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IF ANY NATION DESERVES TO JOIN THE RANKS OF NATO, IT’S POLAND

SHARE IF ANY NATION DESERVES TO JOIN THE RANKS OF NATO, IT’S POLAND

If there is one country that has paid its dues for membership into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it's Poland. Yet President Clinton is offering only a sop and spare change to the country with so much blood equity in eliminating the Iron Curtain.

Polish President Lech Walesa's plea for NATO membership is based on a healthy fear that the Russian bear is not dead. Walesa is warning of the re-emergence of communism and wants Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic included in NATO. Clinton is spurning Walesa primarily because he is worried about the political impact on Russian President Boris Yeltsin's endangered democracy.The Clinton administration is pinning its hopes on what it calls the "partnerships for peace," which would strengthen security ties between NATO and the former Eastern bloc without extending the guarantees of full NATO membership. The administration hopes this plan will mollify the Poles and other East Europeans without creating trouble for Yeltsin.

Walesa, who has staked much over the years on NATO membership, is skeptical about this "partnerships for peace." He must also wax nostalgic about his visit to the United States in 1989 when he became the first non-head of state to address a joint session of Congress since 1824. Walesa, the one-time unemployed electrician, was interrupted 25 times by applause and standing ovations.

One of our most memorable meetings with Walesa came in 1991. He explained then how important it was that the United States help Poland become part of NATO. At the same time, he said it was equally important not to tweak Russia in the process. He hoped both things could be accomplished but felt the full embrace of the West, via NATO, was the most important of the two.

As Clinton struggles to define a U.S. policy for the former Eastern bloc, Walesa's mind remains unchanged. He believes that NATO membership is crucial to the development of lasting democracy in Poland, yet realizes that geography binds him to the Russians.

Since the Iron Curtain fell, Walesa has felt short-changed - in terms of NATO and increased trade - by those who were quite happy to see him serve as surrogate soldier during the Cold War. For himself, Walesa was reconciling the slow response to a NATO membership bid as more to do with economics than politics.

Poland and its 50-year-old leader continue to struggle with rebuilding a country ravaged by the Germans in World War II and the Soviets for four decades afterward. Walesa can be forgiven if after his talks with Clinton he doesn't conclude that he will have to chart Poland's strategic future without Western "allies" that are keeping him outside NATO.