret for our side,” Radoslaw Sikorski, the formerly overtly pro-American foreign minister, said in a radio interview.

Just what the United States really thinks of Poland was also made clear in the joint news conference, when Obama spent most of his time answering a question about his recent tax deal with congressional Republicans.

That is not to say that Poland does not still deem it important to continue being a NATO member and a U.S. ally, it is just that Warsaw now sees that it does not occupy a special place in Washington's heart.

Instead, Poland is relying more on its growing importance as one of the largest members of the European Union, and an increasingly indispensable German ally, to build its position in the world. That status was in large measure why Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, showed up in Warsaw earlier this week for a rare state visit — Moscow has seen that it cannot have close ties with the EU without first ending its long hostility with Poland.

“We are not able to fully reset and delete 1,000 years of uneasy history with Russians. But we do not want to be an obstacle; we want to be a help in the process of resetting the relations between the Western world with Russia. We want to invest in relations with Russia,” Komorowski said at the White House.

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