Mitt Romney will wrap himself in the symbolism of the Cold War Monday, starting a visit to Poland studded with reminders of that era—a visit with Lech Walesa, memories of Ronald Reagan and a vow to get tough and stay tough with Russia.
Romney will use the faces and symbols to advertise himself as no nonsense conservative, a better friend to allies and a tougher voice against foes or rivals than President Barack Obama. Building on the theme, he arrives in Poland from Israel, where he pledged to stand with Israel in the face of threats from Iran. “The security of Israel is in the vital national security interest of the United States,” Romney said Sunday in Jerusalem.
The Republican presidential candidate arrives Monday in Gdansk, a name closely identified with the struggle against oppression.
He’ll visit Solidarity Square at the edge of the Gdansk shipyards where Walesa and the pro-freedom Solidarity movement first took hold, a movement that ultimately contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Later, he’ll meet with Walesa, who eventually became the president of a free Poland. Throughout, the shadow of Reagan will loom large as another voice against Soviet oppression. A bronze statue of Reagan was unveiled this month in Gdansk’s Ronald Reagan Park. Romney also will meet with Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
Tuesday, Romney will be in Warsaw, where he’ll deliver a speech discussing “The U.S.-Poland Relationship and the Values of Liberty.”
The trip is designed to remind everyone of "U.S. support of Poland as a captive nation during the Cold War," as well as Reagan’s support of the Solidarity movement, according to Romney foreign policy adviser Ian Brzezinski.
Romney also hopes to remind U.S. voters of Walesa’s frosty relationship with Obama.
Walesa rejected an invitation to meet with Obama when the president visited Poland last year. Reports said Walesa was annoyed he could not a have a one on one meeting. Romney will stress he’s coming to Poland at Walesa’s invitation.
Conservatives have sharply criticized Obama for his treatment of Poland, particularly the 2009 decision to reverse the Bush administration decision to develop a missile defense shield system based partly in Poland. The country’s leaders were concerned that Obama was going too far in his "reset" of relations with the Russians.
The president also stumbled in May, when he referred to a World War II "Polish death camp."
Obama made the remark during a Medal of Freedom ceremony for Jan Karski, a resistance fighter against the Nazi occupation of Poland. The president noted “Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself.”
Polish officials were outraged at the awkward phrasing that suggested the death camps were Polish, when they were run by the Nazis who held Poland captive. The White House quickly said it was referring to “Nazi death camps in Poland” and Obama expressed regret over the comment in a letter to Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.
Still, Obama remains popular in Poland. And talking like a Cold Warrior could seem out of place in the modern world.
"We live in a much more shades-of-gray world than what they yearn for," said John Hulsman, a Germany-based international political consultant.
Half the Polish people have some or a lot of confidence in the president, compared to 41 percent feeling that way toward George W. Bush Bush four years ago, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project.
Obama administration officials vigorously dispute the notion that the administration has abandoned the Poles. During a visit to Poland last year, he announced the United States agreed to send F-16 fighter jets and C-130 cargo aircraft to train in Poland, a move hailed by Polish leaders as a sign of the U.S. commitment to defend Central and Eastern Europe.
In addition, "this administration is on the path to deploy a missile defense system for all of Europe, with significant parts being based in Poland," said Michele Flournoy, former Obama administration defense undersecretary for policy. "The bottom line is we’ve made a lot of progress the last three and a half years."
Romney will try to dispel that notion, as he suggested in a speech last week in Nevada.
"The operating principle of American foreign policy has been to work with our allies so that we can deter aggression before it breaks into conflict," he said. "Yet the president’s moved in the opposite direction."