In the center of the beautiful and tragic city of Warsaw stands a monument to the memory of the hundreds of thousands of young people who gave their lives in defense of Polish freedom.
That monument stands for the thousands of Polish soldiers and civilians alike who happened to live on what would become the Eastern Front in World War I. That monument stands in honor of the thousands of Poles who resisted Nazi tyranny. It stands for those who sought to protect that nation’s Jewish population from the liquidation of the ghettos and the gassing of whole families in the Waffen-SS camps. It mocks the Soviets who, having convinced the Poles in Warsaw that the Red Army would support an anti-German uprising in 1944, halted their advance westward on the bank of the Vistula river and watched callously as the Germans ruthlessly crushed Polish resistance forces.
It is also a monument to resolution in the face of repression. It stands as a testament to the courage of the Polish people who resisted Soviet communism and its puppet, Wojciech Jaruzelski. It recognizes souls who risked sharing the fate of dissidents in Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the Solidarity uprisings of 1981.
It is a solemn place, and that solemnity was shattered in the most pitiless fashion in the summer of 2012 when honor and decorum took a backseat to ego, careerism, and the demands of the modern American presidential campaign. There, following an earnest display of respect for the Poles who were crushed in the merciless gears of the last century’s great power politics, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was made aware of the fact had the great misfortune of being a Republican. Not just any Republican, but one who was vying to unseat a sitting and ostensibly transformative Democratic president.
Romney ignited a fabricated firestorm of controversy a week prior when he had the gall to read and repeat stories published in the British tabloids questioning London’s security preparations ahead of that year’s Olympic ceremonies. That was a mistake on Romney’s part, if only because it provided British politicians an opportunity to shift blame and stoke chauvinistic pride by attacking the presidential candidate’s temerity. Romney had to answer for his blunder, and the Washington press corps chose the Tomb of the Unknown Solider as the site where they would seek restitution.
“What about your gaffes?” The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker famously shouted. He was far from the only reporter bellowing questions along these crass lines, but the frivolity of his inquiry contrasted so sharply with the sobriety of his surroundings that it became emblematic of the whole episode. For the press, the story of Romney’s European sojourn could now logically circle back to their favorite subject: Themselves. Romney aide Rick Gorka’s decision to respond to these reporters’ inquiries with an intemperate demand that they park their lips on his backside fostered in reporters a perverse sense of victimization. Not only did Rucker’s question epitomize the political media’s myopia, but the fact that it elicited an aggressive response from a Romney aide ensured that the press would look back on this moment from a position of aggrieved self-righteousness.
Thus, what Romney hoped would be a trip marked by presidential images of him pensively contemplating the great debt that Western leaders owe Poland’s war dead was undone. Instead, his trip became a trite political story. Over the following weeks, reporters, pundits, and political professionals litigated which party had their fragile sensibilities most offended in Warsaw. Poland’s noble dead were all but forgotten.
Chasing those same elusive optics, Republican presidential hopeful and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will travel to Central and Eastern Europe this summer. Bush seeks to rise above the political fray and, already looking toward the general election, will cast himself in the role of America’s next commander-in-chief as he visits NATO member states Germany, Poland, and Estonia.
“Bush’s visit gives him a chance to lay out his differences with Obama, a Democrat, particularly when it comes to NATO, with alliance members Poland and Estonia both watching events in Ukraine with alarm,” Reuters reported. “In Germany, the former Florida governor will address the governing Christian Democratic Union economic conference, said the aide, who requested anonymity. In Poland and Estonia, Bush will meet government and business leaders as well as leaders of civic and non-governmental organizations.”
Quite unlike 2012, the familiar sense of unease that accompanies the prelude to war has returned to Eastern Europe.
Disturbing reports out of Poland indicate that citizens are readying for war, organizing into militias, and training for the inevitable Russian invasion that they were fortunate enough to avoid in 1981. “Poland should be armed to be able to defend itself as long as possible,” former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski told a Polish news outlet in March. “There is no reason to wait; we have to act.” And they are not. In January, the government issued a nearly 100-page handbook providing citizens with information on how to both survive and resist a foreign occupation.
In Estonia, with a Russian-led war engulfing a fellow former Soviet Republic just a few miles to the south, NATO forces are again training for combat in the territories that once made up the Warsaw Pact. But the infantry battalions and Abrams tanks engaging in live fire exercises in Lithuania aren’t enough to assuage fears in the Baltics. “Estonia sees that a more long-term stationing of European allies in Estonia and the Baltic region could be led by Germany,” Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas said last week. “We are very grateful that German airplanes are protecting Estonian airspace.”
And it is in Germany that the frontlines in the West’s new war against Russia are set. Berlin is the hinge upon which the West’s financial conflict with Russia swings. If the European Union’s economy begins to buckle, so too will the West’s unified front against Russian aggression. “European sanctions are definitely having an impact on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s Russia, but we can afford these sanctions only because, and as long as we have a strong economy,” German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told scholars at a Brookings Institution conference this month. “The long-term conflict [with Russia] will be decided only on the basis of economic strength.”
The Central and Eastern Europe that Romney toured was one scarred by war, but it was also healing and characterized by vibrancy and dynamism. Today, those scars are bleeding afresh, torn open by Russian aggression. The Europe that Jeb Bush will tour in June and might inherit as President of the United States is a vastly more dangerous place than just three years ago. It is a suboptimal condition owing to the current president’s naiveté and incaution, and Bush will find the American political press even less willing to acknowledge Barack Obama’s failures in 2015 than they were in 2012. Jeb Bush shouldn’t expect the hopelessly shallow political press to have acquired some appreciation for the generations who lived and died before them in the last three years, but he can anticipate that the American public’s apprehensions will be heightened. Like the Poles, the Estonians, and even the Germans, American voters are also wearily eyeing the Eastern Front.
For Jeb Bush, his forthcoming tour of Europe is both an opportunity and an obligation. Though it certainly is one, this trip and its implications are far too important to allow reporters to confuse it for a campaign event.