Cracow – Well-informed Poles know that, barring some cataclysmic international event between now and November 6, the 2012 U.S. presidential election will be fought and decided on domestic U.S. economic issues. My Polish friends and colleagues understand that high unemployment, sluggish growth, rapidly accumulating federal debt, the overreach of Obamacare, the administration’s embrace of gay marriage, and the Obama assault on religious freedom are of much greater concern to most Americans than foreign policy. Yet those same friends and colleagues are uncomfortable with, even nervous about, a variant of the Carvillian slogan that dominated 1992: “It’s the economy (and the culture), stupid.”
Their concerns are worthy of serious American attention.
Poland’s experience with the Obama administration has not been a happy one. It was bad enough that the administration abruptly cancelled the emplacement of missile-defense components that Poland had agreed to accept in the face of serious Russian pressure. But when the administration announced this betrayal on the 70th anniversary of the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, without even informing the Polish prime minister in a timely manner, it raised a very large question mark in Polish minds about the administration’s strategy, its grasp of the history of east-central Europe, and its understanding of the linkage between the two.
That question mark was transformed into an exclamation point when President Obama made an unimaginably inept reference to “Polish death camps” during a recent White House ceremony awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously to Jan Karski, a hero of the World War II Polish underground and a longtime professor at Georgetown University. Polish president Bronislaw Komorowski may have accepted Obama’s quick retreat and confession of a misstatement. Beneath the public veneer of reconciliation between the two presidents, however, Poles (including, one suspects, President Komorowski) remain shocked and angered at the ignorance of both Obama and the White House staff, who not only misrepresented the extermination camps of World War II but also seemed not to grasp that millions of Poles died in these Nazi death factories. As one Cracovian policeman said when the subject came up during a conversation three weeks ago: “This is no joke to me. My grandmother died at Auschwitz.”
In between the missile-defense betrayal of September 17, 2009, and the Karski fiasco of May 29, 2012, there was the infamous open-microphone exchange between President Obama and then–Russian president Dmitri Medvedev. Obama’s plea for “understanding” that he had “one last election” to contest before he could, presumably, cave in completely on missile defense was regarded by knowledgeable Poles as a danger signal reminiscent of what their parents and grandparents had heard during the heydays of appeasement.
And, like the earlier gaffe of kowtowing to Russian pressure by canceling the Polish-based missile-defense sites on September 17, the precise date of the Soviet stab-in-the-back that completed Poland’s vivisection in 1939, Obama’s plaintive request to Medvedev (obviously intended for the ears of Medvedev’s master, Vladimir Putin) confirmed Polish fears that, in addition to their ignorance of 20th-century European history, Obama and his foreign-policy counselers adhered to a Left-revisionist view of World War II and the Cold War that elides over the West’s double betrayal of Poland: the Anglo-French failure to attack Germany in September 1939, when the Reich’s western frontier had been largely stripped of armed forces in preparation for the Polish invasion, and the subsequent betrayals of the Tehran and Yalta conferences, which left Poland to the tender mercies of Stalin. Cracovian shops still sell replicas of a famous World War II poster featuring a tattered Polish flag and the motto Poland — First to Fight. Yet Poles remember, as Obama and his foreign-policy team evidently do not, that Poland was not only the first to fight, but also that it fought essentially alone throughout September 1939, at the beginning of what Poles call “the war we lost twice.”