Tag Archives: Middle East

Charles Gati: “Even the most talented diplomat cannot sell junk”

This is a translation of an interview with Charles Gati, senior research professor of European and Eurasian Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, which originally appeared in Magyar Narancs on April 20, 2017 under the title “You cannot circumvent the elite.” The English translation was published by The Budapest Sentinel on April 24.

Hoyt Brian Yee, Deputy State Secretary at the United States Department of State, was recently in Budapest to meet with the Hungarian government. While here he also raised the issue of Central European University (CEU), and confirmed to the press that Fiona Hill, Donald Trump’s advisor responsible for Russian and European affairs, also supports the CEU matter. Is the university remaining also important to Trump?

What I know is that the State Department agreed with the White House, and that in the White House the National Security Council, which deals with matters of foreign policy and security, supported advocating for the university to a great extent. Of course, this does not mean that the president personally requested this — it’s good if an American president devotes half an hour a year to Hungary. He wouldn’t have time for any more. Hungary’s significance in American politics today is minimal.

What changes have taken place to the State Department since the new president took office?

There are fifty or sixty positions at the State Department filled by political appointees. They have started assuming their positions. However, there is no change in those officials who deal with Hungary in the European department. One or two might be transferred. These experts continue their work independent of the person of the president or party. Deputy Secretary Yee is such an official and counts as the most important operative person in this field. He holds the same position now as at the time of Obama.

The Hungarian government recently recalled Réka Szemerkényi who represented our country to Washington the past two years. What is your view of the ambassador’s work?

Even the most talented diplomat cannot sell junk. An ambassador can stand on her head and it would be of no significance since the experts here know precisely what the situation is in Hungary, how close the Hungarian government is to Putin, how much it tries to undermine the European Union, and how little it contributes to the cost of NATO. I see lobbying the same way: it may be that, of the 535 congressmen, one or two manage to issue a statement. The vast sums of money spent on this by the Hungarian government is actually a complete waste.

What do you think explains the fact that in recent weeks the American president has acted in a manner diametrically opposed to what he promised during the campaign?

The most important question these days is really how long Trump’s political somersault will last. There have been as many changes in a week as Orbán — an ultraliberal in his youth — in a decade. Moreover, among the fresh changes are a number that pertain to Hungary. Trump wooed Putin during the campaign, mentioning him as a potential friend of America. And yet he incurred the anger of the Russian leadership by ordering the bombing of the Syrian airport. One of the most important statements of the campaign was that America would move its embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. These days we don’t hear anything about this. There was also talk that Hillary Clinton should be imprisoned. But these days he has to be more concerned that it is his people who will end up behind bars. A few days was enough to persuade himself that NATO is not a thing of the past. All of this indicates that the president is starting to move in the direction of the traditional foreign policy of the Republican Party. But in the Republican Party there are two truly important directions. The one is the conservative line near to Wall Street, which back in the day was more or less represented by George W. Bush. The other is the national line, whose nationalist rhetoric Trump made his own during the campaign. Although a nationalist direction won him the election, one senses more and more a Wall Street mentality in his politics. This is especially important from a foreign policy point of view since the direction opposes the politics of isolationism, which was one of the main program points on the side of the nationalists.

What could have caused the change? Did Trump realize that governance is more complicated than he thought? Or was he worried about getting into trouble after it turns out that many of his confidantes conspired with Russian leadership?

The majority of the people around him represent Wall Street: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and all the economic people. On the other side is the representative of the national side, Steve Bannon, who is more and more marginalized in the government. Trump did not understand politics when he assumed the presidency. In certain economic questions he was an absolute beginner, and he has woken up to this fact. The best example of this was when he said about the restructuring of the health-care system he “didn’t know that it was so complicated.” An unprepared and naive president assumed power in America, and now we are seeing a certain willingness to revise certain things.

But don’t these changes alienate him from those who voted for him?

It could easily be the case that sooner or later things go wrong with his electoral base. But it is not yet clear where this is leading, or what group of voters he is trying to win over.

