Commentary Magazine


Topic: American Embassy

Why Obama Just Might Fight Iran

Walter Russell Mead argues in the American Interest that President Barack Obama is more likely to go to war with Iran than many conventional observers believe. “In my view,” he wrote, “Iran and this president are headed toward a confrontation in which President Obama will either have to give up all hope on the issues he cares most about, or risk the use of force to stop Iran.”

The president is not likely to go to war with Iran for Israel’s sake. He’s even less likely to go to war with Iran on behalf of the Middle East’s Sunni Arabs. He’s not even all that likely to go to war with Iran to protect American interests in the Levant and the Persian Gulf. He just might, though, as Mead says, go to war to protect what he values most and hopes to accomplish as president.

Obama is often described as a cold-blooded “realist,” but in some ways he’s a Wilsonian. He’s a different kind of Wilsonian from President George W. Bush, but he is one nonetheless. “In many ways a classic example of the Wilsonian school of American foreign policy,” Mead writes, “President Obama believes that American security can best be safeguarded by the construction of a liberal and orderly world,” like a loose and less centralized European Union on a planet-wide scale. And yet, as Mead points out, “Iran’s success means the complete, utter and historic destruction of everything President Obama wants to build.”

He’s right. If Iran emerges as a nuclear-armed terrorist-sponsoring hegemon over the world’s primary energy fields, Obama’s neo-Wilsonian project — which is already a long-shot, at best, as it is — will stand no chance at all for the duration of his tenure and most likely beyond. His domestic American agenda will go sideways, as well, if he loses a re-election bid in 2012 for sending the Middle East and the stability of the world’s energy economy into a tailspin.

Surely, Obama knows he is often compared to former President Jimmy Carter by his domestic opponents — and not in a good way. Carter’s presidency was cut short for a number of reasons, the most memorable being his inability to rescue or negotiate the release of 52 hostages seized from the American Embassy in Tehran by Ayatollah Khomeini’s radical Islamists during Iran’s post-revolutionary struggle for power. That very same regime now threatens Obama’s presidency and place in history, too. As much as he fears and loathes the thought of going to war with Iran, he can’t relish the possibility of becoming Jimmy Carter Redux and losing everything.

American presidents, like all leaders everywhere, are forced to choose between bad and worse options. And it’s not always clear which option is which. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s likely Obama will use the military power at his disposal to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but it’s not unthinkable that he’ll surprise everyone — for good or for ill — if he feels those who destroyed Carter are on the verge of scalping him, too.

Walter Russell Mead argues in the American Interest that President Barack Obama is more likely to go to war with Iran than many conventional observers believe. “In my view,” he wrote, “Iran and this president are headed toward a confrontation in which President Obama will either have to give up all hope on the issues he cares most about, or risk the use of force to stop Iran.”

The president is not likely to go to war with Iran for Israel’s sake. He’s even less likely to go to war with Iran on behalf of the Middle East’s Sunni Arabs. He’s not even all that likely to go to war with Iran to protect American interests in the Levant and the Persian Gulf. He just might, though, as Mead says, go to war to protect what he values most and hopes to accomplish as president.

Obama is often described as a cold-blooded “realist,” but in some ways he’s a Wilsonian. He’s a different kind of Wilsonian from President George W. Bush, but he is one nonetheless. “In many ways a classic example of the Wilsonian school of American foreign policy,” Mead writes, “President Obama believes that American security can best be safeguarded by the construction of a liberal and orderly world,” like a loose and less centralized European Union on a planet-wide scale. And yet, as Mead points out, “Iran’s success means the complete, utter and historic destruction of everything President Obama wants to build.”

He’s right. If Iran emerges as a nuclear-armed terrorist-sponsoring hegemon over the world’s primary energy fields, Obama’s neo-Wilsonian project — which is already a long-shot, at best, as it is — will stand no chance at all for the duration of his tenure and most likely beyond. His domestic American agenda will go sideways, as well, if he loses a re-election bid in 2012 for sending the Middle East and the stability of the world’s energy economy into a tailspin.

