Poles Present 'Coalition of the Unwilling'
Derek Monroe reports from Warsaw on Poland's motivations, sacrifices in sending 2,500 troops to Iraq
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When the war to "liberate" Iraq started in March of 2003, nobody would have thought that Eastern European countries such as Poland, Bulgaria and Ukraine, among others, would be some of the Bush administration's "coalition of the willing."

Poland's economic involvement in Iraq dates back to the 1970s and 80s when Polish construction companies participated in a variety of huge infrastructure projects such as industrial plant construction and highway building. This continued even in the time of the bloody Iraq-Iran conflict (1980-1988). However, with increasing military expenditures and Saddam Hussein's unwillingness to honor his nation's debts, the cooperation ceased in the latter part of 80s.

▲ A Polish soldier prepares to detonate old Iraqi ordnance.
ⓒ2004 PolishMON
With the aftermath of U.S. military involvement in Iraq, Poland's interest in the doing business in the region was renewed. As soon as the Pentagon realized that a 130,000 strong U.S. military force wouldn't be enough to cover a country with a population of 22 million and the size of Texas, the calls for help were made.

"The U.S. was looking around for allies and our government agreed," said Marek Ostrowski, International News director of the leading Polish political magazine Polityka, in an interview with OhmyNews. "The Polish government decided to go into Iraq after just overnight deliberation. It was considered a strategic and specialized decision without any type of plan or consultation with the public."

This situation has created an atmosphere in Poland not unlike that of its communist days when major decisions were made in secret and against popular sentiment. The population was and is largely against any type of involvement in the war.

Through a variety of opinion polls conducted in Poland in the past six months, the decision to go to Iraq is hugely unpopular. Aside from this, according to the Polish Defense Ministry (MON), the costs of the operations thus far have reached 220 million zloty (US$70 million) and are rising. But the real figure for the Polish side is still unclear. (1)

Poland is politically subordinate to the United States and dependent on its financing of the operation. The U.S. government pledged to provide two-thirds of the cost, with the remaining one-third paid by the Polish treasury.

But at the same time, the Polish government is drastically cutting its social, health and education expenditures in order keep the government's debt ratio under 60 percent of GNP. This is in line with the Polish constitution, but it also must keep the current fiscal deficit under 3 percent as one of the requirements of admission to the EU -- which Poland joined in May.

In human terms, the involvement has cost 13 Polish lives and the upcoming elections in 2005 are sure to bring this topic to the forefront of the discussion.

As far as the motivational considerations behind Polish action in Iraq go, the economic benefits were given a priority over others. Poland's population is 38 million and has a stubbornly high unemployment rate of 19.2 percent.

▲ U.S. and Polish forces are working side by side in Iraq.
ⓒ2004 PolishMON
"It was thought of in a very naive way that if our troops go, the rebuilding contracts from Americans will follow," said Ostrowski in his Warsaw office last week. "Americans are very jealous for money and contracts to be awarded so the economic benefits didn't materialize."

With wide media coverage of the 13 Polish soldiers returning home in caskets and with the economic benefits of Poland's participation in the Iraq War far from realization, the domestic press has reported that the government of Prime Minister Marek Belka is currently mulling a large-scale withdrawal -- if not a complete pullout.

Growing violence in many parts of Iraq has left coalition forces in a supporting role while the U.S. military and its Iraqi allies are left to undertake major combat offensives in order to pacify the insurgency.

The biggest post-World War II military operation of 2,500 Polish troops has had a positive impact of providing the Polish Army with battlefield training. Polish military equipment is being adapted to the near desert conditions of Iraq.

However, the current quagmire in Iraq has resulted also in a certain amount of spin that Polish government is trying to produce as a face-saving measure for its decision to go to Iraq.

Apart for being a heralded as Polish effort to free the people of Iraq, the other issues and compensation benefits have been put to Washington for Polish involvement in the coalition. President Aleksander Kwasniewski has dutifully attempted and failed to secure a visa free travel of Poles to the United States since the matter was in the hands of U.S. Senate and not the Bush administration. This left Poland feeling empty-handed.

"With next year being a major election year, many political parties will use the Iraq issue in their own platforms to bring the current government to the end," concluded Ostrowski.

The current debacle came on the heels of previous business decisions and deals made by the Polish government with the United States. For example, last year's commitment to move a number of U.S. military bases from Germany to Poland is proving to be largely symbolic.

In this light, Poland's mostly pro-U.S. stand will certainly face a rocky road ahead among EU members. It will have to account for its "independent" foreign policy and its costs.
(1) Requests for comment by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were not returned.

Derek Monroe is an international business consultant and conceptual installation artist who lives with his wife and two children near Chicago, Illinois. He was born in Poland and has lived, studied and worked in various countries including Germany, Mexico and Japan.

2004/12/07 오전 11:02
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