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Is Poland America's donkey or could it become NATO's horse?



May 8th 2003
From The Economist print edition

Polish-American diplomacy may be deepening the divisions in Europe-or paving the way to a post-Iraq rapprochement


WHEN Donald Rumsfeld, America's defence secretary, made his quip about "new Europe", the concept looked more like a diplomatic crutch than a geopolitical reality. When most of the countries he had in mind signed on the dotted line in support of America's stance on Iraq, Jacques Chirac, France's president, chastised them like naughty adolescents. Now the new Europeansat least, quite a few of themseem to be putting their troops, as well as their land and airspace, where their mouths were. On the face of it, that might deepen Europe's divisions. Or it might help spur greater NATO involvement in Iraq and serve to heal those divisions.

The Poles are the vanguard of these Atlanticist whipper-snappers. Poland, which joined NATO in 1999 and is easily the beefiest (at least in population and area) of those set to join the EU next year, sent around 200 troops to fight in Iraq. A little improbably, it is now set to oversee one of the four sectors into which the Americans seem likely to divide the conquered country. The idea was floated last week when Jerzy Szmajdzinski, Poland's defence minister, visited Mr Rumsfeld in Washington. The Poles would like the UN to pass a new Iraqi resolution to bless the operation, but would probably go in without one—so long as America and others agree to pay.

Alexander Kwasniewski, Poland's president, will have some explaining to do when he gets together with Gerhard Schröder, Germany's chancellor, and Mr Chirac, in the Polish city of Wroclaw on May 9th, for what ought to have been a bridge-rebuilding mini-summit. It had begun to seem possible that Germany might take part in the peacekeeping effort, despite concerns that doing so might lend retrospective approval to the war itself. Peter Struck, Germany's defence minister, has been fence-mending in Washington.

But he says he found out that German troops might soon serve in Iraq, conceivably under Polish command, only when he heard it on the news; one of several tentative plans is to deploy a joint Polish-Danish-German force, now based in Szczezin, in Iraq. Germany has keenly sponsored Polish membership of both NATO and the EU, and some Germans resent the Poles' contrarian and (as they see it) hubristic behaviour over Iraq. A commentator in a leading German newspaper this week describes Poland as America's "Trojan donkey". Another calls the Poles "insolent".

Several other new Europeans have flirted with America over Iraq, with a view to cosier relations. For example, Romania and Bulgaria let their bases be used as staging posts. Both are in line to join NATO; and both are keen for America to set up new permanent bases on their territory. In particular, they would like to be beneficiaries of a reorganisation of American bases in Europe, which may involve closing some in Germany and creating new ones further east, whatever Russia's moans.

There are some good strategic reasons for such a move. With the cold war over, it makes sense to concentrate American power nearer the Middle East and Central Asia, as well as the Balkans. General James Jones, the American commander in Europe, prefers lighter, expeditionary deployments to hulking installations with thousands of dependants (around 80,000 in Germany, along with the 71,000 troops still based there). Some Germans resent the Americans anyway, and Germany is expensive, though so is moving. For all that, some American congressmen see this revision of America's military posture as punishment for Germany's supposed perfidy over Iraq and a reward for its eastern neighbours' loyalty.

Watch it, you oldies
All this looks bad for some "old" Europeans. Every offer of support from newcomers (as well as from oldies such as Spaniards, Italians and Danes) for Iraq's reconstruction helps make the American-led campaign seem more than just a quixotic Anglo-Saxon crusade and serves to isolate the rejectionists, some of whom are concluding that the Americans are trying to divide and rule (or at least marginalise) the Europeans. An American pull-out from Germany would be a huge political snub to an old ally, and cost thousands of jobs.

In fact, a lot of the Americans are likely to stay put (at Ramstein air base, for instance). And Poland's adventure in Iraq could, in the end, help heal the divisions within Europe, and between Europe and America, rather than exacerbate them.

Germany, far more than France, is currently trying to scramble off the hook on which its pre-war diplomacy over Iraq landed it. And America, while pleased that the Poles and others are offering to lend a hand in Iraq, would prefer to have a more substantial, multilateral imprimatur for their endeavours. Ideally, if the terms suited, it would come from the UN.

But there are other possibilities. Poland and the other new Europeans could help both sides out by drawing other NATO countries in. It is understandable, given their country's history, that the Poles are enjoying punching above their weight and being fęted by President George Bush (who may visit them soon) and Mr Rumsfeld. At the same time, they are already stressing that they want European countries to share the burden. The 1,500-2,200 Polish soldiers that are being talked about for Iraq are hardly enough for the job.

In due course that may mean a NATO involvement in Iraq. If the Poles were to request NATO's help, some fellow members might be more accommodating than they would be to a direct American request. The Poles, who care about NATO and America's commitment to it more than some other members, would like to prove to the Americans that NATO still has its uses, despite recent form. Something similar has happened in Afghanistan, where NATO has eventually assumed a big role. So Poland may yet turn out to be NATO's Trojan horse rather than America's donkey.


12 maj 2003

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