May 10, 2005

Excuse Me....Yalta?

I have nothing but praise for President Bush's visits to Latvia, Russia and Georgia this week and the statements he has made in each place -- especially for stating so forthrightly the truth about the postwar occupation of Eastern Europe by the Red Army -- with one exception.

Was the reference to Yalta, in Riga of all places, really necessary? An argument could be made -- not one I'm persuaded by at all, just a plausible argument -- that Roosevelt at Yalta and Truman afterward could have pressed Stalin harder, and successfully, to prevent the absorption of Poland into the Communist bloc. But the Baltic states? How exactly was Roosevelt supposed to prevent Stalin from keeping his armies in countries that far behind the lines and hundreds of miles from the nearest American army?

I dislike bad history, but frankly what bothers me more is this President's tendency to casually trash decisions made by his predecessors. He's already done this with respect to the Middle East, ascribing to American policy the lack of freedom in a part of the world where water has, historically, been more common than freedom and in which the least free states were almost all Soviet clients, not American ones. If he were going to apologize for anything a former President has done, he ought to have apologized for his father's historic loss of nerve and wretched judgment in unilaterally declaring an end to the Gulf War in 1991. So many of the problems we are having in Iraq now are traceable to what the elder Bush did then.

But as a rule I think it's a good idea for American Presidents to get cheer lines for foreign audiences in some other way than inventing things to apologize for. When he becomes a former President himself, Mr. Bush may have cause to agree with that.

Posted by at May 10, 2005 06:59 PM | TrackBack (4)

I took Bush's comments differently than you. His basis was that "large" nations arrogantly decided the fate of small nations. Europe's been doing this for quite some time.

That's as true as anything ever stated in human history. I didn't read in his comments that FDR should have been willing to fight the Red Army to save Poland or Latvia.

I think we "blessed" the eventual USSR takeover of eastern Europe,that was a historical error,IMO.

Posted by: Patrick at May 10, 2005 11:35 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Yalta seems far less removed in time in Eastern Europe and the Baltics than it does here, as an op-ed piece by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili suggests. Indeed, in the context of the WWII "Victory Day" celebration in Russia, the renascent neo-Stalinist pre-dissolution sentiment there, and the pointed absence of the Lithuanian & Estonian presidents in protest over a legacy of border issues which are still very much alive today (see Putin...Signs Pact), reference to Yalta and its consequences seems very much in order.

I would also argue with your characterization of Bush I's termination of the Gulf War as an "historic loss of nerve." While conceivably a "wretched judgment" in hindsight, at the time, the choice he faced was between acceding to or grossly exceeding the specific international mandate he had worked so assiduously to obtain.

In general, the President's tone hasn't struck me as particularly apologetic either, but your mileage may vary!

[On a technical note, it would help distinguish links from text more clearly if they were underlined or presented in a more striking color. In preview form at least, it's hard to tell that both "Mikheil Saakashvili" and "Putin...Signs Pact" above are hot buttons.]

Posted by: JM Hanes at May 11, 2005 12:14 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

As a non-US-citizen - German -, I admire the grandeur of GWB to admit former failures. This is sign of honesty for the US, of force, not of weakness. There is also another point in Bush's speeches that amazes me: they are not completly calculated. There is a tone of straightforwardness I like very much. He talkes about freedom in a manner that showes you how serious he is about. Maybe that's a part of his success. He is serious, not ironic, postmodern, as Clinton has been. He is serious about freemdom, and the way he sends this message around the globe is an important reason for the new wave of democratization: Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon. He says, to the suppressed: If you need my help, I be with you. I think these speeches are really historic. They give people - at home and abroad - an interpretation of what is going on, and they change the course of many people's life.

Posted by: ulrich speck at May 11, 2005 08:41 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Maybe if you and everyone you know had spent 60 years under the tyranny of the Soviet bear, you might see things differently.

Posted by: Matthew Cromer at May 11, 2005 02:30 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Matthew, had I had that experience I would have placed the blame for it squarely where it belongs, on Soviet Communism. This business about "large nations arrogance in deciding the fate of small nations" is nothing but cant.

By the way, and in case this isn't clear already, the habit of expressing guilt for the actions of other people but never for one's own does not impress me at all.

Posted by: JEB at May 11, 2005 03:33 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Victor Mamatey once told me that in Eastern Europe it is common to say that "when big nations move, small nations tremble." That has been the case in the past, but Bush is holding out the hope for something different -- a great nation that, at least while he is in office, will support the right of small nations to shape their own destiny. That is something remarkable, and worthy of praise.

Posted by: D. B. Light at May 11, 2005 04:50 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think there's a difference between apologizing for the decisions of the past and trashing them. The United States has had many times, in its past, to cut deals it did not want to in the name of national security. Look at the vast number of deals the U.S. made with right-wing dictators during the Cold War. Many of those deals, no doubt, helped stop the spread of communism and even greater oppression. Some of those decisions can be faulted, others justified. But all can be apologized for. In the historical context, it is hard to fault Roosevelt for the decision he made. But because of Yalta, many Eastern European nations suffered greatly at the hands of a brutal dehumanizing system. To apologize for the decision is not to fault the one who made it. To say "I'm sorry that we weren't stronger, that the situation forced our hand" is not carelessly trashing history, but rather setting it straight.

Posted by: Dan Larsen at May 12, 2005 05:12 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

IMO, Bush's comments were largely directed at Putin, who has recently been trying to glorify the Soviet Union, which probably made some former-soviet-clients nervous. Bush's comments should not be analyzed just with US history in mind, but with the audience (eastern europeans) and political context (Putin's comments) in mind.

Posted by: rosignol at May 13, 2005 09:08 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
Reviews of Belgravia Dispatch
--New York Times
"Must-read list"
--Washington Times
"Pompous Ass"
--an anonymous blogospheric commenter
Recent Entries
English Language Media
Foreign Affairs Commentariat
Non-English Language Press
U.S. Blogs
Think Tanks
Law & Finance
The City
Western Europe
United Kingdom
Central and Eastern Europe
East Asia
South Korea
Middle East
B.D. In the Press
Syndicate this site:


Powered by