Melania Trump, President Donald Trump, Polish President Andrzej Duda and Agata Kornhauser-Duda in July 2017.
Photo by Andrea Hanks, courtesy the White House.
It isn’t immediately intuitive, but the key to enforcement of the latest U.S. sanctions on Iran – and to a number of other American trans-Atlantic goals – may lie in Poland.
The Polish government is eager, almost desperate, to get a permanent American military base on its soil. This spring it offered at least $2 billion to help cover the cost, making clear that this was just an opening bid. The higher offer came a little later, in the form of a joking suggestion by Poland’s president that the new installation would be named Fort Trump. (If you have been following the story mainly in the Trump-is-hopeless segment of the media, you might not have realized that this offer was made in jest, though even the Washington Post observed as much.) Poland’s joking offer and very real enthusiasm regarding such a project has a clear motivation: Russia.
Meanwhile, governments in Western Europe – led, as always, by Germany and France – would love to undermine the Trump administration’s moves to hammer the Iranian economy by cutting off its oil sales and international financing. They continue to talk about setting up an alternative payment mechanism to provide Iran with access to genuine money, as the Iranian rial follows the path recently blazed by Venezuela toward virtual worthlessness.
There has also been discussion of reviving a prior European Union “blocking” statute that would prohibit European firms from complying with the American sanctions. That step, however, would require the assent of all 28 EU member nations. Poland is a member of the EU, albeit one currently on the outs with Brussels. I think the Trump administration could count on Poland to block the blocking statute if it asked Poland to help America on a matter of regional and national security. Brussels is already displeased with Poland for other reasons, mainly the bloc’s disapproval of its judicial reforms and other policies of Warsaw’s right-wing government that the EU sees as violating European democratic norms.
How would a base in Poland help America enforce economic sanctions against Iran? Mainly by making it clear to other European governments – especially Berlin – that Washington expects cooperation on security matters as long as it is footing a large part of the bill for their security.
A base in Poland doesn’t necessarily mean stationing more U.S. troops, or even maintaining more bases, in Europe. The Polish expansion could easily be offset by reducing U.S. presence elsewhere. Most of the U.S. presence in Europe happens to be in Germany. This is an artifact of the Cold War, when Poland was a member of the Soviet bloc. The former West Germany, where the U.S. presence is concentrated, was the Cold War’s front line at the time. Now the front has moved east, to the border with Russia in Poland and the Baltics. These also happen to be the NATO members most exposed to Russian aggression, and thus potentially the most eager to host and cooperate with the U.S. in almost anything related to defense.
Which is why the Russians become almost apoplectic whenever the idea of basing American troops farther east is raised. The Russian seizure of Crimea and continued fostering of conflict in eastern Ukraine, along with various assassination attempts elsewhere, pretty much eliminated the rationale for sensitivity to such concerns. Yet Western European leaders, eager as ever to do business with Moscow, Tehran or anywhere else they can make a euro – and to avoid boosting their own defense posture in response to Russian threats – have also historically opposed such expansion.
It boils down to a European desire to both benefit from and direct the deployment of the American security umbrella. Helping Iran to thwart U.S. sanctions is the European way of thumbing its nose at Uncle Sam and then sticking that hand out for American defense spending. It’s gross, in every sense of that word. When forced to choose between America and Iran, Europe has only one reasonable choice. Its business leaders, who mostly raced to comply with the new sanctions, apparently understand this much better than their governments do.
If we are going to base troops in Europe at all, there are many valid reasons to accept the Polish offer to host American forces there. This is a particularly good time to say yes. We should say it in German, French, Persian and Russian, as well as in Polish and English, just to ensure everyone gets the message.