Monday, June 30, 2008

Poland’s Strategic Interests and the “Coalition of the Willing” (Part 2)

(This is part two in a two part series focusing on the reasons behind Poland’s decision to join the United States in the liberation of Iraq. You can read part one here. I am currently looking at some of the successful acts of diplomacy the Bush administration achieved pertaining to the Iraq War, and feel free to leave a comment. This series is also posted at NeoConstant.)

Russian-Polish Relations

Polish-Russian relations have been historically poor. Polish leaders continue to argue that Russia has not come to terms with its past crimes against the Polish people. In May of 2005, Kwasniewski was invited to Moscow to attend the 60th anniversary celebration of the end of World War II. He was “given what the Poles regarded as intentionally conspicuous second-class treatment.

Putin not only relegated Kwasniewski to a back row among the visiting dignitaries, he also did not acknowledge Poland as a wartime ally, much less apologize for the Soviet Union's anti-Polish pact with the Nazis of 1939, or mention what Kwasniewski called a half-century of "Stalinist repression" of Poland.”

Poland’s troubles with its eastern neighbor are not regulated to historical considerations however. President Kaczyński noted that many of Poland's current international problems had to do with lack of energy security, and their commitment to resources from Russia had serious security concerns. Look no further than the fuel crisis Poland experienced in 2007, when oil coming through the Druzhba pipeline was halted, as Russia experienced a trade brawl with Belarus. The pipeline is a major source of fuel to central European nations, and the loss of this resource reinforces Poland’s need to expand the avenues with which it acquires its energy.

The unreliability of oil coming from the east brought with it a heightened commitment to building alliances outside of Poland’s immediate neighbors. Poland’s move towards the west through NATO and the European Union was seen as a threat to Russia, which had long held a buffer zone of nations between itself and the west. Thanks to the enlargement of the NATO forces to include ex-Warsaw members, Russians could reasonably assume that their political weight in the region was on the wane. While some viewed the expansion of the EU eastward as an economic opportunity for Russian society, many within the country “see it as a danger, especially to Russian prestige, and Russia's prestige is related to its ability to hold the fragmenting Russian Federation itself together.”

In 2004, Ukraine experienced political turmoil when the fairness of its presidential election was called into question amongst large protests and upheavals that are referred to as the Orange Revolution. Eventually, the pro-western Viktor Yushchenko was appointed president over the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych. The Russian government believed Poland interfered in the nation’s affairs to the detriment of their alliance with the Ukraine, with President Aleksander Kwasniewski clearly siding with the opposition opposed to Yanukovych’s presidency. This further eroded relations between the countries.

This poor relationship between Poland and its more powerful neighbor, as well as the political uncertainty in the region, required the Polish government to look for avenues of fuel outside of those coming through Russia, and were surely a factor in Poland’s commitment to the mission in Iraq. In July of 2003, the Polish Foreign Minister, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz said “We have never hidden our desire for Polish oil companies to finally have access to sources of commodities." Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, Kwasniewski’s Foreign Minister, told the Polish PAP news agency that access to oil in Iraq was "our ultimate objective."

VISA Waivers

While it may appear to be a minor point among the reasons for Poland’s alliance with the United States in the Iraq War, the importance of the Visa waivers to the United States for Polish citizens, a nation with 19 percent unemployment rate and a large ex-patriot population living in America , surely influenced the countries leaders and this cannot be overlooked. As former Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikor¬ski stated in 2005, "It makes sense for U.S. assistance to flow to countries (both militarily and politically) that are actually being helpful in the war on terror." President Bush held that Poland’s requests for a change in the immigration laws were “fair to the Polish people,” and that he will “adopt the principles and accept the recommendations of the road map. And that'll become the basis for legislation.” Through its military alliance, Poland hoped to gain more than military support form the United States. Polish citizens had long been angry that they were required to obtain special visas to enter the United States, while other nations throughout Europe were allowed to travel as tourists to the U.S. without such documents. Poland’s commitment to United States interests overseas, especially in times when the American government was experiencing difficulty building a strong coalition, was viewed by Polish leaders as an incentive for the U.S. government to increase economic relations between the two countries. Many American politicians felt the same. Senator Barbara Mikulaski of Maryland said in 2005:

“Polish troops fought alongside American and British and Australian troops from day one of the Iraq war. They are there because they want to be reliable allies. Because they are ready to stand with us even when the mission is risky and unpopular. Today, Poland still commands multinational forces in the South Central region of Iraq. Nearly 2,500 Polish troops are still on the ground in Iraq, sharing the burden and the risk and the casualties… So why are Singapore and San Marino among the 27 countries in the Visa Waiver program, but Poland is not?

Facing Tyranny

While Poland undoubtedly had national interests in mind when it sided with the American government in 2003, it would be imprudent to overlook the cultural and social aspects inherent in the Polish government’s reasoning for war. For decades, Poland was a satellite state controlled by the Soviet Union. Its government at home was brutal and repressive, and the years polish citizenry spent under this tyranny has given them a different perspective than those in the west who did not endure under such circumstances. In January of 2003, 8 prime ministers from Europe (including Poland’s Leszek Miller and Czech president Vaclav Havel), penned an editorial for the Wall Street Journal that threw moral support behind the Bush administration’s mission in Iraq. They wrote:

“The real bond between the U.S. and Europe is the values we share: democracy, individual freedom, human rights and the rule of law. These values crossed the Atlantic with those who sailed from Europe to help create the United States of America. Today they are under greater threat than ever.

…The solidarity, cohesion and determination of the international community are our best hope of achieving this peacefully. Our strength lies in unity.”

Vaclav Havel went on to pontificate as to why support for the liberation of Iraq was stronger amongst ex-communist countries like Poland. In the New York Times, he declared:

“I think it's not by chance that the idea of confronting evil may have found more support in those countries that have had a recent experience with totalitarian systems compared with other European countries that haven't had the same sort of recent experience."

Poland’s past history of state sponsored oppression surely gave its leadership a view of world affairs that were not shared by others in the west. Furthermore, Poland had developed a significant appreciation for the United States, and its anti-communism efforts when many in Europe were content to work with the Soviets rather than address the needs of the Polish people. Lech Walesa, co-founder of Solidarity (the labor union that would eventually topple the communist regime in Poland) and Poland’s President between 1990 and 95, wrote “Poles fought for their freedom for so many years that they hold in special esteem those who backed them in their struggle. Support was the test of friendship.”

The Bush administration needed the moral weight those nations that once lacked freedom bestowed on the mission to reshape Iraq into a liberal-democracy. This fact should not be casually dismissed by critics of the coalition built by the American government (Laura McClure wrote that Poland received generous military incentives that did not match the commitment made on the Polish end, even referring to it as the “Coalition of the Billing”). With the rift between Europe and the United States, it can logically be argued that the price the U.S. paid through financial and military spurs to get Poland on board with the mission was worth the price.

A New Poland

Poland has been at the mercy of great powers for large swaths of its history; to this day, Poland is wedged between the West and the East both culturally and financially. Russia is still an important player in Polish affairs due to its proximity, as is the European Union with its economic pull, but the American alliance provides the military and security safeguards Poland has desired for the last hundred years. Yet, they must walk a fine line when it comes to its own security and economic interests, with each sphere of power being a necessary part of Poland’s prosperity. Its interest in Iraq, while rooted in democratic ideals that the Polish people fought so long to achieve, was also based on very clear strategic and financial concerns. The Bush administration, understanding Poland’s desire to become a world player, offered them the necessary incentives to commit them to the mission. It was these military and financial enticements that gave the “Coalition of the Willing” one of its largest initial supporters.

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