No U.S. Visa for You! But How About a Nice Trip to Iraq?
Why America loves Poland's soldiers but not her tourists.
You have to hand it to the Poles: There is something positively endearing about their loyalty to America. The war in Iraq is unpopular there, but Poland has nonetheless given a sweeping majority to a center-right government that will reconsider the departing coalition's decision to pull Polish troops out of Iraq.
But don't let anybody tell you the Polish election was a ringing endorsement of President Bush's Iraq policy, because there's a catch: If it acts on one of its campaign pledges, the new government is likely to ask for a "new contract" with America in exchange for its help. Poland, it appears, is disappointed with the lack of any perceivable payoff for its Iraq deployment. Rewards might have included contracts for Polish companies in Iraqi reconstruction projects and increased U.S. investment in Poland, but for the average Pole, it seems there is one American concession that matters more than any other: visa-free travel to the United States.
Unlike most citizens of the European Union, Poles can't just hop on a plane and fly to New York for a few days. Tourists need to apply for a visa, which generally entails sitting down for an interviewwith a U.S. consular officer. This officer will reject the application if she or he suspects the applicant might secretly harbor a desire to "overstay" and take an American job. (The decision often appears quite arbitrary.) The same rules apply for nearly allof post-communist Europe (minus Slovenia), but Poland is notable mainly due to the size of its population (38 million) and its diaspora: Nine million people identify themselves as Polish-Americans, and according to the last census, over 667,000 U.S. residents speak Polish at home as their first language.
Not being able to see the Grand Canyon or visit relatives in Chicago without a bureaucratic hassle may sound a bit petty to American ears, but it's downright denigrating for Poles and others in the former Soviet Bloc who view themselves as deserving of at least the same treatment as Western Europeans. To use a mawkish metaphor offered to the Los Angeles Times by one Polish legislator, Poland is the faithful, forbearing wife, and America is the husband that won't (or can't) stop sleeping around. When outgoing President Aleksander Kwasniewski visited Bush in January 2004, their joint press conference ended with Kwasniewski's emphatic plea to Bush for a "no-visa" policy for Poland. A spokesman for Civic Platform, the junior partner in Warsaw's new coalition government, said a relaxation of visa rules will be among the concessions demanded of America by the new government. Even the conservative Heritage Foundation says U.S. visa policy fosters resentment of America in Poland.
Poland's shift to the right is the result of a dual election—one for parliament, already complete, and another, on Oct. 9, for president. A candidate from one of the two winning parties in the parliamentary race is almost certain to win the presidential vote as well. Both parties have campaigned on a theme of house-cleaning: a bid to purge the state of crooked politicians who have mismanaged the economy. Foreign policy has played a minor role, overshadowed by the country's 18 percent unemployment rate and the stench of corruption that has tainted the outgoing government. Differences over Iraq notwithstanding, few Poles would question the country's alliance with the United States.
The winners, Law and Justice and Civic Platform, differ mainly over economic policy: Law and Justice, which came out on top with 27 percent, favors a traditionally European social-welfare state, while Civic Platform advocates deregulation and a freer market. What unites them is fierce anti-communism—both sprang from the dissident Solidarity movement of the 1980s, while the discredited ruling party rose from the Soviet-backed regime of the old Polish Worker's Party—and a vow to bring some integrity back into Poland's scandal-plagued politics. Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski(not to be confused with his identical twin brother Lech Kaczynski, who is running in the presidential election) promises a "moral revolution"; in short, the coalition won by pledging to be honest.
It is this spirit of honesty—and with it, assertiveness—that Warsaw is likely to bring to future dealings with Washington, including any renegotiation of the Iraq "contract." To follow the marriage metaphor, this is one scorned lover that's about to set a few things straight with her wayward mate. And one thing that's bound to get brought up is that humiliating visa requirement.
If the solution sounds a bit too easy—get rid of the red tape for Poles visiting America, and the Poles will love us again, this time with renewed ardor—that's because it is. Of the 100,000 or soPoles who apply for American tourist visas each year, roughly 30 percent are rejected because consular officers suspect they're going to try to work in the States, adding to the estimated 70,000 already working in the country on expired visas. The rejection threshold to qualify for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (which allows citizens of selected countries, including most of Western Europe, to visit America visa-free) is 3 percent. So either U.S. immigration policy needs a complete overhaul—and let's save that argument for another night—or the Poles have a long way to go.
Steps short of eliminating the visa requirement entirely could probably help. Washington could announce a commitment-free timetable to introduce Poland (and other post-communist states) to the Visa Waiver Program, or at least soften the policy—if not immediately, then within, say, five years. The Heritage Foundation recommends something akin to this approach.
Since Poland's military help in Iraq is largely symbolic (there are 1,500 troops there now), Washington may take a hard line on the visa question, fearing, like the French, an influx of Polish plumbers. But Washington ignores the mood of Poland, and the visa issue in particular, at its peril. Along with Britain, Poland is America's most loyal ally in Europe; the Polish people are famously—almost notoriously—pro-American. Some say Poles actually sweat McDonald's hamburger juice, and it is rumored that if you poke one, he will bleed special sauce. That is why the Poles are integral to preserving American influence in the enlarged European Union. The old quip about a "new Europe" more allied with U.S. interests—already misleading in so many ways—would mean little were it not for Poland, by far the largest and most pro-American of the new EU states. The rhetoric of Poland's next government signals that Warsaw's loyalty cannot be taken for granted. In the long term, Washington is in a pickle if it starts to lose Poland.
Scott MacMillan is a freelance journalist who lives in Cairo.