Americans who tend to associate struggle for civil rights with the Democratic Party may see it as odd that Poland’s former President Lech Walesa — an icon of struggle against communism — should support Republicans such as Mitt Romney, whom he invited to Poland this week.
However, Walesa is hardly unique in Central Europe, where Ronald Reagan is remembered as the main crusader against the imperialist Soviet Union.
Some of the reason is obvious: foreigners have a harder time distinguishing rhetoric from action.
Republicans who brandish the word “freedom” as if they’ve copyrighted it sound serious — especially loudmouths such as Sen. John McCain, who rarely misses an opportunity to criticize the Obama administration over Syria despite our dismal experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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Central Europeans have been eager to please American politicians they rightly or wrongly see as prepared to do more to protect allies from threats such as Russia.
It was no accident “new” European countries such as Poland broke with Germany and France of “old” Europe over our post-9/11 invasions.
More recent developments have influenced perceptions.
When President Obama announced his “reset” policy with Russia, Eastern European leaders led by the Czech Republic’s Vaclav Havel rightly warned Washington to be wary of sacrificing its defense of shared western values for the sake of pandering to a Kremlin bent on re-imposing influence over its former empire.
Although the White House has struggled to avoid criticizing the Kremlin, no such concerns are raised today.
Poland and the Czech Republic were more dismayed by Obama’s logical overhaul of George W. Bush’s plans for a missile defense system that would have stationed interceptor missiles in Poland. Poles faced down Russian threats of a nuclear strike for what appeared to be nothing.
There are ideological reasons, too.
The youngish technocrats in the Polish, Czech and other Central European governments who are still battling with the communist legacy share views about the efficacy of unrestricted free markets with Republicans.
Even so, Walesa may be a special case, as Slate has pointed out.
The Nobel laureate’s knee-jerk reaction to Obama’s Nobel prize in 2009 was that the American president had made “no contribution thus far” to world peace, an opening salvo in a subsequent stream of criticism.
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Despite Walesa’s efforts on his behalf, however, Romney’s regular gaffes (more accurate to call them stunts because they were deliberate statements) during his recent trip to Britain, Israel and Poland appear to have had the opposite of their intended intent.
Instead of shoring up his foreign policy credentials, they’ve helped Democrats characterize him as unsuitable presidential material. Not only because Solidarity, the union Walesa led in its communist heyday, distanced itself from his invitation by saying Romney was hostile to unions and labor rights. Much more than that, Romney managed to insult our closest ally Britain and cast himself as not impartial in America’s biggest foreign policy quest, peace in the Middle East, by insulting Palestinians.
However, it’s not clear whether any of the faux pas matters to many Americans who really don’t care about what happens abroad.
Even more, perhaps the insults to Palestinians (on top of others by Romney campaign staff to reporters), which will almost certainly generate support among the Republican base, will be met with if not approval by the wider public.
The next round of poll numbers will tell.