Surely, Obama knows he is often compared to former President Jimmy Carter by his domestic opponents — and not in a good way. Carter’s presidency was cut short for a number of reasons, the most memorable being his inability to rescue or negotiate the release of 52 hostages seized from the American Embassy in Tehran by Ayatollah Khomeini’s radical Islamists during Iran’s post-revolutionary struggle for power. That very same regime now threatens Obama’s presidency and place in history, too. As much as he fears and loathes the thought of going to war with Iran, he can’t relish the possibility of becoming Jimmy Carter Redux and losing everything.

American presidents, like all leaders everywhere, are forced to choose between bad and worse options. And it’s not always clear which option is which. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s likely Obama will use the military power at his disposal to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but it’s not unthinkable that he’ll surprise everyone — for good or for ill — if he feels those who destroyed Carter are on the verge of scalping him, too.

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Are the “Baathists” the New “Fascists”?

Joe Biden is hardly the world’s most diplomatic guy. Recall his infamous walk-out, while still a senator, from a dinner with Hamid Karzai: a gesture of pique that needlessly worsened relations with an important American ally. Nevertheless, I am glad he has gone to Iraq to try to resolve a dispute that threatens to cast into doubt the legitimacy of that country’s upcoming elections.

Iraq’s Accountability and Justice Commission has disqualified some 500 candidates from seeking election on the grounds of being “Baathists,” which, in today’s Iraq, has become an amorphous term of abuse comparable in the West to calling someone a “fascist.” Most of those affected are secular candidates who would be expected to oppose the Shiite religious alliance, the National Iraqi Alliance, made up primarily of ISCI and the Sadrists. The ban includes, among others, Saleh al-Mutlaq, a leading Sunni politician who left the Baathist Party in 1977, and the well-respected Defense Minister Abdul-Kader Jassem al-Obeidi.

What makes this whole process truly farcical is that the chairman of the Accountability and Justice Commission is none other than Ali Faisal al-Lami, a close associate of the increasingly discredited Ahmed Chalabi, who is now in alliance with the most extreme and violent Sadrists. Until last summer, Lami was in an American detention facility, charged (based on convincing intelligence) with orchestrating a bombing “that killed two American Embassy employees, two American soldiers and six Iraqis at a district council meeting in Baghdad” in 2008. Lami is hardly the kind of moral exemplar who should be ruling on anyone else’s fitness to seek office, and if his disqualifications stand, they will only reinforce a sense of grievance among the Sunni minority and among the large number of secularists of whatever sectarian persuasion — and justifiably so. I can only hope that Biden can bring enough political clout to force a resolution that would allow candidates to run for office freely regardless of their past political affiliations.

Joe Biden is hardly the world’s most diplomatic guy. Recall his infamous walk-out, while still a senator, from a dinner with Hamid Karzai: a gesture of pique that needlessly worsened relations with an important American ally. Nevertheless, I am glad he has gone to Iraq to try to resolve a dispute that threatens to cast into doubt the legitimacy of that country’s upcoming elections.

Iraq’s Accountability and Justice Commission has disqualified some 500 candidates from seeking election on the grounds of being “Baathists,” which, in today’s Iraq, has become an amorphous term of abuse comparable in the West to calling someone a “fascist.” Most of those affected are secular candidates who would be expected to oppose the Shiite religious alliance, the National Iraqi Alliance, made up primarily of ISCI and the Sadrists. The ban includes, among others, Saleh al-Mutlaq, a leading Sunni politician who left the Baathist Party in 1977, and the well-respected Defense Minister Abdul-Kader Jassem al-Obeidi.

What makes this whole process truly farcical is that the chairman of the Accountability and Justice Commission is none other than Ali Faisal al-Lami, a close associate of the increasingly discredited Ahmed Chalabi, who is now in alliance with the most extreme and violent Sadrists. Until last summer, Lami was in an American detention facility, charged (based on convincing intelligence) with orchestrating a bombing “that killed two American Embassy employees, two American soldiers and six Iraqis at a district council meeting in Baghdad” in 2008. Lami is hardly the kind of moral exemplar who should be ruling on anyone else’s fitness to seek office, and if his disqualifications stand, they will only reinforce a sense of grievance among the Sunni minority and among the large number of secularists of whatever sectarian persuasion — and justifiably so. I can only hope that Biden can bring enough political clout to force a resolution that would allow candidates to run for office freely regardless of their past political affiliations.

