- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A sweeping new ban on the torture of detainees in U.S. custody will help the global war on terror and bolster America’s frayed image among ordinary Europeans, according to Hungary’s ambassador to Washington.

The ban, authored by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and now endorsed by President Bush, “is very important for Europeans to see, something we can understand and respect,” Ambassador Andras Simonyi said.

In a wide-ranging interview at The Washington Times on Tuesday, Mr. Simonyi said the past year had seen a strong improvement in relations between the United States and the leading European Union powers after the divisions of the 2003 war in Iraq.

Public opinion, however, is another story.

“We definitely feel the political relationship has improved, but this has not translated yet into a massive change in the popular image of the U.S. in Europe,” he said. “It is not an easy fix and we have to be honest with each other about this.”

The torture ban, following widely reported scandals such as at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and charges of secret CIA detention sites in Europe, can help repair that image.

“I think respect for a government doesn’t diminish but actually grows when people see the leadership can acknowledge past mistakes,” he said.

Echoing complaints from a number of governments in central and Eastern Europe, Mr. Simonyi said the post-September 11 difficulties in obtaining visas to travel to the United States were a major “headache” in bilateral relations.

“It’s hurting you. It’s hurting us,” he said. “It’s not just about travel rights or convenience. It’s about the feeling the ordinary Hungarian has about the openness and welcome he feels from the United States.”

The ambassador said 2005 was a strong year for U.S.-Hungarian relations, despite Budapest’s decision to withdraw its contingent of 300 troops from the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq in March.

U.S. direct investment in Hungary’s expanding economy is strong, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week praised Budapest’s recent donation of 77 Russian-made T-72 tanks to Iraq’s fledgling security forces.

“Hungary wants to help with the reconstruction of Iraq. We want to be involved,” Mr. Simonyi said.

Despite the troop pullout, Hungary has offered to train Iraqi diplomats and state officials. Mr. Simonyi said his country’s experience with political and economic reforms after the collapse of the Soviet empire could be useful for an Iraq emerging from decades of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.

The Iraq deployment was not popular in Hungary. “War is never popular,” Mr. Simonyi said.

But he added that most in his country thought it was critical to support the United States.

“If you ask Hungarians if it was right for us to participate in the Iraq mission, the answer is overwhelmingly yes,” he said. “Our people understand this is the kind of thing democracies from time to time are called on to do.”

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