While bestowing a well-deserved Presidential Medal of Freedom on the late Polish World War II hero Dr. Jan Karski, Barack Obama insulted Karski’s memory and, for good measure, the sensibilities of today’s Polish citizens.
In yesterday’s White House ceremony, President Obama spoke of Karski’s valiance as a courier who smuggled secret messages from the Polish Underground in occupied Warsaw to the Polish government in exile, then in still-free Paris. So far, so good.
But then, in prepared remarks, Obama spoke about Karski’s final mission: to witness the unfolding Holocaust and share the tragic news with Allied leaders. Obama said, “Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale, and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself.”
Of course, Izbica was not a Polish death camp. It was a Nazi death camp, ordered, organized, and operated by German invaders who executed the will of German Reichsführer Adolf Hitler.
This colossal blunder has infuriated the people of Poland, a fellow NATO member since 1999. This stalwart American ally lost 23 of its soldiers who fought beside ours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In Afghanistan, 35 Poles have been killed as they have battled shoulder to shoulder with U.S. troops in Operation Enduring Freedom.
The people of Holland similarly would be rankled to hear about Anne Frank as a “victim of Dutch anti-Semitism.” Likewise, one would anger Gothamites by referring to “New York’s destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11.” In a fine Daily Beast piece today, David Frum approximates Obama’s words to someone describing “The Hawaiian sneak attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.”
What should have been solely a tribute to one of the 20th century’s most inspiring figures (and my former professor at Georgetown University) devolved into an international incident.
“The White House will apologize for this outrageous error,” Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski stated yesterday. “It’s a shame that this important ceremony was overshadowed by ignorance and incompetence.”
Polish prime minister Donald Tusk said today: “We always react in the same way when ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions lead to such a distortion of history, so painful for us here in Poland, in a country which suffered like no other in Europe during World War II.” He added: “We cannot accept such words even if they are spoken by the leader of a friendly power — or perhaps especially in such situations — since we expect diligence, care, and respect from our friend on issues of such importance as World War II remembrance.”
“When someone says ‘Polish death camps,’” Tusk continued, “it is as if there were no Nazis, no German responsibility, as if there were no Hitler. That is why our Polish sensitivity in these situations is so much more than just simply a feeling of national pride.”
The White House released a statement from Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council.
“The President misspoke,” according to Vietor’s communiqué. “He was referring to Nazi death camps in Poland…We regret this misstatement, which should not detract from the clear intention to honor Mr. Karski and those brave citizens who stood on the side of human dignity in the face of tyranny.”
The White House’s perfunctory language contains the world-class weasel word “regret.” I regret that Ronald Reagan is dead. However, I do not apologize for his death, since I am not responsible for it. In this context, “regret” reeks of, “This is what my lawyer told me to say to escape this mess.”
What this mess requires is a spoken apology, in person and on camera, from the president of the United States. The good people of Poland deserve nothing less after yesterday’s careless slap across their faces – courtesy of Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama.