David Frum (and other conservative commentators) are outraged at President Obama for remarks made yesterday during the presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Speaking of Jan Karski — the legendary Polish dissident of the Nazi occupation who first alerted the West to the horrors of the Holocaust — Obama used the unfortunate phrase “Polish Death Camps.”
That’s a pretty terrible thing to say. Frum is correct to be outraged at the fact that this wasn’t immediately corrected and apologized for by Obama. By uttering these words — and failing to understand the importance of accurately describing the Nazi concentration camps — the administration embarrassed itself and insulted one of our allies.
But intent matters. And this strikes me as a gaffe — a gaffe that might display a serious lack of sensitivity — or perhaps shoddy staff work — but a gaffe nonetheless. It was wrong. It was harmful, but it was not intentional. Does anyone think Obama is secretly trying to inject the idea that the Poles were running the camps?
Conservatives frequently criticize Obama for adopting a passive and weak international stance that can appear to be apologetic. They forget, however, that there are times when a president should apologize for committing a wrong against a friend (especially when it’s of his own doing). This was certainly one of those times.
So when the president steps up and apologizes for doing something wrong, we should be willing to move on. This isn’t emblematic of Obama ruining relationships in Eastern Europe or apologizing for America. It was a serious mistake — and one he corrected. Let’s demonstrate that we’re intellectually consistent and move on rather than treating this as an intentional slight. It wasn’t.
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