by Jim Lobe
Consider the following chronology:
March 21: The foreign minister of Hungary, Peter Szijjarto, comes to Washington, DC, to take part in the opening of his country’s new embassy. He meets with Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka, presumably to discuss matters of mutual interest.
March 24: Breitbart.com, for which Gorka served until recently as national security editor, features a piece by its Jerusalem correspondent that fairly bursts with self-satisfaction over a Reuters article entitled “European Countries Inspired by Breitbart to Crack Down on Soros.”
March 28: A bill sponsored by the government of self-described “illiberal” Prime Minister Viktor Orban is tabled that would force the closure of the Central European University (CEU), a 25-year-old institution founded and funded in major part by George Soros.
March 29: The Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, David Kostelnick, issues a strong statement, asserting that the United States is “very concerned about the legislation” targeting the university, which he says “is an important success story in the U.S. Hungarian relationship [and] …enjoys strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Government …The United States opposes any effort to compromise the operations or independence of the University.”
March 31: The State Department issues its own statement asserting that the U.S. is “concerned about [the] legislation… We urge the Government of Hungary to avoid taking any legislative action that would compromise CEU’s operations or independence.” The White House issues no statement.
I don’t pretend to have any substantial expertise on Hungary, but the above chronology does raise some questions, notably whether the Orban government’s widely anticipated crackdown on Soros-backed organizations, specifically the CEU, came up during the meeting between Szijjarto and Gorka and, if so, what Gorka may have said about the Trump administration’s likely response. After all, Orban has made no secret of his intense hostility to Soros (despite the fact that he and other members of his right-wing Fidesz party have personally benefited from Soros-funded grants and scholarships), and the pro-Orban press in Hungary had been targeting the CEU, as well as other Soros-backed NGOs, since Trump’s inauguration.
Orban, of course, has been a real trail-blazer for the right-wing nationalist, anti-immigration/Islamic, populist, and “illiberal” parties that have been ascendant over the past decade in central and eastern Europe and that now threaten more-centrist governments in western Europe. He also has been a major fan of Donald Trump, and greeted his election as the end of “liberal non-democracy” and as “a historic event, in which Western civilization appears to successfully break free from the confines of an ideology.” Gorka, who was born and grew up in Britain but spent nearly two decades in his parents’ native Hungary, worked with Orban in the early 2000s but moved further to the right when Fidesz failed to adopt a more militant line against the then-reigning socialist-liberal government in late 2006. Nonetheless, the Orban government reportedly considers Gorka a key asset in its efforts to cultivate the Trump administration after years of being on the outs in Washington.
And why not? Orban and Gorka’s boss (both at Breitbart and at the White House), Stephen Bannon, share (along with Vladimir Putin) an intense dislike of western liberalism, supra-national organizations like the European Union, the notion of universal values and human rights, secularism, what they call “political correctness,” and anything that smacks of “globalism”—of which Soros and his philanthropic causes, including the CEU, are seen by them as the essential and diabolical embodiment. Gorka’s political activities in Hungary, including his apparent membership in the intensely nationalistic, anti-Semitic Vitezi Rend, as well as his own bloviations in Brietbart and elsewhere about Islam, immigrants, “liberal media,” “virulent populism,” “alpha males,” the EU, “globalism,” etc., are generally quite compatible.
As someone whose commitment to Hungary and “Hungarianness” is so deeply and sentimentally rooted, Gorka must keep up with the Hungarian press. He surely was aware of Orban’s intentions to crack down against Soros-backed organizations, very possibly including the CEU, when he met with the foreign minister. Just a few days before the meeting, as Breitbart reported, Orban had delivered yet another angry attack on Soros after Hungary lost a lawsuit in the European Court of Human Rights over his government’s expulsion of two Bangladeshi asylum-seekers. “It is a collusion of human traffickers, Brussels bureaucrats and the organizations that work in Hungary financed by foreign money,” Orban had declared over public radio, “Let’s call a spade a spade: George Soros finances them.”
Thus, if the chat between Gorka and Szijjarto was at all serious, one might reasonably expect that the subject of Orban’s intentions regarding Soros-back organizations in Hungary would figure pretty high on the agenda. If nothing else, the foreign minister, presumably knowing something about those intentions, would naturally inquire as to if and how the Trump administration would react to this or that action by his government. If so, did Gorka reassure him that he shouldn’t worry too much about a possible statement expressing “concern,” and that any such statement would not be backed up by any sanction? Or did he warn him against any action against Soros-supported NGOs, least of all the CEU, insisting that there would be consequences (regardless of Trump’s own hostility toward Soros)? Green light? Orange light? Even a red light?
At this point, we can only speculate. But it’s very interesting to compare the statement by the DCM in Budapest with that issued by the State Department in Washington two days later. DCM Kostelancik stated that the U.S. is “very concerned,” but the State Department dropped the “very.” Kostelancik stressed that the University was “an important success story in the U.S. relationship,” adding that it “enjoys strong bipartisan support in the U.S. government,” thus suggesting that this is an important issue in bilateral relations. In contrast, the State Department statement avoided that language. Kostelancik described the University as an “important center of academic freedom” in the region. The State Department statement seemed to soften that description, stressing instead the CEU’s “academic excellence and many contributions to independent, critical thinking.” Finally, Kostelancik said Washington “opposes” any move to compromise the University’s operations or independence, while the State Department took a less confrontational position by “urg[ing] the government “to avoid taking any legislative action” that would have that effect.
Of course, this word-parsing can be seen as splitting hairs; it may be argued that there really is no essential difference between the two statements, and that State’s statement simply reflects the Department’s assessment that a somewhat softer approach would be more effective in dissuading Orban from going any further with the legislation. But if I were the DCM in Budapest, I would feel undercut by Washington, just by the dropping of the word “very” in measuring the degree of “concern” that the Trump administration is feeling about this. And the absence of any statement of concern by the White House itself would compound that sense of abandonment.
Of course, it’s possible that someone in the White House cleared both Kostelancik’s statement and the softer State Department statement before they were issued. Or it’s possible that Kostelancik acted more or less on his own given the immediacy of the situation in Budapest and demands by the press to know the U.S. reaction, and then the State Department, after consulting the White House, issued a deliberately toned-down version—a kind of compromise between the DCM and a White House that would love to see the dismantling of what Breitbart refers to as Soros’s “vast web of front groups that push a globalist agenda.” Hanging over all this, of course, is the silence about the possible closure of central Europe’s premier institution of higher learning emanating from the White House. And, given the widespread perception of Trump’s distrust of the Foreign Service and Rex Tillerson’s seemingly marginal role in policy-making, it may well be that that Gorka’s and Sean Spicer’s are the only voices that are heard in Budapest.