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Vaclav Havel and Iraq

The Wall Street Journal reminds us [1] that Vaclav Havel’s judgment was sometimes remarkably poor:

He also did not hesitate to put his name to a January 2003 op-ed in this newspaper calling for a united stand against Saddam Hussein. “The trans-Atlantic relationship,” he and seven other European leaders wrote, “must not become a casualty of the current Iraqi regime’s persistent attempts to threaten world security.” Jacques Chirac was not pleased.

The text of the 2003 op-ed can be read here [2]. To the extent that token European support lent credibility to war supporters here in the U.S. by creating the illusion of greater international support for the war than there really was, the leaders connected to this op-ed helped to facilitate a war that was both illegal and unjust. Perhaps because of some misguided sense of gratitude to the United States, Havel was one of the first leaders in central and eastern Europe to align himself with Bush’s folly. One of the perverse side-effects of the first two rounds of NATO expansion was to create an unhealthy eagerness on the part of the new members to fall in line behind U.S. policy, no matter how foolish or far removed from their own interests it may have been, and in this Havel was no different. Like many other leaders in the region, Havel was wildly out of touch with his own people [3] on the Iraq war question. It can’t be stressed enough that the people responsible for weakening and jeopardizing the “trans-Atlantic relationship” during 2002 and 2003 were the Bush administration and its eager supporters in Europe. On one of the more important issues of the last decade, the famous dissident became a predictable conformist and yes-man.

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10 Comments To "Vaclav Havel and Iraq"

#1 Comment By tbraton On December 19, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

Perhaps a good explanation is that Havel was a playwright before he became involved in politics, like David Mamet. Think of all the great political thinking that emerged from the writing mills of Hollywood and Broadway over the years. Lillian Hellman (who had a toe in both areas) was worshipping Stalin even after the Communist leader of the U.S.S.R. was denouncing him and exposing his brutalities to the Communist Congress in 1956, and she, in turn, was lionized by Hollywood.

#2 Comment By Jim Dooley On December 19, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

“On one of the more important issues of the last decade, the famous dissident became a predictable conformist and yes-man. ”

In defense of Havel and the others who signed this ill-fated manifesto, they were caught up in the sweep of our panicked response to 9/11, our incompetence, and our lies. They were well caught it what amounted to a hugh net of disinformation. Should they, and particularly Havel, been more sceptical? He should have been, but it isn’t surprising that he wasn’t. He was an idealist with personal experience of tyranny which disposed him against Saddam; and his understanding of what Soviet power was able to achieve in Hungary and Czechoslavakia probably persuaded him that in Iraq our grasp was equal to our reach. In a sense, his ideals betrayed him. One of the most pernicious results of this illegal and unjust war, a result that has gone largely unremarked, is that for a very long time to come, no government, indeed no one with any sense, is going to accept what our government has to say in matters of this kind at face value.

#3 Comment By Charlie On December 19, 2011 @ 4:50 pm

“To the extent that token European support lent credibility to war supporters here in the U.S. by creating the illusion of greater international support for the war than there really was…”

“Token European support” for the Iraq war was just that–token, and irrelevant. The decision to go to war was taken in Washington and was independent of world opinion. We signaled clearly that we’d proceed without British support, much less the support of the Czech Republic, Poland, etc.

“One of the perverse side-effects of the first two rounds of NATO expansion was to create an unhealthy eagerness on the part of the new members to fall in line behind U.S. policy, no matter how foolish or far removed from their own interests it may have been, and in this Havel was no different.”

Isn’t this likely backwards? Isn’t it more reasonable to assume that, having experienced 40 years of Soviet domination, states in Central and Eastern Europe were eager as a matter of rational self-interest to “fall in line behind U.S. policy,” and that this made irresponsible NATO expansion possible?

I’m not sure that it makes much of a practical difference, but I do think it’s a more humane read on why someone like Havel, who was brave and morally clear in his opposition to the Soviets and to Communism, essentially continued following the same line (resist Russia, look to the US, believe the worst about fans of Stalin like Saddam Hussein) even after the Soviet Union had disappeared.

Havel was a brave and heroic in his resistance to Stalinist attempts to subjugate his country, and a key figure in its transition to democracy after the end of Soviet imperialism. On the occasion of his death I think it’s appropriate to put his relatively insignificant attitudes about Iraq and NATO in context, and not use them to score points in an American debate about American foreign policy decisions.

