The following is my op-ed for Digital Journal. Republishing is allowed.
President Obama’s announcement on September 17 that the US is shelving its plans to build a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Central Europe is likely to raise painful historical memories in Poland.
By making the announcement on September 17 about abandoning ballistic missile defense plans for Poland and Czech Republic, the Obama White House chose a date with painful historical significance for the Poles. Under the terms of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland 70 years ago, on September 17, 1939, while western and central parts of Poland were being overrun by German armies.
Russia has fought hard to keep American missiles away from its borders, and President Obama’s decision is seen as a concession to Moscow in return for Russian support in curbing Iran’s nuclear program. The Poles, always fearful of the Kremlin’s imperial reach, are more likely to see it as a betrayal of their country, a faithful NATO ally of the US, just as Poland, whose soldiers fought alongside Americans against Nazi Germany, was betrayed by America at the end of World War II.
President Barack Obama bids farewell to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev backstage after the two spoke at the Parallel Business Summit at the Manezh Exhibition Hall in Moscow, Russia, July 7, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
The Stratfor global intelligence website reported that a U.S. concession to Moscow on BMD would be one of the first major steps in a Russian-U.S. deal — one which could see Iran’s greatest foreign backer flip sides. But President Obama’s “flip” on the Bush Administration’s BMD deal with Poland reminds the Poles of another popular and progressive US president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who made a deal with Stalin in Yalta to get Moscow’s military support against Japan. Poland and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe paid for FDR’s deal at Yalta with decades of Soviet domination.
These may be completely different times and different political stakes, but the Obama Administration has already demonstrated its lack of historical sensitivity and public diplomacy strategy when it refused Poland’s invitation to send a high level representative to the official observances in Gdansk of the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II. Prime Minister Putin was there and even made sort of an apology for the Hitler-Stalin Pact while trying to deny Stalin’s responsibility for helping Hitler to start World War II.
The Poles are proud and they think in historical terms. While listening to Putin’s dubious historical analysis delivered in Gdansk, they were reminded of being snubbed by their American ally. The latest decision on missile defense may turn out to be a new public diplomacy disaster for President Obama.
Poland, one of America’s staunchest allies in the war on terror, saw the presence of US missiles as a protection of its security and sovereignty against a possible threat from Russia. Former Polish President and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa along with former Czech President Vaclav Havel and dozens of other prominent Central European political leaders and intellectuals sent an open letter to President Obama warning him of Russia’s continued threat to the region. The letter was not well received by the Obama Administration.
As for historical lessons, FDR’s deal with Stalin not did not get much for the US. It allowed the Soviet Union to occupy Central and Eastern Europe and brought about the Cold War. America paid for Yalta with wars in Korea and Vietnam and in billions of dollars in defense spending.
President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top administration officials have been silent in recent months as Russian leaders and the Kremlin controlled media launched a campaign to rehabilitate Stalin’s aggressive and genocidal policies. The Poles, on the other hand, reacted to Moscow’s rewriting of Soviet history with great alarm.
People in the Obama White House may think there are no historical lessons to be drawn from their decision to scrap the missile defense system in Poland and Czech Republic, but any experienced public diplomacy expert would have told them that Central Europeans still remember World War II, Yalta, and the Cold War. At the very least, President Obama could have waited a day or two so that his missile defense announcement would not have been made on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet attack on Poland.