Colleen Bell, US ambassador designate to Hungary, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Let’s move from Budapest to Washington today. On September 26, 2013 I wrote about the likelihood that the next ambassador to Hungary will a political appointee, Colleen Bell, producer of the TV soap “The Bold and the Beautiful.”

At the time I expressed my dismay over the appointment. Not because I had anything against Ms Bell but because I consider the political situation so serious in Hungary that I think it would behoove US interests to have a career diplomat with some knowledge of the region and experience in diplomacy representing the American government on the spot.

Political appointees come from the ranks of those well-heeled people who not only give generously to the political party in power but also solicit large donations from others. Colleen Bell was apparently the source of about a million dollars to the Obama campaigns. Currently there are 32 ambassadorial candidates waiting to be confirmed by the Senate, out of whom 18 are political appointees. The Senate is in no great hurry; the candidates have been on hold for about four months.

Colleen Bradley Bell at the Senate Confirmation Hearing on January 16, 2014

Colleen Bradley Bell at the Senate Confirmation Hearing on January 16, 2014

On January 16 Colleen Bell appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Normally she is quite a fashion plate, but for the occasion she dressed more like a nun, all in black with a small white collar. Obviously, she wanted to be very professional looking. Beside her were two other candidates: Robert C. Barber, a lawyer who is heading to Iceland, and George Tsunis, a Long Island businessman who is going to be sent to Norway.

Each candidate delivered a statement, which started with the usual niceties about the trust President Obama and Secretary Kerry placed in them and with thanks for the support of their families. Bell, after relating the close partnership of the two countries in military matters and their common interest in security as NATO allies, came to the important part of American concerns. Let me quote the relevant passages verbatim:

At the same time, we have been open over the last two years about our concerns about the state of checks and balances in Hungary and the independence of some key institutions. Many argue that sweeping legislative and constitutional changes have hurt the international investment climate, undermined property rights, weakened the judiciary, and centralized power in the hands of the executive.
The United States has not been alone in this regard. The perceived erosion of
democratic checks and balances has garnered scrutiny from various bodies within
the European Union. If confirmed, I will work tirelessly to uphold American and
European democratic values, to express our concerns where appropriate, and to
urge our Hungarian partners to work collaboratively with international partners and
civil society on these issues.

The idea of pluralism is integral to our understanding of what it means to be
a democracy. Democracies recognize that no one entity — no state, no political
party, no leader — will ever have all the answers to the challenges we face. And,
depending on their circumstances and traditions, people need the latitude to work
toward and select their own solutions. Our democracies do not and should not look
the same. Governments by the people, for the people, and of the people will reflect
the people they represent. But we all recognize the reality and importance of these
differences. Pluralism flows from these differences.

The United States has also expressed concern about the rise of extremism
which unfortunately is a trend not unique to Hungary. However, the rise in
Hungary of extremist parties is of particular concern. If confirmed, protecting and
promoting a climate of tolerance will be one of my key priorities.

The Hungarian government has undertaken a series of steps to address
lingering hatred and the legacy of the Holocaust, to include planned events in 2014
to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the large scale deportations to Auschwitz,
and the 2015 assumption of the Presidency of the International Holocaust
Remembrance Alliance. If confirmed, I look forward to working with government
organizations, civic and religious groups, and other stakeholders to confront and
defeat prejudice and hatred in all of its forms.

After delivering the statements, the senators asked a few questions. The Democrats gentle and helpful ones. George Tsunis, who was perhaps the weakest of the three, managed to fumble even on the helpful question of one of the Democratic senators. There were two interesting exchanges relating to the confirmation hearing of Ms Bell. One was a fatherly warning by Senator Ben Cardin (D), co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission, who is very well informed on the latest developments in Budapest. He warned Bell that her stay in Budapest is not going to be a picnic. She has to prepare herself to use tough language. She shouldn’t be misled by promises given to her by government officials because they are in the habit of saying one thing at home and another thing when they talk with foreigners. “You have the responsibility to take a very strong role.” Cardin encouraged Bell to keep in touch with Congress and take advice from them if necessary.

