Score one for Warsaw. President Barack Obama promised Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski on Wednesday that Poland would be admitted to the State Department's visa waiver program, a concession to Poland that also fulfills a key GOP senator's demand for his vote to ratify the New START treaty.
Poland, which is the only member of the 25-country "Schengen area" not able to travel to the United States without obtaining a visa in advance, has been petitioning the administration to let it in the program for a long time. After neighboring countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, and Latvia entered the program, the Poles finally got a promise from the Obama administration that they would work with Congress to make it happen.
"I am going to make this a priority," Obama said, sitting alongside Komorowski. "And I want to solve this issue before very long. My expectation is, is that this problem will be solved during my presidency."
So did Obama just promise to get it done before 2012 or 2016? That's unclear. But it is the strongest statement from this administration yet about the issue.
"I am well aware that this is a source of irritation between two great friends and allies, and we should resolve it," Obama said. "The challenge I have right now is that there is a congressional law that prevents my administration from taking unilateral executive action. So we're going to have to work with Congress to make some modifications potentially on the law."
"I take these declarations with good faith," Komorowski responded. "I feel simply committed to say that Polish public opinion completely does not understand why all the neighbors of Poland, the neighborhood of Poland, can use the Visa Waiver Program, and we can't."
The Obama administration has overseen a rough patch in U.S.-Poland relations. After being hailed as a leader of "new Europe" by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and being promised missile defense installations by President George W. Bush's administration, the Poles watched with alarm as the United States shifted its focus toward Russia after Obama was elected.
The Poles publicly support the U.S. "reset" policy with Russia, reasoning that improved U.S.-Russia relations increase stability for the entire continent. But privately, they have felt neglected and still smart from what they see as the Obama administration's poor handling of the decision to scuttle missile defense installations planned for Poland and replace them with other types of military cooperation.
But Obama has an ulterior motive in moving the visa waiver program forward unrelated to improving U.S.-Polish relations. As The Cable reported, Sen. George Voinvovich (R-OH) offered to trade his vote on the New START treaty in exchange for this concession to Poland.
Voinovich argued that the Poles had increasing doubts about their relationship with the United States, due to the Russian "reset" policy and New START, and therefore needed to be reassured with the visa action. But Polish Foreign Minister Radislow Sikorski said last month, and Komorowski affirmed today, that Poland supports the ratification of New START. They think the visa issue should be addressed on its own merits.
"Poland supports and fully accepts the aspiration for the ratification of the new START because we believe that this is the investment in the better and safer future, and this is also the investment in the real control over the current situation," Komorowski said.
"You have to have the confidence but you also have to verify, because then, perhaps at the end of the process, we will also push the reset button [with Russia], after 1,000 years of our history," he said.
Entry into the visa waiver program is an issue of national pride and international respect for Poland. The technical reason Poland couldn't enter the program was because the rate of refusal of its citizens who apply for visas to the United States was over 10 percent. In other words, too many Poles were judged by American consular officials as a risk for overstaying their visas and becoming illegal immigrants.
Poland is now under the 10 percent threshold -- but the standard was dropped to 3 percent last year after the Department of Homeland Security failed to meet its own deadlines for an unrelated biometric security program.
So exactly how did Komorowski approach Obama on the visas? "I want all Poles and Polish-Americans to know that President Komorowski raised this issue very robustly with me," Obama said.
We're told by a source who was inside the room that Komorowski didn't make a specific demand, but simply told Obama that this was a very important issue to him and the Polish people, and that all items of cooperation were on the table between the two allies. .
Obama was joined by Ambassador to Poland Lee Feinstein, who has been dealing with the issue in Warsaw. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs also attended.