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From Middle East Journal: A Dark Corner of Europe

cross-posted at Middle East Journal

“If Yugoslavia was the laboratory of Communism, then Communism would breathe its last dying breath here in Belgrade. And to judge by what [Slobodan] Milosevic was turning into by early 1989, Communism would exit the world stage revealed for what it truly was: fascism, without fascism’s ability to make the trains run on time.” – Robert D. Kaplan

“You bombed my country.” These were the nearly first words I heard after clearing passport control on arrival in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, from a taxi driver who flagged me down inside the airport. “Fifteen countries bombed my country.”

I didn’t know what to say. Neither did my American friend and traveling companion Sean LaFreniere.

“Why are you here in Serbia?” the driver said.

“We’re tourists,” I lied. I didn’t want to say I was an American journalist on a trip through the former Yugoslavia with an end destination in Kosovo. Serbia’s last war of ethnic-cleansing was fought there, and it only ended when NATO, led by the United States, bombed Belgrade’s tyrant Slobodan Milosevic into submission. That was nine years ago, but just three months ago Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. A mob of Serbian nationalists answered by fire-bombing the American embassy. The U.S. responded by evacuating its non-essential employees.

“If people ask what two tourists are doing here,” the driver said, “where you are from, you say you’re from Holland.”

Read the rest of the post here.

cross-posted at Middle East Journal

“If Yugoslavia was the laboratory of Communism, then Communism would breathe its last dying breath here in Belgrade. And to judge by what [Slobodan] Milosevic was turning into by early 1989, Communism would exit the world stage revealed for what it truly was: fascism, without fascism’s ability to make the trains run on time.” – Robert D. Kaplan

“You bombed my country.” These were the nearly first words I heard after clearing passport control on arrival in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, from a taxi driver who flagged me down inside the airport. “Fifteen countries bombed my country.”

I didn’t know what to say. Neither did my American friend and traveling companion Sean LaFreniere.

“Why are you here in Serbia?” the driver said.

“We’re tourists,” I lied. I didn’t want to say I was an American journalist on a trip through the former Yugoslavia with an end destination in Kosovo. Serbia’s last war of ethnic-cleansing was fought there, and it only ended when NATO, led by the United States, bombed Belgrade’s tyrant Slobodan Milosevic into submission. That was nine years ago, but just three months ago Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. A mob of Serbian nationalists answered by fire-bombing the American embassy. The U.S. responded by evacuating its non-essential employees.

“If people ask what two tourists are doing here,” the driver said, “where you are from, you say you’re from Holland.”

Read the rest of the post here.

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It’s Not Obama’s Plan

Since John McCain’s “2013 speech,” in which he mentioned wanting to have troops home from Iraq within four years, the media is now trying to draw comparisons between McCain’s plan and Obama’s.

Here’s today’s Los Angeles Times:

After launching their candidacies with opposite positions on the Iraq war, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama seem to be edging toward a middle ground between them.

McCain has long denounced timetables for withdrawal, but said for the first time Thursday that he would like to see most U.S. troops out of Iraq by a specific date: 2013.

Obama has emphasized his plan to withdraw all combat brigades within 16 months of taking office, but also has carefully hedged, leaving the option of taking more time — and leaving more troops — if events require.

The positioning is noteworthy because McCain and Obama have made Iraq war policy a core element of their campaigns. But McCain has bowed to the political reality that American impatience with the war is growing, and Obama to the fact that a poorly executed exit would risk damage to other vital U.S. interests.

When McCain spoke of keeping peacetime troops in Iraq after the war, it was seized upon as his plan for a hundred-year battle. Now, when he talks about his hopes for a victorious exit in four years, he’s accused of setting timetables for withdrawal. McCain was very clear on this point yesterday. Answering questions after the speech, he stated that an early exit of troops is predicated on an American victory.

As for Obama, he’s been loath to share the specifics of a comprehensive Iraq plan for a long time. He’s pledged to get troops out of combat within sixteen months, but he talks about leaving “residual” troops behind to protect the American embassy and our diplomats. And he’s equally vague about his plans for a “strike force” to be sent back into Iraq as needed. Of course, this kind of hazy Iraq policy makes it easy to compare Obama to any number of people who have said any number of things about the future of the war.