Then came a few very uncomfortable moments when John McCain (R) took over, who certainly wasn’t as nice as his Democratic colleagues. McCain wanted specifics. Bell talked about opportunities for closer cooperation but what kind of cooperation did she have in mind? Bell was unable to expand on or add anything to what was in her written statement.  McCain was not satisfied and, after mentioning that Bell’s predecessor had a very hard time with the Hungarian government, asked her what she would do differently. Unfortunately Bell had no answer to this question. And then came the final blow. McCain wanted to know what the strategic interest of the United States is in Hungary? It looked as if Ms Bell didn’t even understand the question.

Colleen Bell graduated with high honors from Sweet Briar College, majoring in political science and economics, and spent a year at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Presumably she’s not stupid. So, the only thing I can think of is that she was not well prepared by the State Department. One had the feeling that the only thing she knows about Hungarian politics is what is in her written statement. But she had 123 days to prepare for this hearing and her future duties as ambassador to Hungary. She didn’t seem to have been a diligent student.

Ms Bell’s performance wasn’t the worst of the three, but there is no question that her post is the most difficult one. Norway and Ireland are democratic countries where the ambassador’s job will be a great deal less stressful than that of the US ambassador to Hungary. Let’s hope that Ms Bell will learn fast and will be able to be tough as Senator Cardin suggested. Because this is the only way with Viktor Orbán.

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Varese
Guest

I am a devoted reader of this column. I have many close friends in Hungary (admittedly mainly in Budapest..) — The bottom line in Hungary, as it is here, or anywhere else where this is some semblance of democracy and, at least, some freedom of expression and the opportunity to vote — NO ONE CAN HELP THE HUNGARIANS except themselves. Educated, liberal, intelligent, democractic Hungarians must make PERSONAL SACRIFICES to connect with their peers, establish a coherent vision for the country and get into the streets, form parties, whatever, and TAKE BACK THEIR DEMOCRACY … there is just NO OTHER WAY for Hungary to right itself.

Varese
Guest

I would add that it was in the comments of yesterday’s comment or the day before’s where a reader posited a ‘realpolitik’ view of just what the United States’ strategic interest is in Hungary. It was a bleak assessment that seemed to conclude that it’s actually not much in the USA’s interest to facilitate or persuade change in Hungary.. unfortunately… I’ll go see if I can find the relevant comments and quote them here.

petofi
Guest

Well done by McCain. Let’s hope he’s the next president of the US. And, while Bush II was largely laughable, I don’t think that Hungary and Russia behaved as they have in the last three years. (Any more ‘resets’, President Obama?)

Ovidiu
Guest

Terrible perfomance.Unreal.The only intelligent and knowledgeable thing about her was the way she dressed -“trying to appear professional”.No wonder that the US foreign policy in general is a catastrophe.This whole system is one of legal-institutionalized corruption.Unbelievable yet real.

But I just don’t understand why these people want these jobs.Why ? If they don’t care to learn anything it means that they don’t care about the job itself- about politics and diplomacy.Then why do they want the jobs ? To spend few fun years in Budapest and do “embassy parties” ? Just a mystery to me.

DH
Guest
I remember when in early 2011 many of the intellectuals in media (on Atv and other platforms) argued that US diplomacy will soon be tough enough to prevent or even stop Orbán to implement further radical, anti-democratic actions. Then nothing happened (at least nothing which would had clear results). Following that, at around mid and late 2011 and during 2012 people who were shocked by the government actions made by then trusted that the EU will help and impose such pressure on the government under which it may step back a little. Nothing happened. In the first half of 2013 many believed that the Tavares report will have some sort effect or at least accelerates things on EU level. Nothing happened, except that the government laughed into the face of the EU. During the summer of 2013, in their final desperation these people believed that (such belief – in my view – having been only a desperate hope) that Angela Merkel will step in after the elections in Germany and the only reason that she waited so long was the forthcoming election. Nothing happened. Not that Hungary should be treated as the centre of the world, but these people are… Read more »
Ron
Guest

McCain had some good questions to Bell. But did he ever answered the questions what kind of answer he was expecting.

Btw What is the strategic interest of the United States is in Hungary? Anybody?

tappanch
Guest

My feeling is that the current majority thinking in the US, and that includes the administration is that the US does not have strategic interests outside its boundaries, thanks to fracking.

But I am not there now, I am not sure about this.

