Love from Latvia for Bush

When George Bush finds himself isolated from all others as a last resort he can always call Vika Vira Freiberga, the President of Latvia, for “love.”  Most recently this was done on November 28, 2006 where George Bush used the NATO meeting in “new Europe” in Riga, Latvia as the stage for the last act of his tragedy being played out in Iraq. The venue was the University of Latvia where Bush invoked the history of freedom and occupation in the 20th century.  The choice of Latvia is instructive and ironic.  On the surface the country appears to be prosperous and free.  Fueled by Russian offshore oil money at $60-$70 plus a barrel and ill-gotten gains seeking safe tax-free offshore outlets from the East, Latvia’s economy since 2003 has surged forward.  Moreover, recent EU membership in 2004 brought speculative capital flooding in from the West, where the Maastricht criteria creating an overvalued Euro have sent Western capital racing East to speculative markets over investment in the real economy, thus depressing West European growth.  Further, as anyone who has visited Riga can attest, the city boasts one of the largest concentrations of beautiful art nouveau buildings in Europe, thus helping to create a vibrant tourist industry. Yet, for all these advantages, not all glitters in Latvia, or even Riga. 

Latvia’s neoliberal theme park for foreign investors fashioned by Washington Consensus policies has a dark side.  The country has the lowest labor productivity of all 25 EU nations.  Moreover, it has poorest labor safety record in the EU. Labor union rates are among the lowest in the EU.  This is matched by towering rates of alcoholism, with men dying at 60, thus having returned to 19th century mortality levels.  Drug resistant drug-resistant TB also thrives in a population where the population is collapsing as deaths far outpace births—a pattern reversed from the Soviet period.  Pensioners live in abject poverty.   Also, more Latvians have fled Latvian poverty to “old Europe” since independence than Stalin ever deported. 

Furthermore, as any one who has visited Riga knows, its women sparkle. Yet, this has created a raging sex stag tourist trade fueled by cheap Ryanair flights.  One UNDP report cites over 15 thousand women a year from the former USSR are being trafficked West through Riga each year to points West.  Additionally, only Soviet levels of distortion could permit its government to be characterized as a democracy.  Its elected government functions as an electoral oligarchy (or grabocracy) in which shifting constellations of interests form parties in order to get more than their share–to be fair, many unelected officials in the bureaucracy are honest and talented.  These rarely rise to the top.

This is the democracy George Bush celebrated and hailed in Latvia for his NATO visit.  Its economy is open to foreign penetration and it supports the US mission in Iraq.  There are many good things in Latvia to highlight, but to be sure the only two the Bush administration is really interested in are the two cited above, in addition to the obvious point of seeking legitimacy for his war.  Reflecting the opinions of their public, many in Western EU nations (“old Europe”) continue resisting Bush’s neoliberal program and the Iraqi adventure.  Latvia and Estonia where Bush just stopped are part of the new improved Europe, where its electoral oligarchies reject public opinion on the economy and Iraq.  Indeed, some 70% of Latvians have consistently opposed the Iraq war.

Just as Latvia superficially appears well, so does Bush’s use of history appear sound, until one looks more closely.  Invoking Yalta, Bush used the cover of Europe’s post-war division to justify democracy promotion in the Middle East.  Yet, in the case of the Middle East the US has been a major source of instability in at least two ways.  First, in its cooperation with Britain to overthrow the Middle East’s first democracy in 1953 in Iran, and second, with is support of Israel since 1967 with the failure of the latter to return the occupied West Bank to Palestinians. 

Since then the US has relied on Britain, with Blair serving as the loyal butler to Bush, while the Latvian government (not its people) has thrown their support to the Bush administration.  Reasonable observers recognize that Iraq has fallen, perhaps irretrievably, into civil war.   Act I of this tragedy began with the current President’s father invading Iraq after years of US support for Saddam Hussein during the Reagan/Bush years.  Hussein erred in misreading the limits of US tolerance when he occupied another compliant US ally, Kuwait.  Threatening to destabilize the region, and thus interfering with global oil supplies, President Bush senior moved to mobilize American public opinion to rollback Iraq.  President Bush first tried honesty in moving the public toward war–citing reliable, cheap, oil as the reason to invade.  Perplexed at the failure of this message to resonate with the public, he switched tactics and pulled out another truth: Hussein was a tyrant.  Albeit, this was done with a bit of hyperbole as he was said to be the second incarnation of Hitler.  This worked, and the US caged Hussein in Iraq.

The second act played out in the intervening years.  Hussein was contained.  He disarmed, as confirmed by the United Nations Special Commission at one time led by the US Marine Scott Ritter.  During this time, as throughout American history, the US supported democracy movements when convenient, just as it supported dictators when they supported its interests.  Donald Rumsfeld could be shaking Saddam Hussein’s hand in 1984 and ensuring the supply of chemical and biological agents to fight Iran and later remove him when he acted against American interests.  His status as dictator affected neither the policy to support or remove him, but instead US interests dictated which course America would take.

In 2001 the US was perceived to be invincible due to its military power.  Moreover, in the wake of 9/11 the world, from Cuba, to France, to Russia, to Iran all expressed their sympathy and support for America.  More than at anytime, prospects for world peace appeared within, with only a group of dissenting marginal fundamentalist terrorists existing outside what could have been the beginnings of an emerging global solidarity.  Instead the US lashed out at all enemies real and perceived.

Instead, the US rejected its allies, went to war to secure control over Mideast oil, and thus strategic advantage over anyone needing it.  Britain loyally followed, and Latvia took its 15 minutes of fame that in the spotlight by supporting Bush. 

In the end the whole matter promises a sordid finish.  Bush will have destabilized the Middle East.  Iran will have gained further ground and its emerging youth dissent against the clerics stifled.  Meanwhile the Baltic states will be seen as reactionary supporters of imperial power.  Bush’s shameful use of Latvia’s history with its post WW II loss of independence to support his imperial project in Iraq is far more offensive than any Brit sporting a spandex superman outfit just off a budget Ryanair flight for a night on the town in Riga at the expense of Riga’s girls.  Just as Latvia’s young woman are beginning to run when they see the Ryanair boys, I suspect Latvians will too learn to run from Bush too.  However, while Latvians have consistently fled from support of Bush’s war, its politicians seem only too happy to service him in this dubious imperial project.  History will not judge them kindly.


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