Even so, drawing parallels between his war plan and John McCain’s is a stretch. But then, the stretch has become the guiding narrative of this election. If President Bush’s denouncement of appeasement is an attack on Obama, then McCain’s stated hopes for victory might as well be a “tilt” toward Obama’s drawdown plan.

Since John McCain’s “2013 speech,” in which he mentioned wanting to have troops home from Iraq within four years, the media is now trying to draw comparisons between McCain’s plan and Obama’s.

Here’s today’s Los Angeles Times:

After launching their candidacies with opposite positions on the Iraq war, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama seem to be edging toward a middle ground between them.

McCain has long denounced timetables for withdrawal, but said for the first time Thursday that he would like to see most U.S. troops out of Iraq by a specific date: 2013.

Obama has emphasized his plan to withdraw all combat brigades within 16 months of taking office, but also has carefully hedged, leaving the option of taking more time — and leaving more troops — if events require.

The positioning is noteworthy because McCain and Obama have made Iraq war policy a core element of their campaigns. But McCain has bowed to the political reality that American impatience with the war is growing, and Obama to the fact that a poorly executed exit would risk damage to other vital U.S. interests.

When McCain spoke of keeping peacetime troops in Iraq after the war, it was seized upon as his plan for a hundred-year battle. Now, when he talks about his hopes for a victorious exit in four years, he’s accused of setting timetables for withdrawal. McCain was very clear on this point yesterday. Answering questions after the speech, he stated that an early exit of troops is predicated on an American victory.

As for Obama, he’s been loath to share the specifics of a comprehensive Iraq plan for a long time. He’s pledged to get troops out of combat within sixteen months, but he talks about leaving “residual” troops behind to protect the American embassy and our diplomats. And he’s equally vague about his plans for a “strike force” to be sent back into Iraq as needed. Of course, this kind of hazy Iraq policy makes it easy to compare Obama to any number of people who have said any number of things about the future of the war.

Even so, drawing parallels between his war plan and John McCain’s is a stretch. But then, the stretch has become the guiding narrative of this election. If President Bush’s denouncement of appeasement is an attack on Obama, then McCain’s stated hopes for victory might as well be a “tilt” toward Obama’s drawdown plan.

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Mugabe Crosses a Line

As if we needed any more evidence that Robert Mugabe will not leave office without a fight: yesterday, Mugabe’s security officers harassed a fact-finding group including the American, British and Japanese ambassadors attempting to interview people in hospitals who had been tortured by the Mugabe regime. Read this short account of the bravery of our men in Harare:

Kevin Stirr, the U.S. Embassy’s democracy and governance officer, was asked by a security agent what the group had been doing. “Looking at people who have been beaten,” he said. The Central Intelligence Organisation agent replied: “We are going to beat you thoroughly, too”, before turning away and returning to his car. Mr Stirr pulled open the door and shouted at him.

The two agents in the vehicle tried to flee, but James McGee, the U.S. Ambassador, stood in their path. When they tried to push him away with the car, he sat heavily on the bonnet. He went on to take photographs of the agents, who were trying to hide their faces.

Zimbabwean agents threatened to beat an American embassy officer and tried to run over the U.S. Ambassador with their car? If Mugabe is acting this way with Western diplomats, one can only imagine what he has in store for his own people.

As if we needed any more evidence that Robert Mugabe will not leave office without a fight: yesterday, Mugabe’s security officers harassed a fact-finding group including the American, British and Japanese ambassadors attempting to interview people in hospitals who had been tortured by the Mugabe regime. Read this short account of the bravery of our men in Harare:

Kevin Stirr, the U.S. Embassy’s democracy and governance officer, was asked by a security agent what the group had been doing. “Looking at people who have been beaten,” he said. The Central Intelligence Organisation agent replied: “We are going to beat you thoroughly, too”, before turning away and returning to his car. Mr Stirr pulled open the door and shouted at him.

The two agents in the vehicle tried to flee, but James McGee, the U.S. Ambassador, stood in their path. When they tried to push him away with the car, he sat heavily on the bonnet. He went on to take photographs of the agents, who were trying to hide their faces.

Zimbabwean agents threatened to beat an American embassy officer and tried to run over the U.S. Ambassador with their car? If Mugabe is acting this way with Western diplomats, one can only imagine what he has in store for his own people.

