WWII lessons for Bush
HISTORY HAS weighed heavily on President Bush's trip to Latvia and Russia to commemorate the Allied victory over German fascism.
What should be clear after Bush angered Russians by speaking of the Soviet ''occupation" of the Baltic states -- rather than the ''liberation" Russia's President Vladimir Putin has evoked -- is that one's reading of history can have a great bearing on the present and the future. And though Bush said some things in the Latvian capital of Riga and in Moscow that needed to be said, he was speaking as a leader who has demonstrated an unfortunate insensitivity to the lessons his predecessors learned from the inferno of World War II.
There was nothing wrong with Bush declaring in Riga: ''Stable, prosperous democracies are good neighbors, trading in freedom and posing no threat to anyone." This was a not very subtle way of repudiating the anxieties of Putin and those Russians who continue to fear being encircled by Western powers. Unless the Kremlin wishes to recapture the republics of the lost Soviet empire, the Baltic states, now absorbed inside the European Union, cannot be construed as a geopolitical threat to the Russian Federation.
Putin is nevertheless right to bemoan the fate of the 25 million Russians who suddenly found themselves living as ethnic minorities outside Russia after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This is what Putin was referring to recently when he called the collapse of the Soviet Union a geopolitical catastrophe.
So it was entirely fitting for Bush to admonish his Latvian hosts that if they truly want to be good democrats, they should cease discriminating against the Russian minority in Latvia. ''The promise of democracy is fulfilled by minority rights, and equal justice under the rule of law, and an inclusive society in which every person belongs," Bush said. This is a message that has to be heard -- and heeded -- not only in the Baltics but in other nascent or aspiring democracies from Beirut to Baghdad and from Pakistan to Sri Lanka. Indeed, Putin's continuing brutal war in Chechnya reflects the Kremlin's abject failure to give a proper political expression to the minority rights of the Chechens.
It is Bush, however, who cast aside the lessons of World War II when he first came to office, rejecting the close cooperation with allies that his father had practiced so deftly while presiding over the Cold War's bloodless denouement and the unification of Germany. It would be a good thing for the United States and its allies if Bush, listening to Putin say yesterday in Red Square that the victory of Nazism cannot be divided ''into ours and someone else's," absorbed the lesson his father's generation learned at great cost about the value of collective security, multilateral cooperation, and strong alliances.