I think it is more important to stand with your proven friend than try to curry favor with adversaries who have shown little inclination to cooperate in the past. America has few friends as steadfast as Poland. Polish support for our country goes back before the revolution, when Kosciuszko and Pulaski came to fight along with George Washington just because they loved liberty.
Yet Poland was devoured by its neighbors, Austria, Prussia and Russia, and it remained an imprisoned nation for 123 years. Rebirth came in 1918, at the end of World War I, but it was not an easy time. About two decades later, Nazi armies invaded Poland from the west and the Soviets stabbed them in the back from the east. This happened on September 17, 1939. Remember that date.
Although Poland was conquered again devoured, partitioned by the two extremes of revolutionary socialism, Poles fought back. The Nazis lost more troops invading Poland than they did conquering France in the next year and the Poles never gave up. Great heroes like Jan Karski and Jan Nowak-Jeziorański (I had the privilege of meeting both these heroes) warned Franklin Roosevelt about the holocaust and what the Nazis were doing in their conquered territories. Although Poland was under the Nazi jackboot, Polish soldiers fought in all the allied armies. Polish pilots were crucial during the Battle of Britain. Poles served with Americans at Monte Casino and Arnhem. They always took heavy casualties, fighting bravely and – frankly – being used more freely as cannon fodder. Had Polish soldiers been counted, they would have made up the fourth largest army in the Allied camp.
In September 1944, the Polish home army rose against the Nazi occupiers. Stalin halted his advance, hoping to allow the Nazis to kill off Polish patriots. He thought it would slow him down for a couple of days. The Poles held out for months. The Nazis completely destroyed Warsaw and murdered hundreds of thousands. But the Red Army was halted on the Vistula long enough to lose the campaigning season. This had the unexpected effect of holding Stalin back, allowing American and British troops to advance to the Elbe. Had Stalin not slowed, he may have reached the Rhine, making the post war Soviet tyranny much more powerful and dangerous.
After World War II, Poland fell into the Soviet sphere and they suffered in that communist purgatory until 1989. The iron curtain cracked in Poland. Solidarity pushed the communist to the wall and then the Poles elected a non-communist government. But they still didn’t feel secure in their new freedom. They wanted to have friends and allies. They became NATO allies in 1999 and proved their worth. Polish troops served in the Balkans and they fought and died along side us in Iraq. They also agreed to support us with missile defense on their land. I suppose not everyone is as grateful to them as I am. Maybe some actually hold it against them. It is a fault in our system that we sometimes identify America’s friends as connected with particular American leaders or their policies.
Remember that September 17, 1939 date? On September 17, 2009 we decided to pull out of an agreement to deploy missile defense in Poland.
We made a big effort to help secure Central Europe. It was a success of both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Security is as often about perceptions as it is about capabilities. If an adversary believes the cost of aggression will be great and he refrains from aggression you win w/o spending the blood and treasure needed to fight the real war.
We sometimes think the age of aggression is over. The Poles have a more tragic history than we do and they are not as certain as some of us might be.
As I wrote at the beginning, it is better to stand with proven friends. You cannot make friend with everybody. Some people and some regimes are just playing a zero sum game with us. If we give; they take and ask for more. They are “satisfied” only when they reach the limits of what they can grab. If you give you can be asked to give again. It is not impossible to reach agreements or to live together in peace and mutual respect. But that respect must be mutual. One-way respect is just for chumps.
I recommend a good article by Ron Asmus, one of President Clinton’s smartest advisers in the Washington Post.