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Obama's gesture to a grieving Poland

  • President Obama traveling to Poland for funeral of that nation's president and first lady
  • Fareed Zakaria says it's significant that Obama is attending the funeral
  • He says U.S. presidents rarely go to funerals overseas, but this move makes sense
  • He says Obama is showing U.S. understanding of the loss and seeking to improve relations
  • Poland
  • Lech Kaczynski
  • Katyn
  • Barack Obama
  • Air Disasters

Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is an author and foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN U.S. on Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET and CNN International at 2 and 10 p.m. Central European Time / 5 p.m. Abu Dhabi / 9 p.m. Hong Kong.

New York (CNN) -- Presidents of the United States rarely attend the funerals of foreign leaders, but President Obama's decision to go to the state funeral of the Polish president and first lady is right on several levels, says analyst Fareed Zakaria.

He says the plan to attend makes clear that the U.S. understands the depth of the tragedy that struck Poland when 96 leaders and dignitaries died in an air crash in Russia. To a lesser degree, it shows that the administration recognizes its relations with Poland got off to a bad start last year when it altered plans for a missile defense system to protect Eastern Europe.

It's unclear whether the disruptions in air travel due to ash from the Iceland volcano will affect Obama's scheduled flight Saturday to Poland.

Obama is to attend Sunday's funeral in Krakow for President Lech Kaczynski and first lady Maria Kaczynski. Their plane was attempting to land on a Russian airstrip near the site of the Katyn massacre. The delegation was flying to Russia for the 70th anniversary of the Russian massacre of more than 20,000 Polish prisoners of war in the village of Katyn during World War II.

Zakaria, author and host of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS," spoke to CNN on Thursday. Here is an edited transcript:

CNN: What's the immediate effect of the crash?

Fareed Zakaria: There's no question that it's a staggering loss. I think it's difficult for us to really comprehend. Imagine if the president, the deputy secretary of state, the deputy secretary of treasury, 50 other very important peple were all to die at one time. The blow in a psychological and cultural sense is just immense, and you can't underestimate it.

On the other hand, Poland has actually become a remarkable state rather quickly over the last 20 years. It has become a consolidated democratic country, and so what has been interesting to watch is how smoothly the process of transition is working there.

CNN: This happened close to the scene of the Katyn massacre, a very troubling and deep wound between the Russians and the Poles?

Zakaria: The tragedy operates at so many levels here. This happened on the occasion of a memorial service for Katyn and this time around again, a large collection of the Polish elite died, this time accidentally -- but in a strange sense also involving Russia because they were landing in a Russian airstrip with Russian air traffic controllers. I don't mean in any way to suggest that there was any Russian involvement [in the crash].

The strange fact that the tragedy to be commemorated involved these two countries and then the accident once again involved these two countries is a kind of haunting similarity.

Outside of that bizarre coincidence, there is also the tragedy that this remembering of Katyn together, the Russians and the Poles, was a real step forward for Polish-Russian relations, and one can only hope that this tragedy will somehow bring the two countries together. The Russians have made some gestures. [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin ordered the first state mourning that has ever been held in Russia for the death of non-Russians. At least that's one sign that out of this tragedy some good has come.

CNN: Does it say anything about the larger state of relations between Russia and Eastern Europe today?

Zakaria: I think that the fact that Russia is finally moving to, in some sense, acknowledge its historical culpability in the Katyn massacre and to mourn the loss of those Polish soldiers is a sign that the Russians realize that their historical strategy of dealing with Poland, which was really through force, coercion, conquest, is not the way forward in the 21st century -- that they need to have constructive friendly relations with Poland. It's a first step, but it really was a step.

It may well be a sign that the Russians are beginning to realize that the way to deal with countries in the former Soviet empire is not to try to assert some sphere of influence over them but rather to try to actually befriend these countries and to reassure them, and thus to remove the insecurity and the tensions and the fears about Russia.

I may be reading too much into this one decision of Putin, but it's very striking, it's a big reversal. Russia and the Soviet Union had resolutely refused to accept any culpability for the Katyn massacre.

CNN: President Obama is due to fly to Poland for the funeral. Is it significant that the president decided to go himself?

Zakaria: I think it's very significant. Presidents of the United States in general very rarely go to funerals. It's worth pointing out that the president of the United States did not attend the funerals of Winston Churchill, Princess Diana and Nehru. There are two reasons why Obama probably decided to attend. First this is really a tragedy of historical proportions and he wanted to signal that the United States understood the magnitude of the tragedy, and that it went beyond the death of the president. It really was a decapitation of the Polish government.

The second factor which probably played a role is that the Obama administration has frankly mishandled relations with Poland to a certain extent. It did not handle the whole issue of changing its position on the missile defense shield well. It may have come to the right decision but it did so without consulting the Poles. It told the Russians before it told the Poles and informed the Poles after the fact and on a day it should not have done it, the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland.

And I think this was an opportunity to send a signal that those were tactical blunders and in a broader strategic sense, the Obama administration recognizes the importance of Poland, as a staunchly democratic capitalist, pro-American ally.

I think it was a very good decision on both points.