Barack Obama Doesn’t Get a Pass on Poland Gaffe

The president's error and half-hearted apology is a serious diplomatic mistake.

President Barack Obama speaks before he awards the Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 29, 2012. The Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor. It's presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the national interests of the United States, to world peace or to other significant endeavors.

During a ceremony in which he presented a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, a resistance fighter and genuine hero who was one of the first to provide the Allies with an eyewitness account of what the Nazis were doing at places like Auschwitz, President Barack Obama made a gaffe that set off an international incident.

While relating what Karski had done to earn the award, Obama recounted how he had been "smuggled into … a Polish death camp."

Now, as most everyone should know, the Nazis built labor camps and extermination facilities all over Eastern Europe, many of them in Poland. But that does not make them "Polish death camps."

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The Poles are quite upset about this, and rightly so. The White House seems to be shrugging off the whole thing with the kind of "Oops, my bad" attitude that one might expect to find in a teenager who's just backed over a rose bush in his father's car. Even if it was innocent mistake and not a glaring example of historical ignorance, the Poles—who as a people fought heroically against the Nazis from the first day of the war until the last—deserve a more serious, thoughtful apology. A simple expression of regret, as the White House has issued through spokesman Jay Carney is just not enough.

There is, however, another dimension to the story. It has to do with the character of the president and the way he is portrayed. That Obama seems intransigent on what is, in some sense, a relatively minor issue, speaks volumes about the kind of person he is. Can it be that he is so self-involved that he cannot bear to admit it when he makes a mistake or apologize when he is in the wrong? Is his self image so fragile that he has to be right about everything, even when he is clearly wrong?

It is disturbing, even dangerous to read so much psychodrama into such events but the president's rigidity on so many issues invites this kind of speculation. There have been other, similar faux pas committed on the diplomatic front during his tenure in office, all of which have been handled in much the same way. It's a disturbing pattern, one that is not helping the United States affirm its relationships with our closest allies around the world.

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