Future of the Missile Defense Project in Poland Uncertain Under an Obama Administration

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska, Polish Daily News and FI2W reporter

Polish President Lech Kaczynski speaks to Barack Obama.

Polish President Kaczynski - Photo: Polish Presidency.

The first phone conversation between Polish president Lech Kaczynski and U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, which took place the Friday after the election, has already caused diplomatic confusion, as apparently they had different understandings of what was said.

The next day, President Kaczynski issued a statement on his Polish-language website saying that Obama “emphasized the importance of the strategic partnership of Poland and the United States and expressed hope in the continuation of political and military cooperation between our countries. He also said that the missile-defense project would continue.”

The last sentence, however, was removed the next day after a quick reaction from Obama’s staff.

“President Kaczynski raised missile defense, but President-elect Obama made no commitment on it,” said Obama’s senior foreign policy advisor Denis McDonough. “His position is, as it was throughout the campaign, that he supports deploying a missile-defense system when the technology is proved to be workable.”

The misunderstanding quickly became fuel for comments in the Polish media.

The second-largest Polish newspaper, left-leaning Gazeta Wyborcza, which is often critical of the conservative Kaczynski, interpreted a memo by Obama’s top foreign policy advisers Tony Lake and Susan Rice as a reaction to that conversation.

As reported by Politico, in the memo sent out to all of Obama’s foreign policy advisers, Lake and Rice wrote: “We ask each of you please do not under any circumstances speak to the press, any foreign officials, or embassies on behalf of the transition or President-elect Obama. (…) It would be highly damaging for foreign government or media to receive information that they believe falsely to represent the views of the President-elect.”

At the same time, the Polish minister of Foreign Affairs Radek Sikorski, who signed the agreement on the missile-defense system with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said recently that in his opinion the chances of proceeding with the installation are currently more than fifty percent.

Some experts point out that the project may never be realized.

One of them is Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, academic dean and professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, and a strong critic of Obama.

“The United states lacks consistency and continuity in its foreign policy because each new American administration endeavors to leave its own imprint on international affairs,” Chodakiewicz said.

On the other hand, each ascendant regime inherits the legacy of the previous U.S. government, including its mistakes, and, to a large extent, becomes its captive. Further, the nature of federal bureaucracy guarantees that past projects continue by the force of inertia for a while before they are scraped by the incoming team. Thus, the missile defense project will plod on until, or if, it is terminated. The question, for both the United States and Poland, is whether the missile defense system is in their national interest.

During his entire campaign, Obama expressed his skepticism over the defense system and as early as January of this year, in an interview with Nowy Dziennik-The Polish Daily News, he questioned the logic of installing the system before its technology is fully tested.

Obama also underlined that even though this initiative posed no threat to Russia, Moscow should be fully informed about the plan.

The Polish government agreed to install U.S. missiles on its territory in exchange for the promise of help with the modernization of its army. The agreement was signed in August. It calls for the installation of ten interceptors against a possible missile attack from Iran.

Earlier this year, the Czech Republic agreed to install U.S. radar on its territory that would also be part of the system. The agreement infuriated Russia. The day after Obama’s victory, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned that Russia may move short-range missiles close to its borders with NATO allies.

President George W. Bush wanted to start the construction of the system before he left office and have it completed by 2012. This seems unlikely considering the financial crisis and the objections of many Democrats, especially the president-elect. Further testing could also delay construction for many years.

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