article: Budapest Not Dazzled by Bush Acrobatics

Our president’s apocalyptic brand of spreading freedom and democracy throughout the galaxy, though said to rely on confidential tips from God, has so far been less than spectacularly successful. Moslem rage has been whipped up by our armed intervention; Iraq is becoming a training camp for terrorists; global public opinion condemns American unilateralism, human-rights violations, and environmental irresponsibility; the economy staggers from a combination of high military spending and taxes favoring the rich. But for such redeeming features as arms exports—which  indisputably promote peace and understanding—we would be in truly sad shape.

It is as if the world was almost deliberately goaded into turning against the US. An important piece of that strategy has been our relations with Russia. When Gorbachov introduced his policy of glasnost and reconciliation, America simply took advantage of it, announcing that, Reagan having defeated the evil empire, socialism was now dead forever. The lack of any generous response from the West led to a reappraisal in Russia and ultimately helped the rise of Putin, who openly regrets the fall of the Soviet Union. With Washington imposing its hegemony and spending nearly as much on its military as the rest of the world put together, Russia is desperately trying to hang on to its former sphere of influence.

The present US administration is in fact resurrecting the cold war. Bush’s participation at the EU summit in Vienna was originally planned to be followed by a trip to the Ukraine, an important bone of contention between Washington and Moscow. When developments there prohibited a visit to Kiev, Budapest was put on the itinerary instead. Thus Bush’s travel to Europe gained a symbolic significance as a strengthening of ties between Washington and the successor states to erstwhile Austria-Hungary, the one-time Habsburg dominion and bulwark of the West against the Eastern menace. As well, it was to be a reminder of the postwar period when a string of ancient European states had come under Soviet domination. Added to its topicality was the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the commemoration of a small freedom-loving nation’s heroic attempt to shake off the yoke of foreign oppression.

Pressure by Washington may have played a significant role in Moscow’s choice not to oppose with force the aspirations to independence of its Central and East European satellites in 1989-90, and at one level this helps maintain a special relationship between America and “New Europe” to this day. But when Bush spoke of the 1956 uprising, in Hungary he reawakened painful memories. For at that date all the oft-repeated pledges of the Eisenhower administration about liberation from Soviet tyranny, which came in handy as a campaign platform, proved to be empty rhetoric.

Worse yet, according to the testimony of many listeners, Radio Free Europe—which had a large audience in Hungary and benefited from immense prestige, being given credit as the voice of a true democracy as opposed to the bogus people’s democracies of the Soviet Bloc—instigated the freedom fighters to carry on with armed resistance, even promising that aid was forthcoming. It is said that among other things the Munich headquarters of RFE broadcast instructions on making Molotov cocktails. But the gravest charge was that by its inflammatory language RFE contributed to Khrushchev’s conclusion that the situation would spin out of control unless the revolt was quelled by Soviet troops. It should be pointed out that at the time RFE, though funded by Congress, made a show of relying heavily on private donations. It was not revealed until many years later that RFE received its funding from Congress through the CIA, which oversaw its news broadcasts.

For our generation of native East Central Europeans, who had to suffer successively under German Nazi and Stalinist Soviet occupations, the United States represented a shining beacon, an inspiring model of Karl Popper’s open society. Though we may have had reservations about the “mass culture,” immaturity, and a penchant for oversimplification characteristic of the US, some of these flaws themselves seemed to stem from a certain transparency and candidness in the American character. In this writer’s personal experience, the intrusiveness and deviousness permeating day-to-day life in this country was a disillusioning surprise. When it turned out for instance that the school where he was teaching had a secret monitoring device through the public address system, his initial reaction was disbelief.

Yet on the whole all-pervading institutionalized governmental spying is a comparatively recent phenomenon over here. In the first instance, the Goebbels propaganda machine and the hidden atrocities committed by the Third Reich provided a justification, if not a pretext, for it, and in 1947 the notoriously secretive modus operandi of Stalinist Russia served to validate the founding of the CIA as an inevitable accompaniment of the cold war. But the very theory of the open society in the contemporary sense was formulated to emphasize the crucial difference between the totalitarian state and liberal democracy, and the contention that in order to defend ourselves from reptilian ways we must become like snakes is thoroughly fallacious.

By the 1950s the media were manipulated by the CIA on a scale whose scope very few realized even in this country. In Hungary, RFE broadcasts were profoundly trusted. Their presentation had the semblance of being evenhanded because it often allowed for a variety of opinions and dissenting voices, while Soviet-controlled news was crudely biased and often palpably false. In some cases, the American tactic proved all the more insidiously misleading.

In 2006, Bush & Co landed in Budapest in force, equipped with a security apparatus that elicited widespread sardonic comments. Bush’s fleet of bulletproof armored limousines flown in beforehand; streets closed off to traffic and blocked by streetcars; members of the Hungarian cabinet screened for explosives, etc. The like of it had not been witnessed since Stalinist times if then. The public could see for themselves what the open society of the US had come to: an obsessive preoccupation with security, a passion for prying, a total disregard for privacy to defend the population from a threat exaggerated out of proportion.

Praising the 1956 revolt was one thing; to draw a parallel between the aspiration of Hungarians for freedom at that time and the situation in Iraq today as Bush did in his major speech on scenic Gellért hill was a different matter. Numerous commentators, including the noted philosopher Gáspár Miklós Tamás, thought the comparison invidious, pointing out that the Hungarians in 56 fought foreign occupation, whereas in Iraq the United States is the occupying power. The reception of the trip by the media of the entire geographic region was distinctly unenthusiastic, not to say skeptical. The event brought out no cheering crowds, and the fact that it generated sizeable protests in Vienna and Budapest was not substantially offset by the reserved politeness of the hosts. It certainly cannot be chalked up as a smashing hit for the Bush White House.

L.S.

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