In September 2012 Obama said he would interfere in Syria in the event chemical weapons were used. However, when he should have done so the following year, he stepped back instead. The Obama government explained this by saying that instead of a military attack it was using diplomatic means to persuade the Assad regime to give up chemical weapons. The chemical attack at the beginning of April indicates that the Syrian government retained these kinds of weapons. How does this reflect on Obama’s foreign policy?

In actuality this was the worst episode of Obama’s foreign policy. But when Trump went against his own promises, on the one hand he wanted to prove that he could fix the mistakes of his predecessor, and on the other demonstrate that the photos of destruction and the murdered children touched his soul. However, it is difficult to say whether any conclusions can be drawn from this regarding the foreign policy of the next months or years. The experts are now saying that this was a one-time strike and that we should not calculate with another intervention.

I cannot argue with this, but I have to say that I was personally affected when Trump responded in a human manner to the Syrian events. After all, children died, and it also turned out that Assad lied when he said he had given up all his chemical weapons. In my eyes, this increased Trump’s stature as a person, even if this action did not make him greater politically.

But is some sort of Middle East strategy starting to emerge from his actions? Not long ago he spoke about how he would like to repair US relations with the Gulf countries, and he provided support by telephone to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and supposedly distanced himself from moving the embassy to Jerusalem at the request of King Abdullah II of Jordan. All of this suggests that he is trying to contain Iran’s regional efforts, in alliance with the region’s Sunni leaders 

It is also difficult for me to say anything about the Middle East. A boastful, unprepared man assumed the White House who is incapable of delivering on what he promised. He campaigned on a promise to immediately terminate the Iran nuclear agreement, but he hasn’t done anything. He also said that he would take care of the Islamic State in a few days, but he had to wake up to the fact that this affair is much more complicated than he thought.

Construction of the wall planned for the Mexican border hasn’t started either.

Nevertheless, there are alarming developments here as the authorities are separating families. It is possible to hear a number of stories about parents whose children were born in the United States having no choice but to leave the country without them. This is the insensitive practice that is consistent with his promises. True, immigration policy did not become as cruel as many foretold during the campaign.

Today’s Trump believes China is no longer manipulating the yuan . . .

For now that is the most important change. After he met with President Xi Jinping, he said he understood why he doesn’t do more against North Korea, and he sees that this is a serious question. So there is some hope that relations with the world’s second-largest economy, which of course is still a dictatorship, will improve. This would be extremely important, because the world at this moment is perhaps more dangerous than at the time of the Cold War, and Chinese-American cooperation, which hopefully one day probably after Putin, Russia will also join, is our best hope for world peace in the coming years.

Is there no place for Europe in this constellation?

So long as the European Union is on the defensive and is this divided, it can only play a side role in matters of great strategy.

Who has the greatest influence over Donald Trump?

In many questions his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is the standard, but I would say that in foreign policy it is rather his National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster whose opinion counts. He thinks differently on many issues than the resigned Michael Flynn. McMaster is an old and respected member of the Washington national security elite.

This means that the current change in direction can be attributed to chance? If Flynn had not been compromised by his Russian connections, then would we be seeing a completely different American foreign policy?

These are not by chance. The decision to name such a serious and knowledgable person as McMaster in Flynn’s place was deliberate. The situation is that it is not possible to circumvent the Washington elite. Politics is a profession practiced by qualified people. It is not possible to charge in from New York’s Trump Tower and say we are reordering the world. The president also realized that power is limited. But it is important that the national side has not found sufficient support. Trump may have won the election but he received three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. His support is altogether 40 percent, which is far lower that of his predecessor during the first couple of months. The institutions are not giving in. A West Coast court was able to veto the ban on people arriving from Muslim-majority countries because even those sympathizing with Republicans clearly stated that the ban is unconstitutional. Congress rejected the law overwriting the health insurance system. The American press also uniformly condemns the Trump government. So American political culture is asserting itself, and the system of checks and balances is working well. Trump reacts to opposition by searching for more serious answers to the problems at hand.

The Guardian recently wrote that the Democratic Party is worsening its future chances by trying to drive out politicians practicing Bernie Sanders’ politics. The newspaper believes James Thompson of Kansas could have won a seat in Congress, but that the party did not even try to support his campaign, and this is why he failed.

