The interview with the outgoing US Ambassador to Poland Victor H. Ashe was conducted by a US Embassy Warsaw press attache on September 17, 2009, the day of President Obama’s announcement about discarding the American missile defense system in Poland and Czech Republic. The Polish government saw the missile shield as a major US security guarantee and protection against any future political and military pressure from Russia.
In a public diplomacy disaster for the US, President Obama’s missile shield removal annoucement was made on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 launched under the terms of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Former Polish president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa who said “It wasn’t that the shield was that important, but it’s about the way, the way of treating us,” expressed the dismay of many Poles over the historic symbolism of the timing of President Obama’s September 17 announcement.
The failure of the US State Department and the White House to properly appreciate the historical significance of the Soviet invasion anniversary for the Polish people was summed up in the Wired news story headline: “Dear Poland, Happy Soviet Invasion Day, Love Uncle Sam” and in numerous other US and international media news reports and commentaries.
As it is typical for US State Department self-generated public relations interviews, none of the missile defense controversy was mentioned in the video released by the US Embassy in Warsaw. Ambassador Ashe was President George W. Bush’s appointee but was asked by President Obama to stay in his post for several months into the new administration. The Obama White House had firm plans to scrap the missile defense system in Poland and Czech Republic as part of its strategy to improve relations with Russia and to get Moscow’s support for curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Poland, which during the Bush Administration was a strong NATO ally of the US and contributed troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan, was no longer important enough for President Obama to travel to Gdansk for the 70th anniversary observances of the start of World War II. The White House’s original plan to send a former official from a former administration to represent the US at the ceremonies in Poland was viewed by the Poles as a major snub. The White House sent at the last moment the President’s national security advisor, still well below the level of the heads of state and heads of government who came to Poland, including Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
One could say that Ambassador Ashe’s final weeks in Poland ended in a major public diplomacy disaster for the US and a major security policy setback for Poland. However, as a Bush Administration holdover appointee, Ambassador Ashe, a strong supporter of the missile defense shield and an advocate for a close strategic alliance between Poland and the United States, had minimal access to the Obama White House. Apparently he also had a minimal ability to manage even the public relations aspect of US-Polish relations once the new US administration took office. On September 17, U.S. Ambassador Ashe, who will depart Warsaw on September 26 after a five-year tenure, hosted a farewell reception at his Warsaw residence.
President Obama’s Ambassador-Designate to Poland is Lee A. Feinstein who is on leave from the Brookings Institution, where he has been a Visiting Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies. He was National Security Director to Hillary Rodham Clinton during her presidential campaign. Ambassador Victor Ashe congratulated Mr. Feinstein: “President Obama made an excellent choice in announcing his intent to nominate Lee Feinstein as the next U.S. Ambassador to Poland. I know the Embassy and Polish-American relations will be in good hands under his leadership.” If confirmed, Mr. Feinstein will be the 25th U.S. Ambassador to Poland.
The Brookings Institution Visiting Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies and National Security Director to Hillary Rodham Clinton during her presidential campaign should have been already advising the Obama Administration on a host of issues, including the sensitive area of history and trust in US-Polish relations. His statement made to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 15, just two days before President Obama’s ill-timed announcement, shows a certain appreciation of Poland’s history.
“Poland has endured great hardship and tragedy in its history. It has been occupied and dismembered by foreign powers time and again. It experienced a brief period of independence after World War I, but then fell prey to Nazi invasion and occupation, during which six million Polish citizens lost their lives, including three million Jews, most of Poland’s Jewish population. Then, following the war, the Soviet regime deprived Poles of their political liberty and imposed an economic system that kept the country in poverty and subjugation.”
President Obama’s Ambassador-Designate to Poland Lee A. Feinstein, September 15, 2009
Ambassador-Designate Feinstein did not specifically mention the Soviet invasion of Poland on September 17, 1939, but he undoubtedly knew about it, and knew about President Obama’s pending missile shield announcement. He probably also knows that the Poles still remember how the US Administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had betrayed Poland to Russia at the end of World War II. I specifically refer to FDR and his administration, and not the American people who did not want to see Poland being sold to Stalin.
