The Ups and Downs of Obama’s Czech Visit

Reflections
from Prague

President Barack Obama came to Prague, likely
because the Czechs hold the current and rotating presidency of the European
Union. It was a courtesy call and a chance to speak to the world on
international policy. Certainly the draw was not the grim-jawed current
president, Vaclav Klaus, George Bush’s political mirror-image. Nor was it to
shore up the embarrassment of the Czech government having failed a vote of
confidence to sustain their own government halfway through an EU presidency.
Stuff happens.

But he came and began a courtship, both promising
and not without its awkward moments.

The Czechs are a tough audience, courteous and at
the same time watchful. Promises are rhetoric and they are not fond of
rhetoric. A beer-drinking, pragmatic country, Czechs spent most of the last
century paying the personal costs of Western abandonment.

So, when Barack
beamed, saying ‘we are all in this
together
,’ the applause was minor, scattered and, if you looked closely
enough, the president noticed.

Not that they don’t love him, they do. He is the
universally loved American president, because he’s charming and honest,
enthusiastic and straight. Who wouldn’t love that in a Czech pub, in Chicago or
Prague?

But there’s history here and as Tip O’Neill famously
told us, “all politics is local.” At the end of the First World War, Czechoslovakia
was created and flourished as a free nation until the Brits  traded it away twenty years later at Munich for
‘peace in our time.’ Czechoslovaks weren’t even at the table as their country
was turned over to the Nazis. Peace finally came, but it was a short
celebration as the Brits and Americans once again sold out Czechoslovakia, this
time to the Soviets at Potsdam. Munich brought seven years of Nazi atrocities, Potsdam,
forty years of gray and relentless communism.

Then the Soviets collapsed, Czechoslovaks shook off
the euphoria of sudden freedom, Bill Clinton arrived to play sax jazz at
Prague’s Reduta Jazz Club and everyone’s heart skipped a beat. Next, George
Bush arrived unexpectedly and announced a ‘for us or against us’ policy to the
world, leading it to war and finally into a financial abyss.

Sunday Barack told the crowd we’re ‘all in this
together.’ All? Excuse the Czechs if the applause was not thunderous.

They like him. They poured out to see him in record
numbers, all smiles and adoration on a sunny spring day in arguably the most
stunningly beautiful of European cities. Ex-pat Americans (and there are
thousands of us here in Prague) were finally proud to be Americans, after eight
years envying our friends with Canadian passports.

But 70% of Czechs are against the American radar
installation expected to be built here. Czechs had their fill of Nazi and communist
weaponry. The radar has become the national symbol of Czech government ignoring
Czech citizenry. Wrong message, Barack.

“For
over a thousand years, Prague has set itself apart from any other city in any
other place. You have known war and peace. You have seen empires rise and fall.
You have led revolutions in the arts and science, in politics and poetry.
Through it all, the people of Prague have insisted on pursuing their own path,
and defining their own destiny.”

Umm, except for those 500 years when the Habsburg
and Austro-Hungarian Empire was running the show or, more recently, the
above-mentioned Nazis and communists.

Obama finally cut to the chase nearly a thousand
words into his speech and it might have improved chances for the love-affair if
he’d done it a bit earlier. The Czechs are a tough audience.

“This
marks the tenth year of NATO membership for the Czech Republic. I know that
many times in the 20th century, decisions were made without you at the table.
Great powers let you down, or determined your destiny without your voice being
heard. I am here to say that the United States will never turn its back on the
people of this nation. We are bound by shared values, shared history, and the
enduring promise of our alliance. NATO’s Article 5 states it clearly: an attack
on one is an attack on all. That is a promise for our time, and for all time.”

They liked that, not so much for the promise, but
the recognition that the West was not
always there. Of ‘shared values and
shared history’
they are not so sure. So far, their immediate evidence is a
tsunami of Western capital, bringing with it an impossible housing bubble
(truly shared) and a financial virus hatched in the Petri-dishes of Wall Street.
A virus that’s halved the value of their currency, cut tourism by a third and
pretty much destroyed exports to the West.

Another hunk of the speech with an unattended
applause-line was;

“The
people of the Czech Republic kept that promise after America was attacked,
thousands were killed on our soil, and NATO responded. NATO’s mission in
Afghanistan is fundamental to the safety of people on both sides of the
Atlantic. We are targeting the same al Qaeda terrorists who have struck from
New York to London, and helping the Afghan people take responsibility for their
future. We are demonstrating that free nations can make common cause on behalf
of our common security. And I want you to know that we Americans honor the
sacrifices of the Czech people in this endeavor, and mourn the loss of those
you have lost.”

Czechs valued inclusion in NATO more than EU
membership. NATO was finally and
truly there to protect. But they understood that protection as against attack
from the outside, rather than
committing Czech troops to the “Bring ‘em
on
” pre-emptive strike policy of the United States. Who suspected that
aggression would come from inside the
alliance? They wonder if a bomb went off in central Prague, killing a couple
thousand, if America (or indeed NATO) would follow their flag and their drum to an essentially unilateral mission of revenge.

From the 1989 ‘Velvet Revolution’ until 2003, Vaclav
Havel (the poet, playwright and imprisoned dissident) was the first president
of independent Czech Republic. Havel told Obama in private conversation that
enormous hopes have been pinned on him, as if that pressure wasn’t already
building back home. With people expecting the quick birth of a better world,
disappointment might turn them against him, Vaclav warned. Obama reportedly
smiled, thanked Havel and said he has begun to notice such changes himself.

But they loved him just outside the gates of Prague
Castle, make no mistake. There was much to cheer in the speech and they
cheered, though sometimes less than American audiences. Europe has been circumspect
and cautious in their response and the Czechs are the toughest audience so far.

But Europe and the Czechs seem ready to love
Americans again and that’s a major breakthrough.

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