Read into this what you will, but President Obama is building an impressive list of gaffes and protocol lapses related to Poland, World War II, and the Holocaust. During his campaign, Obama mixed up which concentration camp his uncle had liberated: it was Ohrdruf, not Auschwitz, which was liberated by the Soviets. In 2009 he scrapped Bush-era plans to station a missile defense system in Poland, a plan viewed as a security guarantee by the Poles but strongly opposed by Russia, on the 70th anniversary of the 1939 invasion of Poland by the Soviet Union. And in 2012 he touched a nerve with a reference to “Polish death camps” during a ceremony honoring resistance hero Jan Karski: The Polish government is extremely sensitive about how Nazi death camps built on Polish soil are described.
Today the White House is taking heat over the fact that neither President Obama nor Vice President Biden was in attendance at the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Instead, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was sent to the event, which was attended by a number of heads of state. The event had already been heavily politicized by the non-invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Obama’s no-show follows the controversial decision not to send any high-ranking officials to the rally in Paris following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Compounding the bad optics are the fact that Obama is instead in Saudi Arabia to pay tribute to the late King Abdullah, leader of one of the world’s most repressive (and anti-Semitic) regimes.
Some might ask why Biden couldn’t have handled one of these tasks—Dick Cheney attended the 60th-anniversary ceremony at Auschwitz (and was mocked for his casual outfit). But for security reasons, it’s generally policy not to have the vice president and president out of the country at the same time. In 2013 there was a to-do over the fact that their overseas trips overlapped for 20 minutes.
It’s not as if Lew, the second-highest-ranking Cabinet secretary, is some minor flunky. He also has a long record of working to combat global anti-Semitism dating back to the 1980s and is the first Orthodox Jew to serve in the Cabinet.
And important as the event at Auschwitz is, Obama, who has paid tribute to victims of the Holocaust on numerous occasions, can justifiably argue that his time is better spent attending to current U.S. national interests than attending the many significant historical anniversaries that are commemorated around the world each year. Those interests include maintaining good relations with India, where Obama was over the weekend for a symbolically important visit, and, like it or not, with Saudi Arabia. Whether or not U.S. strategy in the Middle East should rely as heavily as it does on Saudi Arabia’s good favor is another issue, and a much more important one than this.
So I would be inclined to defend the administration here, except for the fact that the original item on the president’s agenda for today before the last-minute decision to cut his India trip short was not more meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but a photo-op visit to the Taj Majal. Plus, there’s the fact that the president seems to have rolled into Riyadh with the entire U.S. national security establishment in tow, including the current secretary of state, two former ones, the director of the CIA, the commander of Centcom, and half a dozen members of Congress. I understand the U.S. can’t give the Saudis the cold shoulder, but this seems like a bit much.
Plus, someone should probably pick up a copy of Bloodlands for the White House protocol office.