By Dmitry Babich
American presidential candidate Mitt Romney – better known as Mr. Gaffe in Europe thanks to the media storm he provoked by criticizing Britain’s handling of the Olympic games – is coming to Poland. “What new gaffes can we expect?” asks Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s most respected liberal daily.
The gaffes aren’t going to be small, since six months ago Mr. Romney already stunned the local opinion by declaring Russia “America’s number one geopolitical foe.” Poland, Russia’s neighbor, felt itself at the forefront again then – but not exactly at the one it would prefer. It is clear that during his visit Romney is planning to target the Russia-weary “swing voters” among the Polish émigrés in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio. But will they appreciate his “frontline” speeches scheduled to be made in Gdansk and Warsaw? Is hostility towards Russia as sure a bet among voters of Polish descent as it used to be years ago?
“What we are witnessing is a distant echo from the times of the cold war,” says John White, a political science expert at the Catholic University in the United States. “In the 1950s, it was the Republican party that stretched its hand to voters who had relatives behind the iron curtain. But this strategy no longer has the same appeal now, we live in different times.”
True, some Polish media periodically suffer from pangs of Russophobia, but now the accent is more on “phobia” than on “Russia.” Wild rumors about a possible Russian military attack against Ukraine or Poland itself, about the penetration of Russian “agents” into Polish economic and political life have exhausted even the most vigilant Poles. Besides, Romney’s belligerent attitude to solving geopolitical problems, which he fully revealed during his recent visit to Israel, may not work in Central Europe, where the political and security situation is stable, leaving less space to phobias than in the Middle East.
In Israel, Romney did his best to outdo Obama in militaristic rhetoric, as if the two were racing for the sympathies of the Israeli right, with prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, once much vilified in the American press, in the first place.
“We must not delude ourselves into thinking that containment is an option,” Romney said in Jerusalem, which he called the capital of the Jewish state alone, thus contradicting the official policy of the U.S., which still keeps the American embassy to Israel in Tel-Aviv. “We must lead the effort to prevent Iran from building and possessing nuclear weapons capability. We should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course… In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded. We recognize Israel’s right to defend itself and that is right for America to stand with you.”
The talk of “all options,” which is in reality an unambiguous threat of a military strike against Iran, lured Obama into a sort of not a very peaceful competition with Romney. The American president’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, recently shared with the Israeli officials plans on American attack against Iran, according to Haaretz daily. And Obama himself made a show out of a usually routine procedure of parceling out military aid to Israel for the year to come.
Will Poland appreciate a similar kind of American “backup” in its relations with Russia? Even the right-wing Polish politicians, who actually invited Romney to visit Poland, warn Romney against using the confrontational approach that he opted for in Israel.
“Many Poles may view Romney’s attitude as too confrontational,” Gazeta Wyborcza commented.
“After all, American voters are not so much interested in Romney’s stance on separate issues, like their country’s relations with Poland, Great Britain or even Israel,” commented Maciej Zborowski, the head of the Warsaw-based Institute for Foreign Relations. “What people want to know is whether he is indeed made of presidential material. What lacks in Romney’s CV is experience in foreign relations. His visit to Poland is supposed to help fill up this gap – profiting from what many view as the inconsistency of Obama’s policy in Central Europe.”
But what are the signs of this inconsistency? Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post cites Obama’s “making Poland a victim of his “reset” policy of accommodation with Russia.” Obviously, Krauthammer meant Obama’s call to the Polish president in September, 2009, when Obama informed his Polish colleague that the U.S. would not proceed with its ABM plans for Poland in the near future. Luckily, only the most paranoid of Poles feel “victimized” by the postponement of the deployment of American ABMs in their country. In Poland itself, an improvement of relations with Russia has been taking place since 2010, and Poles who continue to accuse Russia of the Polish president’s plane crash the same year, are viewed as a paranoid minority. So, Romney’s Russophobic message may be wildly off mark. In fact, it may look provincial, just like his criticism of Britain’s organization of Olympic games. After all, it was Romney’s provincialism that British prime minister, David Cameron, targeted when he hinted that it was easier for Romney to organize Olympic games “in the middle of nowhere” than in London. The message was: you may be technically equipped, but still provincial – under “nowhere” the British PM meant a place no less technically advanced than Sal Lake City in 2002.