A very good communicator with the task to defend a mixed bag of policies
In March 2007, I met the Czech ambassador to the U.S. His secretary called me to Cambridge, MA and told me that (then) Czech president Klaus wanted to meet me (and a few other global warming skeptics including Fred Singer and Pat Michaels) during a lunch in Washington D.C. It was nearly a civic duty to arrive when your president wishes so, I was told, so I bought the air ticket and wasn't sorry about it. It was my only visit to D.C. (so far?), a city I liked (and probably prefer over the Big Apple which is overcrowded to my taste).
Recall that it was one month after I translated an interview with our president about global warming that became the #1 story on Drudgereport.com for that day. That also allowed Fox News and others to run stories about a European president who questions Al Gore's sanity. One may both underestimate and overestimate the impact of such individual events but if I recall how hysterically afraid the U.S. politicians (even in the GOP) were to question the global warming dogma in early 2007, one could perhaps argue that this Czech role model was rather important for the world to get where we are today – a world with a lot of climate insanity but a world where the GOP as well as e.g. Australian politicians (including their Labor Party) find it normal to be skeptical about the climate panic. So yes, if you wanted to hear my honest opinion, I would admit that my modest contribution has already helped the world economy to save tens of billions of dollars.
But back to 2014. Today, I went to a talk at the University of Western Bohemia by the new U.S. ambassador to Czechia, Andrew Schapiro. This ex-classmate of Barack Obama from the Harvard Law School began his tenure in September, having replaced Norman Eisen. Norman Eisen was an amusing Gentleman who learned to speak some Czech but my understanding is that the internal justification for the replacement was to hire someone who is more active in promoting the current administration's policies. Schapiro's mother was a Czechoslovak Holocaust survivor so his background has links to the target country which I generally consider a plus.
The title was unsurprising for a U.S. ambassador, "Czech-U.S. relations 25 years after the Velvet Revolution". Before the talk began, I was trying to guess what he would be talking about, and given the expectation that his job is to promote certain policies, my guess was that the talk would be a juxtaposition of four main themes:
- Pleasing stories about the shared values of Czechia and America
- The need for Czechia to co-operate in the sanctions and hostilities against Russia
- Why it's good to support the new U.S. Middle East policies with the new focus on ISIS
- How America is helping Czechia to fight corruption
The diplomatic niceties were nice and he's good at telling them. When it comes to the content, I think that if I were the U.S. ambassador here, I would say about 90% of the same factoids as he did. You know, Pilsen was liberated by General Patton and a new memorial will be opened somewhere soon. It has been called the most pro-American city in Czechia and maybe in Europe.
Schapiro is from Chicago which also shows our shared values. For example, a formerly Czech neighborhood of Chicago is called Pilsen. The listeners – mostly students – were amused to hear that the neighborhood is mostly Mexican these days as the Czechs have moved elsewhere. Another thing we share is that almost everyone in Chicago has been corrupt – well, I do actually believe that Chicago is more corrupt than Czechia. Schapiro didn't mention Anton Čermák, the Czech American mayor who was assassinated in 1933 and saved FDR's life – because FDR was probably the planned target of the murder.
Many positive comments were directed at the late Czech ex-president Havel. A new statue of Havel or something like that will be open soon. Only a few foreign politicians got the honor to have statues in D.C., Schapiro told, mentioning Gandhi as an example. What Schapiro seemed unaware of is that this list also includes the first president of Czechoslovakia Thomas Garrigue Masaryk. I actually visited (and liked) the TGM statue in D.C. – not because it was a few meters from Gandhi's statue but because it was a few meters from my hotel!
The Czech students tend to be shy. And I am sometimes shy, too, so despite the plans, I didn't ask the first question. But there was enough silence so that I found it as a plus for the atmosphere if I ask several questions – so about 3 questions out of 10 were from your humble correspondent. Maybe they were good and maybe he's properly trained as a diplomat to say "it is a very good question" whenever the question may raise some tensions. OK, so what was these exchanges about?
