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EUROPE
Obama Cites Poland as Model for Arab Shift
By MARK LANDLERMAY 28, 2011
President Obama walks with President Komorowski of Poland as reviews the troops during an arrival ceremony the Presidential Palace, in Warsaw, Poland on Saturday. Doug Mills/The New York Times
WARSAW — President Obama held up Poland on Saturday as a model for Arab nations undergoing political change, saying its peaceful overthrow of Communism held lessons for Tunisia and other Arab countries grappling with the chaotic aftermath of popular revolts.
Mr. Obama’s stop came at the end of a busy, six-day tour of Europe that served both as a reaffirmation of the trans-Atlantic alliance and a call for those European allies to advance the cause of those rallying for political change in the Middle East and North Africa.
From Britain and France, Mr. Obama asked mainly for money to shore up the teetering economies of Egypt and Tunisia. But from Poland, the president sought something less tangible: inspiration, a kind of how-to manual from people who had taken a similar journey.
“It has gone through what so many countries want to now go through,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference with Prime Minister Donald Tusk. “Poland can play an extraordinary role precisely because they have they have traveled so far so rapidly over the last 25 years.”
Earlier, Mr. Obama met with elders of the Solidarity movement, which led the democratic uprising here, as well as young democracy activists just back from Tunisia, where they offered advice based on the Polish experience (Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity, was not at the meeting; White House officials said he was out of the country).
Reflecting on those encounters — here and in France, where he met with Egyptian and Tunisian leaders — Mr. Obama struck a cautious note about the trajectory of the Arab upheaval. The euphoria of the uprisings, he said, could easily give way to setbacks and disappointments.
“What you have is a process that’s not always smooth,” Mr. Obama said. “There are going to be twists and turns, there are going to be occasions where you take one step forward and two steps back.”
The critical element, he said, was to put institutions in place, so that new democratic governments can legally guarantee the rights of minorities and a free press, and that are resilient enough to survive the ethnic conflicts sure to arise in some countries.
For Mr. Obama, who has struggled at times to fashion a response to the Arab uprisings, this week’s trip suggested he had settled on a guiding principle, which he voiced at every stop: while the West cannot dictate events, it must facilitate them.
That applies to the United States, he said, even if it is burdened with fiscal deficits and a fragile economy.
President Obama visited the Warsaw memorial to those who died in the 2010 plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski. Doug Mills/The New York Times
“I want the American people to understand that we’ve got to leave room for us to continue our tradition of providing leadership when it comes to freedom, democracy, human rights,” he said.
Not all the visit was so high-minded. In Poland, as in Ireland on Monday, Mr. Obama reached out to countries with large emigrant populations that constitute potent voting blocs in the United States.
“If you’ve lived in Chicago and you haven’t become a little bit Polish, then there’s something wrong with you,” he joked at the news conference.
Mr. Obama’s 24-hour visit, which drew curious but not rapturous crowds to the street, also allowed him to address an issue that has frustrated Polish officials for years: the fact that Poland is not a member of the State Department’s visa waiver program, because it fails to meet the eligibility requirements under the current law.
He announced he was throwing his support behind an effort under way in Congress to rewrite the law so that it uses different criteria, making it easier for Poland to qualify. Given the growing income of Polish tourists, who would be more apt to vacation in New York if they could get visas, he acknowledged there was some self-interest at work.
“We very much want you to shop on Fifth Avenue, and anywhere else in the United States,” Mr. Obama said.
In case the president missed the point, Prime Minister Tusk immediately added, “There are many other places in the world where you can buy and spend your money.”
As he did on previous stops in Britain and France, the president described the trans-Atlantic alliance as the cornerstone of American security. That seemed calculated in part to answer those who say Mr. Obama has neglected Europe in favor of Asia. In Warsaw, the visit was also meant to reassure Poland that the administration’s “reset” of relations with Russia would not come at the expense of the Poles.
On Friday, Russia drew closer to the United States on Libya, with President Dmitri A. Medvedev telling Mr. Obama in a meeting of the Group of 8 in France that he wanted Russia to play a role in easing out the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Mr. Obama also joined the Polish president, Bronislaw Komorowski, in condemning the repression in Belarus, a former Soviet republic, where dissidents and journalists have been jailed.
The lingering suspicions between Poland and Russia were on display outside the gates of the presidential palace, where a crowd of protestors held up large placards asserting a Russian role in the 2010 plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and many members of the Polish military and government establishment.
Just before he left Warsaw, Mr. Obama paid his respects at a memorial for the victims of that crash, lighting a candle and gazing silently at their names on a brushed metal wall in a cathedral.
A version of this article appears in print on May 29, 2011, on page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: Obama Cites Poland As Model for Arab Shift. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe
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