I do not agree with this. In the state of Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff has a good chance of winning in an early election where so far Republicans have been the favorite. He, on the other hand, received a lot of support from the party. It is not as though the Democrats are that clever, but they benefit from Trump’s weakness even if there isn’t a fresh, new face behind which to line up party supporters. Sanders had a lot of followers. My oldest grandson also supported him, but my feeling is that he is a socialist. It is not possible to win an election in America with a social democratic program.

April 27, 2017

Mária Schmidt, the court historian of Viktor Orbán

“Europe, especially its western and northern parts, have created such wealthy societies that they deservedly elicit the admiration and envy of regions with lower living standards. These countries are rich and weak,” and therefore it is not surprising that a flow of “settlers” has been arriving in the richer parts of the European Union from the poor regions of the Middle East and Africa.

Do these ideas sound familiar? They should because they show up, practically word for word, in Viktor Orbán’s speech at the Kötcse picnic. They were written by Mária Schmidt, the court historian of the Hungarian prime minister, and published on the very same day Orbán delivered his speech. We can be sure that the lengthy essay titled “Kopogtatás nélkül” (Without knocking) that appeared in “Látószög” (Viewpoint), one of the several blogs created by the government, had been read and perhaps even commented on by Viktor Orbán before he began work on his speech. In fact, he mentioned Mária Schmidt’s essays in which the historian “regularly demonstrates” the two-facedness of the United States.

So, let’s see what kinds of lessons Viktor Orbán learned from Mária Schmidt, whose knowledge of the Middle East and of U.S. foreign policy verges on zero. In her view, in the old days of a bipolar world order the great powers could keep up a fragile balance in the region, but by now “the United States can handle the Middle East with its enormous oil reserves only if it creates perpetual chaos and steady civil and religious wars.” This is a notion to which Viktor Orbán also briefly alluded. According to Schmidt, this chaos comes in handy for those who “wish to give the impression that there is no other way [out of the situation for the population] but emigration.” In fact, however, there is a concerted effort on the part of some unnamed persons to get millions of people to take to the roads and leave. A bit later we learn whom Schmidt has in mind: the rich oil billionaires of the Arab states.

Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror

Mária Schmidt, director of the House of Terror

Why do the so-called refugees but actually settlers keep coming? They come to take what “we, Europeans, have created over the centuries.” They come “to make a new home for themselves…. We should have no illusions: this new wave of settlers is a part of a well-planned and well-executed strategy.” Again we are left in the dark who is behind this strategy, whose aim is the destruction of European culture and freedoms. The oil magnates don’t seem to be the culprits here. Most likely the culprit is the U.S. government with the help of “the useful idiots” who don’t recognize the diabolical nature of the American plan. Two days later an article appeared in Hungary Today, the Orbán government’s propaganda internet site, by a Hungarian-American, Adam Topolansky, with the title “‘Useful Idiots’ of the West and the Creation of Chaos through Mass Migration.”

You may recall that Viktor Orbán in his recent speech talked at some length about Christian Democrats in Western Europe who have been cowed by the reigning liberal ideology and by the pressure coming from the liberal press. Mária Schmidt also talks about the liberalism of the Christian Democrats who no longer represent conservative Christian values. And she has a few words of scornful rebuke for those who appeal to Christian notions of charity and compassion when it comes to handling the refugee crisis. The Muslim billionaires should take care of the region’s poor, and it should be the duty of the Arab states to stabilize the region “instead of paying for the trips of those they consider superfluous.” Truly outlandish ideas which even Viktor Orbán didn’t dare to incorporate into his speech.

Mária Schmidt praises the wisdom of the East European politicians because “they don’t accept the newspeak just as they didn’t serve the communist agitprop.” They don’t suffer from the inferiority complex of the left-liberal crowd, which accepted the propaganda from Moscow and is now following the mantra coming from Berlin.