If I simplify a bit, they were about
- our apparent "duty" to impose the sanctions on Russia against our interests (and maybe even the opinions);
- whether the U.S. help for anti-corruption NGOs is an example of meddling in our internal affairs;
- and what needs to happen for him (and other PC Americans) to start to question the widespread thesis (one that he reiterated) that the Islam and jihadism have nothing to do with each other.
By the way, I am confident that in his whole talk and answers, he was perfectly mirroring the current official U.S. administration's attitudes and policies. So if Mr Kerry or someone else is reading this blog to find out whether Schapiro is fulfilling these obligations, the answer is Yes, perfectly. ;-)
Ukraine and Russia
Concerning the sanctions, I think that most (and perhaps all) of the people who asked related questions (even if I subtract myself) tended to be against the sanctions. Schapiro seemed very happy about all the potential problems or "embarrassing economic developments" (such as the three rate hikes made by the Russian Central Bank, the falling ruble etc.).
Schapiro was effectively saying that we must hurt Russia even if we're hurt in the same way because it's so important. He reminded me of Sheldon Cooper in his exchange with Penny that was analyzing the relationship of Leonard Hofstadter to Leslie Winkle, an arrogant subpar scientist who actually believes that loop quantum gravity better unites QM and GR than does string theory!
Penny: You must know that if Leonard and Leslie want to be together, nothing you can do is going to stop it.You know that Sheldon is right 99.9% of the time but this exchange was a point for Penny, wasn't it? In the same way, if the U.S. liked e.g. Czechia as its ally and Czechia would be hurt by our sanctions against Russia in the same way, then love should trump hate and sanctions should be agreed to be a bad idea, shouldn't they?
Sheldon: You continue to underestimate my abilities madam.
Penny: Okay, let me put it this way, if you’re really Leonard’s friend you will support him no matter who he wants to be with.
Sheldon: Wait a minute, why am I doing all the giving here? If Leonard’s really my friend, why doesn’t he have to support me in my hatred of Leslie Winkle?
Penny: Because love trumps hate.
Sheldon: Oh now you’re just making stuff up.
Penny: Okay. Goodnight Sheldon.
Several other questions were about our potentially different attitudes to the conflict. Schapiro said that he is or would be disappointed by them, and so on. But Schapiro was always talking as a diplomat, not like Joe Biden who said that the U.S. had to embarrass the EU for Europe to impose the sanctions. Instead, Schapiro would always try to describe these Czech-U.S. disagreements as decisions of allied nation in which people on both sides matter (and "equally").
Someone asked about the decreasing Czech military budget (as a percentage of GDP) in recent years. I guess that this guy wanted to copy (or amplify) all U.S. hostilities against Russia but he didn't say so. Schapiro answered something but it's pretty clear that the question whether Czechia pays 1.5% or 2% of GDP for defense isn't really a major issue that the U.S. actually cares about. The difference is 0.5% of the Czech GDP which is about 0.005% of the U.S. GDP. ;-) The main role that the U.S. wants us to play is a different one.
(He would praise some of our troops, including ones with a special training and those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan. Of course that most of these compliments are exaggerated for a largely irrelevant military like ours. However, I think that some of the virtues are understated, too. For example, the Czech troops enjoy much more trustworthiness among the Afghani civilians than the Yankees! Also, Czechoslovakia is still a rather important "brand" in the Arab world where we were always punching above our weight.)
The ambassador would say lots of things about our nations' being close. Despite the disagreement on some issues, I still feel that even he underestimates how much true this comment is. There are some repeatable differences in the statistical distributions of various characteristics among the Czechs and the Americans. Czechs are vastly less religious (which is manifested in various related ways); they are much more egalitarian; similar to each other; and less ambitious. I could mention a few more typical features of my nation – and they can't fully be explained by communism, just to be sure.
But otherwise, if you keep these things in mind, the Czechs are very similar to some communities you may find at many places of the U.S., perhaps more similar than other European nations. After 1989, I would sometimes say that I would have preferred for Czech(oslovak)ia to join the U.S. as the 51st state over joining the EU. Of course that I wasn't "quite" serious – or I didn't think that anything of the sort was likely – but such a thing wouldn't be completely inconceivable. And if there's gonna be some new conflict between some Western European powers and the U.S., it's damn possible that Czechia will emerge as a U.S. ally again. It depends.
