Opinion Poles

White House Damaging Relations With Warsaw, Poles say

Mitt Romney, Donald Tusk / AP
July 30, 2012

Kiev—Last week’s surprise announcement of U.S. Ambassador to Poland Lee Feinstein’s retirement highlighted a string of policy missteps by the Obama administration that have left many in the Polish government and population questioning Obama’s commitment to the two nations’ alliance.

Steven D. Mull, who served as ambassador to Poland from 1993-97 and was also part of the team that negotiated Poland’s entry into NATO, will replace Feinstein, who reportedly had a falling out with the Foreign Minister, Radoslaw Sikorski.

Conversations with Poles reveal that they feel as if President Obama values his "re-set" in relations with Moscow more than relations with Warsaw.

"To put it plainly, on Obama’s list of priorities, Poland is obviously lower than whale shit," said one Polish defense industry official. "We are further down that list than that stuff laying at the bottom of the ocean."

Meanwhile, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney traveled to the European nation Monday and Tuesday for the final leg of his tour of Europe in order to remind people of "U.S. support of Poland as a captive nation during the Cold War," Romney adviser Ian Brzezinski told McClatchy newspapers.

The list of Polish grievances is extensive.

While most of the rest of the world sent either heads of state or foreign ministers to a ceremony in September 2009 near the Polish city of Gdańsk in remembrance of 70 years since the invasion of the country and the beginning of World War II, the Obama White House’s initial proposal was to send former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry.

The English-language Krakow Post described Perry being named the head of the U.S. delegation as "yet another sign of how this country’s love of America remains unreciprocated.

Shortly after, Obama decided to cancel plans to place a ballistic missile defense installation on the territory of Poland. "Americans have always cared only about their interests, and all other [countries] have been used for their purposes. This is another example," former Polish president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa told Polish TV in reaction.

Then, in May of this year, during a ceremony in honor of the deceased resistance fighter and Georgetown professor Jan Karski, Obama referred to German extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka as "Polish death camps."

Even though President Obama’s gaffe occurred during what was the middle of the night in Poland, the gaffe went viral within minutes.

Polish prime minister Donald Tusk said in a nationally televised address that "yesterday's words by President Obama offended all Poles—we always react in the same way when ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions lead to such a distortion of history, so painful for us here in Poland, in a country which suffered like no other in Europe during World War II."

Other Poles were less restrained. Foreign Minister Sikorski tweeted, "It’s a shame that such a momentous ceremony has been overshadowed by ignorance and incompetence."

While Poland has been one of the few countries in what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once called "new Europe" that has had a favorable view of the United States, recent history has taken its toll.

"When Obama first came into office, the opinion polls about Polish impressions of the U.S. were 70-plus percent favorable," said the Polish defense industry official. "But with all that has happened this figure is now somewhere in the mid-30s range."

"Another equally serious problem is how Poland feels that it has not been recognized for its contribution to coalition operations [in Iraq and Afghanistan]," the defense industry official added. "We came along to stand with the US, we spilled our blood, but when it came to contracts for rebuilding Iraq they all went to US and British companies—we got nothing."

As the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down and domestic defense sales decrease, thousands of jobs as well as core competencies in design methods and technology could be lost if U.S. firms cannot find export contracts.

One potential source of such contracts is the so-called "Shield of Poland" initiative. The effort calls for the creation of a multi-layered air and missile defense network that would cover the entire country.

Industry giants such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have sought partnerships with Poland’s defense industrial conglomerate, Bumar, to jointly develop and manufacture this system.

Obama’s snubs have led Bumar and other industry executives to talk openly about the U.S. businesses perhaps not being the best partners from the program.

"With all of the talk about the U.S. ‘pivot to Asia’ and the general disinterest in how much Poland should mean to U.S. interests, there are plenty of people who now think we should develop this entire air and missile shield system with European companies like MBDA," said a Bumar executive.