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Letter From Poland | The Nation

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Letter From Poland

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Then came the torture at Abu Ghraib, showing irrefutable images of an America not to their liking. Bit by bit, the evidence grew that this was not the war the liberals had signed up for. Moreover, America seemed incapable of listening even to its allies. "I had hopes for the moderating influence of Tony Blair, and I even saw Poland playing a role here," wrote former Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek, a strong pro-American voice in post-Communist Polish politics. "But today it's clear that that influence has been virtually nil."

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David Ost
David Ost is the author of many works on Eastern Europe, including Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics and his...

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Poland's president and dozens of its political leaders died Saturday in a plane crash en route to a commemoration of the World War II massacre of Polish soldiers in Katyn, Russia.

That brief explosion in Gdansk of civic participation and political innovation contains secrets and gems of political ideals that can be achieved.

All this has led to an extraordinary backlash. In early September President Aleksander Kwasniewski, long one of Bush's closest supporters, offered an unprecedented rebuke, telling the New York Times that the United States needed to become "more flexible, more gracious," and that the Bush Administration should abandon its "neoconservative divide-and-rule policy."

The conservatives, meanwhile, have seen their illusions quashed as well. They applauded every pro-American turn the government took, talking about how Poland would soon be rewarded for its fealty. "It was bizarre," recalls the veteran activist Sergiusz Kowalski, "to hear about all the benefits sure to come our way." There would be significant Iraqi reconstruction contracts for Polish businesses, new American military-related investments in Poland, and easier US visa requirements for citizens. Two years later none of this has come to pass. "Halliburton again!" has been a regular theme of the Polish press, along with stories about local firms being passed over. The promised investments have not yet materialized. (Instead, in 2004 alone Poland will pay $85 million from its own strapped coffers to fund the occupation, while being allocated only $12 million in military aid from the United States, far less than what Washington gives its other European allies. Even the usually pro-Republican Polish American Congress complains that "a good ally is being treated shabbily.") As for visa rules, they're even tougher: The United States now charges $100 simply for an application fee and still turns down a large number of them. "I just don't understand it," a conservative friend of mine lamented. "It's as if you're trying to drive us away."

Far from bringing good results, this automatic pro-Americanism brought quite bad results as far as relations with Europe were concerned. Poland entered the European Union along with nine other countries on May 1. But even though it's the natural leader of the newcomers, with a population greater than the other nine combined, its reception has been quite different. As Geremek put it in a widely publicized interview, "Poland has never had as bad a reputation in Europe as it does now. We've alienated the two countries who ushered us into the EU--France and Germany. Even our own post-Communist neighbors don't support us." Even conservatives, who have never been enthusiastic about the EU, are coming to agree that such isolation poses a danger. "We're not a Great Britain who can choose to be in Europe or not," says Aleksander Hall, one of the country's leading conservative thinkers. "America may move on, but this is where we're going to stay. Unconditional pro-Americanism does not help our cause."

Poles accustomed to looking to America as the main guarantor of democracy are now reassessing their views. This comes up in unforeseen ways. At an antiwar demonstration in Warsaw in July, I counted 150 participants surrounded by 150 policemen. When I told one demonstrator that this seemed like the kind of crackdown on civil liberties increasingly common in the United States, he demurred: "The fact that we're demonstrating in front of the presidential palace rather than in a distant 'free-speech zone' means it's not yet as bad as America," he said. When I told him that this was the first time I ever heard a Pole cite America as an example of a non-democratic country, he agreed that this was both new and ironic. "The bigger irony," he continued, "is that now it's the Free World superpower pressuring us to crack down on dissent."

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