- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2018

For a man who built a billion-dollar brand around the use of his name on everything from steaks to casinos and high-rises before coming to the White House, President Trump is now looking at a potential military deal with Poland he will find hard to refuse.

The Polish government’s request for a permanent U.S. base in their country — a facility they would call “Fort Trump” and have vowed to pay some $2 billion toward — is the latest example of how some Eastern European countries are rushing to cozy up to Mr. Trump while relationships deteriorate between the American president and traditional European powers such as France and Germany.

Regional analysts say Poland’s political leadership sees Mr. Trump as an ally on issues such as national sovereignty and migration, and wants to use that ideological alignment to permanently cement its relationship with the U.S. in the security realm.

But the offer of “Fort Trump” does come with significant policy strings. Its bilateral nature would represent a fundamental change in the U.S. military’s traditionally broader approach toward European defense.

There also are sensitive geopolitical implications. The base would surely deepen tensions between Washington and Moscow because Warsaw is making no secret of its desire to use it for ironclad protection against potential Russian military aggression.

The deal on the table would be a direct U.S.-Polish agreement that wouldn’t necessarily go through formal NATO channels. Regional analysts say that prospect could put the U.S. directly on the hook for long-term costs and responsibilities of defending Poland.

That factor may not sit well with Mr. Trump, who has consistently urged NATO member states — Poland has been once since 1999 — to shoulder more of the financial burden for their own security.

“Accepting the Polish offer without doing it through NATO would mean more direct U.S. resources for European defense without any matching investment by other NATO allies. This is counter to Trump’s priority to make NATO allies less dependent on U.S. military assistance,” Jorge Benitez, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, recently told the German-based news organization Deutsche Welle.

“Building a U.S. base in Poland would be a step in the opposite direction,” said Mr. Benitez. “It would make the U.S. unilaterally more responsible for security near NATO’s borders with Russia.”

Enticing Trump

The proposal was first laid out by Polish officials over the summer and reiterated by Polish President Andrzej Duda during a visit to the White House last week. Poland has offered to pay up to $2 billion for the construction and operation of the base. Pentagon officials, who are still weighing the offer, haven’t said whether that amount would cover all necessary construction costs.

During a joint press conference with Mr. Trump, Mr. Duda cast the idea as a way for the U.S. to fulfill its role as a “guarantor of security in our part of Europe.” He also offered Mr. Trump the chance to put his name on the facility — a potentially appealing proposition for a president whose moniker already adorns hotels, golf courses, resorts and other properties around the world.

“I’m convinced that this cooperation between Poland and the United States will go on smoothly. I hope that Mr. President will make a decision to deploy to Poland more U.S. units, together with equipment,” the Polish president said. “I said that I would very much like for us to set up permanent American bases in Poland, which we would call ‘Fort Trump.’ And I firmly believe that this is possible. I am convinced that such a decision lies both in the Polish interest as well as in the interest of the United States.”

Mr. Trump seemed to welcome the idea, especially since it includes the upfront payment of at least $2 billion. He drew a distinction between Poland’s request and what he argues are freeloading countries such as Germany that rely on U.S. defenses but don’t contribute enough to NATO.

The president has called on all NATO nations to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, a figure many have yet to meet.

“He would pay the United States, meaning Poland would be paying billions of dollars for a base,” Mr. Trump said. “And we’re looking at that more and more from the standpoint of defending really wealthy countries and not being reimbursed, paid.”

Common values

Analysts say there are other reasons Poland is seeking to bolster its ties with the Trump administration. A host of Eastern European leaders in recent months have openly fretted about the burgeoning German-Russian relationship, exemplified by the close cooperation between those countries on the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

The massive project would circumvent most of Europe and deliver gas straight to Germany from Russia by way of the Baltic Sea. It would represent a serious joint economic endeavor between the two nations and likely make Europe far more dependent on Russian gas, with Germany in a position to earn money from the dependence by acting as the distribution hub for the fuel.

The Trump administration vehemently opposes Nord Stream 2.

On a separate front, Poland sees in Mr. Trump someone who shares a common view with respect to national sovereignty, national identity, strong borders, a slowdown of migration and support for tough domestic policies.

Poland has instituted controversial reforms giving political leaders more control over the judicial system.

Analysts say Warsaw has been heartened that such moves have received little pushback from the Trump administration, even as the European Union has responded with legal challenges and criticism has soared from others in the international community.

The perception of common values with Mr. Trump — coupled with a desire for a greater U.S. military footprint in Eastern Europe — has presented what Warsaw sees as a golden opportunity.

“It’s a combination of Poland’s highest priority, to strengthen its security … and they see an administration that is not pressing very hard on Poland’s dramatic changes to its judicial system,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Both Warsaw and Washington have a very strong message on sovereignty,” Ms. Conley told The Washington Times. “There is just a shared worldview on a whole variety of issues, which is what makes Warsaw want to seize this moment to try to cement the relationship as much as possible.”

As for the military base itself, Pentagon leaders say they are still reviewing the proposal.

“The first thing is we have to do is look at what they’re offering. Because then you would size up what it can actually hold and sustain. We’re in the exploratory phase of doing just that,” Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters this week. “We’re greatly appreciative of the Polish offer.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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