On Afghan hospital bombing, a suddenly camera-shy Obama
© Getty Images

There has been much buzzing in media and political circles about President Obama's "apology" Wednesday for the accidental bombing by U.S. warplanes last week that he said "mistakenly struck" a Doctors Without Borders field hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan.

The attack took the lives of nearly two-dozen doctors and patients and sparked a firestorm of criticism against the U.S. The international medical aid agency, which called the attack a "war crime," was unmoved by the president’s apology.


"We received President Obama's apology today," said Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders. "However, we reiterate our (request) that the U.S. government consent to an independent investigation led by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission to establish what happened in Kunduz, how it happened and why it happened."

Obama has not agreed to cooperate with such an international investigation. The U.S. is conducting one of its own.

But while the bombing incident has received much media attention, Obama had been largely absent from the discussion until he issued his apology five says after the tragedy. And even when he made the apology, he didn't do it publicly. He did it in a phone call, away from the news media and the eyes of American and international public.

Obama is quick to jump in front of the cameras when he has good news to announce, or wants to score political points against Republicans. He did it only last week, just hours after the Oregon community college shootings. He called for tougher gun control laws and blamed Republicans for blocking them. He is visiting that Oregon community today to reinforce that message. His visit will draw plenty of media attention. And it's not likely that he will be camera-shy.

But he was quite shy when it came to the hospital bombing. The apology came five days after the incident, and only then was done in a private phone call from the Oval Office. The news media learned of the call Wednesday when White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters about it in his daily briefing.

"Based on what the president has learned, he believed that it was appropriate for the United States to do what we've done before, which is to acknowledge that a mistake had been made, to offer an apology," Earnest said.

In the five days before the apology, Obama himself was nowhere to be seen or heard with regard to the bombing. The White House at 7:49 p.m. Saturday, the day the news broke, issued a written statement in which the president extended his "deepest condolences" for the loss of life and injuries in Kunduz, and said that the Pentagon "has launched a full investigation."

On Sunday, Obama attended a memorial service for fallen firefighters in Emmetsburg, Md. and played a round of golf. He made no public statements on Kunduz, although a press pool followed him to both events.

Instead, the uncomfortable work of public and media comments by the administration for the next three days were left to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Afghanistan U.S. Military Commander Gen. John Campbell and Earnest. Campbell testified Tuesday before the Senate Armed Service Committee.

Keeping the president shielded from having to publicly deal with bad news, especially when it comes to messy international affairs, has been crafted to a science by the Obama White House. To be sure, all White House media strategists try to present the president in a positive and flattering light and avoid events that cast shadows. But this one does it better than most.

So while the president is in Oregon today expressing his condolences, with a gaggle of cameras following, do not expect the White House to announce anytime soon plans for the president to visit the site of the hospital bombings in Kunduz.

Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent/columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in the Fund for American Studies program at George Mason University. Email him at benedett@american.edu and follow on Twitter @benedettopress.