“Losing the New Europe”

Continuing on the subject of the Polish military involvement in Iraq, prompted by the first Polish combat death last Thursday, in today’s Rzeczpospolita there is a longer, and more thoughtful, opinion piece (Big Disappointment) from Radek Sikorski. Sikorski works in Washington at the American Enterprise Institute, where he is director of something called the “New Atlantic Initiative.” His commentary article first appeared in the Washington Post last Friday, 7 November, and was in its original, English form entitled “Losing the New Europe.” But unless you pay for access to the WP archives (which I don’t), it’s not accessible. Luckily, if you can read Polish, you can still access it at Rzeczpospolita’s site.

Here’s what Sikorski has to say. Up to now, Washington has been able to count on Eastern Europe to an extraordinary degree when it came to Iraq – naturally, much more than it has been able to count on Western Europe (think Germany and France). But this is no surprise: Washington has consistently been more supportive of Eastern Europe (particularly Poland) throughout the twentieth century, from Woodrow Wilson’s insistence on self-determination after World War I which led to the creation of Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc. in the first place, to Ronald Reagan’s generally less-accommodating attitude to the Soviet “Evil Empire” during the Cold War. And this is now reflected in the Eastern European troops which are now in Iraq supporting the Americans – Poles, mainly, but also Ukrainians and other soldiers from Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, and Latvia.

But now, Sikorski warns, American is in danger of losing that support from Eastern Europe that it thinks it can take for granted. Of course, the main reality it must struggle against is the disapproval on the part of most of the electorates of the countries mentioned above towards the deployment of their troops in Iraq. So far, it seems that governments can basically ignore such sentiments, keep their troops in Iraq, and still survive. But some serious complaints are building up that could place that support in jeopardy, and which may ultimately make it disappear.

Not all of these complaints have to do with Iraq directly. But all of them concern the gap between how one would think such (up to now) loyal allies should be treated, versus the way the Bush administration seems to be taking them for granted:

1) Iraq contracts: So far there is no sign of Eastern European firms sharing in the contract bonanza connected with the rebuilding of Iraq. This despite the fact that, back in the bad old days, Bulgarian and Polish specialists were thick on the ground there, building roads, factories, and the like for Saddam’s regime. (OK, so Eastern European companies may have special experience in working in Iraq. Is it really an endorsement that they worked so well in the pay of Saddam Hussein? And I find it interesting that Sikorski lists first this complaint about contracts, about basically being able to cash in on Iraq. Has the Polish participation in Iraq been a money-making exercise all along? Did Maj. Kupczyk die for Polish business?)

2) US military help: The US was supposed to help Eastern European armed forces modernize themselves so as to better meet NATO standards. This isn’t happening, so that Eastern European governments are having to invest out of their own resources “to finance the operation in Iraq.” (Really? I doubt this is wholly accurate. I seem to recall that there is substantial American financial assistance involved in the presence of the multi-national (Polish-headed) division in Iraq. Now, concerning assistance for modernizing Eastern European forces back home, the complaint is probably true – the American military now has more-urgent demands on its money.)

3) Immigration: American immigration authorities hardly treat Eastern European nationals as allies in the war against terrorism. Americans get into most Eastern European nations visa-free, but the reverse is hardly true. And there are reports all the time of Eastern Europeans being deported from the US. (By the way, many of those caught in the raids for undocumented workers at Wal-Mart were apparently from Eastern Europe. This is my addition, not from Sikorski.)

4) America is getting buddy-buddy with Russia, and that also annoys Eastern Europeans. As Sikorski reports, following a recent summit with Vladimir Putin, President Bush praised Putin’s “vision” of Russia as country of flourishing democracy, freedom, and rule of law. Eastern Europeans, having suffered in Russia shadow for centuries, know rather better the true situation – and they always remember Yalta, where in their view the US withdrew its involvement and left them to suffer for fifty years in the Soviet Empire.

Finally, Sikorski points to the imminent entry of most Eastern European nations into the EU next May. The Western Europeans are coming, with their regulations but also their technical assistance, their scholarships, and their money. Particularly in view of this, Washington will keep up the taking-for-granted of its Eastern European allies at its own peril.

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