Cracow—Well-informed Poles know that, barring some cataclysmic international event between now and November 6, the 2012 U.S. presidential election will be fought and decided on domestic U.S. economic issues. My Polish friends and colleagues understand that high unemployment, sluggish growth, rapidly accumulating federal debt, the overreach of Obamacare, the administration’s embrace of gay marriage, and the Obama assault on religious freedom are of much greater concern to most Americans than foreign policy. Yet those same friends and colleagues are uncomfortable with, even nervous about, a variant of the Carvillian slogan that dominated 1992: “It’s the economy (and the culture), stupid.”
Their concerns are worthy of serious American attention.
Poland’s experience with the Obama administration has not been a happy one. It was bad enough that the administration abruptly cancelled the emplacement of missile-defense components that Poland had agreed to accept in the face of serious Russian pressure. But when the administration announced this betrayal on the 70th anniversary of the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, without even informing the Polish prime minister in a timely manner, it raised a very large question mark in Polish minds about the administration’s strategy, its grasp of the history of east-central Europe, and its understanding of the linkage between the two.
That question mark was transformed into an exclamation point when President Obama made an unimaginably inept reference to “Polish death camps” during a recent White House ceremony awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously to Jan Karski, a hero of the World War II Polish underground and a longtime professor at Georgetown University. Polish president Bronislaw Komorowski may have accepted Obama’s quick retreat and confession of a misstatement. Beneath the public veneer of reconciliation between the two presidents, however, Poles (including, one suspects, President Komorowski) remain shocked and angered at the ignorance of both Obama and the White House staff, who not only misrepresented the extermination camps of World War II but also seemed not to grasp that millions of Poles died in these Nazi death factories. As one Cracovian policeman said when the subject came up during a conversation three weeks ago: “This is no joke to me. My grandmother died at Auschwitz.”
In between the missile-defense betrayal of September 17, 2009, and the Karski fiasco of May 29, 2012, there was the infamous open-microphone exchange between President Obama and then-Russian president Dmitri Medvedev. Obama’s plea for “understanding” that he had “one last election” to contest before he could, presumably, cave in completely on missile defense was regarded by knowledgeable Poles as a danger signal reminiscent of what their parents and grandparents had heard during the heydays of appeasement.
And, like the earlier gaffe of kowtowing to Russian pressure by canceling the Polish-based missile-defense sites on September 17, the precise date of the Soviet stab-in-the-back that completed Poland’s vivisection in 1939, Obama’s plaintive request to Medvedev (obviously intended for the ears of Medvedev’s master, Vladimir Putin) confirmed Polish fears that, in addition to their ignorance of 20th-century European history, Obama and his foreign-policy counselers adhered to a Left-revisionist view of World War II and the Cold War that elides over the West’s double betrayal of Poland: the Anglo-French failure to attack Germany in September 1939, when the Reich’s western frontier had been largely stripped of armed forces in preparation for the Polish invasion, and the subsequent betrayals of the Tehran and Yalta conferences, which left Poland to the tender mercies of Stalin. Cracovian shops still sell replicas of a famous World War II poster featuring a tattered Polish flag and the motto POLAND—FIRST TO FIGHT. Yet Poles remember, as Obama and his foreign-policy team evidently do not, that Poland was not only the first to fight, but also that it fought essentially alone throughout September 1939, at the beginning of what Poles call “the war we lost twice.”
These concerns should not be misconstrued. It’s not as if Poles imagine that U.S. foreign policy today ought to be crafted as expiation for America’s pre-Pearl Harbor isolationism or FDR’s less-than-successful diplomacy with “Uncle Joe” Stalin at Tehran and Yalta. Poles are too smart, too well disposed toward the United States, and too experienced in the hard school of European power politics for that. The serious Polish complaint about the missile-defense betrayal, the open-mike pusillanimity with Medvedev, and the Karski gaffe—the complaint that ought to register in the 2012 campaign and that ought to form part of the Romney critique of Obama’s foreign policy—is that all of this reveals a deep misunderstanding of both European history and contemporary strategic realities in Eastern and Central Europe. That misunderstanding, in turn, seems to feed a policy of appeasing Russian efforts to recover the sway the defunct Soviet Union once exercised in these parts. If this is the famous Russian-policy “reset” that Hillary Clinton announced in 2009 (with a show-and-tell gimmick using the wrong Russian word for “reset”), thoughtful Poles want none of it.
