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06/01/2012 12:44 pm ET Updated Aug 01, 2012

Christopher Hill On Barack Obama's Poland Gaffe

This week, President Barack Obama put himself in an awkward position with America's ally, Poland, when he erroneously referred to World War II-era Nazi concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland as "Polish." How should a world leader move ahead after he makes a blunder? And how should allies handle such situations on the world stage to avoid turning a minor faux pas into a major international incident?

"The reference to a 'death camp in Poland' as 'Polish death camp' is really nothing more than sloppy grammar, a misplaced effort to economize by saying in three words that which should take four," observes the University of Denver's Christopher Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland. "But in Poland, there is persistent and understandable anxiety that many people in the world whose understanding of history is not what it should be, actually believe that Poles were somehow willing accomplices to German Nazis."

Obama's gaffe occurred on May 29th, when he was presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- the nation's highest civilian honor -- posthumously to WWII Polish-resistance officer Jan Karski (who died in 2000). Obama noted that Karski's fellow resistance fighters "smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp behind enemy lines to witness the atrocities firsthand."

In fact, as Polish-government officials were quick to point out -- and as the White House was quick to correct -- the camps were not "Polish" but were Nazi death camps in occupied Poland.

After the presentation, the White House noted on its official website that the President's words were "historically inaccurate" and that the language "should instead have been: 'Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland'," concluding "We regret the error." Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk seemed resolute that an official apology was necessary, and declared on his website that the United States needed to "end this with class."

A career member of the United States Foreign Service, Hill served as U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia from 1996 to 1999, Ambassador to Poland from 2000 to 2004, and Ambassador to Iraq from 2009 to 2010. He helped negotiate the Bosnian peace agreement in 1995. He currently serves as dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He speaks Polish, Serbo-Croatian, and Macedonian. (Karski, it should be noted, was also in academia -- at the time of his death, he was a celebrated professor of Government at Georgetown University.)

As the smoke cleared two days after the incident, The Huffington Post's Gregory Kristof spoke with Ambassador Hill to see how such a diplomatic fiasco is best handled.

HuffPost: Prime Minister Tusk wants a "stronger, more pointed response." Any idea what he has in mind? You've dealt with these episodes before. What counts as a satisfactory apology?

Hill: I can't believe anyone would actually believe President Obama thinks Poles were responsible for the Nazi death camps. This whole issue speaks to a long-term problem. These death camps were built by Germans, and Poland had nothing to do with them. Poland, at the time, was the unhappy place with railroads that had Jews living in it. There were many Jews living in Poland. Germans built these camps there to be closer to the people they were trying to kill. These are basic historical facts.

HuffPost: Last we heard, Obama has shrugged off demands by the Polish government for another, stronger apology. Was that the correct move by the White House?

Hill: Well, I don't want to second guess the White House strategists. The bottom line is that if he's guilty of anything, then he's guilty of using bad grammar. I don't think he's under any illusion whatsoever that Poles were guilty of using death camps. I'm not sure the White House can do more than what they've done, which is to explain that Obama made a grammatical mistake and knows that Poles were not at all responsible for the death camps.

HuffPost: How high do you think resentment and anger actually are in Poland? Foreign minister Radek Sikorski tweeted, "The White House will apologize for this outrageous error." Other public officials and intellectuals have weighed in, but has the average Pole heard about this? Does, say, Joe Sixpack in Poland care about this -- is he angry?

Hill: I'm sure the issue has been widely covered in the Polish press. What gives the issue resonance is the fact that the idea of Poland sharing culpability with the Nazis has come up before. And, factually, it is a complete misunderstanding of history. The idea is just one of these things that won't die, which is why there is such a big reaction among Poles. If this issue had never come up in the past, having a president misstate something like this -- use poor grammatical form -- it wouldn't have been noticed.

It's a long-standing issue. People throughout history have thought Poles were part of this, that they had some responsibility in killing people in the death camps. Poles were great victims in WWII. This issue of thinking Poles are anti-semitic and helping the Nazis. There was even a book about it (Jan T. Gross, "Neighbors"). ... Poles feel this caricature of their behavior in WWII is at odds with the behavior of people like Jan Karski. When these issues come up, these are very emotional issues for Poles.

HuffPost: Prime Minister Tusk presumably knows Obama genuinely misspoke and had the best of intentions. Yet he still demands a stronger apology. How much of that is diplomatic/political dancing -- playing to the Polish public by demanding more from the U.S. president, or appearing more angry than he actually may be to appear strong to his constituency?

Hill: Any time an issue like this comes up, a Polish political leader has to be seen standing up for Polish national identity and Polish pride. This issue needs to be seen in in that light.

HuffPost: How should Obama go about quelling polish anger? Does he go on again and apologize more strongly? Do you kiss up to the Polish prime minister? More generally, how do these episodes work behind the scenes? What usually happens?

Hill: I'm guessing the US embassy in Warsaw is probably very active right now in terms of explaining to the public that it was just a grammatical issue, a grammatical mistake. They are probably explaining that the historical fact is that the Poles were not at all responsible for what happened in WWII. I'm fairly sure that things are going to be handled now at the embassy level, not the White House level. ... I think this issue will recede fairly quickly. There's nothing to it. The President did not mean to imply that Poles were somehow responsible for any horrible things in WWII. So I don't see this issue as a long term irritant in the relationship between the US and Poland. It's just a short thing we all have to just get through.

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