Norman Eisen, an old friend of Obama’s from Harvard Law School, is bolstering the forces of liberalism as ambassador to the Czech Republic
On Aug. 11, just a few days after receiving Bátora’s letter and in the midst of the weeklong pride festival, Eisen delivered a speech at a workshop on hate-crimes prevention in Prague. Praising New York’s recent legalization of gay marriage and the fifth anniversary of the Czech government granting same-sex civil partnerships, Eisen took a not-so-subtle shot at Bátora. Lauding the Czech Republic for being “in many ways more progressive on the issue of LGBT rights than my own,” he noted that, unfortunately, “there are still those in this country that express intolerant views.”
A few days after the parade, emboldened by picking a fight with the American ambassador, Bátora wrote on his Facebook page that Schwarzenberg, the foreign minister, was a “sorry little old man.” The website Czech Position reported that, “The war of words might have simmered on a slower boil had Bátora … not made headlines last week for condemning US Ambassador Norman Eisen and other ambassadors’ support for Prague Pride.” In October, after ministers from Schwarzenberg’s party threatened to bolt the government, Bátora resigned. Robert Basch, of the Open Society Fund-Prague, told me that the fact that Eisen threw his weight as American ambassador into the dispute over Bátora was crucial in helping the Czechs sort out the problem of creeping extremism. “The open letter was really for us very important for supporting Prague Pride as such,” he says. “Especially now when a conservative elite is in power, especially President Klaus, there really was a strong influence to stop this kind of event in the Czech Republic.”
When Eisen arrived in Prague last January, American-Czech relations were at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. The embassy had been vacant for 18 months since the resignation of the previous ambassador, a George W. Bush political appointee who left at the start of the Obama Administration. In July of 2009, a group of distinguished Central and Eastern European leaders, including former Czech President Havel and former Polish President Lech Walesa, signed an open letter to Obama expressing fear that “Central and Eastern European countries are no longer at the heart of American foreign policy” and that “Russia’s creeping intimidation and influence-peddling in the region could over time lead to a de facto neutralization of the region.” The administration’s much-publicized reset with Russia alarmed Czech leaders, who feared that their interests and those of the other nations in the post-Soviet space would be demoted in pursuit of an entente cordial with Moscow.
Two months later, in September 2009, as if to confirm these fears, the Obama Administration abruptly announced that it would cancel the placement of anti-ballistic missile sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. Though the Czech government did not publicly decry the move, (unlike the Poles, whose country had been invaded by the Soviet Union 70 years earlier to the day), the view of Czech officialdom was encapsulated in the remarks of former Defense Minister and Ambassador to the U.S. Alexandr Vondra, who called it “a U-turn in U.S. policy.”
The ambassadorship to the Czech Republic, (a small country that, due to its size and the fact that it’s not in the Eurozone, does not play a leadership role in Europe), is a plum assignment generally filled by political appointees—not career diplomats. Since the rebirth of independent Czechoslovakia in 1989, the country has been one of the United States’ most steadfast allies, so the ambassadorship is a relatively easy posting. But as the Obama Administration has emphasized repairing relations with Russia, the job has come to carry new burdens. Consider the way in which much of the Czech political establishment viewed the Obama Administration at the time of Eisen’s appointment. In a May 2010 speech at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, just months before he would re-enter government as defense minister, Vondra slammed Obama’s foreign policy as “enemy-centric,” alleging that it gives “carrots” to adversaries like Russia and China while failing to stand by allies.
Eisen, who befriended Obama at Harvard Law School, says that the job was never on his radar. “I thought of that as something that people did when they were further along in their careers and their lives generally,” he says. After two years serving as the president’s Special Counsel for Ethics and Government Reform, or ethics czar—his nickname was “Mr. No”—Eisen’s plan was to return to Zuckerman Spaeder, the Washington law firm where he had practiced for nearly two decades. (Over the past decade, Eisen has donated some $60,000 to the Democratic Party and its candidates, and in the 2008 election cycle, he raised over $200,000 for Obama’s presidential campaign as a bundler.) Eisen was concerned not just with the strain that being ambassador might place on his family—he is married to Georgetown University Professor Lindsay Kaplan and has a young daughter—but on his own ability to deal with the horrors his parents experienced in Europe.
The president had other ideas. Obama knew Eisen’s family history—and his connections to the Czech Republic—intimately. The two had become fast friends at Harvard, where they were older than the majority of their classmates. “We had both done public interest work after college and before law school, I for the Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles, he as a community organizer in Chicago, and we were both 28 when we arrived in Cambridge,” Eisen recalls. They remained close after graduation.
“The president thought it would be a remarkable thing for the son of a Czechoslovak Holocaust survivor to return and represent the U.S. here,” Eisen says. “No one from my immediate family had returned since my mother fled Communism in 1949 and the symbolism of coming back here was just too unique an opportunity to pass up.” So, in January of last year, the Eisens packed their bags.
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