Sometimes even a symbolic gesture carries a lot of weight, and the US’ decision to station troops and Patriot missiles in Poland, however minimal, is meant to stave off Polish defense fears and save political face.
Last week, Polish and US officials announced that they had agreed on terms for stationing US troops in Poland, paving the way for the deployment of a US Patriot missile battery in Poland next year.
The signing of the "status of forces" agreement (SOFA), which should take place next month, has been the last stumbling block toward fulfilling a pledge by the Bush administration to upgrade Poland's air defenses in return for basing 10 long-range missile interceptors in the northern part of the country.
The missile interceptors and the connected placement of a radar station in the Czech Republic were part of a proposed US missile defense system that Washington said could be used to defend against ‘rogue’ states such as Iran. In September, US President Barack Obama shelved the plans, eliciting fears in Poland that the Patriot deal might meet the same fate.
Detractors, however, have said the latest decision is only part of an elaborate face-saving strategy to make up for all the political capital expended by leaders in Poland and the Czech Republic to push forward the missile defense plan, which was unpopular among the general public.
Some critics claim that one battery won’t provide any real defense and represents far less than what Poland was hoping for: a permanent structure that would guarantee US troops year-round (and not just rotating in from the Patriot battery in Germany).
Those arguments, however, understate the significance of getting any American soldiers on Polish soil for any length of time. At this point, more important is the psychological effect and the indication that finally, after many false starts and unrealized hopes, Poland and the US will have a special relationship.
Yes, a majority of Poles were opposed to stationing any part of the missile shield in their country, but at least some of the naysayers were only expressing their disappointment that the country's sacrifices for the US hadn't yet provided more tangible benefits.
In return for Poland's leading role in policing post-invasion Iraq, the country's citizens had expected a wave of business contracts to be awarded to Polish firms for reconstruction projects, the end of visas for Poles wishing to visit the US, and other perks for a loyal ally.
Instead, Polish companies hardly benefited in the aftermath of the war, and Poles are still waiting to join the US’ Visa Waiver Program, which was embarrassingly expanded last year to include the other Visegrad states, as well as the three Baltic countries, but not Poland.
And chances are that this first battery might only be a prelude to a more substantial arrangement in the future: US Defense Secretary Robert Gates is on record as saying the US would like to deploy SM-3 missiles in Poland and the neighboring Czech Republic by 2015, part of the revamped Obama missile plan.
All of that can’t come soon enough for the many Poles alarmed by reports last month that Russia and Belarus had engaged in nuclear war games in September that included a simulated landing on a Polish beach - another ‘symbolic’ gesture if there ever was one.
ISN Security Watch