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Obama's 'ignorant error'

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Photo: AFPby Alan Fisher

To many Americans, one of the great appeals of Barack Obama is that he's smart; he's a Harvard graduate, a former editor of the institution’s prestigious law review and he is well-read and articulate.

This week, the US president handed out Medals of Freedom. The awards are a recognition of outstanding contribution to American life and culture.

The singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, was a recipient as was Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state and the first woman to hold the office.

There was also a posthumous award. It went to Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter who tried to tell the outside world about the mass murder of Jews in his country. It is a remarkable story. Karski, a Catholic, smuggled himself into both the Warsaw Ghetto and one of the concentration camps, which allowed him to see what was happening first hand.

Karski then took that information to then-president Franklin D Roosevelt and other Allied leaders, pleading for the world to act. He later became a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He died in 2000.

In saying a few words about each honouree, Obama described the concentration camps as "Polish death camps". Geographically, he was correct; six of Adolf Hitler's concentration camps were located in Poland.

Still, to suggest that somehow the Poles were involved in operating the camps was a dreadful error.

The US president's remarks have dominated the news in Poland. Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, summed up the national feeling: "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."

Barack Obama didn't write the words that caused so much offense. He was simply repeating remarks someone had prepared.

Conservative columnist, David Frum, who has family connections to Poland said the remarks were "a terrible insult" and added that the White House was responsible for the speech "ought to have known enough and cared enough about his mission to have avoided this ignorant error".

Defenders of Obama said they understood; he could not be aware of some delicate nuances of the situation. His staff said he "misspoke".

Yet it's hard to believe that someone as smart as Obama didn't have enough understanding of a significant part of global history to realise what he was saying was wrong; to clearly identify those responsible for what was being done in those dark, bleak places of fundamental evil and to understand the world did little to stop it.

And, in current times, in other places, it serves as a reminder of the dangers of failing to do so again.

If George W Bush, the former US president, had made a similar error, there would have been global howls of derision and liberal commentators would have had a field day.

While unlikely to cause lasting damage in an election year, this was a diplomatic slip-up and an embarrassment to the White House. It is a reminder of the damage such verbal missteps can inflict.

The Polish president wrote to the White House to ask for clarification. In return, Obama replied: "In referring to 'a Polish death camp' rather than 'a Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland', I inadvertently used a phrase that has caused many Poles anguish over the years and that Poland has rightly campaigned to eliminate from public discourse around the world. I regret the error and agree that this moment is an opportunity to ensure that this and future generations know the truth".

Expressing regret for the error falls short of an apology. For some Poles, it falls well short.


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