Sunday, 18 December 2011

Vaclav Havel, 1989 and 2003

From the BBC World Service archive, episode 2 of the 2009 series John Simpson Returns to 1989 focuses on Czechlosovakia’s Velvet Revolution, interviewing a number of participants, the first being Vaclav Havel.

John Simpson’s TV obituary of Havel includes a little joke. “In terms of intellect, he was way ahead of most other political leaders,” says Simpson, over a shot of Havel being presented with a medal by President GW Bush.

Unlike most (all?) of the obituaries of Christopher Hitchens this week, Simpson’s obituary of Havel doesn’t mention Iraq. Nor does the BBC News website’s written obituary mention Iraq, nor their news story on his death.

The Guardian’s editorial marking Vaclav Havel’s death doesn’t mention Iraq, nor does Julian Borger’s news story on Havel’s death for the same paper. Nor does a more personal memoir by Timothy Garton Ash.

The New York Times report by Dan Bilefsky and Jane Perlez does include this penultimate paragraph:
He never stopped preaching that the fight for political freedom needed to outlive the end of the Cold War. He praised the United States’ invasion of Iraq for deposing an evil dictator, Saddam Hussein.

Perhaps this is all appropriate. Vaclav Havel’s great contribution was his part in the Velvet Revolution, an event that continues to inspire attempts at non-violent revolution worldwide. His support for action against Saddam Hussein came at the end of his political career, and can be seen as a footnote.

It’s a striking footnote all the same. A man who was justly praised for his part in a non-violent revolution, went on to support the violent overthrow of a dictator by means of an invasion that was the most criticised, the most reviled, military action in recent decades. Why did he do this? Why support war? Why not wait and hope for a peaceful revolution in Iraq?

The implication must be that, despite the success of Czechlosovakia’s Velvet Revolution, he believed there were circumstances where non-violence was unlikely to succeed. The mixed outcomes of this year’s Arab revolutions would seem to support such a view.

Here, from a 2003 article by David Remnick for The New Yorker, is Vaclav Havel’s own explanation:
A year after Havel came to power, there was a crisis in Iraq, and now, as he was leaving office, he was involved in another. Earlier in the month, he had spent hours with his aides at his country villa, discussing the problem, and that day, in the Wall Street Journal, there was a letter signed by Havel, along with seven other European leaders, which essentially agreed with the Bush Administration's position. I asked him why.

“I think it’s not by chance that the idea of confronting evil may have found more support in those countries that have had a recent experience with totalitarian systems compared with other European countries that haven’t had the same sort of recent experience,” he said. “The Czech experience with Munich, with appeasement, with yielding to evil, with demanding more and more evidence that Hitler was truly evil—that may be one reason that we look at things differently than some others. But that doesn’t mean automatically that a green light is to be given to preventive strikes. I always believed that every case has to be judged individually. The Euro-American world cannot simply declare preëmptive war on all the regimes that it doesn’t like.”

Havel coughed and took a sip of wine. I asked him why he thought a policy of containment could not work in Iraq more or less indefinitely.

He put his glass down and said, “Civilization has changed. Today, any crazy, practically any crazy person can blow up half of New York. That was hardly possible fifteen or twenty years ago. That’s not the only reason. On the whole, the world has changed. There once was a bipolar world, a balance of two great powers, who made agreements on weapons reductions, so that they were capable of destroying the world seven times instead of ten. Now we live in a multi-polar world. . . . Of course, the question is: When is the best time for action? Should it have happened a long time ago? That is a political issue, a diplomatic issue, a sociological issue. But, generally, it’s a matter of the functioning of the world’s immune system, whether the world can deal with such a case of extreme evil before it is too late.”

The tragedy is that there was justice in John Simpson’s joke at the expense of Bush. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was led by people without the intellect of Havel, and particularly without the moral intelligence of Havel.

Here is the full text of the January 2003 letter on Iraq by eight European leaders including Vaclav Havel. Here is the response at the time by then French President Chirac. He was also in the news this week.

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