Beatification of John Paul II was a low priority public diplomacy event for President Obama

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TedLipien.com TedLipien.com, Truckee, California, USA, May 01, 2011 — In a public diplomacy blunder likely to offend American Catholics, Polish-American voters and people in Poland, the Obama Administration failed to send a high-ranking American official to the beatification ceremonies for Pope John Paul II, which were held today at the Vatican. Many other religious and ethnic groups in America and in countries are also likely to be disturbed by the failure of President Obama to attend the ceremony himself or to send a special delegation headed by Vice President Biden. The White House could have also dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or prominent members of the U.S. Congress from both political parties. The United States was represented at the ceremony only by Miguel Diaz, the ambassador to the Vatican. This is considered the lowest level of representation at an important event of this kind. King Albert and Queen Paola of Belgium led the list of royalty present and 16 heads of state and several prime ministers attended, including Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.

This public diplomacy misstep is one of many since President Obama took office and points to a total lack of leadership and planning within the White House and the State Department. Most recently, the White House failed to issue a traditional presidential proclamation for Easter, even though President Obama signed similar proclamations for Muslim and Jewish holidays. Other public diplomacy blunders included President Obama making the announcement of withdrawing U.S. missile defense shield from Poland on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland and his decision to go golfing on the day of the funeral for Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski who was killed in a plane crash in Russia.

Early in his term,  President Obama declined the Polish government’s invitation to attend the 70th anniversary observances of the outbreak of  World War II which started with the attacks on Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The low-level of the U.S. delegation to that event was widely criticized and the delegation was slightly upgraded at the last moment.   President Obama also failed to attend the 10th anniversary observances of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The White House tried to justify these absences by the President’s busy schedule, but critics of President Obama point out that he takes more frequent vacations than other U.S. presidents.

Snapshot of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See Website on the day of Pope John Paul II's Beatification, May 1, 2011.

Snapshot of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See Website on the day of Pope John Paul II's Beatification, May 1, 2011.

The lack of public diplomacy planning at the State Department prior to the beatification of Pope John Paul II  was evident from the websites of U.S. embassies in Rome and at the Vatican, both of which on May 1 had no text, photos or videos relating to the beatification ceremony for Pope John Paul II. Judith A. McHale is the current Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, whose job is to help lead America’s engagement with the people of the world. She has failed to prevent numerous embarrassing public diplomacy omissions and mistakes by the Obama Administration.

U.S. embassies in Central and Eastern Europe have by and large ignored the recent 100th anniversary of President Reagan’s birth as an occasion for public diplomacy events that could highlight his contribution along with Pope John Paul II to bringing about the fall of communism in the region. Many embassies chose instead during that time to focus on promoting hip-hop music events as part of the State Department’s cultural diplomacy program.

The U.S. Embassy in Warsaw had a number of posts on its Facebook Page about Pope John Paul II and U.S. presidents whom he had met, including photos of the Polish pope with President Reagan and President Clinton. But the Embassy’s official website had nothing about the pope and his numerous visits to the United States.

President Ronald Reagan with Pope John Paul II in Faribanks, Alaska, 1984.

President Ronald Reagan with Pope John Paul II in Faribanks, Alaska, 1984.

Other recent U.S. presidents, including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, were far more successful in managing their public diplomacy abroad, U.S. relations with the Vatican, and their relations with American Catholic voters. Ronald Reagan had a particularly close relationship with Pope John Paul II and consulted with him regularly on how to help the Solidarity human rights movement in Poland.

U.S. Ambassador to Malta Douglas Kmiec

U.S. Ambassador to Malta Douglas Kmiec

The Obama Administration may have also offended some American Catholics by their treatment of the U.S. Ambassador to Malta Doug Kmiec, a conservative Catholic supporter of President Obama who recently offered to resign after State Department officials accused him of spending too much time promoting his religious views. Ambassador Kmiec is highly respected in Malta, where Catholicism is the official religion.

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  3. Wojtyła’s Women: How Women, History and Polish Traditions Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church
  4. Pope John Paul II’s 1979 Visit to the U.S. – VOA Video
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