The Obama administration has also done little to assuage Polish grievances over what is widely perceived as a lack of U.S. appreciation for Polish efforts and sacrifices in Afghanistan and Iraq. And because attention has not been paid, even the most pro-American Poles now question the seriousness with which the United States takes Poland as an ally.
Such doubts are compounded by the visa situation, which is a constant (and now decades-long) irritant in U.S.-Polish relations. Thanks to the generous hospitality of my colleagues at the ancient Dominican priory of Cracow, I have the use of an apartment in the splendid Cracow Old Town when I’m here leading an annual summer seminar on Catholic social doctrine, or when I’m in town for lectures or book launches. As it happens, the security camera that records everyone going in and out of the U.S. Consulate in Cracow is in one of the apartment windows, because the consulate is just across the street: Thus I can watch, Monday through Friday, and at any time of the year, the pileup of Poles trying to get visas to visit the United States—an indignity not required of other U.S. allies in the region.
U.S. officials have explained to me on many occasions that this visa hardball would cease if Poles coming to America stopped violating the time limits of their visas in higher percentages than other European visitors. But in the open-borders atmosphere of a post-Schengen Europe, and given Poland’s contributions of blood and treasure in America’s post-9/11 wars, the misbehavior of x percent of visa-violating Poles does not seem, to their relatives and neighbors here, a satisfactory reason to treat Poles as if they weren’t trustworthy allies.
Americans exhausted by the exertions of the post-9/11 decade may welcome, in some fashion, the Obama administration’s “lead from behind” retreat from American leadership in world politics. Thoughtful Poles don’t, and Americans ought to take their concerns seriously. Poles—including those who think that the U.S. doesn’t always get it right—know that, in the 21st-century world, an American withdrawal from global leadership leaves vacuums that are filled by far less benevolent forces. The Russians are obviously the prime concern here in the Vistula River basin. Poles welcome their country’s accession to the European Union (and may try to get every dime out of it before the Brussels house of cards collapses). They’re nonetheless quite aware that Brussels is no match for Vladimir Putin, and that if there is to be any Western counterweight to Putin’s attempts to reverse what the Russian hegemon has ca
lled the “geostrategic catastrophe” of the breakup of the Soviet Union, it’s going to be led by Washington, not by the Dubious Duo: EU president Herman Van Rompuy and EU foreign minister Catherine Ashton.
Thus the Romney campaign would win big points here (and blunt the nervousness Poles feel about a Republican candidate they barely know) if, during his forthcoming trip to Poland, he firmly stressed his future administration’s commitment to the security of Poland, to the flourishing of an independent and democratic Ukraine, and to further NATO expansion if various post-Soviet states want in. Thoughtful Poles I know also want to hear from Romney a recognition of Poland’s key role in effecting the collapse of European Communism, an expression of sincere gratitude for Poland’s contributions to America’s post-9/11 wars, and a commitment to American reengagement with world politics that bespeaks an understanding of the fact that others want America to lead (if more consultatively), not withdraw into a domestic bunker.
It would also help if Romney would speak of his respect for the Catholic Church, its role in Polish history, and its leadership in the Revolution of 1989. There is vast ignorance of Mormonism in Poland. That ignorance and the ill-informed concerns it breeds will best be met, not by explications of Mormon theology, but by the respect Romney shows for what Polish Catholicism did for the cause of freedom from 1939 through 1989.
Poland’s nervousness about the 2012 election is an important reminder to Americans that, as important as the economy is, and as crucial as the repudiation of Obama’s assault on civil society is, there is more at stake on November 6 than domestic matters. To borrow from the Marxist vocabulary, the correlation of forces here in Eastern and Central Europe has shifted in the past four years; that shift is due in no small part to the Obama administration’s misreading of the modern history of this region; and that shift is bad news for the future of freedom. What Polish nervousness about 2012 reminds Americans of is that Obama’s foreign-policy fecklessness has to be part of the debate in the next three and a half months—as does a new vision of responsible American leadership in the world.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.