Yesterday, Japan’s Yasuo Fukuda returned from his first official visit to China as prime minister. During his four-day “ringing in the spring” trip, he received a red-carpet welcome, bowed to a statue of Confucius at the philosopher’s birthplace, held “heart-to-heart” talks with senior leaders in Beijing, and spoke to students at prestigious Peking University. Fukuda agreed to transfer environmental technology to China, promised to reflect on Japan’s historical mistakes, and abjectly said what Beijing demanded on the subject of Taiwan. In the midst of his heavy schedule he even had time for a game of catch with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, each of them decked out in a baseball uniform and wearing a red cap decorated by a “C.”
Yet the trip, to borrow the words of Tokyo political scientist Takeshi Inoguchi, “was not a home run.” Other leaders come away from Beijing with economic packages or concessions of some sort. Fukuda returned to Japan with only Beijing’s momentary goodwill. Perhaps that was all that Fukuda could achieve in these circumstances.
Yet the object of diplomacy is not maintaining good relations—the object is achieving national goals. Japan, unfortunately, has been particularly unable to do so when it comes to China. The most visible open sores between the two nations are their competing territorial claims, especially the one festering over the gas fields in the East China Sea. On the East China Sea dispute, Beijing issued a stream of wonderful-sounding but essentially meaningless words during Fukuda’s visit. “We feel each other’s sincerity and determination,” Premier Wen said after their talks on the subject.
Of course, we can’t be too tough on Japan for failing to craft a sensible approach to China, because Tokyo is merely taking its cue from a feckless Washington. As Michael Auslin pointed out recently, other nations will become allies of Beijing unless the United States can come up with more resolute policies. On his recently concluded trip, Fukuda said he wanted to establish a “creative partnership” with China and hoped both countries would team up on global issues. If Washington does not want to lose its remaining friends in East Asia—and at this point it cannot afford to give up any of them to Beijing—the Bush administration will have to start exercising effective leadership. Of course the Chinese will try to drive a wedge between Washington and Tokyo. It is up to President Bush to make sure that American alliances in Asia stand firm.
Syria’s role in the Middle East is far from constructive, to say the least. Jihadis en route to Iraq transit through Damascus international airport; Iranian weapons shipments to Hizballah go through Syria; Syria hosts Hamas and other radical Palestinian organizations; it co-sponsors Hizballah and has been busy destabilizing Lebanon since it had to precipitously leave the Land of the Cedars in 2005. Regardless, European foreign policy makers have been loath of cutting the Syrians off for a variety of reasons. Many EU capitals believe that Syria’s alliance with Iran is tactical and that Damascus can be persuaded to change course, provided the right incentives are on the table.
In recent months, however, it seemed that Nicolas Sarkozy was willing to reconsider the position that Jacques Chirac had taken on Syria. Sarkozy has now made it clear where France stands: he gave Assad plenty of time to show, through deeds, that Syria can play a positive role. Syria spoke peace aplenty but declined to match its words with deeds. And in consequence Syria now has France as a determined opponent, at the very least until Syria stops obstructing the election of a new Lebanese president.
Given this realization, it strikes me as odd that, at the very same time that Sarkozy told the Syrians off, a bipartisan congressional delegation emerged from a two-day visit to Damascus exuding optimism about peace and calling on “George W. Bush to be forthcoming in his dealings with Syria.” Republican Senator Arlen Specter and Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy spent only two days talking with Syrian oficials. France has spent a little longer monitoring their deeds. After so many years of wrongdoing, perhaps it’s time itinerant U.S. officials stop giving a free pass to one of the most radical state sponsors of terrorism in the region, whose role in every crisis in the area runs contrary to the interests and the values of the U.S.
Readers may recall an argument several weeks ago on the blogosphere between Oliver Kamm and Eric “frequent lecturer and contributor to virtually every significant national publication in the United States and many in Europe” Alterman, which I analyzed here and here. The debate concerned Alterman’s uninformed and typically dashed-off observation that Americans involved in the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were guilty of racism and of inflating potential wartime casualties should the bombs not be dropped. Kamm’s latest reply to the “unlettered and ignorant” Alterman can be read here.
This is a truly unfair fight: Kamm is a brilliant polemicist who is painstaking in his presentation of history; Alterman, meanwhile, seems capable only of vitriolic snarling. John Podhoretz remarked earlier this month that “making a pretense of civility toward Eric Alterman is like making a pretense of civility to a scorpion.” I’d say this is unfair to scorpions.
