Warsaw — Holding out Poland’s transformation to democracy as a model for the world, President Barack Obama on Saturday exhorted Western allies and the American public alike to extend their support, energy and vision to those now reaching for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa.
Obama wound up his six-day trip to Europe with a message aimed squarely at the people of the United States, saying that in a time of tight budgets, “I want the American people to understand we’ve got to leave room for us to continue our tradition of providing leadership when it comes to freedom, democracy, human rights.”
Obama, in a brief news conference with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, assured Americans that he spends the bulk of each day worrying about the U.S. economy and how to strengthen it and create jobs. But he coupled that with the message that it is a U.S. obligation to support democracy around the globe, one that pays dividends in the form of a safer and more prosperous world.
Speaking with urgency in his voice, Obama said that while no outside country can “impose change” on another, “We can really help. We can facilitate. We can make a difference.”
His message was a tacit answer to simmering sentiment that America should cut back on foreign assistance at a time when it is grappling with deficit troubles at home. In fact, foreign aid makes up less than 1 percent of the federal budget.
Earlier in the day, Obama met with Poland’s president, Bronislaw Komorowski, and with a team of Poles, including veterans of the Solidarity movement, who recently visited Tunisia to share their advice on how to build a democracy. A popular uprising in Tunisia led to the overthrow of a longtime autocrat and sparked the protest movements that still sweep through the region.
Poland, Obama said, “has gone through what many countries want to now go through, and has done so successfully.”
The president also offered reassurances to the Poles that his efforts to “reset” relations with Russia would not come at the expense of the security of Poland or other nations in Central and Eastern Europe.
He said improved U.S. contacts with Russia “has benefited the region ... because it’s reduced tensions and has facilitated genuine dialogue about how each country can move forward.”
Citing struggles for democracy in Poland’s own neighborhood, Obama had tough words for Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. He praised Poland’s assistance to Belarusian people and its efforts to encourage changes in Belarus. “President Lukashenko has shown a total disregard for democratic values, the rule of law, and the human rights of his own people,” Obama said.
Timed to coincide with Obama’s visit, the United States and Poland completed an agreement that will place a U.S. Air Force detachment in Poland beginning in 2013. The presence of U.S. warplanes on Polish soil is designed to improve the ability of U.S. and Polish armed forces to cooperate as members of the NATO alliance.
Obama did not, however, bring with him a solution to a longstanding irritant to the Poles: their exclusion from a visa waiver program for those traveling to the United States. Many Poles feel that their strong support for the U.S. and their contributions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should have won them the privilege of visa-free travel to the United States.
Obama said Poland doesn’t qualify for the waiver based on current law but promised that he was working to change that.