Obama diplomacy lost in translation

U.S. Ambassador to Poland Lee A. FeinsteinTedLipien.com TedLipien.com, SAN FRANCISCO — In angry late-night phone calls to reporters last week, State Department diplomats were defending careless comments by President Obama’s new ambassador in Warsaw, Lee A. Feinstein, who revealed on Polish TV the content of sensitive negotiations with the U.S. about increasing the number of Polish troops in Afghanistan. Polish officials had good reasons to keep this information confidential and were understandably angry.


The war in Afghanistan is not popular with the Polish people, and neither is the idea of committing more Polish troops to help President Obama who removed the U.S. missile shield from Poland on the anniversary of the invasion of the country by the Soviet Union in 1939. He had earlier declined the Polish government’s invitation to participate in the 70th anniversary observances of the start of World War II. And Secretary of State Clinton cancelled her scheduled meeting in Washington this week with visiting Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, when she unexpectedly extended her visit to the Middle East. He was going to discuss with her, among other things, Poland’s contribution to the war on terror in Afghanistan.


As to the earlier diplomatic scandal, State Department and U.S. Embassy officials tried to place fault with a Polish translator who admittedly used two extraneous words while interpreting the ambassador’s controversial remarks during a television interview. The interpreter added the words, “soldiers” and “Polish contingent,” when translating Ambassador Feinstein’s answer, in which he praised the Polish prime minister’s and president’s “commitment to being in Afghanistan, and,” he added, “actually to enhance its presence in Afghanistan.”


In a strong and angry reaction to this undiplomatically revealing answer, Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said that “the ambassador committed a blunder.” “Neither the prime minister, nor the minister of foreign affairs, nor the minister of national defense,” said Mr. Klich, “made any declarations to the American side about an increase in the contingent.”


It was obvious that the U.S. envoy was implying some kind of a military commitment. While the translator made a minor error, the translation did not distort the ambassador’s essential message. The English-language Krakow Post and other Polish media outlets analyzed the transcript and came to the same conclusion.


Lee A. Feinstein’s public remarks deeply embarrassed Polish government leaders, who in an attempt to help their country’s declining standing with the Obama administration may have made vague promises to Vice President Joe Biden during his recent visit to Warsaw about increasing their military engagement in Afghanistan. But under no circumstances they wanted the Polish public to hear about it first from the U.S. envoy at a time when most Poles feel that President Obama ignores and does not understand their country.


Even the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw admitted in a news item posted on its official website prior to Ambassador Feinstein’s arrival in Warsaw, and still available online, that deep disappointment in Mr. Obama is a common sentiment shared by the Poles. Yet despite the insults, Poland was planning to send a few hundred extra soldiers to Afghanistan. The Polish leaders know that their strategic military alliance with the United States and Poland’s friendship with the American people must be kept strong regardless of who occupies the White House at the moment.