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Poland: With or Upon a Shield?

August 7, 2007

Tags War and Foreign PolicyWorld History

Upon his arrival to the United States recently, Polish President Lech Kaczynski declared after a meeting with George W. Bush that the matter of building in Poland a US missile defense system is largely "a foregone conclusion," and although the details — such as the exact size of the base and the number of American soldiers to be stationed there — still have to be ironed out, the shield will definitely "exist because for Poland this will be a very good thing."[1]

A certain "unbearable lightness" hovering behind this announcement is rather puzzling, especially when, less than a year ago, the Polish Ministry of Defense issued a note frankly admitting that an agreement for a US missile shield would involve "very high risk."[2]

This risk, however, was apparently not high enough to either stir the media or raise the general public's interest in the matter. Quite unlike in the Czech Republic, which also agreed to build parts of the US-sponsored defense system, in Poland no referenda were held — even in the towns and villages in the north of Poland where the bases will be located — and no large demonstrations were organized. It almost seems as if the whole nation single-mindedly supported the building of the missile shield. Hardly any critical voices had been raised, and even the few daring ones generally received much less attention than they deserved.

A good case in point is the recent dismissal of Roman Kuzniar, a geo-strategist and, until February 2007, the director of the government-funded think tank, Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM). As the head of PISM, Kuzniar prepared a classified memo, addressed to the highest Polish officials, in which he criticized the plan to participate in the American antimissile shield program. Why? Because — as he explained in an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur of March 15, 2007 — it was a bad, costly, and potentially dangerous remedy for a problem that doesn't even exist.

The memo never saw the light of day, but Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski did not wait long after receiving it to fire Kuzniar, officially "due to an introduction of a new conception of running PISM."[3]

Kuzniar, however, has no doubt that his dismissal was due to different factors: "I explained why, in my opinion, it was altogether contrary to our national interest to participate in the American antimissile shield as the Bush administration asks us to do. So, they showed me the door."[4]

How serious were Kuzniar's objections to the antimissile system? It is hard to tell, but the justification provided by the Polish government certainly seems doubtful. In fact, the information published by the Polish Ministry of Defense[5] is almost a literal translation of the Fact Sheet released earlier by the US State Department.[6] What is it, then, that the governments — both Polish and American — would have us believe?

First of all, as the Fact Sheet informs, the system is to be deployed in Poland (and the Czech Republic) "in order to counter the growing threat of missile attacks from the Middle East," in particular Iran, but also other rogue states such as, e.g., North Korea. Secondly, the State Department claims that the nature of the whole missile defense system is "purely defensive"; and, last but not least, the State Department claims that the installation of the shield poses "little threat to people and property" in Poland. Let us consider all three pronouncements in turn.

If the "Middle Eastern threat" were to be taken seriously, then — as F. William Engdahl observes — isn't it puzzling that the missile shield hasn't been deployed in Turkey, Kuwait, or Israel?[7] After all, each one of those countries — allied or otherwise connected to the United States — is much closer to Iran than Poland or the Czech Republic. And if proximity isn't the issue, why not simply build the antimissile defense system on the American East Coast?

Besides, is the threat that one of the "rogue states" will attack the United States really that serious? It seems unlikely: in a nuclear conflict it is not so much who possesses nuclear weapons — this might suffice merely to discourage the opponent's land invasion (hence Iran and North Korea's struggle for atomic power) — but who possesses enough nuclear capacity to effectively preclude the enemy's retaliatory attack by launching first. This is exactly the reason why the Cold War's political tension was correlated with deviations from the state of mutually assured destruction (MAD) between the United States and the Soviet Union. Thus, two military analysts Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press argue in the influential Foreign Affairs:

"For almost half a century, the world's most powerful nuclear states have been locked in a military stalemate known as mutual assured destruction (MAD). By the early 1960s, the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union had grown so large and sophisticated that neither country could entirely destroy the other's retaliatory force by launching first, even with a surprise attack. Starting a nuclear war was therefore tantamount to committing suicide. During the Cold War, many scholars and policy analysts believed that MAD made the world relatively stable and peaceful because it induced great caution in international politics, discouraged the use of nuclear threats to resolve disputes, and generally restrained the superpowers' behavior. Revealingly, the last intense nuclear standoff, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, occurred at the dawn of the era of MAD."[8]

Still, one might argue, the "rogue states" are called "rogue" for a reason — they are ruled by crazy dictators and are certainly capable of firing a small nuclear missile at their disposal even at the risk of a deadly US counterstrike.

