Duda’s Ego Trip
The Polish president will try to convince Trump to send U.S. troops to his country. Congress should push Trump to resist.
When U.S. President Donald Trump chose Saudi Arabia as the destination for his first foreign trip, the monarchy lavished him with 83 gifts, including artwork featuring Trump’s own image. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave the U.S. president a $3,755 golf club and, according to Trump, nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. In China, Trump received a celebration so grand he didn’t even bring up his trade demands.
But perhaps the savviest of all Trump’s ego massage therapists is Polish President Andrzej Duda. In a visit to the Oval Office last year, he pushed for a U.S. military base in his country, promising to name it “Fort Trump.” And there’s nothing Trump likes more than seeing his name on things.
When Duda returns to the White House this week, U.S. military assistance to Poland will be high on the agenda. Plans for a “Fort Trump” appear to be on hold—good news, given that security experts believed that it would both disrupt internal NATO relationships and agitate Russia—but the U.S. president is reportedly going to use the meeting to announce that the United States will send hundreds more troops to Poland.
From a security standpoint, the move makes no sense regardless of one’s stance on the proper U.S. posture toward Russia. For those who believe in conciliation, bulking up the U.S. military presence on Russia’s borders is needlessly provocative. If you believe the United States needs a larger deterrent against prospective Russia aggression, though, adding 1,000 or so troops to the 4,000 already there will do nothing. The move is both too much and not enough.
From a human-rights standpoint, the move is just as bad, as it effectively rewards a government that has flouted the ideals of both the United States and the European Union. Poland’s creeping authoritarianism has received little attention. Unlike Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who often makes the news, Duda has cultivated no cult of personality. Meanwhile, his hostility toward Russia has also probably helped his government evade widespread criticism.
Yet Poland’s dismantling of democracy has been no less dramatic than Hungary’s. In 2015, national elections gave Duda’s Law and Justice Party a majority in parliament and control of the executive branch. Since then, it has undermined the checks and balances that had been a hallmark of Poland’s post-Soviet democracy. Duda and his cohorts have violated the constitution by forcing judges off the Constitutional Tribunal that had been legally appointed, appointing new judges through illegal procedures, and rewriting the rules governing the country’s highest court. They’ve also purged prosecutors, civil service employees, and even military leaders because of perceived opposition to party policies. For example, Gen. Mieczyslaw Gocul, former head of the military’s general staff, resigned in expectation of being formally dismissed. Finally, the Duda administration has mounted investigations and prosecutions against independent media. This includes an investigation of TVN24, a U.S.-owned outlet, because it reported on a celebration of Adolf Hitler’s birthday in which a staff member of right-wing party participated.
Beyond the damage to Poland’s democracy, Law and Justice’s abuses may also undermine NATO. It is difficult to mount an effective political campaign against Russian authoritarianism when one of its most important frontline opponents is similarly repressive. Beyond that, Law and Justice’s shake-up of the military is adding to chaos and a lack of readiness among the country’s armed forces.
U.S. military support for Poland is a green light for further abuse. On the occasion of Duda’s visit, Congress should reintroduce funding to support democratic institutions in Central Europe and include Poland as a target country for funding to combat authoritarian influence. The United States should take a holistic approach to supporting Poland; although the military is a cornerstone for any sovereign nation, in a NATO state, the military ultimately exists to protect a free and just society. To reinvigorate Polish democracy, the U.S. government should support independent media, anti-corruption watchdog groups, and organizations that serve religious and ethnic minorities—all of which are starved for funding.
Congress should also insist that the Department of Defense conduct an evaluation of whether and to what extent the Polish government’s anti-democratic actions hinder current or anticipated U.S. military objectives. The Pentagon should complete this review, make it public, and brief Congress before the U.S. government provides further military aid to Poland—much less builds a military base there.
If recent history is a guide, Trump won’t mention Duda’s attacks on democracy during their meeting. And Duda won’t mention Trump’s. He’ll flatter Trump, and Trump will give him much of what he wants. When Orban visited the White House last month, there were bipartisan objections to Trump’s coddling him, which led to both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to speak out and a group of congressional representatives in the House to introduce a resolution urging the secretary of state to bolster efforts to support democracy in the country. Let’s hope something similar happens next week.
Melissa Hooper is director for foreign policy advocacy at Human Rights First.