When some opinions prevail in Czechia that don't quite prevail in the U.S., a fair and wise American should notice something that is almost always the case: even if the dominant Czech opinion isn't held by the majority of Americans, you find significant groups of Americans – and I really mean unquestionable, full-fledged Americans – who have pretty much the same opinions. For example, Ron Paul is a 100% full-fledged American and given his very limited influence on the major parties, he can be easily marginalized.
However, you may notice that Ron Paul has certain opinions that may be shared by the majority of Czechs – and pretty much for the very same reasons. So when a U.S. administration is trying to suppress such views in Czechia, it is a very analogous type of pressure as suppressing the domestic (U.S.) opposition or disagreements.
While I am no fundamentalist who is against "meddling of any kind", I do think that this kind of meddling against political views in a different country (e.g. Czechia) that have been and still are rather strong even in your country (especially the U.S.) is something that the foreign policy simply shouldn't be doing. Other countries have the right to have different ratios of political schools and different winners in the elections! Even with different winners, you may still see that some other nations are much closer to yours than some completely different nations.
If I return to the Russian topic, Schapiro would say that the U.S. pressure to make countries like Czechia impose sanctions against Russia are not meddling because we, the Czechs, want the sanctions as well. He mentioned a poll (that I saw in the local media, indeed) that 70% of Czech companies think that the sanctions are just fine. I believe that this may be the result of some polls but its "majority is right" interpretation is very dangerous. In reality, it may mean that 70% of companies do no significant business with Russia so they are not hurt by the sanctions and they actually want the sanctions because some of their competition will be hurt! And the 30% may be those companies that are hurt – and for them, the loss is of course much more important than the "gain" for those 70%.
It's like a plan to arrest all people whose surname doesn't start with "M" and divide all their confiscated assets among the people whose surname does start with "M". Would I approve of such a plan? Maybe I wouldn't but I am afraid that most of the other M-bastards would! ;-)
When I asked him whether the U.S. support for the local anti-corruption NGOs is meddling in our internal affairs, he answered that it was no meddling because the Czech government has nothing against such a cooperation of the U.S. and the Czech NGOs. Well, it is an argument. A problem is that almost every government is simply scared to complain in a similar way.
A part of this question of mine was whether the Obama administration would allow the Czech government to support some special NGOs that are pushing the American politics in a specific direction. I didn't get any answer to that part of the question. You know, we in Czechia are used to the fact that foreign governments are more able to influence what is happening here than how much we may influence events in other countries. It's partly explained by our less-than-a-power size.
But there are other countries that are powers of a sort and where the U.S. is meddling in a similar way. I think it would be a good exercise if the U.S. officials tried to imagine how they would react if someone else were intervening in the U.S. domestic affairs in a similar way. Do they really misunderstand why e.g. Russians want to treat many NGOs according to the same laws as "foreign agents"?
Minutes before the talk started, I thought that I would ask him something like this:
Is it appropriate for you to teach Czechia about corruption if you have been one of the people who helped your ex-classmate from Harvard to become the U.S. president and who has collected millions of dollars in donations in both presidential campaigns of Barack Obama – and now you were apparently rewarded for these services by getting this rather comfortable job? ;-)There were two reasons why the question wasn't asked in this way. First, he was just more friendly than what I was predicting. Second, by the moment when I wanted to ask, he had already preemptively listed all the data. A female student has asked him how she should organize her life to achieve similar things as he did. He answered that she shouldn't plan her life in any detail – things can't be planned in this exact way. Nice. But he also used the opportunity to say that he was never planning to become an ambassador when he was collecting millions of dollars for the Obama campaign. (He left a job of a corporate lawyer when he came here.) So it's a complete coincidence that these "millions" rhyme with the word "millions" that he is getting and will be getting for being the ambassador. Million-million: the rhyme is just a coincidence. ;-)
It may be true or not. It's impossible to reconstruct it. Some people may find it suspicious, others are OK with the coincidence. I think that such things simply have to be considered OK. In democracies, people must be allowed to help others in their campaigns; and presidents or secretaries of state must be allowed to pick ambassadors and people for other jobs. And there has to be some presumption of innocence.
