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Lesson learned, Poles get tough over US missiles
Poland US Missile D 5524947
U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, left, and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk prior to talks in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, July 3, 2008. Poland's prime minister is meeting with the U.S. ambassador a day after officials said the two countries tentatively agreed to base American missile defenses in Poland. - photo by Associated Press
    WARSAW, Poland — Not so long ago, the U.S. enjoyed something akin to a mythical status in Poland. Ronald Reagan was a hero, the dollar was king and Washington was a trusted guardian against Russia.
    But that starry-eyed idealism has eroded, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the tough stance Poland has taken in negotiating a missile defense deal with Washington.
    The two allies announced Wednesday that they agreed tentatively to base American missile interceptors in Poland, part of a planned U.S. missile shield against Iran. But contentiousness that surfaced over nearly 18 months of negotiations belied the fact that the U.S. was in talks with one of its closest friends in Europe.
    ‘‘Many problems in the bilateral relationship became apparent during the missile defense talks,’’ said Maria Wagrowska, a security expert with the Warsaw-based Center for International Relations. ‘‘And they are not only political — they are also psychological.’’
    She and other analysts agree that if the U.S. had tried to get a deal before the Iraq war, it would have been much easier.
    Today, Polish politicians feel burned by the Bush administration, largely because Warsaw’s staunch military support for the U.S. war in Iraq failed to win substantial contracts for Polish companies in Iraq’s reconstruction, as many here had expected.
    As a result, Warsaw has decided that if it is going to link its fate to another major American military project, it’s going to get what it wants beforehand — and in writing.
    ‘‘Poland took an idealistic approach when it decided to support the U.S. in Iraq,’’ Wagrowska said. ‘‘Now there is a much more reasonable, commercial approach because of the disappointment that we didn’t earn anything in Iraq.’’
    As part of a missile defense deal, Poland has asked for billions of dollars worth of military investment from the U.S. to upgrade its air defenses, including Patriot ground-to-air missiles. What Poland will get is not known.
    The government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk has been driving a hard bargain in part because the Polish public strongly opposes the proposed base. For its own survival, the government must show voters that it is not Washington’s lapdog, and that it is securing some tangible benefits in exchange.
    ‘‘Poland doesn’t have very much money and I think that we deserve something from the Americans if only because of our participation in the Iraq war,’’ said Danuta Zegarska, 54, a stay-at-home mother relaxing in a Warsaw park on Thursday.
    Tusk has acknowledged that his government ‘‘is not acting like a naive enthusiast, but like a hard negotiator.’’
    ‘‘Poland’s security is a holy thing,’’ he said Tuesday. ‘‘I will not allow for even the smallest mistake to be committed, and that’s why the negotiations aren’t as simple as they once seemed.’’
    For its part, the U.S. seems to be playing a hardball, too. As talks bogged down, it emerged last month that U.S. officials had met with Lithuanian leaders to discuss putting the base there instead.
    Poland considered that the diplomatic equivalent of arm-twisting.
    Poland’s Defense Minister Bogdan Klich called that ‘‘one of the forms of pressure’’ that the Americans put on Poland during the talks. ‘‘We don’t feel that the Americans seriously considered’’ Lithuania, he said in a radio interview Thursday.
    Further complicating the issue is Russia’s wrath over U.S. plans to set up military installations so close to its own borders. As part of the system, a missile-tracking radar would be placed in the Czech Republic.
    Russia has threatened to attack both sites with missiles of its own, leading Warsaw to use that danger as the basis to demand a massive infusion of U.S. military aid.
    Disillusion with the U.S. is also strong among the Czech public, and opposition to missile defense huge. Prague, however, demanded little in return from the U.S. beyond Czech participation in American research and development projects.
    That hasn’t gone over well with the public, and the frustration there has sparked a grass roots campaign — the No Bases Initiative — which Czech media have described as one of the most significant since the anti-communist movement of Vaclav Havel.
    ‘‘The Czech government went for this deal on the presumption that we owe the United States for what it did for us before the fall of communism,’’ said Jiri Pehe, a Czech political analyst.
    ‘‘But a huge majority of Czechs are against the radar. They don’t see why we should accept this at all, and if we do, why we shouldn’t ask for something in return from the richest country in the world.’’
    Vanessa Gera, correspondent in the Warsaw bureau of The Associated Press, has covered central Europe for seven years.

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