No, Obama Did Not Abandon Poland

How the administration has tightened relations with Warsaw.


In the foreign policy debate last week, Governor Mitt Romney repeated an assertion he’s made throughout the campaign: that, in "pulling our missile defense program out" of Poland, President Obama failed to stand by a key NATO ally. This charge is simply untrue. Not only does Obama still plan to deploy missile defenses in Poland, he has done as much, if not more, than his predecessor to bolster the security of U.S. allies in Central and Eastern Europe.

Despite Polish fears that he would throw their country and its neighbors under the bus in his rush to "reset" relations with Russia, Obama has pressed ahead — in the face of opposition from Moscow — with a new missile defense plan that will better protect Europe. Obama has also proceeded with deployment of the air defense assets that President George W. Bush promised Poland in connection with the earlier agreement on missile defense. In addition, Obama has moved to enhance joint training between American and Polish pilots, and he has pushed NATO to update its plans for the defense of Poland and to develop similar plans for the three Baltic states — a task the Bush administration left undone when it convinced the alliance to admit those countries in 2004.

This is not to say that bilateral relations with Poland have been perfect over the past four years. Early on, the Poles and other Central and East Europeans leaders worried that Obama was more interested in Asia and in signing arms control deals with Russia. They chafed at the fact that they don’t receive quite as much face time with Obama as they enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. In addition, the public announcement of the shift on missile defense plans in September 2009 did go awry.

Central East European governments knew from the outset that the Obama team was skeptical of the $4 billion Bush system — consisting of fixed, ground-based interceptor missiles and radars — and intended to re-examine it in its Quadrennial Defense and Ballistic Missile Defense reviews. They also knew the system did more to fill a gap in missile defense coverage for the United States — hence its designation as the "Third Site," complementing existing sites in Alaska and California — than it did to protect Europe. And, as their reviews were unfolding in the summer of 2009, senior Obama administration officials discussed possible changes with allies, particularly the Poles and Czechs, who were slated to host elements of the Bush system. Because of this uncertainty, the Polish government never ratified the agreements it had signed with the Bush administration allowing deployment of the interceptor missiles on its territory.

Ultimately, the Obama reviews concluded the Bush design did not deal with the more immediate threat posed by Iranian medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. It opted instead for what it called the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), which would provide a transportable system that was more affordable and capable of dealing with a wider range of possible Iranian ballistic missile threats than the Bush plan. Rather than being a bilateral initiative, EPAA is the U.S. contribution to a wider NATO missile defense program that actually began interim operations to protect southern Europe and U.S. forces deployed there at the end of 2011.

Word of the reviews’ conclusions began to leak in September 2009, before the Obama team could complete final consultations and develop joint public affairs campaigns with the Poles and the Czechs to head off predictable criticism (on both sides of the Atlantic) that Obama was bowing to Russian objections. So, Obama was forced to make late-night phone calls to Prime Ministers Donald Tusk of Poland and Jan Fischer in the Czech Republic as news stories were breaking in the United States. Tusk reportedly refused to take Obama’s call. Fischer took the call and informed his president, Vaclav Klaus, who stated that he was not surprised and was "100 percent convinced that this decision…does not signal a cooling of relations." But the timing, and lingering concerns about the Russia reset, led Polish tabloids and opposition leaders to speak of "betrayal," and former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek, who had bucked domestic opposition in agreeing to the Bush plan during his tenure, roundly criticized the Obama decision.

Senior Obama officials were chagrined and privately admitted that they could have done a better job preparing the ground for the final announcement. So there is truth to Romney’s debate comment that the way this policy shift was announced did strain an already wary relationship with Warsaw. But the Obama team moved quickly to allay Polish concerns. Vice President Biden and other officials were dispatched to Warsaw and Prague. Obama reaffirmed the 2008 Bush commitment to deploy a Patriot air and short-range missile defense battery in Poland along with about 100 troops, and he left open the door to stationing new types of missile defense interceptors in Poland, an offer the Poles later agreed to accept. Under the Obama plan, Poland will have 24 improved SM-3 interceptors and an Aegis target acquisition radar deployed on its territory by 2018, compared to the 10 interceptors it would have had under the Bush design. A similar site in Romania is expected to be operational in 2015. These two sites, together with a radar now deployed in Turkey and four U.S. Aegis ships to be stationed in Spain from 2014, will provide missile defense protection for all European members of NATO.

There is still some discontent with the United States in general and Obama administration policies in particular in various quarters in Poland. But this reflects a much more complicated tangle of domestic political agendas in both countries, which surfaced even before the U.S. presidential campaign.

Poland’s centrist Civic Platform government, led by Prime Minister Tusk and President Bronislaw Komorowski, has pursued a successful bilateral reconciliation with Russia and pro-EU policies in the face of tough resistance from the opposition Law and Justice Party. Komorowski faced a difficult electoral challenge in July 2010 from Jaroslaw Kaczynski, brother of the late President Lech Kaczynski, who died in the tragic Smolensk air crash in 2010. Kaczynski sought to capitalize on Civic Union’s acceptance of the Obama missile defense plan as a sign of weakness vis a vis Moscow and a compromise of Polish interests. Komorowski won a narrow victory, but the shift in U.S. policy led him to call for Poland to develop a tactical missile defense capability separate from the NATO system.

Polish Foreign Minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, a former resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who is close to prominent Republican leaders in the United States, has also made little secret of his mistrust of Obama and preference for Republican policies. Sikorsky’s comments after the missile defense decision was announced fed the sense of betrayal and need to go it alone: "After today, I think we all know that if we are to look to somebody, we have to look to ourselves."

In July, former President Lech Walesa invited Romney to visit Poland. Walesa, while revered for his leadership of the Solidarity trade union in the 1980s, is no longer an influential political figure in Poland. Following their meeting, Walesa essentially endorsed Romney. However, before Romney’s speech at the Gdansk shipyards, Solidarity’s current leadership issued a press release making clear that Walesa was not acting on behalf of its rank and file in inviting Romney and that it stood with the U.S. AFL-CIO in strong opposition to Romney’s anti-union stances.

Polish discontent with the United States also reflects a larger shift in alliance relations. Poland’s leaders showed great courage in undertaking the difficult reforms required to get into NATO. It has been one of America’s most reliable allies, generally contributing well above its weight to transatlantic and international security. However, recent polling by the German Marshall Fund has revealed growing disappointment among the Polish public with the United States and NATO and skepticism about the value of foreign interventions. There is a sense that Poland’s engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, which cost many lives and considerable wear and tear on the country’s military capabilities, has been under-appreciated and did little to address its main security concern — a re-assertive Russia. That is why Warsaw refused to join NATO operations in Libya.

Polish leaders know the United States remains their most capable and dependable ally and that NATO remains the best way to safeguard their security in an unpredictable world. Polish pride looms large, and given the country’s history of conquest and partition, even the smallest slight can quickly develop into a major political flap. What they want from either an Obama second term or a Romney presidency is regular consultations and recognition as a valued European player in transatlantic and global affairs. Whoever occupies the White House next year would be wise to maintain that kind of engagement with Warsaw.

<p> Stephen J. Flanagan holds the Henry A. Kissinger Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He worked on Central and East European affairs in the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations and received an award from the president of Poland for his efforts.  </p>