Americans watching or reading President Barack Obama’s speech in Warsaw, Poland, on Wednesday have to wonder what exactly he is trying to prove or to achieve.
His obvious objective in this trip, which includes stops in Poland, Belgium and France, is to bolster Europeans’ confidence in America as an ally, in NATO, and as they scuffle with Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia over the fate of eastern Ukraine. In that sense, his presence in Poland, a NATO member on the border with Russia, an increased U.S. military presence in the region and his words of encouragement to other NATO members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania are clear in their goal.
What is less clear is what he hopes to achieve, first, by rubbing the Russians’ noses in their loss of influence in the events of the 1990s, the fall of the Soviet Union particularly, at this point. In Ukraine what Mr. Putin could do that would be most useful, if he wanted to, would be to stand down his open and clandestine support of forces opposing the new Ukrainian government in the east of the country, letting Kiev reassert its authority there.
In another verbal flourish bound to annoy Mr. Putin and the Russians, Mr. Obama pulled non-NATO members Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine under the American defense umbrella. One of the few blessings of recent events in Ukraine is that it is not a member of NATO and thus has no treaty call on U.S. or other NATO military support. Nor are Georgia and Moldova members.
Mr. Obama pledged in Warsaw to make available to NATO members a new $1 billion fund, the European Reassurance Initiative, if Congress approves. The Poles had been hoping instead for the creation of a new American military base on their territory. Mr. Obama and the taxpayer might think instead of using some of the $1 billion to repair I-495, part of the main East Coast north-south route, at Wilmington, Delaware, where it has been closed because a bridge is in danger of collapsing.
In an additional, puzzling piece of verbal aggression, Mr. Obama also took a poke at the Chinese, referring to the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square confrontation between student and other protesters and the People’s Liberation Army. Although the Chinese government’s action a quarter of a century ago in Beijing was clearly a violent suppression of democratic expression, Mr. Obama’s citing it in Warsaw, knowing that the Chinese are still very touchy on the subject, was unnecessary.
Mr. Obama will have the occasion at the D-Day ceremonies June 6 in France to talk with Mr. Putin, in private, if he makes the effort. Such a conversation will not have been made any easier by his Warsaw statements but should take place. So we go back to the question of what is he trying to do?