05 April 2009

Socialism Returns to Prague

Twenty years after the Velvet Revolution, the former Warsaw-Pact Czechs are enjoying the fruits of a dynamic free-market democracy in a country that was crumbling in grey socialist mediocrity just a short time ago.  Today, new Mercedes and Alfa-Romeos fill streets that were previously only sparsely populated with smoking Eastern-block clunkers and the occasional frumpy black commie limo with some aparatchik in the back.   The largely pro-American Czechs (who feature Europe's one and only American country music station and a semi-pro baseball league) supplied troops in Iraq and last year signed-onto George Bush's missile defense proposal based here and in Poland. 

Czech President Vaclav Klaus is a pugnacious conservative known for his skeptimism regarding the EU- a Thatcherite capitalist who famously confronted Al Gore at Davos with "I don't think there's any global warming".  Klaus is credited for much of the speedy transition to capitalism as PM in the early-mid 1990's, albeit with some bumps... and has taken an unfashionable pro-market stance in his ideas for dealing with the world financial crisis.

Current Czech PM Mirek Topolanek is the one who stated in the EU Parliment that profligate spending favored by Obama-Pelosi-Reid represents a "road to hell" that EU governments must avoid.  He added "We need to read the history books and the lessons of history and the biggest success of the (EU) is the refusal to go this way."  

So Prague Castle doesn't seem to be the most obvious venue for President Obama's first public speech in Europe- but the Czechs currently hold the rotating EU presidency, and of course many people here, as elsewhere, are enthusiastic about the Obama presidency for whatever reasons... so here he is. And there is a varied political spectrum, with powerful social-democrats, Greens, and others- and even an only mildly reformed Communist Party who pragmatically replaced the traditional hammer-and-sickle/star symbol with a less-threatening-looking three red cherries on a stem.  

My wife happens to be Czech, and we have a place in Prague- so this morning I attended Obama's speech at the castle that overlooks this Golden City.  And the script seemed like it was written in anticipation of North Korea's Taepodong II missle test just 7 hours earlier.

The socialism that has come back to Prague 20 years after the revolution -and 40 years after the Russian invasion- now comes in the grinning form of Barack Obama- a man governing far to the left of the bipartisan-centrist rhetoric he employed during last fall's US election campaign.  

One result is a surreal situation in which America has big-spending statist allies like France and Germany considering its "stimulus" proposals too fiscally reckless for their liking.  And countries like Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, who suffered through 40 years of totalitarian socialism's systemic cruelty and comprehensive lack of results, do not share the romantic view some in the West have of Obama's ultra-liberal proposals and big-government solutions for every challenge.

With TelePrompTer screens glistening in the morning haze, Obama appeared about 20 minutes late with his wife Michelle to moderate cheers from the mostly young crowd.  Like Obama's most-fervent US supporters, those attending appeared to be 20-somethings alongside 60-something boomers-  and many of these came in from Germany, where all things Obama are quite trendy.

The President appeared with a large forced grin, as a car salesman would do to manipulate your emotions- providing the same "what's this guy up to?" feeling I got from the first time I ever heard him speak.  And like a slick salesman, Obama is unflinching as he tells you the car can fly, or go under-water... whatever you need to hear.

He proceeded to deliver a speech on green energy and foreign policy that attempted to tie-together Czech and US history and agendas with a dash of Yes-We-Can.  Obama's popularity is clearly helped by his mixed-race heritage, yet he still finds it useful to make statements like "In my birth-year of 1961, few could imagine a person like me" coming here as US President.  That lead inexplicably to "I am here today because people on both sides of the wall (Iron Curtain?) refused to be kept separated, "no matter what they looked like".  How did the communist Europeans look different from Western Europeans?  Hard to imagine just what he's talking about.

Obama used the occasion to outline his pollyanna plans for a "world without nuclear weapons"- including a comprehensive test-ban treaty, anti-proliferation regimes, a world "fuel bank" for supplying cooperative powers with fuel for peaceful uses, as well as a "strategic reduction with the Russians this year".

Obama put some effort towards presenting a case that forced-Soviet-allies of the Warsaw Pact like Prague "came together" with the West because they "wouldn't listen" to those who said it wasn't possible or likely- sounds good.  But the plain truth is that no Velvet Revolution would ever have been possible without a serious rollback of Soviet power- as accomplished by Ronald Reagan... and he didn't do it by talking.  