Lee Feinstein should have called the White House to offer friendly advice on Polish history and perhaps quote from another part of his earlier statement: “As Secretary Clinton has said, Poland is ‘one of our closest allies.’ Poland was one of just three countries that entered Iraq with U.S. forces in 2003. It contributes forces for NATO’s KFOR mission in Kosovo. Polish forces have served in Afghanistan since the onset of the NATO mission in 2004.” Ambassador-Designate Feinstein summed up Poland’s special relationship with the US in this way: “In short, intrepid Polish forces stand with us in dangerous places with dangerous missions, and Poland has increased its contributions, which are prodigious.”
Ambassador Victor H. Ashe Biography from the US Embassy Warsaw website ( We’re positing it here since these biographies tend to disappear once an ambassador leaves his post.)
Victor Ashe was nominated by President Bush to be Ambassador to the Republic of Poland on April 8, 2004, and confirmed by the U.S. Senate on May 21, 2004. He was sworn in on June 23, 2004, in Washington, DC. Ambassador Ashe has visited all 16 provinces of Poland three times and over 185 Polish cities and towns since arriving in Poland in July, 2004. Ambassador Ashe is the most senior American bilateral Ambassador serving in Europe today. Ambassador Ashe is the 24th American Ambassador to Poland and is the second longest serving Ambassador. Ambassador Biddle is the longest serving Ambassador. Ambassador Ashe has submitted his resignation as Ambassador to Poland effective September 26, 2009.
Amb. Ashe’s history of public service includes serving 31 years in Tennessee state and city elective offices. In December 2003, Amb. Ashe completed an unprecedented 16 years as Mayor of Knoxville, the longest mayoral tenure in the city’s 218-year history.
Amb. Ashe was born January 1, 1945, in Knoxville, Tennessee and attended public schools there. He graduated from the Hotchkiss School, in Lakeville, Connecticut, in 1963 and from Yale University with a BA in History in 1967. He received his law degree from the University of Tennessee College of Law in 1974. Ashe is an attorney and licensed to practice law in Tennessee.
In 1965, Mr. Ashe served as an intern in the office of Congressman Bill Brock, where he helped write a tax sharing for education bill. In 1967, he was a staff assistant in the office of then-Senator Howard Baker.
Amb. Ashe was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives in 1968, at age 23. In 1975 he was elected to the State Senate, where he served for nine years. From 1967 to 1973, Amb. Ashe served as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Reserves.
From 1985-1987, under President Reagan, Mr. Ashe served as the Executive Director of the Americans Outdoors Commission chaired by then-Governor (and now U.S. Senator) Lamar Alexander. Mr. Ashe was elected Knoxville’s mayor in November, 1987.
As Mayor of Knoxville, Mr. Ashe established a sister city relationship with Chelm in Poland and led two delegations to the city, one in 1997 and the other in 2000. Mr. Ashe also led a delegation of U.S. mayors to Israel in 1995 and to Uganda in 2003 on HIV/AIDS.
Mr. Ashe improved Knoxville’s financial picture by increasing the fund balance and improving the bond rating for the city. Greenways were substantially increased from 5 to 34 miles when he left office. He led the effort for waterfront development in his city and built a new state-of-the-art convention center to boost tourism. Mr. Ashe established a police civilian review board, and in January 2004 he received the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Commission’s chair award for his work on behalf of improving race relations. He also made historic preservation a theme of his tenure.
Amb. Ashe was awarded on October 14, 2004 the Cornelius Amory Pugsley Medal at the local level. This award, from the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration in association with the National Park Foundation, was given in recognition of his work on parks and greenways while he was Mayor of Knoxville.
In 1995, Mr. Ashe was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He received the Distinguished Public Service Award in 2003. He also served as President of the Tennessee Municipal League. As a leader in both organizations he led a bipartisan effort to curb unfunded federal mandates.
He was appointed by both Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton to the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.
President Clinton nominated Ambassador Ashe to the AmeriCorps Board of Directors and the U.S. Senate confirmed the appointment.
Amb. Ashe is married to the former Joan Plumlee and they have two children, J. Victor, 19, and Martha, 16. J. Victor will be a sophomore at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN this fall. Martha will be in 11th grade at Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, CT. in September, 2009. Mrs. Ashe was an elementary school teacher for 13 years.
Amb. Ashe is an avid hiker. He also enjoys as hobbies traveling and reading history books and mysteries.