Ovidiu
Guest

“this guy was introduced as a true expert on foreign affairs”

Just lies. It doesn’t look, at all, like that when you read his bio :

http://www.allgov.com/news/appointments-and-resignations/ambassador-to-norway-who-is-george-tsunis-131207?news=851850

Well, I think that there are zero chances that this, granted beautiful, lady can handle any political crisis.US will have send an envoy (a professional diplomat) to handle one if it does appear.

DH
Guest
@Varese – I agree that only Hungarians could take back their democracy. I always argued that ultimately what is happenings, is happing because the vast majority agrees with that (directly or indirectly). But i disagree from the perspective that there is minority which cries for support. These people supported Eu accession mainly bc of its democratic values guaranteed in its very founding treaty. Back in the 90s and early 2000s people understood this clearly whilst did not care much about the free flow of capital which they did not have. No one believed to the propaganda that Hungarians will open their shops in Vienna etc., but they believed that after the dictatorships in Hungary in the 20th century there will be some sort of calming down and protection against having that again. And the Eu failed on this one. This will lead to consequences far beyond the Hungarian issue. If the EU cannot do anything to enforce the majority of the terms of its treaty, then it will remain a piece of paper without effect. Then other countries will follow the Hungarian example and people will soon realise across europe that the EU is simply an economic union (and not… Read more »
gdfxx
Guest

Ovidiu :
But I just don’t understand why these people want these jobs.Why ? If they don’t care to learn anything it means that they don’t care about the job itself- about politics and diplomacy.Then why do they want the jobs ? To spend few fun years in Budapest and do “embassy parties” ? Just a mystery to me.

Sounds good when they talk about it at the next cocktail party.

Istvan
Guest
To read the full statement go to http://photos.state.gov/libraries/hungary/231771/PDFs/bell_testimony.pdf In response Janos Martonyi, the Foreign Minister of Hungary, acknowledged that there are disputes between the U.S. and Hungary, but “most of those are based on misunderstandings and false information.” He spoke at a Friends of Hungary conference yesterday. I think it is also important to note that Ms. Bell’s statement included comments supporting Hungarian military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hungary is one of countries participating in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Seven Hungarians died in Afghanistan. Two EOD members were killed by IEDs. Two were killed in a convoy attack by the Taliban. Two died in a vehicle accident during a convoy-escort task. One died because of a heart attack. Also, 14 Hungarian soldiers have been wounded in action in Afghanistan according to NATO reports. Hungary sent a 300 strong logistics unit to Iraq in order to help the US occupation with armed transport convoys, though Hungarian public opinion opposed the country’s participation in the war. One soldier was killed in action due to a roadside bomb in Iraq. The Hungarian Parliament refused to extend the one year mandate of the logistics unit and all troops left from… Read more »
gdfxx
Guest

tappanch :
My feeling is that the current majority thinking in the US, and that includes the administration is that the US does not have strategic interests outside its boundaries, thanks to fracking.
But I am not there now, I am not sure about this.

This is difficult to accept during an administration whose head is against fracking.

tappanch
Guest

Poor Madách…

The designated sculptor of the “Reich eagle” memorial, Mr. P. Párkányi Raab, will be awarded the Madách prize on Friday. The artist also sculpted the Nazi writer Albert Wass five years ago.

Previous recipients of the prize included journalist Zs. Bayer, who distinguished himself with carrying member card #5 of Fidesz and writing several viciously anti-Semitic articles.

With the Russian money in his pocket, Orban dares to create a Holocaust praising year in 2014.

petofi
Guest

“With the Russian money in his pocket…”

And there, I dare say, it’s mingling with not a few Azeri euros…

Member

The Obama Government foreign policy is deplorable and lousy, so are some of the the political appointees. Hungary is not very high on the list of countries where the US has “strategic interest”, but even so, the point is well taken. Ms Bell did not study enough and ill prepared to do the job. Her appointment and preparedness is typical of the whole Obama Administration. Just plain amateurs.

