Polish Defense Minister Proud to Have Polish Army Protecting Freedom in Iraq

Radek Sikorski travelled a long and winding road on his voyage to become Polish defense minister.

When communist dictator Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski sent troops to the streets in Poland, Sikorski, at age 18, sought political asylum in Great Britain.

Later, with a master’s degree from Oxford University in his pocket, he travelled through Soviet-occupied Afghanistan  as a war correspondent. As a foreign affairs expert, the author, journalist and World Press Photo prize winner, he is trying to reform the ex-communist Polish army, which is currently deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Prior to becoming Polish defense minister, Sikorski worked as a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

During a recent interview with HUMAN EVENTS, Sikorski discussed American-European relations, the Polish Army and its presence in Iraq, NATO, Belarus, Adolf Hitler and how he "married up."

This interview was a joint venture with the conservative Polish newsweekly Gazeta Polska.

Just before we called, we got the results from Italy where it appears Mr. Prodi is going to be the next prime minister. He has said he would take Italian troops immediately out of Iraq. What is Poland’s position on its presence in Iraq right now?

We have extended our commitment there this year. We see our role there as a success — we handed over security for our area of responsibility to the 8th Iraqi Division. We no longer patrol because there is no need, but we still keep 900 troops there. We are in charge of the international division. We think we could withdraw, but since the Iraqi authorities and the U.S. asked us to stay a while longer, we will be there for the time being.

As a resident fellow of the prestigious American Enterprise Institute, you have been trying to explain to authorities that modernizing the allied armies in Iraq would be beneficial for American defense, now and in the future. It has not happened. Some U.S. allies are willing to fight in future military operations, but are presently not able to do so because of non-compatible equipment. Why does the U.S. give $4 billion per year in military aid to countries such as Egypt (which does not support the U.S. in the field) but does not invest in equipment for real friends?

That’s a very good question, but it is a question for the U.S. and not for me. I obviously think that it would be good for the U.S. to show that it appreciates its loyal friends.

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As Polish defense minister, you face the reality that Poland spends a lot of money on the war in Iraq—money that can’t be spent on modernizing the Polish Army. It is worth mentioning that Poland was the only continental European country, which fought in operation Iraqi Freedom and keeps the fourth largest contingent of troops there. Do you think if the Polish knew that they would not be helped they would have been willing to get so deeply involved in the war? Wouldn’t it have been better to just politically support the U.S. as so many another countries did, which saved them a lot of money?

First of all, it is not true that we haven’t received assistance from the United States. We are grateful for what we have received, but in terms of our presence in Iraq, much of the logistical cost has been picked up by the United States by modernizing the Polish Army. You are right, of course, that our expenditure on the Iraqi operation has been much more and as a defense minister I have a dilemma: I can choose to rally around the U.S. and spend my resources on Iraq, or preserve the money and spend it on improving our own capabilities. Some countries that have not sent troops to Iraq and now have more modern forces as a result. I mean, you are quite right that Poland did not feel threatened by Saddam Hussein, that the perception among the Polish public was that we were doing a favor to the U.S., that we were investing in the Polish-American alliance. We hoped the U.S. would reciprocate by being willing to come to us with assistance when we needed it. It’s up to the U.S. whether it wants to build up the capabilities of friends who have proved themselves willing to provide support in such emergencies.

In June 2005 you wrote, and I quote, in an American Enterprise Institute white paper: "The United States had misinterpreted why most European states sent their troops to Iraq — they were motivated by a wish to maintain good U.S. relations, rather than by a shared perception of a threat from Saddam. So today, the United States may misinterpret why they are leaving. Anti-Americanism, appeasement, even cowardice, have been cited — all of them erroneously." You stand by all of that. Is that correct, sir?

I don’t think it is up to me to comment on the actions of other countries. I think some of them could be different cases..

And you also said at the time that opposition to Polish participation in Operation Iraqi Freedom was up to 90% of the public. Is this still true almost a year later?

I think  the figure is about 30% in the latest polls.  We are spending our political capital as a government by maintaining that mission. It is a mission that is popular with the army, but not popular with the public at large. People are expecting contracts for Polish companies [from the U.S] or that the U.S. will help with the repayment of Iraq’s debts to Poland. We built some of the roads in Iraq, for which we have not been paid yet. There were people anticipating that the U.S. would be eager to cement its security relations with Poland by helping us with things like this.

On March 15, President Bush presented "The New National Security Strategy of the United States of America." It asserts that pre-emptive war is one of the possible choices of U.S. foreign policy. If the U.S. decides to attack Iran, is it possible that Poland and the Polish Army will support it like they are supporting operations in Iraq and in Afghanistan?

The principle of the pre-emptive war is nothing new in international relations. Somewhere before the Second World War, the Polish side proposed to the French a pre-emptive war on Adolf Hitler when he remilitarized,  breaking the key provision of the Wersal Treaty, the Rhineland I wish they had gone ahead with the pre-emptive war, which would have been won and would have prevented grave horrors.

You said that it is possible that Poland would support U.S. in operation against Iran. Is that correct?

No. We don’t have a view on it and I think that the latest information from the White House is that the U.S. will continue to use diplomatic means. Poland is a member of the European Union. There is an important EU diplomatic effort that is supported by the United States. We hope that it will succeed.

