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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."

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