Two years ago, relations between the U.S. and its closest ally in central Europe entered a difficult stretch after a long period of cooperation and harmony.
The Czech Republic had been a steadfast supporter of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and in Iraq. It had sent troops to both countries. And, although the proposal was controversial domestically, the Czechs were prepared to host U.S. missile-defense radars in their country.
After lengthy negotiations, the Bush administration planned to do so. Washington even proposed basing U.S. forces in the Republic for the first time in order to man the equipment.
That was a clear sign of gratitude and commitment to the Czechs in the face of noisy Russian objections and even threats. It also reflected credit on the diplomatic skills of both partners including the thenU.S. ambassador to Prague, Richard Graber.
But when Ambassador Graber returned to America after the 2008 election, he was not immediately replaced. The embassy was run well by an able staff, but it lacked the direct line to the top that is needed when major and potentially disruptive decisions must be made.
That was soon demonstrated in the summer of 2009, when President Obama decided to withdraw the proposed radars in favor of a ship-based missile-defense system.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the president delivered the news in a phone call in the middle of the night to Jan Fischer, the Czech prime minister.
This decision left Czech officials confused and feeling jilted. Many of them had paid a high political price for standing with the U.S. in the fight against Islamic extremism and in accepting the missile-defense program. The change of plans left Czech transatlanticists, both in the government and outside it, deeply disappointed.
Over the past year, however, U.S.-Czech relations have improved significantly. The man largely responsible for that improvement is the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, Norm Eisen.
A Washington attorney who served as the Obama administration’s ethics czar before being nominated for the ambassadorial post, Eisen has become an energetic symbol of the U.S. in Prague. He has a visibility few officials in the Czech Republic can match. He seems to be present on every public occasion. And his efforts have been publicly recognized by innumerable Czech officials, including the leading transatlanticists, Prime Minister Petr Necas, Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, and Defense Minister Sasha Vondra.
Vondra himself noted, “as the former Czech ambassador to the U.S., I know how important diplomacy is. Norm Eisen is one of the most energetic, optimistic ambassadors I have ever seen. The bilateral U.S.-Czech relation[ship] needs him.”
Nor does it hurt that Eisen, a longtime friend and former law-school classmate of Barack Obama’s, has ready access to the president. Useful in itself for diplomatic purposes, this closeness is seen in Prague as a mark of America’s commitment to the U.S.-Czech relationship.
And Eisen has results to demonstrate the practical value of this dynamic. Under his tenure, defense ties with the Czech Republic have broadened and deepened. With his active involvement, the Czechs have increased their troop presence in Afghanistan. On issues ranging from helicopters, to defense R&D, to mitigation of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats, both U.S.Czech bilateral and NATO multilateral collaboration are advancing.
Finally, Eisen, the son of a Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia, has placed special emphasis on the trilateral U.S.-Czech-Israeli relationship. The authors of this piece were both present at the recent official CzechIsrael Forum, a meeting of officials from both nations that Eisen had encouraged and to which he led a delegation of U.S. observers.
As a student of history whose family suffered under totalitarianism, Eisen has been a strong and clear voice on the Iranian threat, supporting the firm Czech line on Iran.
Eisen’s initial nomination as ambassador was placed on hold over concerns about his role in the termination of an AmeriCorps official. He was then given a one-year recess appointment by President Obama in December 2010.
His nomination moved through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with strong bipartisan support and is up for consideration on the Senate floor.
Eisen has done an admirable job for the U.S. in Prague. The Czechs like him, too. In the interests of both countries, he deserves to be confirmed by the Senate.