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American Embassy in Belgrade Attacked

Hundreds of Serbian protesters have attacked the embassies of western countries that have recognized Kosovo’s new independence. This includes the U.S. The American embassy in Belgrade is now on fire.

Here’s an early round up of opinions, moving from the furious to the downright motherly.

Stephen Schwartz sees the attacks as the collective Serbian character unleashed:

Let Serbs dance in the ashes of their undeserved reputation for honor and glory. They will be the black hole of Europe for a hundred years. Albanians kiss our flag and express their gratitude and love for us. Let us not forget who have been our honorable and truthful friends.

While Ed Morrisey is a little more pragmatic:

Frankly, no one should be surprised at the reaction. We just recognized the division of the Serbian state from boundaries recognized for the past six centuries. If the Serbs seem disinterested in guarding our territory within their capital, it’s not hard to imagine why.

And James Joyner of Outside the Beltway goes the full “root-causes” route and apologizes for the people currently burning our embassy:

It’s worth pointing out, perhaps, that this is a case of (mostly) Christian protesters rioting against unpopular actions taken by (mostly) Muslim politicians. Powerless people sometimes vent their frustration in violent, criminal ways, unfortunately.

I guess he thinks losing ownership of another nation renders one “powerless.”

It will be interesting to see what Vladimir Putin says. He’s been a staunch opponent of Kosovo independence. Overlord Putin doesn’t need territories in the region breaking off from larger countries. He’ll waste no time in fanning these flames.

Hundreds of Serbian protesters have attacked the embassies of western countries that have recognized Kosovo’s new independence. This includes the U.S. The American embassy in Belgrade is now on fire.

Here’s an early round up of opinions, moving from the furious to the downright motherly.

Stephen Schwartz sees the attacks as the collective Serbian character unleashed:

Let Serbs dance in the ashes of their undeserved reputation for honor and glory. They will be the black hole of Europe for a hundred years. Albanians kiss our flag and express their gratitude and love for us. Let us not forget who have been our honorable and truthful friends.

While Ed Morrisey is a little more pragmatic:

Frankly, no one should be surprised at the reaction. We just recognized the division of the Serbian state from boundaries recognized for the past six centuries. If the Serbs seem disinterested in guarding our territory within their capital, it’s not hard to imagine why.

And James Joyner of Outside the Beltway goes the full “root-causes” route and apologizes for the people currently burning our embassy:

It’s worth pointing out, perhaps, that this is a case of (mostly) Christian protesters rioting against unpopular actions taken by (mostly) Muslim politicians. Powerless people sometimes vent their frustration in violent, criminal ways, unfortunately.

I guess he thinks losing ownership of another nation renders one “powerless.”

It will be interesting to see what Vladimir Putin says. He’s been a staunch opponent of Kosovo independence. Overlord Putin doesn’t need territories in the region breaking off from larger countries. He’ll waste no time in fanning these flames.

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Obama’s Muslim Summit

Reuters reports that if Barack Obama becomes President, he’ll hold a summit with all leaders of Muslim countries:

“Once I’m elected, I want to organize a summit in the Muslim world, with all the heads of state, to have an honest discussion about ways to bridge the gap that grows every day between Muslims and the West.”

Is he planning on doing this before or after bombing Pakistan? Because that could have an effect on that gap he’s talking about. And in what phase of their nuclear program will Iran be when Obama has this sit-down with the mullahs? And will he require Tehran to rebuild the cobwebbed American embassy first or is he through with international law altogether? And when it’s the Iraqi prime minister’s turn to speak, what will Obama do when he requests the return of the 100,000 troops he just withdrew from that country?

Obama represents a foreign policy disaster of untold proportion. With a doctrine of pre-emptive appeasement and the perfect advisory team to institute it, every gain made by the Bush administration would evaporate. The greatest overarching accomplishment of the past five years was implementing the imperative that we will not deal with hostile nations on their terms. In many Muslim countries, the “gap” Obama talks about is not a side-effect of cultural differences, but the stated goal of anti-American policies. The only course of action is to support Muslim moderates in their efforts against extremists and secular tyrants. Our president doesn’t need to sip tea with Bashar Assad or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and hear about the evils of Israel in order to work towards that goal.

