Thursday, June 26, 2008

Europe.view no 87

Not quiet on the eastern front
Jun 26th 2008

How to lose friends and alienate people

HAD it been cooked up in the Kremlin's department of fiendishly clever geopolitical plots it could hardly be more damaging. First, America arm-twists some of its most loyal European allies to do dreadful things in great secrecy. Then it boasts about them. The result: America's tattered moral authority frays further, and the allies look stupid in the eyes of their voters and neighbours.

Poland and other ex-captive nations still deny that they have had anything to do with the torture and illegal detention of terrorist suspects. But a report in the New York Times last weekend gives details of the interrogation (to put it euphemistically) of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the attack on September 11th 2001.

Seized in Pakistan on March 1st 2003, he was moved to Poland within days, to an intelligence-service base near Szymany Airport. The article features the success of a “soft-spoken” CIA agent, Deuce Martinez, in persuading the prisoner to provide information that “tough treatment” (described as “cold temperatures, sleeplessness, pain and fear”) had failed to dislodge.

That is a startling breach of secrecy, if not a huge surprise. A senior Polish official has already confirmed that CIA officers were based at the Stare Kiejkuty base, near Szymany. Flight logs show that CIA-chartered planes stopped off there en route between Kabul and Guantánamo. An entirely innocent explanation for that looks pretty unlikely.

Investigations by international human-rights bodies have already pieced together a picture of what are at best deplorable short-cuts involving not-quite-torture and at worst outrageous betrayals of everything the West claims to stand for.

Still, it is easy to see why Poland and other east European countries agreed to co-operate in the first place. America is the rock on which their security is based. America was grappling with the genuine legal difficulties of how to deal with people who are somewhere between criminals and prisoners-of-war. Presumably they thought that a bit of discreet help to their main ally would be repaid in other ways. They certainly did not expect to read the gory details in the New York Times a few years later.

Bogdan Klich, Poland's defence minister, expressed “outrage” at the claim in the article that James Pavitt, a former director of the CIA’s clandestine service, had described Poland as the “51st state”. He pointed out that Poland’s tough negotiations with America over a planned missile-defence base belie the idea that politicians in Warsaw do everything that their counterparts in Washington, DC ask of them.

That's true. But they clearly have done quite a lot. And the question for America is whether their allies would want to do it again. Public support in eastern Europe for the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has shrivelled. The same politicians who supported military involvement in those conflicts now look as though they also colluded in torture and received public humiliation in return.

The row also undermines the image of eastern Europe in western Europe. Many voters and politicians in “old Europe” already feel, sanctimoniously, that the new member-states are backward, crime-ridden, ill-governed and unreliable. That they have abetted George Bush's torture squads tarnishes their image further.

The paradox is that the more Europe is divided, the more that east European countries feel dependent on America. Spooked by Germany's closeness to Russia, countries such as Poland and the Baltic states trust the EU and NATO less than ever. The American security relationship has never been more important. But it is also alarmingly costly. Those who want to practise “divide and rule” on the European continent must be licking their lips.

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