Monday, May 09, 2005

Bush Comes To Latvia

I have to admit I had a lump in my throat at times while listening to President Bush's speech in Latvia yesterday. It was correct for him to accept some responsibility for America's role in leaving Latvia inside the Iron Curtain with Roosevelt's deal at Yalta. It was correct for him to appreciate that celebrating the end of WWII in Europe meant something far different to the Latvians who were left outside the borders of freedom. And it was correct for him to remind Russia that democratic neighbors are no threat to its security.

Bush is a lightening rod to many people in Europe, but let's make one thing perfectly clear: countries with recent experience of tyranny have a different view of him than do countries who have forgotten it and take their freedom for granted. The free and prosperous countries west of the Elbe have forgotten that their current condition was nurtured for more than 50 years under the American security guarantee. Whose soldiers and billions of tax dollars enabled them to rise out of the smoking ruins of WWII? Now, their eastern neighbors are finally joining them and that is a reason for celebration.

Russia's paranoia about this is historically typical, but unfounded. They just don't get it. They still think they are entitled to an empire. Maybe because their written history has been so full of lies for so long, they don't understand that those days are over. They just cannot admit that they perpetrated on the world one of the most rapacious systems ever devised. It takes my breath away when they complain about how their minority in Latvia is so exploited. This from a country who deported and murdered tens of thousands of Latvians in the camps of Siberia. Is there something in their genetic code that predisposes them to permanent political thuggery? They've still got their head in the sand and are trying to turn back the clock. History is not kind to such thinking. The clock is ticking. . . .

So many Americans have so little understanding of history. Too many students today haven't a clue about Yalta, the Iron Curtain, or the Gulag. This isn't just an occasion for head-shaking, it can be dangerous. Freedom, individual rights, minority protection, open elections, and freedom of expression (like this blog) can't be taken for granted. Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers understood this perfectly well. They understood the dark side of human nature and took pains to check and balance it. The defense of freedom requires constant vigilance, for the dark forces are constantly chewing on the edges our hard-won liberties. I love my freedom. I can sit out here as an American in Latvia and write whatever I want. This reminds me of an old joke told to me by one of our Egyptian advisors when I worked at the Military Language Institute in Abu Dhabi.

An American and an Egyptian guy are talking on a street in Cairo:
"You Americans think we don't have any freedom here in Egypt."
"That's right," said the American. "I can stand on any corner in America and criticize George Bush without any problem. Can you do that in Cairo?"
"Sure," replied the Egyptian. "I too can stand on any street corner in Cairo and criticize George Bush without any problem!"

Of course, freedom often depends on who you are criticizing. This is always a good test of how much of it actually exists. In Putin's Russia, the independent media has shriveled to almost nothing. His unreconstructed KGB roots are revealing his true nature. Russia is again heading in the direction of centralized power. Its economy is rife with corruption, its infrastructure is crumbling, its military is poorly equipped and fueled by vodka. The country has massive, almost insurmountable problems. I'm not surprised by Putin's rhetoric, but it's a bad turn with a predictable outcome. It's going to be a long, long time before Russia is ready to join with the rest of Europe. Let's be very clear about that.


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