U.S. Embassy blames diplomatic gaffe on a Polish translator but a problem runs much deeper

U.S. Ambassador to Poland Lee A. Feinstein being interviewed by TVN24.TedLipien.com TedLipien.com, SAN FRANCISCO — Bill Clinton might have asked what the “enhanced” definition of  “to enhance” IS?  The U.S. Embassy in Warsaw is busy blaming a Polish translator for mistranslating U.S. Ambassador Lee Feinstein’s TV interview answer about Polish troops in Afghanistan,  which caused a diplomatic uproar in Poland. In an interview broadcast last Saturday,  Ambassador Feinstein  thanked Polish prime minister and president for their “commitment to being in Afghanistan, and actually to enhance its [sic] presence,”  only to be chastised two days later by the Polish defense minister for making a claim that the Polish government had not agreed to.


Most Polish media interpreted Ambassador Feinstein’s comments as revealing that Polish leaders may have told U.S. officials, specifically Vice President Biden, that Poland would increase the number of  its soldiers in Afghanistan. Such secret commitments, if they were indeed expressed, would not be at all well received by the Polish public opinion. This might explain the strong reaction of Polish government officials to Ambassador Feinstein’s public  comments, which most experts would view as ill-advised and undiplomatic in the current political climate in Poland, no matter how they were translated.


The presence of Polish troops in Afghanistan is a delicate issue in Poland, where support for keeping them is steadily declining. To compound this problem, Polish-American relations took a major turn for the worse after President Obama did not show up for the 70th anniversary observances in Poland of the outbreak of  World War II  and later canceled the Bush Administration’s missile defense plans on September 17, the day when the Poles were commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of their country.


These decisions by the U.S. president were seen as a major affront to the historically-minded Poles. They are also upset over the need to secure visas to visit the United States, a policy that continues from previous U.S. administrations, but the main reason for the growing  opposition to keeping Polish troops in Afghanistan is a realization that the U.S. has seriously mishandled the war.


Reacting to Ambassador Feinstein’s remarks,  which clearly indicated that the Polish government was committed to staying in Afghanistan and possibly planning ” to enhance its presence,”  Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said that “the ambassador committed a blunder, since neither the prime minister, nor the minister of foreign affairs, nor the minister of national defense made any declarations to the American side about an increase in the contingent.” But, please remember that these are the ambassador’s first days at a new post,” Polish Defense Minister Klich added. 


The English-language newspaper Krakow Post ran an online headline “U.S. Ambassador to Poland ‘Committed a Blunder’.” Polish media reported extensively on Ambassador Feinstein’s and Minister Klich’s comments, although surprisingly this story has received very little attention in the U.S. media, possibly because of the confusion of what it really means for the continued presence of Polish troops in Afghanistan.  The Washington Times reported that the State Department spokesman Ian Kelly on Tuesday night attributed the controversy to an incorrect translation Saturday made on Polish television station TVN24. Ambassador Lee A. Feinstein, speaking in English, actually said that Polish officials planned to “enhance their presence” in Afghanistan and not send additional troops, Mr. Kelly said. As someone who has done thousands of translations from English to Polish, I can honestly say that the mistranslation was minimal and did not distort what Ambassador Feinstein really meant. Had it truly been a serious mistranslation, the embassy would have posted a correct translation on its website. It did not because it would show that Polish media reports about the essential meaning of the ambassador’s remarks were generally correct.


Blaming a translator is in this case a very ungracious way of trying to compensate for the ambassador’s diplomatic mistake. Other ambassadors might have received a rebuke from the Secretary of State for embarrassing their host government, but Ambassador Feinstein is very well connected within the Obama administration. His defense by the State Department adds to a series of offending statements and actions taken in recent months in Washington vis-a-vis Poland and shows a level of arrogance that was not seen even during the Bush administration, which was not known for being overly diplomatic in dealing with other countries.


Despite all the insults, it does not appear that Poland will withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. In fact, while being snubbed and embarrassed by the Obama Administration, Poland is planning to send  to Afghanistan additional 200 soldiers as an emergency reserve contingent. The Polish leaders understand that regardless of who is currently occupying the White House, to protect its independence Poland must have good relations with the United States.


Taking a lead from the State Department and Ambassador Feinstein, who is now in Washington for consultations prior to Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski’s visit, U.S. diplomats in Warsaw are now engaged in a  counterproductive effort of trying to put the blame for a diplomatic faux pas on Polish media and the  Polish translator, instead of admitting a mistake and moving on. Contrary to common sense and the often stated desire of the Obama Administration  to see more Polish troops in Afghanistan, these public diplomacy “experts” are suggesting to their media contacts that Ambassador Feinstein’s words ” prime minister’s and president’s commitment” and  “to enhance its presence” did not mean that he was talking about sending more Polish troops to Afghanistan. In an attempt to rescue the reputation of the new U.S. ambassador, they have painted themselves into a corner by implying that President Obama’s representative in Warsaw does not know what  the president and the United States want Poland to do.