Schmidt is not given to checking her sources. For instance, her “useful idiots” include Bernie Sanders, the Democratic hopeful in the current presidential campaign, whom she describes as such a lover of the Soviet system that he decided to spend his honeymoon in the Soviet Union in 1988 “as an ideological gesture.” This story is borrowed from a recent column of George Will, the conservative commentator, that appeared in The Washington Post. Although it is true that Sanders and his new wife did go to the Soviet Union right after they got married, it was on official business.

Schmidt also claims in this article that “according to a recent survey half of Muslims consider suicide bombings a legitimate way of fighting the enemies of Islam.” Her source is an article by David Cole that appeared in Taki’s Magazine, which is described by its editor as a libertarian organ. There are a couple of problems with this source. One is that Cole’s numbers bear little resemblance to those of the Pew Research Center and the other is that David Cole is a Holocaust revisionist. So, if I were Viktor Orbán, I would be hesitant to rely on Schmidt’s so-called research. But he uncritically accepts both her views on history and at least some of her interpretations of current events.

Both Mária Schmidt and Viktor Orbán deeply resent, and reject, all references to Western Europe’s financial contribution to the poorer regions of Eastern Europe. It is enough to quote Orbán’s latest on the subject in the translation of The Budapest Beacon:

It is difficult to use light language when reacting to any talk [in the EU] about connecting any discussion of money to the issue of immigration. Not to mention that….I don’t think [Hungary] gets money as ‘help’ from the West. This is a complete misunderstanding. We can’t accept that and I have never accepted this idea that they are giving us money out of solidarity.  Like heck they are! What we’re talking about is that Hungary is the member of a common economic zone. We had to live under communism for 40 years while they had 40 years of capitalism. They are rich and have lots of capital, while we are poor and lack capital because we’ve lived under communism. Regardless of this, we together decided to unite our economic areas. It’s completely obvious that we can’t have honest and fair competition between businesses, people and countries that have had 40 years to become rich while the other group was robbed for 40 years. There has to be some kind of mechanism that provides fair and honest competition for these two groups to interact in. If we didn’t have this, they would invade us economically. We would be a colony if this disparity was allowed to stand. They know this too because they’ve had colonies.

And both Schmidt and  Orbán have devastating views of the European Union. Yes, criticism of the European Union’s handling of this particular crisis is certainly warranted. Brussels was unprepared and continues to flounder. But the real problem the European Union faces is that it is an assembly of largely independent nation states that are unwilling to cede some of their prerogatives to a common government. Hungary is among the most recalcitrant. So, Orbán should be the last to condemn Brussels for its inability to act.

Hungarian move toward the Arab world and a possible assault on the United States

It was only yesterday that I learned from Péter Szijjártó that the “Eastern Opening” also means Hungary’s move toward Africa. Very soon I think they will have to change the name “Eastern Opening” to “Opening to any country outside of the European Union.” Admittedly, it is cumbersome but apt.

You may recall that a few months ago one Hungarian delegation after another made pilgrimages to affluent Middle Eastern countries, targeting Saudi Arabia in particular. They made at least twenty official and semi-official trips to Riyad in the last year and a half, but, as Hetek, the publication of Faith Church, reported, until now with no great results. Prince Abdulaziz, son of King Abdullah, spent a few days last week in Budapest since he is the sponsor of an event called “Saudi Arabian Days” that showcased the culture and history of the Saudi Kingdom. Abdulaziz met Foreign Minister János Martonyi, who was especially eager to establish student exchange programs between the two countries.  From here the next step was to entice the Arab country to invest money in Hungary’s poverty stricken higher education.

Corvinus University was the first to offer the Saudis an opportunity to be generous. The university’s senate decided to establish a Center of Islamic Studies and an M.A. program to go with it. Apparently the suggestion was welcomed by the faculty because the university is so strapped for funds that “it will be a miracle if [they] survive the summer.”  The university also bestowed an honorary doctorate on Khalid bin Mohammed Al-Anqari, Saudi minister in charge of higher education.

The dean of Corvinus, László Csicsmann, is convinced that if Corvinus establishes an Islamic Center “one could speedily agree on a few million dollars of assistance to the university.” He used the expression “strike while the iron is hot.” After all, the minister received an honorary doctorate only recently, the university delegation just returned from Riyad, and here is the occasion of the Saudi Arabian Days in Budapest.

