Obama’s Public Diplomacy Katabasis in Poland

President Obama may very well kiss the Polish American vote good bye after committing yet another public diplomacy blunder which gave Vice President Biden, U.S. Ambassador to Poland Lee A. Feinstein and some Congressional Democrats plenty of reasons to be pulling their hair out in utter frustration over his insensitive behavior toward an important U.S. ally.

Biden and Feinstein, who have a much greater appreciation of history and diplomatic protocol than the President, had pushed hard to get him to agree to attend Polish President Lech Kaczynski’s state funeral in Krakow last Sunday. They briefly succeeded in their efforts but then the cloud of ash from the Icelandic volcano disrupted international air travel in Europe. Obama may have had a reasonable explanation for cancelling his plane trip due to the ash cloud in the atmosphere. But in a display of unheard of diplomatic insensitivity, he allowed himself to be photographed playing golf on the same day as the Polish President’s body was being buried at the Wawel Castle in Krakow.

By his actions last Sunday, Obama created a public diplomacy disaster for America in Poland and among the Polish American electorate. Meanwhile, Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev, who had flown by plane from Moscow to attend the funeral, showed that he and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin can be real masters in shaping public opinion in a situation that could have had very bad repercussions for Russia and Russian-Polish relations. If anything, the death of President Kaczynski and other Polish leaders in Russia in the plane crash near Katyn, the place where Stalin’s secret police murdered thousands of Polish military officers during World War II, led to the strengthening of Polish-Russian ties due to outstanding public relations moves by both Putin and Medvedev.

This was not the first U.S. public diplomacy blunder vis-a-vis Poland since the Obama administration took office. Last September, President Obama deprived Poland of the U.S. missile defense system which the Polish government saw as the only effective military guarantee of America’s commitment to defend their country’s sovereignty against threats from Russia’s autocratic leaders. Obama announced his decision on September 17, the anniversary of Poland’s invasion by the Soviet Union in 1939 under the terms of Stalin’s secret agreement with Hitler which led to the division of the country between the two dictators.

It’s likely that the timing of the White House missile shield announcement was influenced by clever diplomatic suggestions from the Russian Foreign Ministry. Obama’s goal was to get Moscow to help him in dealing with Iran — help which he has not received and is not likely to get — and to sign the new arms control agreement with the Kremlin.

The arms agreement was indeed signed recently by President Obama and President Medvedev in Prague, the Czech Republic. But from the public diplomacy perspective, it was a very curious choice of a location for the U.S.-Russian arms control summit. By bringing the two leaders to Prague, the Russians managed to send a subtle signal, and perhaps a warning, to East and Central Europeans that the United States does not have a very long historical memory about the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The subtle message from the Kremlin was that just as it happened at the end of World War II, Russia and the U.S. can always find common ground at the expense of the defense and security needs of Eastern and Central Europe.

Many Poles interpret Obama’s actions as a further proof that he knows little about Poland’s history and even less about public diplomacy. While French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Merkel also cancelled their plane trips to Poland, they did not participate in any public entertainment or sports events on the day of President Kaczynski’s funeral.

Assuming there were good safety reason for not making a plane trip to Poland, there were other options available to President Obama. He could have attended a special memorial mass at a Polish American church or visited the Polish Embassy in Washington. He did not, and one wonders whether public diplomacy experts at the White House, the State Department or the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw have made any recommendations. Even if the President of the United States lacks the necessary knowledge of history and diplomacy because of the poor level of education in American schools, there should have been at least one highly paid U.S. government bureaucrat to issue a warning to the President or his White House staff. Perhaps someone did and was ignored. We simply don’t know at this point. President Bush, who like Obama had also received poor education in world history, at least knew — or perhaps someone on his staff had told him — that it would not be a good idea after 9/11 to play golf while American soldiers are being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The terrible political and diplomatic damage from Obama’s insensitivity toward Poland, Israel and other U.S. allies has been done and cannot be easily reversed. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt betrayed Poland during World War II, just before the 1944 presidential elections he had himself photographed with Polish American leaders in front of the map of Poland showing the country’s eastern frontier lands which he had already secretly promised to Stalin in exchange for the Soviet dictator’s vague promise to help with the war with Japan — the help that Stalin could not and would not give if it did not serve his own interests and that was not needed.

It’s doubtful that the Polish Americans can be fooled again, especially since the Obama White House and President Obama himself lack FDR’s sophistication in manipulating public opinion, although they certainly share his naive trust in Russia’s autocratic leaders. In fact, Obama is being manipulated by Putin and Medvedev. They are far more clever and sophisticated than the U.S. President when it comes to the knowledge and political use of history, public diplomacy and public opinion. The late President Kaczynski understood President Obama’s weak grasp of history. Shortly after the White House announced its decision to pull the missile defense system from Poland, the Polish President sat next to President Barack Obama at a luncheon in New York where world leaders were gathered for the UN session of the General Assembly. During his meeting with Barack Obama, President Kaczynski gave him a copy of Alex Storozynski’s book about Tadeusz Kosciuszko: The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution, Polish Press Agency reported. President Obama’s copy of The Peasant Prince had an inscription from the author which said: “To President Obama, May Kosciuszko inspire you to learn more about Poland, the country whose motto is, For Your Freedom and Ours.”

As a result of the Kremlin’s brilliant public relations strategy and Obama’s failure to grasp the importance of historical symbolism, Poland and Russia may develop closer ties while U.S.-Polish relations will weaken. While there is nothing wrong with Poland and Russia getting along better, Poland should not be forced to make painful and unnecessary compromises with the Kremlin simply because the U.S. has a president with a naive worldview reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt’s assessment of Stalin.

See the link below how the Polish media has reacted to President Obama’s faux pas.

Warsaw Business Journal – Online Portal – wbj.pl

Further comment from TedLipien.com:

Polish media was upset not so much by Obama’s decision not to fly to Poland for President Kaczynski’s funeral as by his choice of using free time Sunday, the day of the funeral, to play golf. This was yet another public diplomacy disaster for Obama in Poland. Russia’s President Medvedev flew by plane to Poland to attend the funeral. Last year President Obama announced his decision to remove the planned U.S. missile defense system in Poland on the anniversary of the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland.

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