observerM
Guest
About the strategic interest USA may have regarding Hungary: the interset is not one of the most compelling kind, Hungary, after all, is a small country, it is indirect through the interest we have in a strong, unified, democratic European Union. The Union is an important ally, counterbalancing especially the great Chinese and Russian political and economical powers. Hungary, with its actions is undermining the unity of the EU, therefore weakening it, by systematically destroying the checks and balances in governing, using authoritative methods for dictating economical measures, attacking many aspects of the European governing and legal principles, etc., (see the comprehensive evaluation by Kim Scheppele). The most significant event in that respect is the recent agreement with Russia on expanding the Paks atomic facility. It will tie Hungary to Russian economic, and therefore economic interests for generations. This not only weakens the EU, it simultaneously strengthens Putin’s Russia. The EU is practically impotent against the devilishly clever Orbáns strategy, the reasons and methods of which would be the subject for another discussion, and that will ecourage, or already has done so, the likes of Ukrain, and Rumania to contradict European principles, thereby to enfeeble its unity and effectiveness. This… Read more »
petofi
Guest
“…thereby to enfeeble its unity and effectiveness. This is surely not in the interest of the US.” Boys, boys, surely it’s a little more complex than that. With the Russians reduced to a mad-cap group of thieving billionaires who wouldn’t allow their government to even build a road to St. Petersburg (without stealing all the funds), there’s precious little for the juggernaut of the American military-industrial complex to worry about. I suspect that the yanks are lying low vis-a-vis Russia, allowing a numbskull like Hillary to produce the laughable ‘reset’ which the Russkies (as the US brains expected) trampled all over in a few tenderloin spots of the world. Well, never mind: let them feel their oats for a while. The real danger, in terms of brain power and knowledge and competitive potential…was Europe. Thus the yanks, fully knowing the asinine Orban’s skulldudgery and the Russkies little game in Eastern Europe…lie low and let the disturbance wreck havoc in EU attempts to solidify. And China? China is hog-tied with US debt. By the way, the last time a country was gobbling up US debt was Japan prior to 1990. If I remember right, there was a little war, not a… Read more »
Member

Individual observers can speculate on orchestrated, long time esoteric ideas in politics and policies, but even a small Government cannot be held to follow such foolish notions.
Governments, especially as large as the US, Chinese, EU, Indian and Russian Governments, are not orchestras, which various conductors can keep playing a different beat and harmony according to their own interpretations of the music, somebody already written and perhaps somebody else orchestrated. Politics are not considered games to most politicians, only seems that way to billions of citizens.

Francois Rennes
Guest
The issue re Russia is different. Russia, just like China plans for the long term. They have long term strategies, which the follow regardless of any change in the government. Turkey and Iran are similar. This kind of long-term strategic planning is unknown to the West, where governments come and go, priorities shift. Never happens in Russia. For example, Russia’ priority it is too keep its territorial integrity, and secondly to keep the geographical sphere of interest to which Russia decided it was entitled. Hungary unfortunately fell into the second category. Russia, according to the its current deeply nationalistic and authoritarian ideologists and decision-makers, made a historical mistake by allowing the former Eastern bloc countries to enter the Eu and Nato and they will not make this mistake again. To the contrary, the have been tirelessly working to reverse that mistake. By other means, by any means necessary, Russia must ensure that these countries return to the orbit of Russia. And the Russians are smart. They directly finance parties such as Jobbik and do more complex deals with others, such as with Fidesz, from which deals Fidesz’ decision-makers will benefit. (Query as to MSZP’s intentions. I am sure right now… Read more »
Member

Thank you, I could not have written a better analysis. Saves me the time, and I agree with everything you presented in your comment. I would only add the obvious; The two blocks at Paks will be far more expensive, than 3,000 Billion Forints, I estimate it to cost more than 7,000 Billions, by the time it will start operation and about 25-30% of it will go into the pockets of the Fidesz thieves. This unnecessary investment may weaken the Hungarian currency also.

Earnest
Guest

Varese :
I am a devoted reader of this column. I have many close friends in Hungary (admittedly mainly in Budapest..) — The bottom line in Hungary, as it is here, or anywhere else where this is some semblance of democracy and, at least, some freedom of expression and the opportunity to vote — NO ONE CAN HELP THE HUNGARIANS except themselves. Educated, liberal, intelligent, democractic Hungarians must make PERSONAL SACRIFICES to connect with their peers, establish a coherent vision for the country and get into the streets, form parties, whatever, and TAKE BACK THEIR DEMOCRACY … there is just NO OTHER WAY for Hungary to right itself.

So true, And this is why nothing will happen in Hungary. People don’t see what democracy can do for them but instead prefer a cut in their electricity bill. Lack of long term view and choosing the easy way out is a quite typical feature for most Hungarians I know. Mind you, in the end it will prove to be a very rough and bumpy ride. A well deserved one.

