Radek Sikorski first went to Afghanistan in 1986, to cover that war for the Sunday Telegraph. In 1989, he wrote about the Soviets’ withdrawal for us — for National Review. He is my guest on Q&A, here.
The Soviet withdrawal, he points out, was far more dignified than ours. Plus, “the Communist regime they left behind actually survived until 1992” and “collapsed only when the Soviet Union itself collapsed.”
Sikorski had a distinguished career in journalism. When his country, Poland, became free, he entered politics, eventually becoming defense minister and foreign minister. Today, he is a member of the European Parliament and has affiliations with Harvard and other institutions.
About the present debacle in Afghanistan, Sikorski says, “We could have kept one base, with an air strip, with some Predators, with some special forces, in order to be able to whack the bad guys if they established a physical presence again, and such a base we could have kept indefinitely.”
And look: “The United States is present militarily in half the countries of the world. Why should Afghanistan be among those countries where the U.S. is at zero?” Honestly, it should not have been “beyond the powers of the United States to defend the Bagram Air Base, for example, for as long as it took.”
In addition to Afghanistan, Sikorski and I talk about Belarus. When he was in government, Sikorski dealt with Alexander Lukashenko, a dictator both brutal and canny. The same can be said of Lukashenko’s patron: brutal and canny. That patron would be Vladimir Putin, of course.
Sikorski says he is reminded somewhat of Poland in the 1980s. Near the beginning of that decade, General Jaruzelski imposed martial law. For the Solidarity movement, the situation seemed hopeless, as “the Polish dictatorship had an external guarantor in the form of the Soviet Union.” Lukashenko has the same thing: “a big daddy in Moscow, who will not let Belarus slip away.”
But — before the decade was out, Poland had its freedom.
What about Poland today? That is another of our topics, in our Q&A. How fares the independence of the media?
Then, Hungary. Radek Sikorski and Viktor Orbán are almost exactly the same age, and they went to the same Oxford college — Pembroke — though not at the same time. Orbán, by the way, got there on a scholarship from George Soros. This is what some call an “irony of history.” The young men studied with the same professor, the Polish-British political philosopher Zbigniew Pełczyński — who had also taught Bill Clinton.
In America, Britain, and elsewhere, Orbán has a lot of fans on the right. What does Sikorski make of this? “Some of these people are friends of mine,” he says, “and I’m just amazed that people are so easily hoodwinked.” Orbán is “a clever operator.” And “he spends quite a lot of energy and time cultivating Western conservatives, but it belies a reality in Hungary, which is corrupt.”
Forget Greece and southern Italy, Sikorski says: “Hungary today is the most corrupt country in the European Union. Don’t take my word for it: Look at the statistics produced by the European Union’s anti-corruption body.” Orbán, says Sikorski, “has enriched his political friends and his own family. Now, I don’t see any conservative values in this” — or in other moves that Orbán has made.
We end our conversation with a pressing, and related, topic: the attraction of illiberal political ideologies, especially to the young. Sikorski speaks of national socialism, with “its appeal to tribal loyalties and to class envy.” Now, this is “a very powerful and convincing combination. But we have seen this movie in Europe before, and we know how it ends, and the end is horrible.”
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