1. Michael Clayton. (90 percent favorable rating on the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes). Billed as a realistic walk through the corridors of power, Michael Clayton winds up being a tepid, lugubrious, and preposterous thriller—art-house Grisham. George Clooney plays a kind of lawyer who doesn’t even exist—though he works for a huge law firm, he runs around the greater New York area doling out expertise on criminal cases, immigration issues, family law, and a dozen other specialized areas. Can you picture big law firms sending out sneaky hit teams to take down anyone who might testify against them, even though that person might have told any number of others what he knows? Can you picture firms hiring mugs to blow up cars? Would a hit squad be so dumb that the car is primed to blow up at a seemingly random moment rather than when the ignition is turned on? And finally: if a car exploded and there was no body in or around the car, would a lawyer (or even the stupidest guy in your high school woodworking class) assume that the driver of the car was dead? Like a lawyer who falls asleep during his closing argument, Michael Clayton saves its stupidest trick for last: the wheezing old gag that goes, “Aha! As I just tricked you into giving an incredibly detailed confession, I was recording the whole thing on this little gizmo!”
2. Grindhouse (81 percent favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes)—It’s two, two, TWO movies in one: the first, Robert Rodriguez’s bloody, intentionally amateurish zombie flick parody Planet Terror, is a great success: There’s no denying that it meets or even exceeds its goal to be unwatchably awful, one of the worst movies of the year. Not this year: 1974. You have to be pretty meta to convince yourself you’re enjoying a rotten movie, though. The second part of the double feature, Quentin Tarantino’s talky but enjoyable Death Proof, doesn’t make the mistake of thinking bad writing is good writing if the whole thing is nestled between ironic quotation marks.
3. Enchanted. (93 percent). Great trailer! A story about an animated princess from a Disney movie who winds up as a real person wandering the mean streets of New York sustains its single joke for almost two solid minutes. After that, it’s just Splash with taffeta—but without Tom Hanks or John Candy. The unshaven, barely conscious TV soap star Patrick Dempsey turns out to be the prince of the city. Which, again, like every other plot point, was clear from the trailer. Every so often the movie breaks into song, but none of the lyrics are as funny and tongue-in-cheek as the ones from actual Disney cartoons like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.
On Thursday, I listed French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s welcoming of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in Paris as the fourth best handshake of 2007. Qaddafi’s controversial mid-December visit to France—his first in 34 years—marked the first step in the West’s normalization with Libya, a reward for Qaddafi’s promise to end Libya’s nuclear weapons program, cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, accept responsibility for airline terrorist attacks that killed 440 people, and compensate the victims’ families. In her year-end press conference, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed these “strategic decisions,” vowing to meet with the Libyan foreign minister in early January 2008 and to visit Tripoli later in the year.
But before Rice cements Libya’s acceptability and enters Qaddafi’s ceremonial Bedouin tent, perhaps she should scrutinize Libya’s strategic decisions more carefully. Last week, Libya announced that it was expanding its cooperation with Iran, with the two states declaring “close attitudes over many issues including Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Lebanon.” Iran further expressed its appreciation for “Libya’s logical stances in regard to the country’s nuclear issue and human rights issues,” and announced that it would seek additional partners in Africa and Latin America. That means that Hugo Chavez should expect a phone call in the near future.
For the Bush administration, Libya has long been the epitome of successful foreign policy: a rogue regime that—immediately following the U.S. invasion of Iraq—destroyed its weapons of mass destruction, renounced terrorism, and sought respectability. Indeed, little has deterred the administration’s mission-accomplished attitude towards Libya. When a Libyan court sentenced five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor to death earlier this year for infecting 400 children with HIV—the medics confessed under electric-shock torture—the administration never threatened to rethink normalization with Tripoli, simply calling for the medics’ release and applauding the Libyan government when it complied.
If severe human rights concerns were not reason enough to reconsider our rapprochement with Libya, its strategic alignment with Iran must raise some red flags. Normalization with Libya is only valuable when it rewards nuclear disarmament and western alignment, ideally setting an example for similar states to follow. But with Libya now leaning towards Iran, endorsing its nuclear position, and seeking joint ventures in other hemispheres, Rice needs to reassess whether Libya is deserving of its newly elevated status.