#4 Comment By Daniel Larison On December 19, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

War supporters didn’t treat his attitudes as “relatively insignificant.” They exploited them for all they were worth, they pretended that they were very meaningful, and Havel helped them to do that. The reality was that he used his reputation as a dissident and his position as president in his country to lend moral support to an outrageous policy. His courage as a dissident isn’t in question. His judgment as a political leader is. It was Havel and Europeans like him who wanted to insist that the debate over Iraq was very much a matter of international concern, and in that debate he was on the wrong side.

#5 Comment By tbraton On December 19, 2011 @ 5:46 pm

Marshal Petain was a national hero of France as a result of his actions during WWI.

#6 Comment By Charlie On December 19, 2011 @ 6:10 pm

I think I’m mostly arguing with your emphasis, so I don’t want to make this a bigger disagreement than it really is. So, just a couple points:

I don’t have a problem with the statements in your comment that Havel displayed poor judgment and was on the wrong side of the Iraq debate. That’s a much less harsh judgment than the last sentence of your original post, which seemed to contrast his integrity as a dissident with his later lack of integrity as a “conformist” and a “yes-man.” I thought that was an unfair characterization of how he reached his position, even if I agree with you about the merits of his position.

And, once you separate the purely moral issues at stake from practical consequences, I just don’t believe that Havel’s support for the war actually mattered that much. It certainly matters enough as a matter of judgment and morality to mention on the occasion of his death. But it’s not quite right to say, “War supporters found Havel’s support significant, ergo it was significant.” War supporters said that a lot of things were very significant, and exploited a lot of those things for rhetorical effect. But (and maybe I’m just too cynical about the nature and consequences of political debate in the United States) I think we waged war for reasons decided in Washington, and proceeded to either talk up or marginalize the views of other countries as necessary. The only exception I can think of is Blair–I do think that if the British government had been firmly opposed from the start it might have made a difference. But Havel’s support was about as relevant to the final decision as Chirac’s opposition.

#7 Comment By Charlie On December 19, 2011 @ 6:18 pm

“Marshal Petain was a national hero of France as a result of his actions during WWI.”

Analogizing modern politics to the actions of Nazi Germany and its collaborators is rarely helpful, regardless of which side is making the comparisons.

#8 Comment By tbraton On December 19, 2011 @ 6:46 pm

“Analogizing modern politics to the actions of Nazi Germany and its collaborators is rarely helpful, regardless of which side is making the comparisons.”

Well, I wasn’t invoking Petain’s actions in collaborating with the Nazis in WWII which resulted in his being sentenced to death after the war. I was merely citing him as an example of where a man is capable of heroic actions at one time in his life and unheroic actions at other times. Admiration for the heroic actions in no way justifies turning a blind eye to his unheroic actions. Do you want a different analogy (a favorite of mine since I became aware of it as a teenager)? Do you know who favored the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII? Those two liberal icons, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the then serving Attorney General of California, Earl Warren. Do you know who opposed the internment? That symbol of evil, the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Just food for thought.

BTW Petain’s collaboration with the Nazis probably resulted in the saving of many French lives, even if it resulted in the loss of lives of 75,000 Fench Jews, which probably would have happened even if France continued to fight. (After all, our entry into WWII did nothing to save the millions of Jews from the death camps.) Compare that to the loss of Iraqi lives that resulted from our invasion in 2003, variously estimated from the low hundreds of thousands to upward of a million. Yes, decisions to go to war do have consequences.

#9 Comment By Charlie On December 19, 2011 @ 7:19 pm

I was in Iraq, and saw some of the bodies. So, as someone who supported the war and now realizes how wrong I was, I’ve had time to contemplate the importance and moral implications of those sorts of decisions (even when your personal opinion had no impact on the actual course of events). I also agree with your basic outlook that people are, at different times and in different circumstances, capable of both heroism and ignoble acts.

So, without beating a dead horse, I’d just reiterate that I think Havel was fortunate to have been right about issues where his actions had great importance, and wrong about issues where his opinion was a marginal or irrelevant factor. My sense is that you and Daniel may disagree with how I’m weighting that, and I’m open to being convinced by some evidence I missed when these events were unfolding.

#10 Comment By Leo On March 21, 2018 @ 5:15 pm

Here is a Czech perspective. It was by no means only Havel who wanted to “be with the Americans”. Unfortunately, these actions and the lies spun around them have made fools of all of us.