And so the Barak Obama show came to town; and then went away again. After sprinkling his gold-dust in Ireland, Britain and France the US President then headed through the mainly empty, although heavily policed, streets of Warsaw. Once he arrived at his destination he proceeded to once again say the right things and make his hosts feel special. Poland, he reminded us, is an example to the rest of the world, a success story and the leading country in the region.
His words were carefully chosen although only delivered to the select few. There was no mass rally – as when Bill Clinton spoke to an enthralled throng in 1997 as Poland was about to join NATO – but only specially arranged meetings with politicians and their alike. The major shock was Lech Walesa declining to meet the most powerful man in the world – declaring, nonchalantly, that he had better things to do than take part in a photo opportunity. How he could have passed up the chance to have been told he was an example to the rest of us, a success story in his own right and the leading example of freedom in the region is anyone’s guess.
On the nitty-gritty of policy matters nothing much seems to have changed. Obama once again promised that he would be seeking to address the issue of visas for Polish citizens visiting the USA and that he hoped that Poles would soon be free to shop on Fifth Avenue (sic). The expected signing of a military agreement between the two countries has been delayed. This would have allowed for the permanent stationing of 20 US soldiers in Poland, servicing F-16 and C130 Hercules airplanes, with the agreement that Polish pilots would also be able to have a go on them 4 times a year. The proposed agreement would also include plans to build a missile shield in Poland (SM3 rockets are due to be placed in the country from 2018) – although this time with the agreement and participation of Russia.
So with nothing to sign Barak again praised everyone around him, smiled, said everyone was great, smiled, reminded everyone that they were his best friend, smiled, and jumped back on his plane to head home. Despite the banality and consistency of form, this meeting did reveal some of the differences that exist between the Bush and Obama administrations. For sure, if a US President named Bush had arrived in Poland engaged in at least 2 wars (I’ve kind of lost count) in the Middle-East and proposing to station more troops and military equipment on its soil; then the protests may have been larger and louder than the hundred or so demonstrators that greeted Obama and were met with tear gas by an over-the top Police determined that no one would spoil the party atmosphere. However, two fundamental things have changed– that are more to do with pragmatism than anything else – in US-Polish relations.
One of the first decisions of the Obama administration was that it would seek to reduce tensions with Russia. The USA was already over-stretched both militarily and economically and only the most rabid Republican hawks could really conceive that it was in a position to take on its old Cold-War foe. The re-set button was pressed, the Star-Wars Two programme in Central-Eastern Europe scaled back and adjusted and Russia brought into a new strategic alliance with the USA against Iran. America’s leading ally in Central-Eastern Europe had to adjust itself accordingly. Fortunately, the more Russophobic government in Poland had already been replaced by 2007, with the new government better understanding changed Realpolitik. Although the Smolensk tragedy has opened up old wounds between Poland and Russia – the Tusk administration has done its best to soothe them and allow some ‘normalisation’ of relations.
The second related issue concerns the USA’s role in the Middle-East and its relation to the evolving Arab Spring. This was a perfect opportunity for Obama to spin the line that America has been at the forefront of supporting the Arab uprisings and the movements for democracy. In order to accept this new historical truth, one has to forget how for decades the USA backed up the region’s dictators, how it sat on the fence throughout the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions until the last possible moment and at how it has continued to cave into an Israeli administration that refuses to make even the slightest concessions towards a lasting peace and justice in Palestine. Yet the invasion of Libya has signified one important shift in America’s foreign policy. This is not that it no longer supports regime change in foreign countries through military intervention, but that it is no longer prepared to do this alone. Bogged down by wars, recession and debt the US administration has insisted that the leading military powers in Europe (primarily France and Britain) take up some of the slack. And Poland – having actively participated in the Afghan and Iraqi wars – has decided to sit this one out too and let ‘Old Europe’ get its hands dirty.
Side by side in Warsaw, Obama and Tusk waxed lyrical about the great democratic opening in the Middle East, how both countries supported this process and at how Poland provided a great example for the Arab world. Despite this attempt to gloss over reality, history refuses to give up its ghost. Obama is still engaged in the wars started by Bush and he has even failed to close down Guantanamo Bay. Also, Poland’s own murky history of collusion with the Bush administration continues to rear its ugly head
It is worth reminding ourselves about what was happening in 2003. Poland was then governed by the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) – the Polish representative of the Socialist International. While the majority of European social democracy turned away from supporting the US-led invasion of Iraq, the Polish social democratic Prime Minister (Leszek Miller) and President (Aleksander Kwaśniewski) followed Blair’s example by giving the USA their full support. It was in this context that Donald Rumsfield famously coined the phrase ‘New Europe’.
Beyond the recent platitudes exchanged between the leaders of the USA and Poland, lies the lingering controversy about whether Poland hosted CIA prisons on its territory in which torture was carried out. Despite denials by the Polish side, these allegations have been circulating since 2005. A European Parliamentary report in 2007 revealed that CIA prisons had existed in Poland between 2002 and 2005; and last September the Associated Press produced information that it claimed proved that torture had been carried out in these prisons.
On the day that Obama departed Warsaw, the daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza (hardly a bastion of anti-Americanism) carried new information about this affair on its front page. Referring to information from secret documents that it had obtained, the newspaper revealed that the prosecutor leading the investigation in Poland has recently been replaced, just as he was preparing to charge government officials (including possibly Miller and Kwasniewski) of having committed crimes against humanity.
One politician who has consistently sought the truth on this issue is the former MEP Jożef Pinior. Pinior had been a member of the European Parliamentary commission investigating the possible existence of CIA prisons in Europe. In an interview in this weekend’s Gazeta Wyborcza he explains how he has had access to a classified government document that contains instructions concerning the regulation of the secret CIA prisons in Poland. According to Pinior there is no doubt that the Polish government was aware of the activities of the CIA in these prisons.
Pinior also explains how the investigations carried out by the European Parliamentary commission was continually impeded and blocked by the Polish government. Furthermore, this was happening after the SLD administration had fallen and when PiS was leading a new coalition government. Therefore, according to Pinior, information about the existence and activities of CIA prisons in Poland was known by the PiS government who helped to protect its predecessors from investigations. The fact that PiS has never wasted an opportunity to condemn the ‘post-communist’ left for betraying Poland’s national sovereignty, one can only speculate as to why it may wish to protect them over this issue. Leszek Miller has reacted strongly to the accusations made by Pinior, claiming again that there were no such prisons based in Poland and that Pinior is a ‘liar’ and a ‘scoundrel’. The suspicion remains that the whole Polish establishment is closing ranks on this matter.
Whatever the actual truth may be, a cloud of uncertainty continues to hang over this topic. Next month Poland takes over the Presidency of Europe and has identified the promotion of democracy in areas such as the Middle East as one of its top priorities. It’s claim to be a bastion of hope for all those struggling against repression and dictatorship can only be harmed as long as this issue is not resolved.