Reuters reports that if Barack Obama becomes President, he’ll hold a summit with all leaders of Muslim countries:

“Once I’m elected, I want to organize a summit in the Muslim world, with all the heads of state, to have an honest discussion about ways to bridge the gap that grows every day between Muslims and the West.”

Is he planning on doing this before or after bombing Pakistan? Because that could have an effect on that gap he’s talking about. And in what phase of their nuclear program will Iran be when Obama has this sit-down with the mullahs? And will he require Tehran to rebuild the cobwebbed American embassy first or is he through with international law altogether? And when it’s the Iraqi prime minister’s turn to speak, what will Obama do when he requests the return of the 100,000 troops he just withdrew from that country?

Obama represents a foreign policy disaster of untold proportion. With a doctrine of pre-emptive appeasement and the perfect advisory team to institute it, every gain made by the Bush administration would evaporate. The greatest overarching accomplishment of the past five years was implementing the imperative that we will not deal with hostile nations on their terms. In many Muslim countries, the “gap” Obama talks about is not a side-effect of cultural differences, but the stated goal of anti-American policies. The only course of action is to support Muslim moderates in their efforts against extremists and secular tyrants. Our president doesn’t need to sip tea with Bashar Assad or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and hear about the evils of Israel in order to work towards that goal.

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Charm Offensive, by Joshua Kurlantzick

Joshua Kurlantzick
Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World
Yale. 320 pp. $26.00.

Across the globe, China’s diplomatic presence is growing with astounding speed. In Maputo, Mozambique, the ministry of foreign affairs—built with Chinese money—sports an elaborate pagoda roof. In Songhkla, Thailand, the building formerly housing the American consulate now houses political and economic emissaries from Beijing—a disturbing image of China’s influence waxing as America’s recedes. And in dozens of other nations, China’s power is expanding equally quickly. In Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World, Joshua Kurlantzick explains how the Chinese are increasing their reach and, in the process, helping rogue leaders, causing environmental degradation, and undermining the United States.

Readers of COMMENTARY will be familiar with this narrative. Kurlantzick, a special correspondent for The New Republic, outlined elements of this thesis in COMMENTARY’s October 2006 issue. It is, however, an important story and well worth telling in book form.

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Joshua Kurlantzick
Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World
Yale. 320 pp. $26.00.

Across the globe, China’s diplomatic presence is growing with astounding speed. In Maputo, Mozambique, the ministry of foreign affairs—built with Chinese money—sports an elaborate pagoda roof. In Songhkla, Thailand, the building formerly housing the American consulate now houses political and economic emissaries from Beijing—a disturbing image of China’s influence waxing as America’s recedes. And in dozens of other nations, China’s power is expanding equally quickly. In Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World, Joshua Kurlantzick explains how the Chinese are increasing their reach and, in the process, helping rogue leaders, causing environmental degradation, and undermining the United States.

Readers of COMMENTARY will be familiar with this narrative. Kurlantzick, a special correspondent for The New Republic, outlined elements of this thesis in COMMENTARY’s October 2006 issue. It is, however, an important story and well worth telling in book form.

Kurlantzick begins his analysis, appropriately enough, with Mao Zedong. The first leader of the People’s Republic wanted to export the Chinese revolution around the world. His attempted insurgencies, however, generally failed, poisoning relations with many nations for a generation. Even when Mao backed a winner—such as the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia—the result was disastrous for Beijing’s reputation.

Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, ended many of these counterproductive foreign policies. But he still relied overmuch on the use of force, launching a failed war with Vietnam in 1979, and retained Mao’s deep suspicion of multilateral institutions and treaties. Even after Deng passed from the political scene in 1994, Beijing had trouble making friends due to its constant threats against Taiwan, its seizure of reefs to enforce its ludicrous territorial claims to the entire South China Sea, and other hostile acts.

Then, in 1997, the year of Deng’s death, Beijing began a strategic volte-face. By choosing not to devalue their currency, the Chinese prevented a round of potentially catastrophic competitive devaluations during the Asian financial crisis of the late 90’s. “For the first time in decades,” Kurlantzick writes, “China had taken a stance on a major international issue and had banked credit as a benign force in global affairs.” Shortly thereafter, Beijing officials began to re-conceive of their country as a da guo—a great power. By the beginning of this decade, China, under the stewardship of Jiang Zemin, had turned on the charm and begun to employ “soft power” as its main diplomatic tool.

The Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power,” defined it narrowly as the passive attractive force of a nation’s culture, values, and norms. But Kurlantzick notes that Beijing has expanded the concept to include almost any non-military effort at accumulating power. Charm Offensive, accordingly, looks at soft power through China’s enlarged understanding of the phrase.

Today, Chinese diplomats and officials have dropped their old, aggressive posture. They now talk about “win-win” relations, “Peaceful Rise,” and the “Early Harvest Package.” Beijing maintains publicly that it never interferes in other nations’ internal affairs and seeks prosperity for all. It provides aid for less developed nations and joins any regional and multilateral organization it can find (and, if none exists, creates them). International agreements? Beijing signs treaties, compacts, and covenants by the dozen. China, in short, wants to be everyone’s friend. (How do you say “Kumbaya” in Mandarin?)

Yet, as Kurlantzick notes, “Beijing offers the charm of a lion, not of a mouse.” It still acts high-handedly when it thinks it can get away with it (as when it dams the upstream waters of the Mekong River) and aggressively opposes those against whom it bears a grudge (constantly blocking, for instance, Japan’s attempts to build stronger ties in Asia). Neighbors are not its only targets: all over Asia, China uses its newfound strength to exclude the United States from regional economic and political affiliations (successfully convincing the Uzbeks to end American basing rights in their country, among other policy victories).

Is this behavior, however regrettable, merely the normal rough and tumble of great-power diplomacy? Perhaps. But Kurlantzick raises a far more pertinent question: can an authoritarian state work within the existing framework of a liberal international system? Charm Offensive is loaded with evidence that suggests a potentially disturbing answer.

Kurlantzick observes correctly that China courts and champions authoritarian leaders in the arena of global politics. It sustains hostile and unstable states—like Iran and North Korea—that threaten world order. It directly intervened to keep the contemptible Robert Mugabe in power in Zimbabwe, and it is stands behind the regime in Sudan that sponsors the genocidal janjaweed militia. Name any anti-democratic government in the world today, and you will find a connection to Beijing. China’s support of the world’s autocrats is so pervasive as to be creating, in Kurlantzick’s words, an “alternative pole” to the Western democracies.

Worse, China challenges one of the principles that define the West—free markets—with visible success. By producing spectacular economic growth for almost three decades, China shows that nations do not have to follow the free-market Washington Consensus in order to advance economically. Today, dictators and strongmen of all stripes take comfort in how the Beijing Consensus permits the maintenance of anti-democratic governance in a modernizing world.

Kurlantzick ends his fine book by making suggestions as to how Washington can compete with charmingly offensive China. His prescriptions range from the tactical—stationing at least one China watcher in every American embassy—to the strategic—reconsidering our opposition to multilateral institutions. But this second, broader piece of advice presents a problem. China is now a major player in nearly every regional and international organization, and it has garnered enough power in the international community to be able to block Western initiatives and everything but lowest-common-denominator solutions. Does this not suggest that multilateralism, for the U.S., is by now a dead end, at least where China is concerned?

Kurlantzick, at several points in Charm Offensive, scolds the United States for abandoning strategic interest in the world after the end of the cold war. His book reminds us that this is no time for America to forgo its leadership position or to accept consensus management, especially when that means empowering authoritarian states—like newly, charmingly offensive China.

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Our Fallible CIA

I just finished reading Mark Bowden’s gripping account of the Iranian hostage crisis, Guests of the Ayatollah. And just in time, it seems. The Washington Post is proclaiming “A New Iranian Hostage Crisis” caused by Tehran’s illegal detention of Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari.

Bowden’s book has been extensively reviewed (including by Gabriel Schoenfeld in COMMENTARY), and I won’t bother to go over the same ground here. But one point that emerged from his account and that bears emphasizing is the CIA’s long track record of incompetence.