One only has to look to the Soviets' crushing of the Budapest (1956) and Prague Spring (1968) uprisings to see just how they dealt with renegades. President Reagan never considered "reaching out" to the Russians until they had been forced to bring in the reformer Gorbachev, and the US had regained military superiority- well into his second term as president.  Even then, he was reluctant to make any deal that would save the Soviet system economically... he wanted it to be defeated, and for millions to be freed.

It was Reagan who aggressively challenged Gorabachev with "tear down this wall" in Berlin- and was mocked by the American and European left as naive and too confrontational.   While previous presidents promoted containment or detente with the USSR, producing a smoldering, dangerous, and expensive 40-year Cold War, Reagan argued for a "real arms race" with the Soviet Union.  He said "in an all-out competition, they can't keep up" and would become economically "unhinged".  Pacifists -such as then-Senator Joe Biden- opposed Reagan's Pershing II missile deployments in Europe, SDI missile-defense inititiative, as-well as almost every other weapons program he used to confront the Soviet Union. 

When Reagan initiated this politically unpopular military buildup in 1981, called the "Evil Empire" by it's name, then later struck a deal with the Saudis to drive the price of oil to $20/bbl, the Soviet empire cracked, then crumbled... completely vindicating the principled and politically brave strategy.  The fact is that the Czechs, Poles, East Germans, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, and Slovaks didn't stand a chance of throwing-of their chains until Reagan put the Kremlin back on it's heels for good.  And it was that moral and strategic clarity that won the Cold War without firing a shot... not offers of appeasement. And clearly not the two sides joining-hands, as in Obama's version of reality.

Sounding today much like strategic train-wreck Jimmy Carter, Obama  pronounced that "Moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon"-  just the kind "moral" superiority that allowed Carter to lose countries such as Nicaragua and Iran to far worse regimes than the unsavory US ally that he withdrew support for.  In stark contrast, Reagan had told us that "We can't play innocents abroad in a world that is not innocent." 

President Obama stated that in overthrowing communism, the Czechs "exposed the emptiness of an ideology"- but it would be interesting to hear him explain just what he considers the key differences to be between past socialism and the multi-trillion-dollar big-government/social programs that has unveiled since he got himself elected.

He then stressed that regarding Iran and North Korea, we should not "let anybody tell you we can't work together- because Yes  We Can"- but there's really nobody saying that except perhaps some imaginary straw-man in the speechwriter's mind.  We have worked very well with a number of allies in the Six-Party talks with Pyongyang, as well as the US-EU diplomatic efforts regarding Tehran's nuclear ambitions.  We've also been offering for years, alongside these allies, exactly the same incentives, dialog, and sanctions/threats of sanctions that Obama proposes... and without a trace of success.  There is likely little new that the West can offer at this point that would entice them into giving up a their nuclear programs- if they're not about to be bombed, then keep going- why not

The sad truth is that both have sensed weakness in Obama's "open hand" gestures- which they have met only with contempt.  These regimes' political survival is completely based on outside enemies, a confrontational stance, and propaganda victories- and their power can't survive a comprehensive peace deal, so they see little to gain from it.   Obama says they can "join" the rest of us- but can either really expect to compete effectively in the world economy? He seems to operate under the assumption that they don't want to be rogue states- while in reality, they thrive on it.  They've already survived all the sanctions thrown at them, and are likely correct that their strongest hand lies in pursuing nuclear weaponry and ICBM systems.  If either had wanted a good faith deal, they'd have done it a long time ago-  instead, they've broken every agreement or promise ever made.

What in-fact might work would be a credible military threat, so these apocalyptic cults would realize the consequences of such nuclear brinkmanship, while leaving them a final "out"-  but that's far from what Barack Obama was proposing today.  This speech had standard formula in-full: smiling, hope-n-change "we're-all-in-this-together" themes, false arguments regarding "they",  conveniently malleable history lessons, and the proposal of failed ideas of the past as "new" and morally-superior.  

He also stated that it was "cowardly" to embrace fear, rather than "hope"- apparently this doesn't apply to his domestic strong-arm tactics with legislators of his own party.   How much longer will this schtick work before reality intervenes, anyway?