Of all the days President Obama could have chosen to announce that the United States will abandon its plans for a missile defense site in the Czech Republic and Poland, September 17 was possibly the worst he could have chosen. As any Pole could tell you, this was the date the Soviet army invaded Poland in World War II, after Nazi Germany had launched its assault on the country on September 1. Doesn’t anyone at the State Department, the Pentagon or the National Security Council engage in cultural intelligence at all? In addition to the implications for U.S. and European vulnerability to missile attack, from a public diplomacy standpoint, the decision as well as the timing is a disaster.
For the Poles and the Czechs, the feeling of betrayal today is palpable. Their government had taken a chance when they signed onto the missile defense agreement with the United States in 2007. However, the European missile defense site – the Third Site as it was known – appeared to be a venue for closer defense cooperation with the United States and as such an added layer of protection against Russia.
The new closeness between the United States and Russia, a top priority for the Obama administration, is regarded in Eastern and Central Europe with a great deal of concern, so much so that a long letter to this effect was dispatched to the White House on Jule 22 by a host of leaders from the region. Their concerns were clearly not heeded by the Obama administration, for whom ground-based missile defense has been anathema from day one.
The cooling trend in relations with a group of new allies, who have been invariably helpful to the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, has come to such a pass that even faithful fans of the Obama administration in the media have noticed. “Obama Ends ‘Special Relationship’” writes Judy Dempsey in the New York Times. “End of an Affair?” asks an article in the Economist. The German Marshall Fund’s new Transatlantic Trends poll out this month shows that of all the Europeans, the Poles have the lowest opinion of President Obama.
And it is not just that today is a signal day commemorated in Poland every year, but today marks the 70th anniversary of that tragic and fateful date in World War II. Even after the end of World War II, Poles would be subject to Communist domination until the collapse of the Iron Curtain set them free 20 years ago this fall. During those dark days of oppression, Poles would gather to commemorate this day as an act of civil disobediance. In the future, they will have yet another sad reason to come together for remembrance.