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Love and Reason
June 30, 2011   
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A popular news program on one of Poland’s private television channels failed to spot a rather unfortunate juxtaposition of topics during Barack Obama’s recent visit here. Soon after an extensive report on Washington’s visa policy toward Poles, described as “discriminatory” compared to U.S. policy toward citizens of other European Union countries, the program reported briefly on Polish lifeguards from a popular resort in Mazuria. Out of season, there is nothing much to do back home, so every year the young men travel to California to—as they put it—make a decent living. The reporter never asked the smiling men the obvious question: were they working legally in the United States? It seems that myopia is an affliction that extends well beyond the Polish media—too often, Poles as a whole expect too much from the Americans. Being realistic usually takes a back seat.

The U.S. president’s May visit generated less enthusiasm in Poland than the visits of his predecessor. There were at least two reasons: the Obama administration’s withdrawal from plans for a global “anti-missile shield” system, a major part of which was supposed to have been installed in Poland, and what many Polish politicians see as the White House’s excessively conciliatory attitude toward Moscow, popularly referred to as the “reset” policy. American foreign policy under George W. Bush was very different. Washington’s change in tone has in recent years visibly eroded the near-unconditional love that Poland once bestowed upon America.

Politicians, especially on the right of the political spectrum, began outdoing one another in voicing their grievances against Washington: for undervaluing Poland’s contribution to the so-called global war against terrorism, for disregarding Poles’ historical fears of Russia, and finally for being unwilling to get involved in the investigation of last year’s crash of the Polish president’s plane in the forest near Smolensk.

The opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party’s attempts to get the U.S. establishment interested in such an investigation proved fruitless; the idea of an international commission involving the United States being set up to probe the Smolensk crash is next to impossible.

Obama did what he could in Warsaw to make a good impression on his hosts. He spoke much about the special nature of relations between Washington and Warsaw, about the leading role Poland plays in the region, about Poland’s unquestionable economic success, about the importance of the Polish experience to efforts to promote democracy, in North Africa for example. Obviously, however, he could not jeopardize the “reset” with Moscow, so he decided to limit the presence of U.S. soldiers in Poland to a small, symbolic unit.

He could not resolve the visa issue, so he said he would support a proposal before Congress that will change the situation neither quickly nor significantly. Finally, he could not and would not make any declarations going beyond what was politically prudent, so he said nothing about Smolensk, not even at his meeting with the crash victims’ families.

All this left those who are guided by strong emotion and who ignore the reality feeling unsatisfied. The rest—those who want to see trade links boosted and political cooperation to run smoothly—could feel satisfied with the course and results of the visit.
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