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May 20, 2016 - Zoltán Kovács

Frankly speaking, Mr. Clinton, we have plenty of our own heroes to thank for our democracy

When former US President Bill Clinton claimed earlier this week that Hungary and Poland owe their freedom to “the long Cold War” and the United States of America, he demonstrated an extraordinary ignorance not only of Hungarian history but also of Europe and the global political landscape.

As reported by Politico, Clinton did not hold back:

“Poland and Hungary, two countries that would not be free but for the United States and the long Cold War, have now decided this democracy is too much trouble,” Clinton said Friday during a campaign stop in New Jersey on behalf of his wife, Hillary, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. “They want Putin-like leadership: Just give me an authoritarian dictatorship and keep the foreigners out.”

Aside from having no basis in fact, those comments insult the people of our great nations. His outburst came in the middle of a New Jersey primary election campaign rally to drum up support for his wife Hillary's struggling effort to win the party’s nomination. Watching the video of him pace up and down next to the campaign podium, one can hear those critics who say he has become a liability to her campaign.

But the suggestion that Mr. Clinton had another off day and was not in top form doesn’t quite suffice. He should know better. As long as we’re speaking frankly, figures like the former president and other prominent figures who regurgitate these baseless criticisms should know that this is absolutely not helpful. At a time when certain political elements would love to drive a wedge between Eastern European NATO members and our allies in the West, this woefully poorly informed, irresponsible banter ain’t gonna do much to help our common cause.

Is it worth alienating long-time regional allies, countries that supported Clinton's controversial interventions, including those in southeast Europe?

Both the Hungarian and Polish people quite rightly reacted to these offensive comments with outrage. Those who are not members of the United States fan club put it down to "typical American arrogance" and a "lack of regional understanding". Meanwhile, those politicians in the region who are struggling to win sympathy with voters pretend there’s something credible in Clinton’s words.  

What’s more troublesome, however, is that it makes it increasingly difficult for those of us who consider ourselves friends of the United States and believe that Poland and Hungary are natural NATO allies. The voices from the radical fever swamps seek cheap gain from the moment, criticizing us and our voters with “I told you so” rants.

The former president’s words quickly became fodder for jokes on social media. Some of them, quite colorful, are probably not appropriate to be mentioned here. The leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski responded bluntly that, "If someone believes that there is no democracy in Poland, they should be medically examined."

Perhaps Clinton’s remarks should be left on the political scrap heap as a joke gone bad. Because if we take these comments seriously then take a look back through history, the picture is a remarkably different story. The facts tell us that 60 years ago, in 1956, Hungarians fought a revolution for their freedom from the Soviets.  The United States was supportive only with words, suggesting that NATO troops were on their way to help Hungarians protect their newly regained freedom. The US propaganda was so assertive that the Soviet Union waited for several days for them to intervene. Ultimately, the West did not send help to the Hungarian freedom fighters, and the invading troops took bloody revenge. Hungarians were left to suffer through decades of Soviet occupation and Communist dictatorship. 

Of course, in the years to follow, during our struggle for freedom, the Americans, President Reagan in particular – for whom the Hungarian government erected a statue in 2011 in tribute to the essential role he played during the 1980s – deserve credit. But Clinton must understand that when he mentions Hungary, Poland and the Cold War in the same sentence, he should choose his words carefully, unless he has some reason to offend friends of the United States.

Poland, and not least its current governing party, has been among the most outspoken critics of Russia’s interventions in former Soviet states in recent years. And, when a former president of the US unjustly lectures its allies on the front lines of Europe’s migrant crisis and regional conflicts and, on top of that, does so by citing the Cold War, it only benefits Russia's agenda. It’s similar to disrespecting Israel’s democratically elected government; it only hurts US interest in that region. 

Strange that during Hillary Clinton's campaign, the Clintons use foreign policy issues to make a point that the president of the United States must treat allies with respect. Yet it is former President Clinton who steps over this line. 

Today, the people of both Poland and Hungary enjoy the freedom of living in working democracies, our governments democratically elected. Some in the West don’t easily understand some of the policies of our governments, and they may not be fashionable with Clinton campaign donors and those superdelegates, but they continue to enjoy the solid support of Polish and Hungarian voters. I can assure you that if that weren’t the case, we’d be quickly shown the door. Yes, Mr. President, our voters still have that power. And 60 years after the 1956 Revolution, when countless Hungarians gave their lives for the freedom we enjoy today, we may be grateful to the US for its role in the Cold War but we have many heroes of our own to thank for our vibrant democracy.