President Obama’s Gaffe Symbolic of Larger Failings

Last week, President Obama came under heavy rhetorical fire for referring to the string of Nazi death camps in Poland as “Polish death camps.” Faced with withering attacks from all sides, caught in a diplomatic kerfuffle the likes of which has become all too common, and defended only by his media partisans who would never have forgiven such a slip from the prior occupant of the White House, the President apologized.

Fairness dictates that we not hold against the President words from a speech he likely did not read before it was put before him on his TelePrompTer; whatever his rhetorical gifts, he is no Ronald Reagan, and has made no secret of outsourcing his speechwriting wholesale. Further, he was born in 1961, came of age as the Cold War was waning, and in his youth by all accounts reflexively opposed to American foreign policy and anti-Communism; it is asking too much to expect him to understand that “Polish death camps” is like calling the Trail of Tears “a march by Native Americans through Native American lands and into a Native American concentration camp.”

But if it is unfair to hold a slip of the tongue against President Obama, it is entirely fair to hold against him the wretched mess of a foreign policy his Administration has propounded in the region. It is the same sort of painful naivete that seems to believe that history began on August 4, 1961, and that foreign policy can be exercised in some sort of history-free vacuum of theoretical Realpolitik. If the Bush Administration can be chastised for being too idealistic, its successor must be admonished for living too much in a world of upper-level international relations university classes.

This complete divorce from the forces of history is well on display in the Administration’s policy to the former Eastern bloc — a tendency this institution has criticized, as have I. It is not merely the President’s rhetorical slip, but his open snub of Lech Walesa in some bizarre tit-for-tat display of childishness — a subject the Wall Street Journal‘s Matthew Kaminski explored at length.

Any discussion of the Administration’s bizarre myopia should begin with the behemoth at the center of the region. The Administration’s determination to have a “reset” with Russia at the onset of its policymaking, a decision that by its nature and choice of terms signaled to actors in the region that the Administration was uninterested in the scars and damage done over decades of Russian imperialism and Soviet occupation, the new President was certain that all that mattered was the here and now.

In a part of the world where history has a specially-set place at the dinner table, this was worse than foolishness; it was a projection of ignorance and weakness.

This disturbing trend continued with the Administration’s approach to Ukraine, where Yulia Tymoshenko’s power grabs and prosecutions of political opponents were considered par for the course (in no small part because most took place before January 20, 2009), but her prosecution is all but a crime against humanity. It continues with the Administration’s studied indifference to the Khojaly Massacre, the Armenian occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding provinces, the Russian occupation of South Ossetia … the list goes on.

This strategy not only tells regional actors that the Administration — which shows no signs of learning over time — is fundamentally short-sighted on its regional policy; it also cripple its ability to advance American interests. Democracy needs encouragement where it has not otherwise existed; by isolating these places by choice or by indifference, we help to strangle nascent democracy in its sleep.

It is unlikely that President Obama will soon refer to the “Dutch capture and execution of Anne Frank,” but the good news ends there. Unless the Administration learns from its errors, we can count the next one to five years not merely wasted opportunities, but more scars added to history’s ledger.


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