I want to ask about another front, on the peacekeeping agenda. We are going on seven years now, that we had the war in Kosovo, which some called a pre-emptive strike. It was a NATO operation. Looking back, was that a success in your opinion?

I would not speak in my capacity because I really don’t know what our official view on this is, but I speak with some authority because I went to Kosovo last year on a fact-finding mission. I think what happened is that the West was so disgusted with the message that Slobodan Milosevic used to stay in power that we anticipated the worst in Kosovo. Therefore, thinking of the massacre of Bosnia, we agreed he should not be allowed to do the same in Kosovo and we had to prevent him from doing something of that nature. Having said that, there is now the issue of Serb patrimonial rights, and the Serb minority in Kosovo, whose rights have to be protected as much as the rights of other minorities, including Muslims, in Bosnia.

In America, you have made a name for yourself as a highly respected expert in foreign affairs and defense. Unfortunately, the Polish defense budget is very limited and this, despite your breadth of experience, puts restrictions on what you can do. What can you achieve despite this? What would you do if you had more money?

Well, the Polish budget, of course, is no comparison to the Pentagon’s. But then, nobody’s budget is comparable to the Pentagon’s. We have $6 billion to spend, Of whch $1 billion is for procurement. This is one of my biggest ambitions — to increase the proportion of the budget that we divert to the purchase of new systems. We are doing that by closing unnecessary bases, selling military property, putting brigades together and, in general, making savings. We are in the process of acquiring modern F-16 U.S. aircraft, we are buying new transport vehicles. We’re actually producing pretty good anti-aircraft missiles and we are retooling the defense ministry. Of course we could do it faster. Poland is a country on the border of NATO, with a border on Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe, and on Russia whose democratic evolution shows it is uncertain. So, we still need some aspect of territorial defense as an insurance policy against an unknowable distant future. We are also capable of an expeditionary operation. Within a decade, we will be able to field a couple of expeditionary brigades

Minister Sikorski, going back to your written words at the AEI; two years ago, citing Lord Robertson’s call for an enhanced NATO, you foresaw that if NATO was going to continue to handle peacekeeping operations, it would need a Response Force of 20,000 men while the EU would need a Rapid Reaction Force of 60,000 troops and that both would be able to use some of the same assets on so-called Berlin Plus Rules. That was two years ago. How far are NATO and EU to having the force that you have envisioned?

NATO is very far along. At our defense ministers meeting at Sicily two months ago, we estimated that we are 70% up to speed and we should be able to proclaim the response force fully operational by the time of the Riga summit in November. Poland has already participated in the NATO Response Force activity. We were deployed to Pakistan, where the Response Forces were sent after the tragic earthquake there. The EU is also proceeding with its battle groups. We will be operational in two years in the battlegroup with Germany, the Baltic States and Slovakia. And I am even more convinced that if there is a need for NATO to go on successfully in the future, it needs to develop common funding of some of the logistical enlist activities. You need to create the right incentive because at the moment countries have to pay for it themselves. This means that poorer countries such as Poland, which is still emerging from the economic burden left by communism, face a dilemma.  The more pro-NATO we are, the more we want to participate, the more out of pocket we are and the less money we have for the modernization of our own armed forces.

What is your relationship with Secretary Rumsfeld, your counterpart in United States?

I visited him in Washington in December. We met at the summit and we’ve been helpful to each other in various discussions.

One of the things, again going back to your written words at AEI, you said, "The United States should award military assistance to those countries that have been helpful. If two or three divisions from poorer European countries were deployed for a fraction of the funds that Egypt gets for doing nothing, this would be cost-effective and transformation-friendly." Have you ever advanced that in your meetings with Secretary Rumsfeld?

We do maintain diplomatic relations with Egypt. So, what I said as an analyst, I won’t repeat as a minister. But the underlying logic is correct. We might have aproblem if we were to fulfill the NATO recommendation of having 8% of our forces deployable. We have 150,000 troops. Poland, with the right incentives, could deploy up to two division but that would be a big strain on our resources without external assistance. .

You mentioned Belarus earlier. Aleksander Lukashenko used intimidation, administrative manipulation, and outright falsification to "win" a referendum that made it possible for him to be President for life as and be able to appoint a parliament devoid of any independent voices. How did you go wrong with the Lukashenko government?

We are concerned for the people of Belarus. There is also a strong Polish minority there, which has been treated just as the rest of the Belarus. We would like to be a normal European country, which means that we would like to have normal democratic neighbors with our Atlantic neighbors on both sides of our border. We hope Belarus will rejoin the family of free nations before long. I see signs of the Lukashenko regime acting nervously of late and I think that the international community should hold President Putin accountable because Russia is an enormous influence on Belarus.

Your political career shows promise. You have two children and a wife, Anne Applebaum, who’s a brilliant best-selling author and esteemed journalist. Is this an advantage or disadvantage to have a wife active in political affairs?

It is an advantage to have an intelligent wife, that’s for sure. And don’t forget that Anne is  a star in her own light. Her book "The Gulag" sold almost 90,000 copies in Poland. It has published in 26 languages and the book has sold even more in the United States and Britain, over 100,000 each. Who a man chooses to marry is the most important decision in his life and certainly I’m very glad I didn’t make a mistake . I am glad I can repeat what Ronald Reagan said about his wife — I "married up."