Polish Americans Divided on US-Poland Missile Agreement

Polish Americans and Polish immigrants living in the US offered a variety of reactions to the missile shield agreement signed this week by the US and Poland. According to US officials the 10 interceptor missiles to be placed on Polish soil are intended to protect the US and its allies from an attack by a rogue state such as Iran.

As part of the deal the Bush administration also agreed to the placement in Poland of a Patriot missile battery – a short-range missile system that theoretically could be used in case of Russia’s attack. Moreover, as the New York Times reported, the deal came with a promise that, “at least temporarily American soldiers would staff air sites in Poland oriented towards Russia, and that the United States would be obliged to defend Poland in case of an attack with greater speed than required under NATO, of which Poland is a member.” The agreement came soon after Russia invaded Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet Union, and a close American ally.

The move infuriated Russia. Shortly after the deal was announced a top Russian general, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, said that Poland risks a military attack, possibly even nuclear, for agreeing to host a US missile defense system on its territory. “Such targets are destroyed as a first priority,” he warned.

It sounded all too familiar to Poles, who, still remembering the times when their country was a Soviet satellite, almost felt a gust of the Cold War era.

A street survey conducted by Nowy Dziennik, the Polish Daily News on August 19th in the traditionally Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn found roughly as many supporters as opponents to the deal.

“Everybody will have to respect Poland, and in case it gets attacked, the US will react as well,” said Zenon Wolak of Greenpoint. “What happened in Georgia, would not happen in Poland if the missile defense system is installed.”

Professor John Micgiel, the director of the East Central European Center at Columbia University, said in a phone interview that, “ this is a good deal for Poland because these are concrete security measures that give Poland something to fall back on.” Micgiel, who also wrote about the issue in a blog entry posted on the New York Times website, stressed that in his opinion there is no immediate threat from Russia. “But you don’t begin to buy weapons or put in weapon systems when there is an immediate threat. You plan that ahead of time. Several Polish governments have worked on this project and have considered it carefully since 2002 and finally made a compromise agreement with the United States. It will protect Poland and its allies.”

Opponents doubt the efficacy of the system and underlined that Poland unnecessarily puts itself in danger by antagonizing its relationship with Russia. One of them, Stanislaw Lasota of Greenpoint, said in the Nowy Dziennik survey that, “in case of the attack we won’t stand a chance of protecting ourselves against Russia, because their weapons will reach us quicker than we can respond. This shield is good not for Poland but for the US, who is pushing the danger away from its territory.”

Frank Milewski, president of the Downstate New York Division of the Polish American Congress, said in a phone interview that he had mixed feelings about the deal. “It has positive and negative implications for Poland. Positive is that we have a closer relationship with the United States: a traditional and historical relation dating back to the days of the American Revolution when general Pulaski and general Kosciuszko joined George Washington’s army during the war of independence.

“The negative is the concern expressed by many people in the Polish American community that prior agreements with the allies were unsuccessful in achieving any kind of security as evidenced by the Second World War situation when an agreement between Poland, England and France after the invasion by Hitler in 1939, Poland was expecting implementation of that agreement. And unfortunately the countries of France and England fell short of fulfilling that agreement.”

At this point it’s hard to say how the issue will affect Polish Americans’s views on who they will vote for in this year’s presidential election. “This is a little bit more abstract than getting Poland into NATO, so you can’t say it yet, but the campaign is just heating up now,” says professor Micgiel.

Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain, long time supporter of the missile defense system, welcomed the agreement and would like to see a quick construction of the shield. Presumptive Democratic candidate Senator Barack Obama has remained skeptical, claiming that the system has not even been proven yet. He argues that before the completion of testing Congress should not fund it.

Like Micgiel, Frank Milewski also thinks the issue of the missile defense system will have a relatively minor impact on Polish American voters, “although some members of our community might see the agreement as an achievement of the Republican administration of President Bush. If so, that would benefit the Republican candidate in November.”

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