Obama to reassure Poland with air base deal

Reuters News
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Posted: May 27, 2011 2:03 PM
Obama to reassure Poland with air base deal

By Steve Holland and Gareth Jones

WARSAW (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will reaffirm a U.S. commitment to Poland's security with a deal to set up an air detachment, the White House said on Friday, meeting a key Polish request for "American boots on the ground."

Obama, on his first trip to NATO ally Poland, will also urge leaders from ex-communist central and eastern Europe assembled in Warsaw to share their experiences of managing a democratic transition with reformers in North Africa and the Middle East.

"We are going to announce tomorrow the conclusion of the agreement to establish an aviation detachment in Poland that will allow for our two air forces to cooperate in training the Poles to utilize the American aircraft that they purchased -- F-16s and C-130s," Liz Sherwood-Randall, a senior White House national security official, said on board Air Force One.

"What we will be doing is rotating trainers and aircraft to Poland so they can become more inter-operable with NATO," Sherwood-Randall told reporters.

"It will be a small permanent presence on the ground and then a rotational presence that will be more substantial."

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski hailed the growing level of military cooperation between his country and the United States in comments to the Polska daily newspaper on Friday.

"To the east of the Oder river (dividing Germany and Poland) American forces will appear, and this at a time when America is reducing its overall military presence in Europe," he said.

RUSSIAN "RESET"

Some politicians and academics in central Europe have expressed fears in the past that their region's security could become a casualty of Obama's drive to "reset" relations with Russia, whose cooperation he needs on Iran and Afghanistan.

Obama has sought to soothe such worries by unveiling a new missile defense strategy after scrapping George W. Bush's plans for a shield in Poland and the Czech Republic and by reaffirming the principle of mutual defense as the cornerstone of NATO.

"I think understandably at the very beginning of the administration there was some concern that if there was a reset with Russia it would come at the expense of Europe," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters.

"What we have found recently is that these countries very much came to support the reset."

Poland has tried to mend long-chilly ties with Russia, its Cold War overlord, mirroring Obama's own "reset," but the two are still split on NATO enlargement and other issues.

Missile defense and energy cooperation will top Obama's agenda in his bilateral talks with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk on Saturday.

Obama's missile defense plans envisage the deployment of SM-3 interceptors in Poland from 2018.

The plan is aimed at protecting NATO allies from short- and medium-range ballistic missile attack by such countries as Iran. Russia has been invited to take part but is seeking a bigger say in the development plans, stirring unease in central Europe.

"The base is to be built by 2018 and confirmation of that fact is of utmost importance," Komorowski told Polish radio.

Promoting democracy in the Arab world and countries such as Belarus was to be the main topic of Friday's working dinner with Komorowski and the regional heads of state.

"One of the themes of our administration is that these countries that moved along toward democracy at the end of the Cold War have great experience to share with those countries that have not yet made that transition," said Sherwood-Randall.

Obama flew to Warsaw after attending a summit of the Group of Eight nations in France.

On his arrival, he laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in central Warsaw and also paid a visit to the Warsaw Ghetto, where many of the city's Jews perished in World War Two.

(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Louise Ireland)