Thursday, July 30, 2009

From Central and Eastern Europe to the Apologizer-in-Chief: A Remarkable Breach of Convention Doubling As a Public Expression of Mistrust

It’s a remarkable breach of convention when close and very dependent allies of the United States display their anxieties about being sold out to Russia by the country they regard as the guarantor of their sovereignty and independence
writes John Vinocur.
That’s what an open letter to the administration of President Barack Obama from Central and Eastern Europe, signed by 22 intellectuals and former leaders from the region, including Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, boils down to — a public expression of mistrust.

Released last Thursday, nine days after Mr. Obama’s speech in Moscow on Russian-American relations, the letter — which has gotten a public endorsement from Poland and, according to an American observer, has the approval of several of the region’s current leaders — makes plain an existential concern about what it regards the administration’s insufficient engagement in countering a “revisionist Russia.”

The letter is emblematic of a widening gap: On one side, an American government whose friends fear could trade off their East European interests as a hinge for deals on Iran and nuclear disarmament. And on the other, people from the old Soviet bloc who take as an ominous matter Russia’s attempts to re-establish a zone of influence along its borders.

The letter’s frankness is twice rare: It comes from a region absolutely without objective interest or amusement in needling the United States. And, whatever its signatories have been told by way of reassurance in the last weeks — like no U.S. sellout will occur — the document still disseminates the notion that the Obama administration is messing up an important piece of foreign policy.

In stating its view of Russia’s threat to the region, the letter makes clear the accompanying discomfort it feels about “a realist” America in 2009.

Of course, Mr. Obama’s Moscow speech did say “states must have the right to borders that are secure and their own foreign policies.” But in much of Eastern and Central Europe, not quite a year after Russia’s invasion of Georgia, the president’s reference to international law doesn’t suffice as reassurance from and to the heart.

Little is certain in this changing relationship of old allies, the letter suggests. Rather, the signatories talk — in terms of desire, not fait accompli — of their hopes of finding a “moral compass” and “commitment” in U.S. policy.

They add emphatically that no one is more capable than the people of Eastern and Central Europe to recognize the signs of a compliant America or a principled one:

“We know from our own historical experience the difference between when the United States stood up for democratic values and when it did not. Our region suffered when the United States succumbed to ‘realism’ at Yalta. And it benefited when the United States used its power to fight for principle” during the Soviet era.

…These Europeans, in particular anti-Communist heroes of the stature of Mr. Havel and Mr. Walesa, can find dreaded signposts for a newly “realist” America — in this context, a contemptible word meaning willingness for compromise at democracy’s expense — when the United States waters down the description of its essential role in winning the Cold War and ending the Soviet domination of their region.

This view holds that if the Americans don’t talk confidently about their victory, their obligation to defend it is diminished.

In Moscow, Mr. Obama seemed mostly to relativize the era.

He spoke of the Cold War almost as a disembodied time when “American and Soviet armies were still massed in Europe, trained and ready to fight” across “ideological trenches.”

Then, vaulting over the deaths, the dictatorships, the Berlin Wall and the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, he said, “in a few short years, the world as it was ceased to be.”

There was no specific reference to the successful outcome of two generations of American policy, or to U.S. responsibility for defending its results.

For those Europeans under Soviet control for almost 50 years — taking into account the president’s status as a guest in Moscow — the omission and the speech’s aftertaste of moral equivalence had to be striking.

Especially since Mr. Obama, in his book “The Audacity of Hope,” praised Ronald Reagan for his “insistence there was no easy equivalence between East and West. In all this, I had no quarrel with Reagan. And when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, I had to give the old man his due.”

(There’s more here: Compare the president’s Moscow reference to the “Cold War reaching a conclusion through the actions of many nations” to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s version of events. Experiencing the Soviet empire’s implosion from the East German side of the wall, she has pointed to Mr. Reagan’s strength and said “it was exactly this strength that led to the collapse of socialism and to Germany’s reunification.”)

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