Certainly, questions will come when the Obama entourage on Thursday moves to Deauville, France, the Normandy town that is home to this year’s G-8 summit. The other leaders want to hear from Obama what comes next in Libya, how will the troop draw-down in Afghanistan proceed, and how can they coordinate their responses to the Arab Spring.
The backdrop to all these questions is American alarm over the deep cuts being made by all the European allies in their defense budgets because of debt concerns. Libya has “revealed some of the strains that the U.K. is suffering in the operations of its military,” said Stephen Flanagan, a senior National Security Council and State Department staffer during the Clinton presidency and now at CSIS. “So this has led to the question of how long can we keep this up?”
While in Deauville, the president will meet with Russian President Dimitry Medvedev and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan as well as with a group of nine African leaders brought to the summit by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He will meet with a similarly large group the next day when he goes to Poland. In Warsaw, Obama will participate in the final session of a meeting of leaders from Central and Eastern Europe.
U.S.-Polish relations have been troubled since the start of the Obama administration when the new president embarrassed Warsaw by canceling a planned missile defense system strongly opposed by Russia. It took a year to hammer out an amended agreement, with a missile defense site in Poland now expected to become operational in 2018. But there is still a need for Obama to arrive in Warsaw with “a message of reassurance to Poland, righting a relationship that got off on the wrong foot in 2009,” said Conley.
During this trip, the president is expected to give Poland something else it has been requesting for some time—the basing of some American warplanes on Polish soil. Obama will announce that a squadron of F-16s will be shifted in 2013 from Aviano, Italy, to the central Polish town of Lask.
But the Poles are decidedly unhappy with Washington over another issue that has long been a sticking point in U.S.-Polish relations—the administration’s reluctance to include Poland in the program that permits Polish citizens to travel to the United States without a visa. Obama has promised to resolve the issue before he leaves the White House, but early indications are that it is not yet done. This “resonates badly among Polish society,” said ambassador Kupiecki. “We understand... how complex the situation is in the United States. But there is no logical explanation currently for the situation.”
At the White House, Rhodes made no promises. “We have been working this very hard and have made progress,” he said Friday. “It’s not a simple matter,” he added.
In some ways, the Polish stop is a belated make-up of a visit the president planned to make last year after a tragic plane crash killed the Polish president, his wife, and much of the top civilian and military leadership of the government. Obama intended to attend the funeral. But he was thwarted by a cloud of ash that hovered over Europe at the time in the wake of a volcano in Iceland. Now, the president will honor the victims with a wreathlaying.