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How the Czechs took a page from Svejk to win the war in Iraq

The Czech Republic has been invited to participate—with members of the military alliance that defeated the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq—in helping to set up new political institutions in Iraq. As a reward for being a member of the alliance that defeated Saddam, the country is also likely to get lucrative contracts that will be part of the international effort to rebuild the Iraqi economy. On hearing this news, foreign observers who are not familiar with Czech politics might think that during the war the Czech government unflinchingly supported the United States the same way that, for example, Poland did. Such an impression could be strengthened by the fact that the Czechs sent an anti-chemical warfare unit to Kuwait, and a Czech military hospital now operates in Basra.

In reality, however, Czech politicians, faithful to the country's worst traditions, behaved much like Svejk during the conflict. Even before the war started, the Czech Parliament had voted that the Czech anti-chemical warfare unit could be deployed in Iraq only if the United Nations Security Council approved a resolution sanctioning a military intervention there. Since the U.S. and Great Britain in the end decided to invade Iraq without such a resolution, the Czech unit stayed in Kuwait throughout the war. The Parliament decided the unit would be sent to Iraq only on a "humanitarian mission"—if Saddam's regime used weapons of mass destruction.

The Czech government then decided that this country was not officially part of the military alliance that invaded Iraq. When Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda said the Czech Republic should at least verbally support the U.S. in its efforts to get rid of Saddam, he was severely criticized by other government officials and President Vaclav Klaus.

The president vehemently opposed the war, arguing that the Czech political elite must act in line with public opinion; over 70 percent of Czechs were against the war. According to media reports, during a meeting with Craig Stapleton, U.S. Ambassador to Prague, Klaus demanded that the Czech Republic be officially taken off the list of the U.S.'s war allies (or the "coalition of the willing," in the words of U.S. President George W. Bush). Klaus further insinuated that if the U.S. didn't find evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it would fabricate some. While those reports could not be confirmed, in general it would be difficult to describe the behavior of Klaus and most other Czech politicians during the crisis as supportive of U.S. actions. At the end of March, the congress of the ruling Czech Social Democratic Party approved a resolution not only rejecting the war but also using harsh anti-American language.

The pretzel position

Klaus tried to explain his position in a rather convoluted newspaper article, in which he argued that the Czech Republic must not adopt a "European position" or an "American position" but must have its own "Czech position." He outlined a rather complicated way as to how one arrives at such a position, prompting former Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec to warn that in our geopolitical situation any attempts to search for a position between the American stance and the stance of "old Europe" plays directly into the hands of Russia.

Klaus also condemned the invasion of Iraq as "a leftist war," explaining that attempts to export democracy amounted to "social engineering." He dismissed arguments that the primary purpose of the military invasion was concern over a marriage of rogue regimes, such as Iraq, that could possess weapons of mass destruction, and terrorist networks willing to use weapons of mass destruction to destroy the American "Satan."

In general, while Czech politicians, with the notable exception of Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda and his deputies, rejected even verbal support for the U.S., they did not seem to mind that the Czech Republic continued to be perceived by the Americans as an ally. They knew, after all, that when the war was over, there could be financial benefits for the Czechs.

As a result, the Czech position could be described as follows: We don't support the warring coalition but, depending on whom we talk to, we also do; we are not involved in the conflict but we do have a military unit in the area; we understand the arguments of France and Germany, but we are not impervious to arguments of the United States.

Most top Czech officials were simply very careful not to adopt unambiguous stances. Unlike the French or German leaders, who had to defend their strong opposition to the war, or the British Prime Minister, who had to fight for his own political survival owing to his strong support for the war, Czech leaders refused to make decisions for which they would have to accept real responsibility.

Only the two opposition parties—the conservative Civic Democrats and the Communists—spoke clearly. While the Civic Democrats supported the American war efforts (diverging sharply from the position of Honorary Party Chairman Vaclav Klaus), the Communists were, not surprisingly, staunchly opposed to the military invasion.

The country's political leaders, on the other hand, followed the recipe that the Czechs used successfully in the 20th century; they "Svejked" their way through the conflict and then joined the victorious side. Czech politicians now behave as if they have always supported the U.S. One can only wish that Czech experts, who have been invited to help with setting up the new political administration in Iraq, will not be given the chance to teach the Iraqis lessons in political culture.

Prague Business Journal - 5. 5. 2003