But hasn't this kind of argument already been used against Saddam Hussein? He, too — as Thomas L. Friedman recalled in the pre-9/11 New York Times — had poison gas at his disposal, and even though he used it against his own people, having been warned by George Bush the elder, he never dared to use it against the US troops or Israel.[9] He might have been evil but he wasn't crazy. And neither is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Quite apart from that, the explanation of the United States building up its nuclear arsenal for the sheer purpose of containing the "Middle Eastern threat" simply does not add up. This is exactly the reason why "49 retired generals and admirals have called on the President to postpone operational deployment of a ground-based, strategic, mid-course, ballistic missile defense system," claiming that

"US technology, already deployed, can pinpoint the source of a ballistic missile launch. It is, therefore, highly unlikely that any state would dare to attack the US or allow a terrorist to do so from its territory with a missile armed with a weapon of mass destruction, thereby risking annihilation from a devastating US retaliatory strike."[10]

If the government's claim that the missile shield is installed "in order to counter the growing threat of missile attacks from the Middle East" is at best poorly argued, then what might the real reason be?

This brings us to the second pronouncement, namely, that the antimissile system has a purely defensive character. As plausible as it may seem prima facie — after all, the interceptors carry no explosive warheads of any type — the credibility of this claim has also been severely criticized. As the military experts Lieber and Press explain:

"Critics of missile defense argue that a national missile shield, such as the prototype the United States has deployed in Alaska and California, would be easily overwhelmed by a cloud of warheads and decoys…. They are right: even a multilayered system with land, air-, sea-, and space-based elements, is highly unlikely to protect the United States from a major nuclear attack. But they are wrong to conclude that such a missile-defense system is therefore worthless — as are the supporters of missile defense who argue that, for similar reasons, such a system could be of concern only to rogue states and terrorists and not to other major nuclear powers. What both of these camps overlook is that the sort of missile defenses that the United States might plausibly deploy would be valuable primarily in an offensive context, not a defensive one — as an adjunct to a U.S. first-strike capability, not as a standalone shield."

But, if that really is so, against whom is this offensive measure intended?

It is important to understand that America's government, as the biggest warfare-state, isn't concerned with any Cold War sentiments but with global dominance. This requires, however, that its main challengers — the European Union, Russia, and China — who, by the way, also strive for hegemony — be kept in check: divided and defenseless. And what could possibly be a better means of attaining this goal than building military bases all across Eurasia and deploying a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic?[11] Clearly, such a move establishes in Europe a certain cordon sanitaire that hinders the rapprochement of the EU and Russia but at the same time also poses a potential threat to Eurasian cooperation between Russia, China, and Iran. And according to Lieber and Press, that "potential threat" is becoming a more and more credible one:

"If the United States launched a nuclear attack against Russia (or China), the targeted country would be left with a tiny surviving arsenal — if any at all. At that point, even a relatively modest or inefficient missile-defense system might well be enough to protect against any retaliatory strikes, because the devastated enemy would have so few warheads and decoys left."

Now, the observation that the missile shield is — to borrow Noam Chomsky's accurate expression — essentially a first-strike weapon, is important in commenting on the third government pronouncement, that the installation of the shield poses "little threat to people and property" in Poland. There is, of course, the risk that some parts of the intercepted missiles left undestroyed, or not fully combusted in the atmosphere, hit towns or villages in northern Poland. (By the way, it is far from clear who would bear legal responsibility for the damage in such cases.) More importantly, however, the elements of the defense system — unlike, e.g., embassies — are not deployed on exterritorial land, even though the Polish authorities have absolutely no control of them. This means, in practice, that Poland might get involved in a war without the consent of its people or the conscious decision of its authorities. In other words, the installation of the missile shield in Poland makes it the perfect "ally," in that it is almost automatically entangled in the wars of its sovereign — the United States.

Given all these objections, proving the inconsistency, if not the falseness, of the governmental account, it might well be asked why it is, then, that Poland so submissively agreed to host the American defense system and why has it been so unsuspicious of the purposes and strategic agenda of the United States.

One straightforward answer is that Poles in general consider themselves "allies" of the United States. On the one hand, there is in Poland an overwhelming — historically justifiable — sense of abandonment, echoing the 18th- and 19th-century partitions, as well as both 20th-century wars, and on the other, a real gratitude toward, and trust in, the United States. As reasonable as it sounds, however, this explanation might be an accurate description of the political views of Warsaw's bourgeoisie, but not of the political class the outlook of which, by the very nature of what it does, is based on practical rather than emotional considerations. In other words, Polish politicians must be well aware of the many risks and dangers involved in supporting the United States and hosting its defense system, and yet this is exactly what they have been doing, quite independent of which party gets into power.

