I have been sojourning in Poland off and on since 1993 when I came to teach at Nicholas Copernicus University. I am now a permanent resident.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney came to Poland in an effort to strengthen his foreign policy “appearance.” He met Prime Minister Donald Tusk and the legendary Lech Walesa, visited a memorial that honors Polish soldiers, greeted crowds of onlookers, and lashed Russia. But alas, the visit only exacerbated Romney’s European tour disaster and enunciated his foreign policy ignorance. A few Poles are aware that Romney came to Poland in a cosmetic effort to secure the Polish-American and Catholic vote.
That Lech Walesa, a human rights activist and former Solidarity leader, invited Romney to Poland was predictable and a conundrum unless you know Walesa — and most Americans don’t. True, he was a stalwart “Solidarity” revolutionary who ignited the flames that ended the Cold War but as the 2nd president of Poland he was generally ineffective and much of an embarrassment (revolutionaries seldom make good politicians). In 2006, Walesa quit Solidarity over disagreement. What is worse, he was thought to have collaborated with the Polish Secret Police for money. Whether that is true or not does grant Walesa known quantity status. Today, Walesa fills a historically cosmetic and ceremonial role in international affairs. True to form, endorsing Romney, an avowed anti-unionist, is a puzzling demonstration for “the” union boss — unless you know that Walesa idolizes Reagan. That alone may play well in some nostalgic American circles but not in today’s Poland.
The Cold War was 40 years of military and political tension between the Soviet Union and the U.S.-led West that nearly culminated in nuclear annihilation in 1962. Arguably, the Cold War ended with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the U.S. emerged as the world’s sole superpower but that distinction does not automatically delete the tensions that still exists between Russia and former Soviet bloc countries. Poland’s relationship with Russia is tenuous but a milestone was reached when Russia in November 2010 finally owned up to the Katyn Forest massacre of some 22,000 Polish nationals. For Romney to come into Poland and lash out at the Russians when the two countries struggle to make amends is pitifully disingenuous if not utterly doltish for a U.S. presidential candidate trying to gain foreign policy credentials — although it does play well for the U.S. military industrial complex that needs a big mythic enemy in order to keep weapons production and sales up. Apparently, completely alienating the Palestinians in favor of Israel was not enough bolster for the monster-enemy myth.
Romney’s suggestion that Obama has thrown the Poles under the bus because he has “reset” the Missile Defense Shield installation is misleading in two ways. True, there are a handful of Polish policy wonks who differ on issues and a U.S. politician can easily align himself/herself with whomever fills the bill and makes good press, but most Poles have never heard of Romney and they are ambivalent about Obama and about U.S. politics in general. Additionally, Obama has only “reset” the MDS until Russia’s very real concerns can be resolved which is prudent decision-making unless you’ve given over to politics-of-fear. There’s time. Iran does not have a ballistic delivery system and won’t anytime soon. Lining the eastern Polish border with a missile fence only heightens Polish-Russian tension that has slowly been easing.
It’s no secret that Romney was in Poland to curry favor among Polish-American voters in Midwest swing states and among Catholic voters. The Independent vote will carry much weight in Election 2012, if not the difference, and 33% of Polish-American votes are up for grabs. No doubt that Romney soiled his foreign policy appearance in Poland, too, but he may well have cut his chances of getting a significant number of Polish-American votes, Independent or otherwise, given that his aid was rude and disrespectful to reporters in Warsaw because they asked pertinent and fair questions of one vying to become the most powerful man in the world. That kind of behavior does not cut it among a people who are understandably put off by arrogant behavior from very large power brokers. In a word: Yalta.