Obama to reassure Central Europeans he's in their corner

McClatchy NewspapersMay 27, 2011 

WARSAW, Poland — President Barack Obama arrived in Poland on Friday, launching a two-day visit aimed at assuring the Poles that the United States is a steadfast ally even as it works closely with old Polish nemesis Russia.

He will stress that his "reset" of relations with Russia doesn't weaken U.S. relations with Central Europe, which remains wary of Moscow after almost 50 years of Soviet domination.

Poland grew nervous about the relationship in 2009 when Obama abruptly dropped Bush-era development of a missile defense system based partly in Poland. Polish leaders had backed the defense system in the face of intense domestic opposition. They feared that Obama was stopping the development to appease the Russians, who saw the missile defense as provocative and aimed at countering them despite U.S. denials.

The administration believed that "the reset of our relationship with Russia would be good for Eastern Europe and the security of Europe generally," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. "I think understandably at the very beginning of the administration there was some concern that if there was a reset with Russia, would it come at the expense of Europe. What we have found recently is that these countries very much came to support the reset."

Obama's visiting Poland now also in part to make up for last year, when he had to cancel plans to attend the funeral of Poland's president because volcanic ash from Iceland grounded European air traffic.

In a key concession, Obama is expected to announce that the U.S. will reposition 16 F-16s from Aviano, Italy, to a base in Lask, in central Poland. The U.S. jets and crews are to be based there at least through 2013.

He also is likely to talk with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk about the planned deployment of U.S. SM-3 interceptors in Poland.

The added military hardware "will be a sign that the U.S., even as it engages Russia, is very much committed to full defense of all allies," said Stephen Flanagan, a vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right Washington research center.

Obama dined with leaders of Poland and other Central European nations Friday evening.

At the dinner, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski opened remarks by observing that the leaders would talk about fostering democracy in Eastern and Central Europe, "which has not always been that easy."

Obama said: "We have taken great inspiration from the blossoming of freedom and economic growth in this region and we're confident that will continue, and we want to be a part of that process of strengthening your democracies, strengthening your economies and be a full partner, because we think that will be beneficial to the United States as well."

He'll meet one-on-one with Polish leaders Saturday before returning to Washington after a four-country European trek.

"As the president has said repeatedly, there are no old or new allies, there are only allies. And each ally needs to be absolutely confident of the commitment that we've made to their defense," said Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, a special assistant to the president and senior director for European affairs at the White House National Security Council.

It's a diplomatic tightrope.

While at a summit in France on Thursday, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said they continued to work on joint development of a missile defense that would guard against rogue nations such as Iran. But Medvedev sounded pessimistic about an agreement anytime soon that would satisfy both sides.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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