Some light on this seeming paradox is shed by a careful examination of the last thirty years of Polish history, and specifically the period prior to the transition from communism. Poland's greatest problem at that time, obviously apart from the communist regime and the absence of a free market, was an enormous foreign debt, resulting largely from the 1970s oil price hikes. As an oil importer and a significantly tattered economy, Poland — much like Mexico or Brazil — engaged in irresponsible borrowing from western, mainly American, banks to pay for its imports. Wall Street, of course, was all too eager to give money to anyone who demanded it, since the funds lent out would quickly come back in the form of deposits of OPEC countries pocketing the "oil tax."[12]

Now, as has been lucidly described in John Perkin's Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, the rationale for huge international loans was the hope of the US government (always ready to bail out the insolvent banks[13]) that the debtors would overextend themselves, go bankrupt, and eventually become beholden to their creditors, offering them in return anything from UN votes to military bases. This applied not only — as is commonly believed — to Latin American countries, but also to Poland whose debt at the end of 1980 exceeded $25 billion and whose debt-service costs practically equaled yearly national income.

That the United States did in fact have serious plans regarding Poland was revealed on February 6, 1981, when Les Aspin — the hawkish congressman, former member of the House Banking and Currency Committee, chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services, and later the Secretary of Defense under Clinton — opened his article in the New York Times with a much telling sentence: "If Soviet tanks do not determine Poland's future course, Western banks can."

Aspin suggested that Poland had essentially three options: to default and declare moratorium on all payments of principal and interest; to repay interest but suspend payments of the principal; or to seek to reschedule its debt. Of all three alternatives only the last one didn't effectively involve a major restriction of imports (of pretty much everything from food to raw materials), and hence further aggravation of the crisis. Unfortunately, the best alternative was also the least attainable, since it depended on Western banks' own discretion. Nonetheless, as Aspin euphemistically puts it, even though the American government cannot force bankers to lend, it definitely can "create conditions that encourage bankers to take further risks." Thus, the debt provided an excellent opportunity to "influence the direction that the Polish Government takes" without any sort of military intervention.

There is no such thing as free lunch. For Warsaw and Moscow the price of rescheduling was to be "toleration of an independent source of political authority," i.e., recognition of the "Solidarity" labor-union opposition as a political partner. "Solidarity" in turn would then be the guarantor of the implementation of a western political and economic program according to the American experts' advice. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what happened in Poland after 1989 — eight years after Aspin had revealed America's "plan for Poland": "Solidarity" effectively started running the country and orchestrating the reform program designed by Jeffrey Sachs. In return, in the beginning of the 1990s, debts were rescheduled and significantly lowered.

If the reasons for Polish docility vis-à-vis the US government are not yet apparent, it should be noted that for the past 17 years of its existence, the non-communist government has always consisted, one way or another, of people directly involved in the realization of the US plan so emphatically outlined in Aspin's tell-all article. It is no wonder, then, that Poles agreed to take part in both Gulf Wars (although Soviet tanks stayed in Poland until 1993!), send a contingent of over a thousand soldiers to Afghanistan, and — only recently — to install a costly and potentially dangerous missile defense system. It seems that Poles, much like the ancient Spartans, have a choice to end up either with a shield or upon it.

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/07/16/poland.shield.reut/

[2] http://www.wp.mil.pl/artykul_wiecej.php?idartykul=2262 (in Polish)

[3] http://serwisy.gazeta.pl/kraj/1,34397,3909551.html (in Polish)

[4] Le Nouvel Observateur, Thursday 15 March 2007: English translation.

[5] http://www.wp.mil.pl/pliki/File/Tarcza_Przeciwrakietowa_-_Pytania_i_Odpowiedzi.pdf (in Polish)

[6] http://www.state.gov/p/eur/rls/fs/83125.htm

[7] http://www.engdahl.oilgeopolitics.net/Geopolitics___Eurasia/Putin/putin.html

[8] "The Rise of US Nuclear Primacy," Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006.

[9] The New York Times, July 24, 2001, p. 19.

[10] H. CON. RES. 428.

[11] After the bombing of Serbia, the United States has installed its bases in Kosovo, Hungary, Albania, Bulgaria, and Macedonia. Additionally, after 9/11, US bases were built in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kyrgystan.

[12] On the mechanics of the dollar recycling scheme see Vincent R. LoCascio, The Monetary Elite vs. Gold's Honest Discipline, esp. chapter VII.

[13] See, e.g. Jeffrey Sachs, "Robbin' Hoods," The New Republic; Mar 13 1989.


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