Poland the Hawk
February 20, 2003 By Sławomir Majman
On July 5, 1945 the British ambassador to the Polish government-in-exile informed the Polish ambassador, Count Edward Raczyński-the same man with whom he had signed the alliance treaty in 1939-that the official recognition of the Polish government was being revoked, due to recognition being given to the Soviet-controlled government in Warsaw.
The same British ambassador paid a farewell visit to Polish Foreign Minister-in-exile August Zaleski, whom he knew privately from the times when this Pole had played an important role in the League of Nations in Geneva. "So this is how it ends," sighed the ambassador sadly. Zaleski nodded. Then the Englishman added very tactfully, "I know a family in the country who would be very happy to employ Polish servants."
Poland's fate was decided without the Poles at the Yalta conference which sealed the division of Europe for close to half a century. In the overall settlement of accounts after the war, Poland was given to the Soviet Union as part of Moscow's exclusive sphere of influence. The provisions that were meant to justify or at least simulate the law-abidingness of this transaction were put forward without much conviction by Poland's Western allies, and never carried out. Therefore in their hearts and minds, the Poles have quite rightly remembered this transaction made by the British and the Americans at Poland's cost as a betrayal.
Poland was let down twice by its allies during World War II. First, in 1939, during the German invasion of Poland, the allies were in no hurry to meet their treaty obligations. A small section of the French forces moved forward a few kilometers and then stopped. The British offered arms deliveries, but scheduled for five months later, and they fought fiercely with the envoys of surrounded Warsaw over money. Actually, the prime ministers of both Poland's allies agreed just nine days after war had been declared to suspend any action against the Germans, and they didn't even bother to inform the Poles of their foresighted decision.
With this baggage of experience involving alliances with the West, no wonder the Poles are particularly sensitive as to what's going on with their new NATO partners' readiness to meet mutual obligations. And this is the context in which it's worth taking a look at what the Poles have to say on the Iraq issue which is dividing the NATO allies more and more clearly.
I'm far from enthusiastic about the thought of American bombs dropping on Baghdad. Similarly, I am very wary of arguments offered by brisk generals in various uniforms as to why one should bomb the Serbs, Chechens or Palestinians.
But the dispute over the war with Iraq has two dimensions for the Poles. One involves playing with NATO, the other-the level of Poland's commitment to the conflict between the Europeans and the degree of enthusiasm shown by officials in Warsaw to U.S. policy.
With regard to the first issue, there are no doubts. The attempt made by France, Germany and Belgium to block preventive assistance for Turkey means undermining NATO's very existence, and an unnecessary messing with the foundations of an alliance that has so far remained attractive enough for most of the postcommunist countries to apply for membership.
The Turks' demands were definitely defensive in nature and didn't go too far-deployment of anti-missile systems or early-warning aircraft on the Iraqi border. Refusal of solidarity with Turkey had to raise the fear that the same thing could happen to any NATO country in danger. So, who needs this kind of alliance? Or, who needs this alliance in its present form and makeup?
Poland's ambassador to NATO, Jerzy Nowak, pointed out quite rightly that if we refused to help Turkey now, the guarantees which Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic received when joining NATO could also turn out to be illusory. The veto to Turkey's request for the alliance's assistance could have been an injection paralyzing NATO's nervous system.
The social mood is being used as an excuse for the stance of France, Germany and Belgium. Is it a sufficient excuse? On one hand, one shouldn't exaggerate. Saddam is a problem, he could pose a danger, but the Iraqi army isn't really on the brink of conquering the world. On the other hand, the Iraqi crisis is the first test in years that NATO as a defense alliance has had to go through, and that's why the allies' reactions carry much greater importance than any realistic assessment of the danger suggests.
To Polish ears, when the politicians from the three countries contesting aid for Turkey quote the social mood, this can't help but sound like the words spoken 64 years ago in France, "We refuse to die for Gdańsk," which was France's excuse for doing nothing for Poland.
