Polanski Case Is Also a Test for Obama
Within the next several weeks, President Obama faces a big foreign policy decision. I'm not talking about Iran or Afghanistan or the Middle East or North Korea, but the decision could have a big impact on U.S. ties with allies who will play a crucial role in those decisions. I'm talking, of course, about whether to press for the extradition or Roman Polanski, who was arrested in Switzerland last month in a trip away from his safe haven in France.
It's easy to dismiss this as the just the kind of problem that Obama doesn't need to get personally involved in. One could make a strong case that he's already overextended -- as his silly trip to go before the Olympic Committee last week demonstrated. But one can also argue that the Polanski case is about moral leadership and the high ground. Some of Obama's recent foreign policy decisions -- to avoid seeing the Dalai Lama, to reverse course on a missile defense system near Russia's borders -- suggest too much willingness to make foreign powers like Russia and China happy. That's all the more reason to stand firm on Polanski, though I'm not trying to equate the issues.
The facts in the case are not in dispute. In 1977, Polanski, by his own admission, drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl and then fled the country when it looked like he'd be sentenced to prison. An open and shut case if there ever was once. Unless you live in France, where Polanski made his home after fleeing the U.S. and is regularly given red carpet treatment. Or in Hollywood.
The French have appealed directly to the Obama administration for clemency. French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand ridiculed the U.S. for seeking the extradition of Polanski, who is now 76. "To see him like that, thrown to the lions because of ancient history, really doesn't make any sense," he said.
And more than 100 filmmakers and actors in the U.S. have petitioned for Polanski's release from Switzerland, where he's being held pending an extradition fight. In an irony that seems to have escaped Paris, the French appeal went to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has made championing women's rights a top agenda item.
Polanski's supporters seem to think the filmmaker's great work on the screen absolves his past sins. A recent docudrama on HBO made that case forcefully and won many converts, who note that 32 years have passed, as though there's some kind of statute of limitation on committing heinous acts and fleeing bail. They also point to the willingness of the victim, who long ago reached a financial settlement with Polanski, to let it go as some kind of vindication, as though as a drugged 13-year-old, she was somehow giving consent to Polanski, who was then 43.
Others cite a growing public tolerance -- or public exhaustion -- for sexual scandals, noting recent cases involving talk show host David Letterman, former presidential candidate John Edwards, S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford and Nevada Sen. John Ensign. But there's a world of very ugly difference between consensual relations among adults -- even when adultery is involved -- and raping a 13-year-old. Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker, among others, did a superb job in putting Polanski's crime in proper perspective.
All this comes as we read on the front page of the New York Times today about soldiers in Guinea breaking up a political demonstration by attacking women in the crowd, raping them in open view and broad daylight. In fact, rape has become a weapon of war in far too many parts of the world, condemned but somehow never slowed, perhaps because the condemnations are not followed up with any kind of punishment for the offenders. If we all don't stand up together to make it clear that rape is unacceptable under any conditions, what hope is there for making any progress in fighting it.
None of this will be lost on Obama, the father of two young girls. Let's hope he rejects the plea for clemency with all the force of his best words, regardless of how annoyed it makes the French or Obama's Hollywood supporters. This isn't even worth debating.