On the other hand, I know very well that similar corruption-non-corruption is sometimes being criticized in Czechia as well (sometimes hysterically) – although it is obviously the very same thing that is happening in the U.S., too. Czech journalists sometimes use the term "trafika" – a newsstand or a tobacco shop, a government-controlled job that politicians get for helping other politicians in some political way (the name "trafika" goes back to the First World War, I think, when the veterans who have returned from the front were getting tobacco shops from the emperor, or something like that). Less than 2 years ago, Petr Nečas' center-right government was removed by an investigation of 3 bizarre and unrelated "potential crimes" and this "tobacco shop" corruption-non-corruption was one of them. (The other two were: a silly order by Nečas' secretary and lover – and current wife – who managed to hire a secret agency to monitor Nečas' then-wife, a silly thing relatively to the politics of the whole country and a controversial act not "directly" linked to the work of the government; and some mysterious speculative connections of this secretary of the prime minister with some businessmen accused of crimes.)
I am surely among those who think that it is utterly idiotic to criminalize such agreements – if a politician legally has the power to appoint someone to a chair, he is allowed to use this power (partly or almost completely) as a compensation for something else that the person has done for the politically desirable goals. It's just the political business-as-usual! It's a form of trade, and politics can't work without this political trade just like capitalism can't work without the commercial trade. Trade is typically good for both sides – and for the whole, too. But if someone starts to criminalize such things, sometimes even based on speculations, then I would insist that e.g. the appointment of Schapiro should be looked at equally critically! Is that too much to ask?
When I asked him whether Islam was really independent of jihadism – and what is needed for the U.S. to learn something from the apparent mistakes (such as the removal of secular regimes in Egypt, Libya, and Syria that has made the situation in the countries worse – I was oversimplifying things a little bit), Schapiro said that almost all "mainstream" Muslim scholars denounce almost everything that ISIS is doing. Well, that's plausible.
However, one should ask whether the meaning of "Islam" is determined by this ensemble of "Muslim scholars". There are real-world scholars out there – men preaching to hundreds of millions of people in the Middle East – who know a lot about Quran and their conclusion is very different. More importantly, in the real world of the Middle East, one is facing the large populations and not scholars. And the large populations are willing to embrace jihadist values and rules of the game. I think that the evolution has shown us many times that the idea that the Middle East is full of moderate, U.S.-style Muslims is just a silly fairy-tale. In that part of the world, Islamic strategic policies and jihad are almost synonyma!
And of course, he would also defend the gap between "Islam" and "jihad" by referring to some moderate Muslims out there, namely in Turkey, Malaysia, as well as the small population of 10,000 Muslims we have in Czechia.
I know next to nothing about the life in Malaysia so I won't pretend otherwise. Malaysia may be or may not be supporting Schapiro's thesis. But concerning the other examples, they're problematic. First, Turkey has been turned into the first major quasi-secular Muslim state by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk 90 years ago. It's questionable whether Turkey of the 1920s or 1930s – or today – should really be called a "secular state". But what's important is that it's more secular than countries like Iran or the would-be country known as the Islamic State. Full-fledged Muslim officials are actually not in charge of the everyday life. And that makes a difference. It's the key difference we are talking about when we ask whether it has ever been a good idea to undermine Assad's regime in Syria, for example.
On the other hand, Turkey isn't "quite" secular. So we could see that the Kurds who live there are in some trouble. Turkey was refusing to help the Kurds who were being mass murdered by ISIS etc. – and even refusing to allow the Turkish Kurds to help the Kurds on the ISIS-harassed territories. It's no coincidence. This official anti-Kurdish attitude was due to Turkey's not being "quite" secular. When Turkey says that the Kurds are "terrorists", what the Turks really mean is that the Kurds are annoying infidels! The word "terrorist" is just a translation of "infidel" meant to ignite similar negative sentiments in other countries. But the reason why they're given these negative labels is completely different than terrorism – it's their different religious status.