Dangerous games with the essence of NATO are one thing, but the other question is whether Poland has to be in the forefront of America's allies in the Iraqi issue.
The idea of a pre-emptive strike on Baghdad has contributed to shaping two separate camps among NATO countries. The Paris-Berlin axis celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Franco-German Elysees Treaty, opposing the American drive for war. The European eight-Britain, Spain and the new democracies headed by Poland-support the Americans unconditionally.
Washington, and especially Donald Rumsfeld, decided that in the face of this obvious fracture among the European allies, New Europe should be played against Old Europe. This American tactic, placing Poland and other postcommunist countries against the Franco-German old folks' home, was accepted without any visible hesitation by Poland's leaders, who let themselves be harnessed to Rumsfeld's chariot.
Actually, Polish policy supports America without unnecessary nuance or subtlety. Foreign Minister Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz even said in the Sejm that Poland could support the U.S. attack also without approval from the U.N. Security Council. Does the Polish government really have to guarantee so unequivocally the check it's been slipped by the Americans?
Poland and its Eastern European partners got a shocking and sharp reprimand from Jacques Chirac for their pro-Americanism. The infantilism, thoughtlessness, wasted opportunity to keep quiet, and finally plainly spoken threats that EU accession might be a problem-this is proof of the great irritation, or contempt as some see it, that Poland's foreign policy has produced.
A common Europe and Poland within it, built on opposition toward the United States doesn't make much sense. But on the other hand, Poland's place will look lousy in a common Europe built on opposition toward Poland's largest trade partner-Germany, and the traditionally politically close France. President Aleksander Kwaśniewski recently confirmed the future importance of the Weimar Triangle (France, Germany, Poland) for Poland's future policy. It's worth asking how the president and his colleagues from the government imagine this importance after they have found themselves on the other side of the chasm that is widening between America and its acolytes on one side and Germany and France on the other. Going even further, it's worth asking the Polish authorities if they have any sensible vision of the alliances they intend to cultivate after EU accession, now that they have led Poland into the camp of the pro-American hawks.
I don't think Washington should take advantage of their new Polish ally's fervor by coldly fostering antagonism between Poland and the main players on the European stage. Especially when the Poles-surprise, surprise-wait in vain for some kind of reciprocal moves from America. The vision of $9 billion in offset transactions for the purchase of the U.S. F-16 planes is disintegrating. After talking to Lockheed-Martin's head in Washington, Kwaśniewski didn't conceal his irritation, while the Polish negotiators are already whispering that even $6 billion might be hard to achieve. Meanwhile, the anger displayed by Paris after France lost the contract has had very measurable effects, depriving Poland of an important investment project in the auto industry. The Polish/American talks on more lenient visa regulations for Poles have been farcical, and the humiliation and financial losses suffered by Polish citizens are pushing me toward those radicals who would be happy to see visas for Americans restored.
In addition, due to the Iraqi conflict, Poland's foreign policy is being questioned by a very sizable part of the nation, for the first time since the transformation. Fifty-one percent of Poles are against war with Iraq, only 4 percent support war without U.N. approval, and 9 percent support an invasion. The gulf between government policy and the public's feelings is dramatic. Simply, for the Poles this war's papers are too weak. Incomparably weaker than the interventions in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. Absorbed in its amorous tango with America, the government has simply neglected to try and convince its own nation that this war makes sense, that there's a link between Saddam and global terrorism, so people see this war as an American and not a Polish one.
True, Polish anti-war demonstrations were far less numerous than those in the West, because the Poles usually react more coldly to international issues. Even so, there is a silent lack of approval on the part of most Poles for involvement in Iraq, and thus for the line the government has taken.
On one hand, the Poles want to feel they belong to a group they can count on when in danger, and Poland's historical experience gives cause for being suspicious when they see the games being played with NATO.
On the other hand, with all their pro-Americanism, the Poles are far from uncritically signing every check sent them from the city on the Potomac.
And that's where they differ greatly from their government.