- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 29, 2020

The dream of a bricks-and-mortar homage to President Trump in Poland is dead, and its proponents now are downplaying that it was ever on the table in the first place.

Talk of a “Fort Trump,” a permanent U.S. military base that the Polish government appeared eager to pay for when the idea was first floated in 2018, has been definitively replaced by a much broader defense pact. Under the bilateral Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed in August, the U.S. will increase its rotational military presence in the strategically vital European nation on Russia’s western border to about 5,500 troops.

Even as Mr. Trump moves to overhaul the U.S. troop presence in Germany and other parts of Europe, the Pentagon says it is taking other steps to solidify an American footprint in Poland, including moving hundreds of U.S. Army V Corps soldiers from Kentucky to a new overseas headquarters in the Polish city of Poznan.

But the EDCA did not mention a new physical military base in Poland. That concept seems to have been pushed to the back burner during negotiations in 2019.

Polish officials now say “Fort Trump” was always more of a symbolic construct than a real-life structure and was intended as a catchall term to describe an increased U.S. military commitment to the country since Mr. Trump took office four years ago.

“The name ‘Fort Trump’ was a rhetorical musing aimed at succinctly describing what Poland aimed to achieve within the realm of national security — a permanent U.S. military presence in Poland and a larger presence in the region,” the Polish Embassy in Washington said in a statement to The Washington Times. “The name did not appear in any official documents or agreements signed between Poland and the United States, such as the [EDCA] signed on Aug. 15, 2020.

“The agreements and declarations that were signed between our two countries do not specify a single location where American troops will be stationed, but rather presume a distribution of various military units throughout multiple locations in Poland,” the statement said.

But leaders from both countries talked openly about a real-world Fort Trump, a term some former Pentagon officials say Poland employed as a way of currying favor with a brand-conscious U.S. president whose name already adorns buildings around the world from his days as a developer and investor.

In September 2018, Mr. Trump met with Polish President Andrzej Duda at the White House. At that time, it certainly appeared that both men were discussing a permanent U.S. base and genuinely believed such an idea was workable.

“I was smiling when talking to Mr. President,” Mr. Duda told reporters about the meeting. “I said that I would very much like for us to set up a permanent American base in Poland which we would call Fort Trump.”

“And,” he added, “I firmly believe that this is possible.”

Mr. Trump then said the Polish government offered $2 billion to help pay for the base.

“He would pay the United States, meaning Poland would be paying billions of dollars for a base,” the American president said. “We’re looking at that more and more from the standpoint of defending really wealthy countries.”

Defense officials also spoke of the idea as if it would involve U.S. troops stationed at one location permanently, a long-sought policy goal of Warsaw but one that was likely to upset military planners in the Kremlin.

“What we’re doing right now is with Poland, alongside Poland. We’re examining what land they’re talking about,” then-Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters just days after the Trump-Duda meeting. “A base has also got adjacent close-in additional requirements for maintenance, for test flights, for test drive, test-firing.

“So the first thing we have to do is look at what are they offering,” he said.

U.S. officials stress that the underlying concept of a permanent base in Poland could be discussed in the future.

‘You don’t have to kiss up’

Ironically, some former defense officials say that the idea of a ramped-up U.S. military presence in Poland has been widely popular within both Republican and Democratic national security circles for years. But the term “Fort Trump,” they say, muddied the waters and adds unnecessary politics to the equation.

“Towards the end of my tenure there, we were already … considering ideas for Poland. We were thinking we need to do more in Poland,” said Jim Townsend, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration. “The whole Fort Trump thing — it was kissing up to Trump. But what made a lot of the professionals upset is that you don’t have to kiss up. These are things we feel we need to do. You don’t need to go in there and humiliate yourself.”

Mr. Townsend said he and other former defense officials celebrated the unveiling of the EDCA in August, believing a stronger presence in Poland is good for American national security and a strong deterrent against an increasingly aggressive Russia.

The State Department said the agreement serves as an outline of the legal status of U.S. forces in the country and gives them access to Polish military installations during their time there.

The deal also “provides a mechanism for the sharing of logistical and infrastructure costs for U.S. forces present in Poland,” the State Department said, addressing Mr. Trump’s demand that all NATO countries spend at least 2% of their budgets on defense.

“This administration has a strong record on getting partners to increase their investment in our collective defense, ensure fairer burden-sharing, and getting the best deal for the American people through a variety of agreements with our allies and partners,” a State Department spokesperson told The Washington Times. “The Trump administration has prioritized this issue. For example, the president has pushed NATO allies to meet the alliance’s 2% of GDP on defense spending guideline, which has resulted in more than $100 billion in new defense spending.”

Indeed, at least eight NATO nations out of 30 total are now spending 2% or more of their gross domestic product on defense. Mr. Trump is widely credited with raising the pressure on allies to spend more.

In addition to the bigger rotational troop presence, the Army 5th Corps’ last week officially opened its forward headquarters in the Polish city of Poznan, underscoring the deepening military partnership between the countries.

At the same time, the U.S. at Mr. Trump’s instruction is reducing its footprint in Germany. After a surprise presidential tweet, the Pentagon this year announced that it would pull more than 10,000 troops from Germany, redeploy some to other locations in Europe and bring some back home.

Defense officials said the moves were made with European security in mind, though critics argued that Mr. Trump was simply seeking payback because Germany had not met the 2% spending threshold.

It’s unclear whether the incoming Biden administration will allow all of those moves to continue on schedule.

Poland has proved a rare welcome destination for Mr. Trump in Europe, with enthusiastic crowds greeting his visit there in the summer of 2017, his first year in office. The conservative government shares Mr. Trump’s unease with the leading powers of the European Union, and Mr. Duda was given an Oval Office visit in June just days before Poland’s general elections.

“I don’t believe we have ever been as close to Poland as we are now,” Mr. Trump said at the Oval Office gathering.

Mr. Duda congratulated Mr. Biden on his “campaign” when it was projected that the Democrat would win earlier this month, but Warsaw is on the dwindling list of world capitals that has not formally congratulated Mr. Biden as president-elect as Mr. Trump continues to contest the election.

Official acknowledgement by the conservative government still “depends on the political and legal developments in the United States itself,” Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau told a Polish radio interviewer last week, even after the General Services Administration gave the green light for a transition process to begin.

Even so, Polish officials project confidence that bilateral ties will remain strong, assuming the more liberal Biden administration does take office in January.

“We hope that our positive relationship and defense cooperation with the current U.S. administration will continue into the incoming administration,” the Polish Embassy said in its statement. “Poland is a country that has, over the course of the past few decades since the end of the Cold War, been staunchly pro-American and pro-transatlantic, irrespective of the various U.S. administrations’ political leanings.

“I believe that our partnership is above political divisions,” Mr. Duda said at the EDCA ratification ceremony at the Presidential Palace this month. “We are waiting for the new U.S. president to take office.”

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

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