- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 21, 2009

UPDATED:

WARSAW — The Obama administration reached a new agreement Wednesday with top Polish government officials to place a new generation of missile interceptors on Polish soil, a surprising turnabout from just a few weeks earlier when it appeared the United States was ready to abandon its missile defense program in Eastern Europe.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk emerged from a lengthy private discussion to announce that Poland’s participation in the missile defense system was, essentially, back on — though in a new format that involves delivering a smaller number of defensive weapons in 2018.

Mr. Tusk said through a translator that he considered the revised proposal “a very interesting idea.”

“We are ready to participate in this project,” he said.

The hastily arranged vice presidential trip, which also will include stops in Romania and the Czech Republic this week, was intended to soothe relations and reassure the fledgling NATO members that the missile program was not being scrapped, and that the evolving policy should not be viewed as a snub or a weakening of U.S. security commitments to states in the region.

Mr. Biden had his work cut out for him. For starters, Poland and former Warsaw Pact nations once dominated by the Soviet Union already were feeling uneasy about the bilateral discussions between the United States and Russia. Then Mr. Obama, with no warning, announced the shift in missile policy on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Poland, the wrong day for a country that remains deeply sensitive about its history with major world powers on its borders.

Placing defensive weapons in Poland and radar systems in the Czech Republic had been a program pushed aggressively by the George W. Bush administration, even though the plan raised strong objections from Russia, which argued the system could in time be used to undermine Moscow’s nuclear arsenal deterrent. Polish officials came to welcome the idea, less for the military value of the weapons than for the added security of having an American military presence within their borders.

The vice president gamely waded into the sticky diplomatic situation, pouring on the charm as his meeting with Polish President Lech Kaczynski ran more than 30 minutes over its scheduled length. “When two old friends get together, they tend to talk,” a smiling Mr. Biden said afterward.

Mr. Kaczynski described the conversation as “a source of optimism to me.” While “there are some difficulties” still to discuss regarding missile defense, “we hope they will be resolved,” he said.

In joint remarks with the prime minister, Mr. Biden did everything he could to convey America’s resolute support for the security of Poland.

Noting NATO’s collective security pledge, Mr. Biden said: “An attack on one is an attack on all. And this strategic assurance is absolute. Absolute, Mr. Prime Minister.”

“Make no mistake about it,” he continued, “our commitment to Poland is unwavering.”

Toby Gati, a senior adviser on Russia and Eurasia in the Clinton White House, said that the outcome of the visit was favorable for the Poles.

“The Poles are going to do just fine under the new missile defense plans,” she said. “They were smart not to make a fuss and fight the Obama administration, but instead to try to figure out ways to enhance their security with the ‘new guys in charge.’”

The Kremlin, meanwhile, may end up having “buyer’s remorse,” she said.

“Yes, they got rid of the system Bush put forward, which they no doubt consider a political victory, but from the point of view of a U.S. ‘presence’ and a possible threat to Russia, as the pieces of the system are integrated, this system may be of much greater concern,” Mrs. Gati said. “Unless, of course, we and the Russians do eventually cooperate on missile defense.”

The vice president also delivered to the Polish leaders the first broad outlines of the Obama administration’s approach to Central and Eastern Europe, telling them that, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States now viewed the former Warsaw Pact nations as equal partners.

As much as the visit was intended to look forward, Mr. Biden did make a brief detour to lay a wreath at the Warsaw Ghetto Monument, a stone edifice erected in 1948 in the memory of the Jews who rose up against the Nazis and those who were marched off to death.

In a light drizzle under an overcast sky, Mr. Biden quietly greeted two local rabbis, one of whom stood with a cane, in a corner of the cobblestone square where the monument stands. In a dark suit and no overcoat, he then walked with a Polish military officer to the center of the square. Surrounded by 14 Polish soldiers in military-issue coats, most holding raised rifles, Mr. Biden and his escort stood frozen as a bugle sounded. A snare drum snapped off a slow march, and the two took deliberate steps toward the 20-foot monument, which depicts resistance fighters gripping hand grenades.

Polish soldiers placed a wreath of crimson roses at the base. A sash across the wreath read, “In memory of the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.” The bugler played taps as Mr. Biden held his hand over his heart. As he walked quietly away, a group of 10 Jewish schoolgirls sang an Israeli folk song. The vice president flashed a quick smile and waved at the schoolchildren before returning to the motorcade.

Jon Ward contributed to this story from Washington.

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