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William Safire: The Bush polonaise

By William Safire
New York Times Op-Ed Columnist

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When President Bush travels to St. Petersburg early next month, he will again urge President Vladimir Putin to stop supplying Iran with the means to develop nuclear weapons. Putin will insist, as usual, that his dangerous trade is all for peaceful purposes.

Bush will seem to tolerate that. Further, he will pretend to forget the Russian's last-ditch support in the U.N. of Saddam's tyranny. That's what passes for diplomacy.

Underneath that public rapprochement, however, will be a clear understanding in the White House that the U.S. and Russia are by no means allies. Though our two nations have some common interests, our differences are deepening: Russia is still a one-party oligarchy with dissent stifled by state-run television and has shown an affinity for murderous dictators from the Balkans to the Persian Gulf.

The atmosphere will be quite different when Bush travels on to Poland. In Cracow or Warsaw, he will warmly shake the hand of President Aleksander Kwasniewski, the leader who — when it came to supporting a war to eradicate a dangerous tyranny — recently demonstrated the courage to defy the Russians on his east and the Germans and French to his west.

During GW2, a symbolic contingent of 200 Polish troops helped secure Iraq's southern oil fields. To show the coalition's appreciation, a couple of thousand more Poles are being given the responsibility and honor of stabilizing a sector of freed Iraq, with their occupation costs covered by nations belatedly wanting to contribute support.

In a gesture that only Eastern Europeans with long memories can fully grasp, the Polish defense minister sweetly invited his German counterpart to contribute troops to this Polish-led European force. Officials under the anti-American Chancellor Gerhard Schröder seethed at the notion of German soldiers' saluting Polish officers, and angrily rejected the generous Polish offer.

This illustrates the way the Atlantic alliance, as it used to be called, is realigning itself. On the Old Europe side, strikebound France and jobless Germany (backed up by the full power of Belgium and Luxembourg) are attempting to rally a group to counter what they claim to see darkly as American hegemony. So far, their only recruit is Putin's Russia, glad to be asked to join anything European.

Fortunately, this Franco-German attempt to dominate neighbors generated the emergence of New Europe. Britain, Spain, Italy and other Western Europeans are unimpressed with the chimera of the U.S. as big-bully cowboy. They found common political cause with the nations of Eastern Europe, who well remember who freed them from Communist domination — and who do not like Jacques Chirac's derogation of them as "not well brought up."

America did not cause this old-new split, though our interest in extending freedom and stopping the spread of terror made us the object of it. Nor is it in our interest to exacerbate the split, because a Europe that gets along with itself is good for world trade and saves us from having to end its wars.

Our post-GW2 policy should be to reward our friends and remind others that actions have consequences. Those last three words are not a euphemism for "punish our enemies"; France and Germany are democratic states, not our enemies, and no punishment is in store — only a withholding of rewards that fairly should go to those who joined freedom's cause.

Accordingly, the redeployment and reduction of our 120,000 troops in Europe — in the works for a year on sensible strategic grounds — will now take place apace. The First Armored Division, now in Iraq, won't return to German bases. Other U.S. troops and dependents will say "auf Wiedersehen" and learn to speak Polish, Romanian, Bulgarian and Hungarian.

Polish jokes are out; French jokes are in. Polish-American communities in Democratic strongholds of Michigan, Wisconsin, Connecticut and Illinois will beam with pride at the new strategic importance, and financial guarantees for new contracts, Bush directs to their land of origin. (Bechtel's decision to subcontract the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste burial site to a French outfit instead of the British-American low bidder will come under close Congressional scrutiny.)

It makes sense to strengthen nations we trust. As we reward freedom's friends, future leaders in Berlin, Paris and Moscow will get the message that shortsighted political actions have long-term consequences.  

William Safire is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times.

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