Obama in Poland to Boost Ties, Learn Lessons

Pivoting to the last phase of a weeklong European diplomatic tour, President Obama on Friday gave his attention to Poland, hoping to inject some vigor into a relationship with an ally that has sometimes felt slighted by Washington.

The president landed in the capital of Warsaw on a cool and cloudy evening for an overnight stay in Poland, a strategically important U.S. ally in Central Europe. His primary business of the night was a dinner with Central and Eastern European Union leaders, hoping to emphasize how their experiences with democracy could offer real-life lessons to those seeking freedoms across North Africa and the Middle East.

Upon arrival, Obama helped placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The memorial in central Warsaw is dedicated to all the unknown soldiers who have given their lives to Poland in past wars.

The president was also placing a wreath at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial. And before heading home Saturday to concerns, Obama was to meet with Poland's political leaders and a hold a news conference.

Obama did not come bearing the news Polish officials wanted: access to a visa waiver program for those traveling to the United States. Obama aides said he would provide officials a status update on the effort but was not in position yet to offer more.

Hours before Obama's arrival, Polish headlines were dominated by news that he was being snubbed by legendary Solidarity founder Lech Walesa, who said he was refusing to meet with Obama.

Solidarity was a national freedom movement under Walesa's leadership in the 1980s that helped bring down communism. His courage in defying communist authorities at the time earned him a Nobel peace prize.

Walesa said in televised remarks that President Bronislaw Komorowski and the U.S. ambassador to Poland had called him hoping to persuade him to meet Obama. Walesa insisted, however, that he had no interest in a meeting that would amount to little more than a photo-op.

"This time a meeting does not suit me," the 67-year-old former president said in comments on news station TVN24. His office said he planned instead to attend a biblical festival in Italy.

Walesa refused to divulge more, but it seemed possible he was offended at not being offered a one-on-one meeting with Obama early on. Walesa had been invited to meet with Obama along with other former leaders of the anti-communist movement and current party leaders.

In past visits to Poland, U.S. presidents often scheduled private meetings with him and Walesa is accustomed to having visiting leaders travel to his home in the northern port city of Gdansk to see him.

Though Walesa's snub got significant media attention in Poland, some said it wasn't a surprise given his reputation for public complaining if he feels he hasn't been given enough respect.

Deputy Parliament Speaker Stefan Niesolowski accused Walesa of pettiness, noting that he had obviously been offended.

Obama will hold two days of political meetings focusing on security, energy and joint U.S.-Polish efforts to promote democracy in North Africa, Belarus and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

But unlike past U.S. presidents who visited this nation of 38 million, Obama will not meet or address the Polish public directly. That deprives him of the chance to connect directly -- and emotionally -- with Poles in the way former presidents such as George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton did on visits to the country.

It will also make it harder for him to win over a nation that has never warmed to him the way many have in more liberal Western Europe, according to Marcin Zaborowski, a political analyst and director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs.

Obama will attend a dinner Friday night with about 20 Central and Eastern European leaders holding a yearly summit. However, the inclusion of Kosovo's president has caused a diplomatic wrinkle, prompting Serbia and Romania to boycott the event in protest. Neither one recognizes the independence of the former Serbian province.

Obama's trip will also feature bilateral talks that will focus on security issues. Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said the two countries would discuss a plan for Washington to station F-16 fighter jets and Hercules planes in Poland on a rotational basis starting in 2013.

Another key topic will be deepening cooperation in the area of shale gas exploration and nuclear energy.

Several U.S. companies are searching for shale gas in Poland, which is believed to possess vast quantities of the energy source underground. American companies also hope to have a role in a Polish project to build the country's first-ever nuclear power plants in the coming years.

But perhaps most importantly, the trip offers a chance for Washington to stress to Poles that it considers the relationship important -- a message U.S. officials have made an effort to stress.

Poles have felt in past years that both the administrations of George W. Bush and of Obama have neglected their concerns, and traditionally strong pro-American sentiments are in decline compared with the early years after the fall of communism. At that time, Washington was seen as both a model of democracy that helped end the Cold War and as Poland's main guarantor of security in a region where Russia still throws its weight around.