This is only the latest  in a series of  the public diplomacy disasters in Poland created by the Obama White House and the State Department. The U.S. Embassy’s lame attempts to salvage the reputation of a novice American ambassador, who apparently did nothing to prevent the September 17 missile defense announcement, actually made the controversy worse by exposing a certain lack of sincerity on the part of the Obama administration.


Ambassador Feinstein’s nomination to be Ambassador to Poland was not yet confirmed by the U.S. Senate on September 17, but as an advisor to Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign and later to the Obama White House, he had excellent contacts that could have helped him to prevent the embarrassment of  having the president announce the missile shield decision on the worst possible day for Poland.


Ultimately, however, the public diplomacy disaster ironically worked to the advantage of Central Europe. Stung by media criticism, the White House had to send Vice President Biden on a face-saving mission to Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic, where he made a number of statements committing the U.S. to the defence of the region, which President Obama will now find difficult to ignore in his drive to “reset” relations with Moscow.  


Still, the Poles, most of whom had grown up being exposed to communist propaganda and are quite cynical  about exaggerated declarations from government officials, had a good reason to be sceptical when Vice President Biden insisted in Romania that President Obama’sdecision to cancel the missile defense system in Central Europe had nothing to do with Russia and was not meant to appease the Kremlin.  Central Europeans who have experienced life under communism like to match words with actions.


During his trip, Mr.  Biden was also effusive in his praise of the courage of Central and East European freedom fighters who had faced tanks and the threat of death or arrests as they were bringing about the fall of communist dictatorships 20 years ago. Yet today’s Central Europeans  knew from news reports, that a few days earlier merely a threat of displeasing aging Chinese communist leaders thousands of miles away in Beijing persuaded President Obama not to meet in Washington with the highly-respected Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Some also knew that President Obama had canceled his plans to participate in the ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.


These additional public diplomacy blunders deepened a major crisis of confidence in the Obama Administration among the Poles and other Central Europeans, which Vice President Biden’s high declarations were not able to erase. Overall, however, his trip to Central Europe was helpful, as the former Bush-era ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe told a New York Times reporter. My own observation is that, if nothing else, Biden’s exaggerated statements have bound President Obama to a more cautious approach toward his rapprochement with the Kremlin.


In handling, or more accurately, mishandling the controversy over Ambassador Feinstein’s remarks, the State Department diplomats could have learned from what a Polish dissident writer said when he was living in Poland under communism. When you find yourself in a difficult situation and don’t know what to say, tell the truth.  They should also pay attention to what former Czech dissident, human rights activist, statesman, playwright, and Nobel Prize winner Vaclav Havel said after learning that President Obama had refused to meet the Dalai Lama.


“It is only a minor compromise,” Mr. Havel said of the nonreception of the Tibetan leader. “But exactly with these minor compromises start the big and dangerous ones, the real problems.”


The State Department and U.S. diplomats in Warsaw want journalists to believe that Ambassador Feinstein was not talking about more Polish soldiers in Afghanistan. What else could he have meant when he talked about “enhancing”  Poland’s presence in the Afghan war zone? Polish experts on crop rotation?


The following is the Polish-language corrected transcript of the TVN24 interview with  U.S. Ambassador to Poland Lee A. Feinstein. You may also follow this link to view a video of the interview, in which the relevant comments in English can still be partly heard in between the voice of the translator.

Maciej Wierzyński (in the early 1990s, Mr. Wierzyński was director of  the Voice of America (VOA) Polish Service in Washington, D.C. VOA no longer broadcasts radio programs to Poland or has any other news content in Polish, neither does the State Department nor Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, RFE/RL) : Skoro mowa o Afganistanie, z pewnością wie Pan, że w Polsce poparcie dla obecności polskich wojsk Afganistanie słabnie. Niektórzy politycy otwarcie wzywają do wycofania polskich wojsk. Jak pan odpowiedziałby na takie obawy.


Lee A. Feinstein: To świetne pytanie, tak naprawdę to jest problem nie tylko w Polsce ale i w Stanach zjednoczonych. W Stanach poparcie społeczne dla narażania ludzi na niebezpieczeństwo to zawsze delikatna kwestia. Chcę więc powiedzieć o tym kilka rzeczy. Po pierwsze – Stany Zjednoczone są zdecydowane zostać w Afganistanie i co do tego nie powinno być żadnych wątpliwości. Prezydent, jak Pan zapewne wie, rozważa różne opcje w Afganistanie – dokładniej jak iść z misją do przodu. Jedna rzecz jest poza dyskusją – wycofanie. Prezydent jest zdecydowany zostać w Afganistanie i zwyciężyć. Mam nadzieję, że to daje trochę pewności, oczywiście to ciężka walka, jesteśmy wdzięczni polskiemu premierowi i prezydentowi za zobowiązanie by być w Afganistanie, w istocie, żeby wzmocnić obecność w Afganistanie. Jesteśmy niezwykle wdzięczni Polakom za wspólne poświęcenie.