Bertalan
Guest
Mr. Orban said that the German occupation memorial will be built. Amen to that. District V already issued the building license. What can we do? I mean it is now, after all, a licensed building structure. The rule of law dictates that if it is legal then there can be no problem with the construction. I hope you all agree. Do we or do we not want to live in a country defined by the rule of law? I can only hope that our political adversaries will understand it too that we are building a country based on the utmost respect of the rule of law here. So the memorial has to be built, the official paper says it. The local municipality in accordance with the rules on local democracy so resolved. The central government must respect that. I am sure our Americans friends will understand that as even the federal government is not omnipotent vis-a-vis the states. Is that not so? So now that it has the official stamp on it, there is nothing we can do now. Sorry. The project will go ahead. Also, the am I not right in saying that the Jews should finally stop whining… Read more »
tappanch
Guest

1.
Rogan (mayor of district 5 & Fidesz parliamentary leader) pushed through the Reich eagle memorial this morning.

2.
Koves of Chabad said yesterday that

“Van egy pont, amikor valamit bojkottálni kell, de ebben az esetben még nem érkezett el ez a pont”

The time has not arrived yet to boycott [the government].

I am translating: he continues to support Fidesz and divide the message of the Jewish remnants of Hungary.

tappanch
Guest

@Bertalan

Jews “whine” only in Nazi parlance.

Orban is erecting a Nazi memorial on Freedom square.
THis is an affront to the memory of the murdered.

THis is an outrage, that pushes Hungary’s image into the mud, again.

tappanch
Guest

Orban wrote a letter today reaffirming that he intends to build the memorial against the wishes to the Jewish community.

http://www.mazsihisz.hu/2014/01/22/miniszterelnok–az-emlekmu-fohajtas-az-aldozatok-elott-6735.html

Guest
There are several “interesting” aspects being discussed here: Hungary is a small not really important country for the USA as well as for the EU – so if things don’t go too wrong, who cares … Hungarians (like all the other people in the former Eastern Bloc) expected immediate fruits from joining Capitalism – as they saw it on tv and heard about it from relatives who made it in(to) the West – of course they were disappointed. They have forgotten about WW2 and Hungary’s involvement in it and don’t want to be reminded that they fought on the wrong side. Russia wants a foot (or both …) into the EU, doesn’t really care which country it uses. It wants back control over all of Eastern Europe. So what does it all mean ? If they don’t help themselves they’ll be again the “Spielball” of the big forces and of course only the power elite will profit from all this, the others (i e the large majority) are just not important – they have to consider themselves lucky not to be used as cannon fodder again. And the capitalists in the EU are quite happy with the different income levels… Read more »
Guest

Sorry, in this sentence “If they don’t help themselves”, “they” means the Hungarians …

Bertie
Guest

Bertalan only shows how easy it is to write in the style of Fidesz. tt is extremely predictable. One can almost use an algorithm, a kind of bullshit generator which of course must write outrageous enough texts.

I agree that this memorial is outrageous, perhaps the most immediately outrageous thing (in line with Paks II) of the four years, even though there have been countless others.

But one should not forget something: Fidesz loves nothing better then when its adversaries are outraged. Winning for them is never enough. The defeated (ie. leftist, liberal, people with normal feelings and intellect) must also be humiliated and tormented too, mjust be made the butts of jokes. They should realize that they have been defeated for good and there is no hope for them (given the election system and the government’s control over media). They must thoroughly internalize that feeling.

Miklos
Guest

I am guessing Mazsihisz will support the memorial after all. It will not let Chabad to be The Jewish organization which supports Fidesz, when Chabad is already the favored one. I hope I am wrong, but Fidesz loves playing divide et impera and the Hungarian Jews are playful enough to participate, they are anything but independent.

Just as with the Hungarian left, one can be reminded by the timeless observation according to which there is no medicine for stupidity. If the Jews let themselves purchased and divided by Fidesz, they must suffer the consequences. Laszlo Karsai has the point here.

Ovidiu
Guest

@tappanch : Koves of Chabad said yesterday that : “The time has not arrived yet to boycott [the government]”–

Pathetic.When that time comes the situation will be too strongly entrenched for the boycott to have any effect, thus it won’t ever be a boycott.

tappanch
Guest
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