I have been in Warsaw for the last several days for a seminar and to give a lecture for the Polish military. This trip was planned well before President Obama’s visit, to which Poles seem indifferent if not mildly cynical: simply put, with Russia looming large and the U.S. wavering in its leadership, it is hard to look from Warsaw to Washington and see a trustworthy ally.
The Polish army has been a faithful and active partner to the United States for well over a decade. Whatever Americans may think about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Poles were by our side, and not simply symbolically: Poles fought alongside Americans and, in some cases, died alongside Americans. When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talked about “Old Europe” and “New Europe,” he was thinking about Poland.
Poland, of course, does not stand alone. It is a member of NATO, a member of the European Union, and a member of the Schengen Zone, enabling passport-free travel to all other signatories to the Schengen Agreement. For me, this meant flying into Germany, clearing passport control, before catching my next flight to Poland. But it also means being able to board a train in Spain, transfer in Paris for a train to Rome, and then fly to Helsinki, all without showing a passport.
As the Poles look at potential future threats and sources of regional instability, Syria of course looms large. As the shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels demonstrates, the long-awaited backlash from returning Jihadis from the Syrian civil war has begun. While Poland may not seem a likely target for Islamist terror, the Poles are cognizant of the fact that the breakdown of internal borders within Europe means that European Islamists returning from Syria—where more than a thousand are believed to be fighting—could strike soft targets not only in their home countries but also in Poland, the Baltics, Scandinavia—or any of the other 20 odd members.
Just as Europeans now question the euro as theory crashes into reality, when the big terror attack comes—and thanks to Turkey’s willingness to let radical Islamists transit its borders to enter and exit Syria—it most certainly will come, individual European states may begin to question the wisdom of forfeiting their sovereign control over their borders. It has been more than a decade since al-Qaeda struck in Madrid. But with more than 1,000 hardened al-Qaeda sympathizers who may eventually return home carrying passports giving them the right to cross borders with abandon, Schengen may soon have an expiration date. And with it, goes European dreams of a unified continent. The reverberations of the decision to do nothing with regard to Syria will continue to ripple outward, far beyond the Middle East itself.