A Paradoxical Reason for Optimism in the East the Sad History of Radio Free Europe May Offer Larger Lessons

Article excerpt

THE recent turmoil in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is caused by several factors: The original intention of President Clinton to liquidate these Radios as relics of the cold war they helped to win. The cutting by Congress of their combined budget by two-thirds, which has resulted in the cessation of broadcasting in several East European languages. The disclosure by Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin of research on corruption and the misuse of funds by the top executives of the Radios. The demonstration of hundreds of employees in front of headquarters in Munich against the plan to move operations to Prague.

All this creates pessimism about the future.

For more than 40 years, RFE/RL was probably the most important and peaceful tool of the democratic world in fighting communist totalitarianism. During this time the Soviet Union and its allies spent five times as much money jamming the Radios than the Radios themselves cost. The actual cost to the United States was minimal: $218 million in RFE/RL's biggest year. It is no accident that Presidents Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, and Boris Yeltsin, along with former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, praised the Radios for their role and pleaded with Mr. Clinton not to destroy them. The situation in the old communist world is still dangerous. Communism can easily be replaced by nationalism and fascism.

Clinton amended his original intention of eliminating the Radios as a tool of the "cold war." Instead he took a half-step - placing the hitherto independent Radios on a path to becoming a subordinate entity of the US Information Agency and promising big budgetary saving (all of $150 million, after several years) as a result of this consolidation.

Everyone who knows the Radios knows this is a step toward liquidation - since there is no point in having two separate and duplicative broadcasting units under the same command.

Unfortunately, despite the misguided intent behind eliminating an allegedly "right wing" anti-communist "cold war" entity, there are reasons to criticize the Radios. But those reasons have been exploited by ideological opponents of the existence of the Radios, such as Senator Feingold.

For the last 10 years, there developed in the anti-totalitarian institution of RFE/RL some of the same bureaucratic conditions found in the communist world against which the Radios battled. One is reminded of Friedrich Nietzsche's thought that "he who looks too long down an abyss himself becomes an abyss."

Thanks to the unusual setup of the RFE/RL - it was broadcast to a heavily jammed private market, making it hard to know who was listening - the company's financial and marketing circumstances were in some respects similar to those of a socialist enterprise. …