President Barack Obama has an appalling track record when it comes to insulting Poland, a key U.S. ally in Eastern Europe. In 2009, his administration humiliated Warsaw when, in deference to Russian demands, it pulled out of an agreement over Third Site missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. In 2010, the president opted to play golf on the same day the Polish people were mourning the death of their president, Lech Kaczysnki, Kaczynski’s wife and 94 senior Polish officials killed in the Smolensk air disaster. Obama had been due to attend the funeral but was unable to fly there because of a large cloud of ash that had formed over parts of Europe.
In 2012, Obama sparked outrage in Poland when he described a Nazi death camp from World War II as “a Polish death camp.” He made the comment during the ceremony awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter. Obama’s remarks prompted Poland’s foreign minister Radek Sikorski to publicly call for an apology from the White House, attacking the “ignorance and incompetence” on display. More than 6 million Poles, including 3 million Jews, died at the hands of Nazi Germany during the war.
Obama’s shoddy treatment of the Poles has won him few friends in one of the most pro-American nations in Europe. Lech Walesa, national hero and leader of Poland’s Solidarity Movement in the 1980s and 1990s, refused to meet with Obama when he last traveled to Poland in 2011. More recently, Walesa criticized the lack of U.S. leadership on the world stage, telling the Associated Press that “the world is disorganized and the superpower is not taking the lead.”
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the first democratic elections held in Poland following the end of Soviet rule. Visiting Poland today and tomorrow, President Obama can expect widespread skepticism among the Poles regarding his commitment to U.S.-Polish relations and the broader transatlantic alliance. He will need to convince America’s allies in Warsaw that he will stand with Poland in resisting Russian aggression and reinforcing the NATO alliance. His announcement this morning of $1 billion to beef up the U.S. military presence in Europe is a step in the right direction but also an act of catch-up after years of wrongly cutting back on American military might across the Atlantic, including the removal of 10,000 U.S. troops from Europe since 2012.
Obama should take a leaf out of the diplomatic playbook of his predecessor, President George W. Bush, who invested heavily in building close partnerships with key European allies, including the leaders of Eastern and Central European nations who looked to the United States after throwing off the Soviet yoke. These leaders knew where they stood with Bush and strongly backed the United States in the War on Terror.
Instead of insulting Poland with poorly written remarks or thoughtless gestures, President Obama should seek to deepen ties with Warsaw, especially at a time when tens of millions of people in Eastern Europe fear a resurgence of Russian nationalism on their doorstep. He could start with a declaration of support for Polish membership of the Visa Waiver Program and a firm commitment to the defense of Poland, a NATO member, in the event of an attack by Russia. This also should involve a more robust U.S. military presence in Poland. That would send Moscow and the Poles an unequivocal message.
The Poles have fought bravely alongside their American allies in Afghanistan, Iraq and in World War II. They deserve the full support of the world’s superpower and a display of solidarity from the U.S. president at a time when American leadership is sorely lacking in Europe.