I suspect that Csicsmann is too optimistic about Corvinus’s chances of receiving a few million dollars with no strings attached.  How much say would the Saudi government have in setting up the Islamic Center and how much influence they would demand when it comes to the curriculum?  The dean was unable to give a clear answer, and why should he?After all, Saudi assistance cannot be taken for granted; discussions of the matter haven’t even begun.

According to the students, the new president, Zsolt Rostoványi, is very interested in developing close contacts with Arab countries. Since he took office there have been many conferences and the number of honorary doctorates to Arab officials has multiplied in the hope of some Saudi money coming to the university’s aid.

Corvinus is desperate in the wake of severe budgetary cuts. You may recall that about two years ago there were rumors that Corvinus might not survive a future reorganization of Hungarian higher education planned by the Orbán government. In the end, it seems, Viktor Orbán didn’t dare close or amalgamate into another institution one of the best universities in the country. But he doesn’t like the institution, which he considers to be a stronghold of liberal, “orthodox”  economics. Slowly starving it to death is a perhaps less obvious strategy.

As Hungary seeks alliances with countries in the “East,” it’s burning its bridges with those in the West. Viktor Orbán’s ill-fated words about the German tanks didn’t remain unanswered by the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, who considers Orbán’s statement “a regrettable derailment that [Germany] rejects.” The Hungarian Foreign Ministry is desperately trying to explain away Orbán’s remarks, but this time their job seems especially difficult. Undersecretary Gergely Prőhle, who is usually quite skillful at defending the government’s position, did a poor job today during an interview with György Bolgár on Klubrádió. He is normally diplomatic and can even be semi-convincing; today he was irritated and aggressive.

fight easyway1234.blogspotcom

easyway1234.blogspot.com

But if the troubles with Germany weren’t enough, it seems that the Orbán government is taking on another “enemy,” the United States. On Friday Magyar Nemzet launched a frontal attack in a lead editorial. Magyar Nemzet has taken a consistently anti-American stance, but I’ve never seen such antagonistic writing as the piece by Gábor László Zord.

There is no question that Viktor Orbán is not exactly crazy about the United States. He has been snubbed too many times by successive American presidents ever since September 11, 2001. What did the young Hungarian prime minister do, or rather didn’t do, in 2001? He remained silent while the anti-Semitic István Csurka delivered a speech in parliament in which he stated that the U.S. deserved what it got on 9/11. Later, when there were attempts to make Orbán mend his way and at least belatedly express his sympathy with the United States, he neglected to do so. Subsequently, he tried to get an invitation to the White House but without success. I remember that János Martonyi was certain that Orbán would have an opportunity to make a state visit to Washington sometime in the fall of 2010. As we know, the doors of the White House seem to be closed to him. So it’s no wonder that Orbán carries a grudge against the United States and is irritated by what he considered “lectures” on democracy from Hillary Clinton and others. It seem that Magyar Nemzet’s reporters have a free hand to publish violently anti-American articles.

I don’t know what has happened in U.S.-Hungarian relations lately, but this latest attack on the United States is unprecedented. The reporter latches onto some of the problems currently facing the Obama administration to announce that “the United States doesn’t have the moral authority to tell the Hungarian government anything about democracy. If anyone is guilty of undemocratic acts it is the United States.” He offers a laundry list of sins, from the “murdered millions in pointless wars” to “doing business with representatives of dictatorship.” He is convinced that “if international law would work properly, masses of American officials and soldiers would be dragged to the Hague where they would receive the hospitality of the International Court of Justice.” But, says the reporter, sadly there is no justice in the world. “The truth lies with the powerful.” So, what can we do?

One thing Hungary can do, the reporter writes: “Keep up the list of their sins and always be ready to come back with our own answers. Don’t worry, we have a lot we can be proud of and they’d better huddle in some corner quietly.”

The Orbán government currently has enough problems with the country’s most important ally, Germany. I wouldn’t advise them to pick a new fight, this time with the United States.