Obama diplomacy lost in confusion

President Obama with President PutinTedLipien.com TedLipien.com, SAN FRANCISCO — Speaking softly to dictators while insulting faithful allies seems to be the essence of President Obama’s confused diplomacy.

The Obama administration has repeatedly offended Poland’s pride in recent months, making Polish officials extremely suspicious and anxious about foreign policy and military commitments of the new U.S. administration. First, President Obama made public his strong desire to “reset” relations with Moscow, based apparently on a naive assumption that Russian leaders would help him deal with nuclear Iran, as if helping the U.S. could ever advance their own authoritarian ambitions. He later declined the Polish government’s invitation to attend the 70th anniversary commemoration of the outbreak of World War II, which was held in Gdansk, the birthplace of Solidarnosc, on September 1, a date of great historical importance to the Poles. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was there along with other foreign dignitaries.


This American diplomatic snub, combined with the fact that the White House and the State Department were silent during the summer, as various Russian government officials and Kremlin supporters defended Stalin and his pre-World War II pact with Hitler, did not escape the attention of Polish leaders and the Polish public. The Hitler-Stalin pact resulted in Poland’s partition by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, with the Soviet attack launched on September 17, 1939.


The final blow came when President Obama made his decision to cancel U.S. plans to build the anti-ballistic missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and chose to announce it on the very day the Poles were commemorating the tragic anniversary of the Soviet invasion of their country. Countless public diplomacy experts in the White House and the State Department, including President Obama’s future ambassador to Poland, did nothing to prevent this completely avoidable insult. Wired headline said it all: Dear Poland, Happy Soviet Invasion Day. Love Uncle Sam.


Alarmed by naive foreign policy statements coming from Washington, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and other Central European leaders had sent a letter to President Obama in July 2009, warning him of the Kremlin’s aggressive behavior toward Russia’s neighbors. The mishandling of the ballistic missile defense (BMD) issue and subsequent events have shown that their alarm was justified, but their warnings have been ignored.


Finally, after an outcry of media criticism following the September 17 missile shield cancellation announcement, the White House hastily dispatched Vice President Joe Biden on a face-saving mission to Central Europe. While visiting Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic, Mr. Biden praised the courage of pro-democracy demonstrators who toppled communist regimes in 1989 while facing tanks and occasional gunfire.


But these Central Europeans, who easily saw through communist propaganda and like to match actions with words, could not fail to notice that only a few days earlier Mr. Biden’s boss had refused to meet in Washington with the revered Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. This was apparently out of fear of offending the aging Chinese communist leaders, who were not brandishing guns but merely frowning at him thousands of miles away from the White House. U.S. NATO allies in Central Europe also learned from news reports that, citing scheduling conflicts, President Obama had canceled his plans to attend the 20th anniversary observances in Germany of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will represent the U.S. Hoping to score a public diplomacy coup, Russia’s President Dmitri Medvedev later announced that he would attend along with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and a score of other heads of state.


Mr. Obama is too busy to go to Berlin to honor those who fought against communism in Eastern and Central Europe. The White House did say that he would meet the Dalai Lama, but only after his official presidential visit to China. Reacting to this news, former Czech president and human rights activist Vaclav Havel sadly observed that “these minor compromises start the big and dangerous ones.”


Repeated diplomatic blunders of the Obama administration embolden dictators who now see the U.S. president as a weak and ineffective leader. They are likely to act upon this perception by further restricting human rights and press freedoms in their countries, while also threatening their smaller neighbors. This is bad news for America and the spirit of freedom that sustained the 1989 peaceful overthrow of communism in Eastern Europe.


The White House would like everyone to believe that bad translators and hostile media are misinterpreting President Obama’s foreign policy initiatives. The State Department recently blamed a Polish translator for undiplomatic remarks by President Obama’s new ambassador in Warsaw, Lee A. Feinstein, who hinted in a television interview that Poland plans to increase its engagement in Afghanistan.


While the hint was believed to be accurate, Polish government officials were furious that it was made public before foreign minister Sikorski’s scheduled visit to Washington. They did not want the Polish public to learn about it from the U.S. ambassador while sensitive negotiations were still being conducted. To make things worse, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cancelled her meeting with Sikorski when she decided to extend her trip to the Middle East.


The latest diplomatic crises with Poland show a new level of incompetence as well as arrogance of the new Obama administration foreign policy team. The real problem with Obama diplomacy are not bad translators and journalists, but naive assumptions, surprising arrogance and dangerous incompetence. The world needs a U.S. president whose diplomacy is not lost in confusion.




Ted Lipien was in charge of Voice of America radio broadcasts to Poland during the Solidarity movement’s successful struggle for democracy. He now runs a media freedom nonprofit in San Francisco, CA.