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Letter From Poland | The Nation

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Letter From Poland

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Warsaw

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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.

Western visitors here have often been surprised by Poland's avid pro-Americanism. For some it's a pleasant surprise: They find none of the anti-American stereotypes common elsewhere in Europe. For others it's an unpleasant one: What about the victims of America's imperial power?

Poles managed to find something deeply admirable in all American Presidents: They appreciated Carter for his human rights agenda, Reagan for his gut anti-Communism, Bush Senior for overseeing the end of the cold war and Clinton for his commitment to an inclusive globalization.

Until now. George W. Bush has managed to do what forty-five years of Communist rule could not: puncture the image of essential American goodness that has always been the United States' key selling point. Polish journalists now ask questions like, "How can we explain America's transformation from a country that introduced international law to one that intervenes militarily wherever it likes?" Or, more plaintively: "Does it really pay to be America's friend?" It is an astonishing turnabout: In more than twenty-five years of traveling to Poland I have never heard these kinds of criticisms.

The Iraq war has been the turning point. Poland was one of America's most zealous supporters, the leader of what Defense Secretary Rumsfeld dubbed the "new Europe." Unlike the situation in other supportive European countries, all major political parties supported the war. People elsewhere argued over whether Iraq really had weapons of mass destruction, but in Poland the calculus was more simple: America requested our help, so we gave it.

Both idealists and realists supported this approach. As a result of its Communist experience, Poland has a high number of so-called "liberal idealists" who share the American neoconservative view that force should be used against tyranny to bring about democracy. Adam Michnik and his mainstay liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza were the chief proponents of this view. "Violence and fanaticism are challenging the democratic world," Michnik wrote at the outset of the war, justifying unequivocal support of America's actions: "We do not accept the peaceful road for the criminals of September 11 and their allies."

Conservative-minded realists also supported giving President Bush carte blanche. Precisely because so many others opposed the war, they said, supporting it will earn us thanks from America and the dollars that go with that. According to Maciej Letowski, a prominent right-wing thinker, an imperial America needs strategic allies in key spots around the world, and Poland had a historic chance to become one. If it did, it would "achieve a goal which otherwise, with our meager resources, would be impossible: to become a regional power." In this view, Poland should aim to become the Britain of the East--the unfailing vassal of the superpower in all its various causes.

With such broad support, the government didn't even put its war plans up for parliamentary discussion. Poland sent 2,400 troops, more than any country except Britain and Italy, and led a multinational occupation force numbering nearly 10,000 troops.

Less than two years later, however, both these positions justifying eager support for America are in tatters, their proponents feeling disillusioned, if not betrayed. The liberals are the most deeply disappointed, precisely because they had the most hopes. For behind their strong support for the American invasion of Iraq was the conviction that America would be able to do as it said. "If they said they could topple Saddam and install a democracy," Marek Beylin, chief of the editorial section of Gazeta Wyborcza, told me, "we figured they must know what they're doing, particularly since they'd been working on it for so long. But it seems we were naïve. It turns out they had no idea what to do with the Shiites, the Kurds, the resistance, the infrastructure. A superpower should be able to do this! That it can't do it--this changes all our calculations."

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."

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."

But things are beginning to change. Roman Kuzniar, director of the Diplomatic Academy in Poland's Foreign Ministry, recently denounced his country's "unconditional, unreflective and unequivocal" support for the United States in a war "that is contrary to our national interests." Aleksander Smolar, another leading strategic thinker, says Poland's policies have left it isolated in Europe and taken for granted in America, and calls for a thorough change of course. Smolar also argues that this uncritical pro-Americanism has debased the great emancipatory legacy of the recent anti-Communist revolutions: "We used to talk so much about 'living in truth,' yet now we give moral support to a policy based from the very beginning on lies."

Smolar is a strong supporter of a US presence in Europe. Kuzniar was once booted out of the Foreign Ministry because he was said to be too pro-American. Even the former Polish director of Radio Free Europe cautions the country against "blind pro-Americanism." And that's the point: These views are coming not from the usual critics but from the usual supporters of America. They're upset precisely because they're so pro-American. They want America to be better than this. They need America to be better than this. They fear that President Bush's policies will stir up a popular anti-Americanism that they want at all costs to avoid. But they need an honesty and sense of loyalty from the United States that this Administration has been unwilling to supply.

Adam Michnik once quipped that "Poland is more pro-American than America is." Bush has changed that. Poland has already hinted that it will reduce its Iraq contingent next year; public pressure may force it to do so sooner. What about the future? When I asked Beylin, one of the country's key opinion-forming journalists, what will happen if a re-elected Bush turns to Poland for help in a new war against Syria or Iran, he visibly recoiled. "We wouldn't do it. Not this time. If it's a UN or NATO operation, perhaps. But like Iraq? No, that's not happening again."

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