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The decline of America and Poland's special relationship

In the Obama era, both the US and Poland turn their focus elsewhere.

Central European leaders have become so worried about the perceived drift in U.S. policy that several of them, including former Czech President Vaclav Havel and former Polish President Lech Walesa, sent a letter to the Obama administration stressing that missile defense will be seen as a litmus test of the importance the U.S. places on its ties with central Europe.

The letter, which was not enthusiastically received in Washington, also warned the U.S. to make efforts to keep ties close, because a new generation of leaders coming to power in central Europe is less likely to be reflexively pro-American.

Poles were hugely grateful for the stalwart anti-communism of Ronald Reagan, and saw the U.S. as the best guarantor of their independence from Russia after the end of communism in 1989. It was U.S. pressure that saw Poland and other countries of the region admitted to NATO in 1999, and the Poles reciprocated by buying 48 F-16 fighters from U.S.-based Lockheed Martin despite competing bids from European manufacturers.

Now, although Poland is in no sense anti-American, there is a growing feeling that the country overdid it in focusing so intently on Washington. One big reason for the reassessment is Poland’s growing confidence as a member of the European Union, and a realization that the most vital issues for Poland are dealt with in Brussels. Another is the calculation that being one of the closest U.S. allies in Europe has carried more costs than benefits. Poland outraged its western European allies by participating in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but the mission there — where the Poles were in charge of a whole province — produced few economic or diplomatic benefits, and the military pulled out of Iraq a year ago. However, Poland is still fighting in Afghanistan.

By enthusiastically participating in the war on terrorism, Poland now faces accusations that it allowed U.S. agents to imprison and possibly torture suspected terrorists on its territory.

A continuing irritant is the U.S. rule that visiting Poles obtain visas, an issue that comes up frequently and which Poles feel slights their contribution as U.S. allies.

“Visas, it’s always about the visas,” complained an official at the U.S. embassy in Warsaw. Poles need visas to enter the U.S. because too many of their applications are rejected to qualify for visa-free entry, according to rules set by Congress.

In the end, replacing Perry with Jones at the Sept. 1 ceremonies saved Polish feelings, but did not obscure the increasingly frayed ties between the two allies.