Now, the Czech Muslims (0.1% of our population) seem harmless now, no doubt about it. But whether it will remain so will also depend on our attitudes. It's simply a fact that the Muslims need a smaller critical mass to start to violently convert or liquidate the "infidels". Their high percentage is a time bomb, a threat for the Western values in every European country. Even though our local experience with the Muslims is very tiny, people are well aware of the risks. And in most polls, about 98% of Czechs say that they have a problem or two with the construction of Muslim schools and similar facilities on the Czech territory. Perfect freedom for everyone is great but sustainable freedom is even better and sometimes someone's freedom has to be imperfect for the freedom of others to be sustainable.
The U.K. has much more intense problems with immigrants – Muslims are very important in the mix – and Angela Merkel just told Cameron that she is the dictator of Europe so she can assure Cameron that if he doesn't stop negotiating restrictions on the free transfer of immigrants (who are getting there from France), she – Mrs Europe – will prefer to kick the U.K. out of the EU.
Well, nothing against Angela but she is not the EU dictator so that she could speak on behalf of the whole confederation. More importantly, Cameron's efforts are just the first sign of something that will soon or later become inevitable. The current openness to immigrants coupled with their free motion across the EU will inevitably lead to an extremely bad outcome in a nearly foreseeable future. The question is what is the right way to deal with this growing problem, not whether something should be changed at all. If the EU decides that this unrestricted and unlimited growth of the Muslim immigration and similar things is an unquestionable dogma, well, then the EU will have to be liquidated, too. It's simply not a sustainable picture for the future of the European continent.
Concerning the interventions in the Middle East in general, Schapiro said that the U.S. have surely made mistakes – everyone else has made mistakes, too – but this won't make the U.S. become "isolationist" or stop making these attempts and these mistakes. That's a clearly formulated attitude, indeed, but it might be a good idea to at least consider the possibility that to stop making the same mistakes could be a better path to the future, right? Err once, err twice, and so on. :-)
In a few sentences, he would also defend some quasi-feminist clichés. A partial goal was to encourage girls to speak and interrupt men – which was partly successful. Czech women and girls are really not afraid to interrupt men. They are just less interested in similar political questions.
Schapiro said that it was his second visit to Pilsen. He had been here in 1982. Too bad he didn't tell us which communist friend would have invited him those 32 years ago and why. ;-) Update: He was a backpacking teenage tourist, of course.
But it was an interesting talk and exchange.
A parody song "C*nt here, c*nt there" based on the interview described below.
Off-topic, Czech politics: On Sunday, after 3 months, President Zeman gave a 51-minute-long interview known as "Dialogues at the Lány Chateau", from a chateau used by our presidents. These recordings have been made by T.G. Masaryk and later by Havel. He would say lots of interesting things about China, his negotiations over there, our trade with the country, the Russian questions, and so on. I don't agree with everything but it's interesting.
But most of the would-be pundits were only interested in four expletives he has used – ku*da (his translation of "pussy" in "Pussy Riot", which he mispronounced as "Puhsy"), ku*va (a bitch, a person similar to a member of the Pussy Riot), ho*no (šit, a popular word of Mr Schwarzenberg who would run against Zeman), and zkur*ený (f*cked up: that's what a party did with the bill on the State Service). It's not too many sensitive words for him in 51 minutes. This folksy approach is partly a consequence of his being directly elected - he really represents the people and that's how we often speak. In fact, the intellectuals from the Prague cafés who would like to restrict everyone else speak in this way, too.
Moreover, kids need to learn this vocabulary from the president to acquire the pre-requisites for the new Harvard course, Anal sex 101.
You may imagine that I don't care about it at all, it's refreshing even though I don't use a similar vocabulary on radio and neither did e.g. Václav Klaus. But many people went ballistic – even though their frequency of using expletives is often higher by orders of magnitude. I find it amazing how so many people love to focus on totally irrelevant details and completely ignore the whole essence. Zeman mentioned the same problem in the journalists' reaction to his choice of the aircraft to return home – after he negotiated multi-billion contracts in China; and about one film director who picked a medal at the Prague Castle in an informal athletic outfit – while the achievements of the laureates don't seem to be interesting for anyone.
Expletives heard from a president may disappoint someone but the people's obsession with trivialities is much more disappointing for your humble correspondent.