WARSAW — As President Barack Obama starts his third overseas trip in less than three months, he finds himself once again peppered with questions about his foreign policy, even as he attempts to cement his own legacy on the world stage.
Obama landed Tuesday in Poland, his first stop, on a mission to reassure nervous allies in Eastern Europe after Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.
His three-nation journey comes as Republicans have unleashed a new line of attack questioning his judgment in exchanging five Taliban prisoners held at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the return of a former prisoner of war, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
At a news conference in Warsaw, Obama defended the decision.
“We don’t leave men and women in uniform behind,” the President said.
His administration had previously consulted with Congress on the possibility of a prisoner exchange for Bergdahl, Obama said, but had to move quickly because of concerns over Bergdahl’s health and to not miss a window of opportunity.
He said he was confident that the exchange of Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl would not endanger U.S. national security because Qataris would be keeping a close eye on the ex-Guantanamo detainees.
Obama also said there is a possibility for the United States to rebuild trust with Russia as long as Moscow continues its troop removal from the border near Ukraine.
“I think it is possible for us to try to rebuild some of the trust that has been shattered,” he said, but it will take “quite some time.” Obama also said he wants Russian President Vladimir Putin to send a message to separatists to stand down.
Speaking alongside Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, Obama also announced that he is asking Congress for a fund of up to $1 billion to allow for a “European Reassurance Initiative.”
This would help the United States undertake increased training exercises in Europe, explore the pre-positioning of military equipment, and build the capacity of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to partner with the United States and NATO.
Obama is due to hold talks later with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, as well as the leaders of Central and Eastern European countries.
As he was greeted by Komorowski, Obama hailed Poland as “one of our great friends and one of our strongest allies in the world.”
He added, “I’m starting the visit here because our commitment to Poland’s security as well as the security of our allies in Central and Eastern Europe is a cornerstone of our own security and it is sacrosanct.”
In his remarks announcing Bergdahl’s release, Obama appeared ready to reopen the debate over closing Guantanamo, a policy he has pursued since the start of his administration.
“We’re committed to winding down the war in Afghanistan, and we are committed to bring our prisoners of war home,” Obama said.
Several GOP lawmakers argued over whether Obama violated U.S. law in seeking the secret prisoner swap without consulting Congress, while placing U.S. soldiers in jeopardy in Afghanistan.
“We have now set a price,” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said Sunday. “We have a changing footprint in Afghanistan, which would put our soldiers at risk for this notion that ‘if I get one, I can get five Taliban released.’ “
Walesa: Superpower not ‘up to the job’
For Obama, the itinerary of foreign travel has changed, but the conversation will sound familiar. During his last two foreign trips, he fielded questions about his approach to the crises in Ukraine and Syria, as well as the territorial disputes in Asia between China and its neighbors.
In Manila, Obama responded that his second-term strategy is to avoid “errors.”
But away from the cameras, he has simplified his doctrine as “don’t do stupid stuff,” administration officials say privately.
However, Obama’s critics, both at home and abroad, contend that approach is at best uninspiring, and potentially dangerous.
Lech Walesa, the former Polish President whose democratic Solidarity movement helped usher in freedom in Poland during the fall of the Soviet Union, has warned that U.S. influence has declined under Obama’s watch.
“The superpower has not been up to the job,” Walesa said in a recent interview with the TVN24 television network. “Therefore, the world is at a dangerous point and maybe it really is the case that lots of bad things are happening in the world because there is no leadership,” added Walesa, who endorsed Obama’s rival, Mitt Romney, in the 2012 presidential election.
Obama has billed his recent decisions against any form of military action in Syria and Ukraine as successes because they rallied multilateral responses to global challenges, without messy prolonged commitments for U.S. armed forces.
“Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned Russian actions; Europe and the G7 joined us impose sanctions,” Obama said about the crisis in Ukraine in his speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point last week.
But during this trip to Europe, which includes his stop in Poland as well as a G7 summit in Belgium and a visit to the beaches of Normandy, France, to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, Obama will repeatedly stress that the U.S. commitment to NATO security remains sacred.
Obama, Putin cross paths
The main focus of Obama’s Poland visit comes Wednesday, when he will give a speech as part of events to mark 25 years since the nation’s historic elections of June 4, 1989.
Obama said as he arrived that it was a “special honor” to help the Polish people celebrate “the 25th anniversary of the rebirth of Polish democracy.”
The U.S. President is also due to meet with Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko on Wednesday.
In France, Obama will have a few opportunities to cross paths with his recent nemesis, Putin, who will also travel to Paris and Normandy to commemorate the triumph over Germany.
Obama and the Russian President are scheduled to dine with French President Francois Hollande on Thursday in Paris, though in separate meetings.
“President Hollande may be dining more than once or having multiple meetings,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters.
Rhodes did not rule out an encounter between Putin and Obama, who led the international effort to suspend Russia’s participation in the world group of economic powers. That suspension resulted in the relocation of this year’s G7 summit from Sochi, Russia, to Brussels, Belgium.
“Clearly, they will be in the same place,” Rhodes said, noting the two leaders will cross paths again in Normandy.
“So they will certainly have cause to interact in that context,” he added.
Recent moves by Russia to withdraw some of its forces from its border with Ukraine has the potential to ease tensions between Moscow and Washington. But administration officials caution a new detente is a long way off.
“We have not yet seen Russia take the steps that are necessary to reduce those tensions,” Rhodes said, suggesting the U.S. and its allies may not impose another round of sanctions against Moscow, absent a new provocation.
“There have been some indications from the Russian leadership of a willingness to engage in dialogue. That is welcome,” Rhodes said.