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Kārlis Streips: Greetings to the US President

There has been a great deal of fuss and debate about the visit of US President George Bush to Latvia which is taking place right now, people have been upset.

In Old Rīga businesspeople are grouchy about the fact that at the very beginning of the spring, they will have to close down for one or even two evenings and nights. If the weather proves to be warm and sunny, owners of outdoor cafes in particular will suffer significant losses. 

I would like to encourage my readers to take a look in yesterday’s newspapers and to see which clubs and cafes in Old Rīga will be working on May 6 and 7. Stop in, have a coffee or a beer have something to eat. That would be an example of solidarity with other Latvians. I myself did something similar a few years ago when Jomas Street was being renovated in Jūrmala. The employees in restaurants which were alongside the torn-up street looked so sad that I felt sorry for them and had a very nice lunch despite the boom of the road-building equipment outside.

Still, dear readers, let us be frank here and say one thing — it is an enormous honour for Latvia to have the president of the United States of America, the last superpower in the world, visiting our country. What’s more, this is happening for the second time. We can debate American policy in the Middle East and elsewhere until, as the Americans put it, the cows come home, but we cannot fail to recognise the fact that the American president tends to visit those countries with which Washington has good relations. In the past few days George Bush has said that he, too, understands that the end of World War II meant the beginning of the occupation for Latvia and other countries. Russia’s demagogic Foreign Ministry did not know what to do when this message arrived, all that it could do was murmur something about «several Europeans» who are still talking about the end of World War II and pretend that the American president, whose favour is, after all, very much needed in Moscow, has said nothing. As usual — the mendacious, demagogic and insane official Russia.

Never mind Russia, though. The US president’s visit to Latvia and particularly to Georgia, which only recently truly regained independence, is a massive signal, even if the Americans themselves do not admit it. It is first and foremost a signal to Tsar Vladimir V and his court at the Kremlin to say that despite the fact that Russian oil and gas deposits are important to America, that America is heavily concerned about Moscow’s scandalously careless attitude toward its nuclear weapons, that the Americans and Russians must find common ground at the UN Security Council and elsewhere — despite all of this Washington is not and will never be ready to permit the rebirth of expansionist imperialism in Russia, nor will it agree with the idea that the Baltic States are still a peripheral part of Russia or that country’s «sphere of interests». The Americans will say a strict nyet to any such suggestion. On Friday and Saturday people will not be able to park their automobiles in Elizabetes Street and Old Rīga, but compared to this fact, that is a very petty problem indeed.  The inconveniences will end around sunset time on Saturday. The support of the main and most important country in the NATO alliance for our country will remain unbending.

At the same time, I have no intention of denouncing the fact that George Bush will also be greeted by protesters in Rīga, I think that this is a good thing. It seems that the use of the president’s mother for reasons of propaganda is skating quite close to the line of unacceptable tastelessness, but all in all the plans of the protesters are quite clever and positive, first and foremost because the so-called civil society in Latvia has never gone beyond a few weaker or stronger blossoms, it has never truly flourished. We can each agree or disagree with the things that the protesters are saying. I myself, for instance, reject the idea which has been expressed in some of the media — that George Bush is personally to blame for the fact that tens and hundreds of thousands of people have died in Iraq. It is not the Americans who are killing them, it is the Iraqis themselves. What is happening in Iraq today is precisely the same thing that happened in the former Yugoslavia 10 years ago. As soon as the heavy hand which ensured comparative peace through threats and terror was gone, centuries of ancient disputes and quarrels arose again, and in their context neighbour attacked neighbour and family attacked family. Yes, quite a few Iraqis were killed by American soldiers, there are still trials in America about the shameless and amoral «soldiers» who mistreated and mocked the Iraqi captives. Among all of those who are gritting their teeth at the US-led process in Iraq, however, I have never heard anyone say whether he or she really believes that it would have been better to leave the Saddam Hussein regime in place so that he could continue genocide against the Kurds, continue to export terrorism and so forth. No, it would not have been better.

I personally feel that the United States of America behave in a haughty way in the world on many occasions, and that is putting it mildly. Official Washington caused much greater harm to itself and to the rest of the world by refusing to sign the Kyoto Treaty on environmental protection and by rejecting membership in the International Criminal Court (as if American criminals deserve a different attitude from the world than all of the others) than it did through the war in Iraq. I can understand those who are annoyed by the frequent American attempt to teach morals to others, by their firm believe that the American form of governance is useful in any corner of the world, no matter what traditions exist there. I can understand those who are concerned about the mass invasion of American culture — and quite often it is cheap and shoddy culture — throughout the world, including at our own Coca-Cola Forum theatre (and how very «Latvian» is the name of that enterprise).

And yet even the most hostile enemy of all of that and of McDonald’s too will never be able to deny one fundamental truth — Europe and to a great extent the entire world is dependent on the United States of America, first and foremost in the area of security. That particularly applies to Taiwan, because its security against the greedy Communist China has been guaranteed by the Americans for some time now, but it applies to all NATO member states, too. If something terrible happens, it will not be the Portuguese or the Norwegians who save the day. It will be the Americans. As former Latvian Defence Minister Tālavs Jundzis recently pointed out in an interview, 80% of NATO resources are American resources. Yes, America may be the legendary bull in a china shop, but this bull is very friendly toward us. It is better than a different bull, one that would try to gore us with its horns. That has to be admitted even by those who will be trying to demonstrate their dislike of George Bush and his country over the next few days.

As far as the president himself is concerned, I would not have voted for him in 2000 or in 2004. The shoddy and dishonest behaviour of politicians which accompanied his first election was very significant. I mostly dislike the Bush Administration in Washington for reasons of domestic policy which might not be interesting to readers in Latvia. When I look at George Bush himself, I remember something which the writer Gore Vidal once said about President Ronald Reagan — that it was foolish for the president to claim that he wants to improve the education system in America, because a well educated America would never have elected Ronald Reagan as president.  Something similar can be said about George Bush. His father was a distinguished participant in high-level politics, a man with a great deal of experience when he became president. The same can certainly not be said about the son.

The main thing in these next few days, however, is that we are being visited not by George Bush the private individual, but by the President of the United States of America. I am pleased and proud, just as I was pleased and proud when Bill Clinton visited us. The positive results of this visit can be numerous and long-lasting. Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga will speak to George Bush before George Bush speaks to Tsar Vladimir. That is key, that is good. Thanks to the United States of America for their support, thanks to the President of the United States for expressing that support in person.