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Polish Chief Is Iraq War’s Surprise Winner

The second Gulf war is not yet finished, but the Polish president, Alexander Kwasniewski, is already one of its winners. He has emerged alongside British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the European leader most visible in the military campaign.

Poland’s place on the battlefield gave it new stature as a staunch ally of the United States in the war on terror. While the United Kingdom was able to share coalition leadership with the United States and Australia put its so-called Desert Phantoms on the ground in Western Iraq to search possible Scud sites, continental Europe was represented on the front lines by the special anti-chemical warfare units dispatched by nations of the former Eastern Bloc, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland. Of these, it was Poland that played the leading role.

Indeed, when President Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, lists these former communist countries that assisted in the war effort, she makes it a practice consistently to put Poland at the end. Her purpose is to emphasize that Kwasniewski went an extra mile: Where the others sent support units, his troops fought. He sent 200 of his elite GROM commandos to fight in the port city of Umm Qasr, shoulder to shoulder with Her Majesty’s Desert Rats, in a partnership that reminded many British vets of the Italian campaign in 1943. The United States and the United Kingdom gave formal recognition to Poland’s role at the end of the Belfast summit when, in the text of their final statement, they listed it with Australia as the only nations that openly sent ground troops into Iraq.

The role played by the GROM commandos against Saddam Hussein’s fedayeen and the elite troops of the Republican Guard will serve Kwasniewski well in the future. It is part of an ambitious strategy by the Polish leader to change his nation’s image and status on the world stage. He is aiming high: He wants to reach for the most important seat in the Atlantic alliance at the end of the year, when George Robertson leaves his post of secretary-general of NATO. The GROM commandos have given him an important boost.

Kwasniewski went out on a limb with his war stance, putting himself and his Catholic nation directly at odds with the Vatican’s condemnation of the war, as voiced on several occasions by the Polish cleric Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II. Facing the choice between gambling politically on George W. Bush or following the moral leadership of the pope, Kwasniewski chose realpolitik. His long-range goal is not merely personal: He wants to raise Poland’s profile role in transatlantic relations in advance of 2004, when the European Union is to be enlarged to embrace the former communist countries.

The fact that both Germany and Russia chose to oppose the war only helped Poland to follow its own path. Poland has a long and not always happy history with its two powerful neighbors. When they join in an alliance, Poland rarely gains. Warsaw had already shown attentiveness to America’s interests when it opted to buy American fighter jets instead of Eurofighters for its new Air Force, and again when it agreed to sign the declaration of eight European leaders expressing solidarity with the United States on Iraq and the war on terrorism. However, sending the GROM commandos was a big step forward. It was unpublicized at first, but Poland did not deny it when a Reuters photographer discovered the secret in the first week of the war.

The romance has been mutual. Bush chose Warsaw as the location of his first public speech in Europe after being elected president, just a few months before September 11. In it he described his vision of Europe in the new century as a “House of Freedom.” Kwasniewski’s foray into the Iraqi desert was a form of repayment to Bush.

Poland’s choice has helped alter the geopolitics of the big Catholic countries of Europe. Poland was not the only defector from the Vatican position against the war. Josè Maria Aznar of Spain co-sponsored the text of the second resolution at the United Nations and was a full participant in the crucial prewar summit in the Azores. Portugal hosted the summit. But the other Catholic countries either sat on the fence or opposed Washington. Even Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, while listed by the State Department in the so-called “coalition of the willing,” chose not to send either combat or support troops to the battlefield. In so doing, he probably gave up his chance to challenge Kwasniewski for the seat of NATO secretary general. At this stage, it appears that the Polish leader is emerging as the winner.

Maurizio Molinari is the U.S. correspondent of La Stampa, the Italian daily.

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