The “students” who took over the U.S. embassy in 1979 were convinced it was a “Den of Spies” plotting to overthrow the Islamic revolution and to assassinate their beloved Ayatollah Khomeini. In reality, as Bowden notes, the entire CIA presence consisted of three newly arrived officers, none of whom spoke Farsi, and who had no useful agents in the entire country. (The agency’s level of perceptiveness is suggested by an August 1978 analysis which concluded that Iran “is not in a revolutionary or even a prerevolutionary situation.”)

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I just finished reading Mark Bowden’s gripping account of the Iranian hostage crisis, Guests of the Ayatollah. And just in time, it seems. The Washington Post is proclaiming “A New Iranian Hostage Crisis” caused by Tehran’s illegal detention of Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari.

Bowden’s book has been extensively reviewed (including by Gabriel Schoenfeld in COMMENTARY), and I won’t bother to go over the same ground here. But one point that emerged from his account and that bears emphasizing is the CIA’s long track record of incompetence.

The “students” who took over the U.S. embassy in 1979 were convinced it was a “Den of Spies” plotting to overthrow the Islamic revolution and to assassinate their beloved Ayatollah Khomeini. In reality, as Bowden notes, the entire CIA presence consisted of three newly arrived officers, none of whom spoke Farsi, and who had no useful agents in the entire country. (The agency’s level of perceptiveness is suggested by an August 1978 analysis which concluded that Iran “is not in a revolutionary or even a prerevolutionary situation.”)

It’s no wonder the agency was so deceived. The CIA had depended for its knowledge of Iran on the Shah’s intelligence service, and when the Shah was overthrown, America’s intelligence agencies were left dumb and blind.

Unfortunately, there is good cause to suspect that conditions have not improved substantially in the past 28 years. The CIA has never had much luck operating in countries where there is not even an American embassy, and it would be remarkable if Iran today were an exception.

In fact, the Robb-Silberman Commission’s 2005 report strongly suggested—with details omitted in its unclassified version—that the American intelligence community has scant knowledge of what’s happening behind the scenes in either the North Korean or Iranian nuclear programs:

We found an intelligence community that has had some significant successes, but that is, on balance, badly equipped and badly organized to confront today’s threats. We found human intelligence collectors who have struggled in vain to find sources with valuable information—and often failed to vet properly the sources they did find. We found technical intelligence collectors whose traditional techniques have declining utility against threats that are increasingly elusive and diffuse. And we found an analytical community too quick to rely upon assumptions or conjecture, and too slow to communicate gaps and uncertainties to policymakers.

But above all, we found an intelligence community that was too disorganized and fragmented to use its many talented people and sophisticated tools effectively.

Keep the above in mind if you happen to read David Samuels’s cover story in the current issue of the Atlantic. Called “Grand Illusions,” it is a veeeery long account of the author’s travels and interviews with Condi Rice during her Middle Eastern diplomatic efforts. Amid the stultifying litany of meetings and press conferences, Samuels nonchalantly passes along a rather startling claim. A claim, in fact, that suggests the CIA is having a lot more behind-the-scenes success in Iran than anyone suspects.

Citing “[s]ources in the United States and the Middle East familiar with the covert side of the American-led effort to push back Iran,” Samuels claims that American agents are responsible for a series of recent events in Iran:

a bomb in Zahedan, the economic center of the province of Baluchistan, that killed 11 soldiers in the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on February 14; the mysterious death of the Iranian scientist Ardashir Hosseinpour, who worked on uranium enrichment at the Isfahan nuclear facility; and the defection of a high ranking Iranian general named Ali Asgari.

If true, this would be good news, indicating that the CIA is conducting an effective covert action against the Iranian regime currently making war on us in Iraq and other places. But a healthy measure of skepticism is warranted. I asked a friend, a former CIA clandestine-service officer, about the veracity of Samuels’s reporting. His response: “It’s all crap. The Atlantic should not have put that in. It couldn’t be further from the truth. The Atlantic should not descend to the level of the New Yorker.”

Of course my friend’s dismissal of these allegations will not convince hardcore conspiracy theorists. They will think that his words are part of an elaborate disinformation campaign. There is, apparently, no shortage of people, especially abroad, who watch movies like Spy Game (2001) and The Bourne Identity (2002) and think that they provide an accurate picture of CIA capabilities—that with a few words the CIA director can launch a commando mission to free a spy from a Chinese prison or send hit teams to Europe to hunt down a renegade agent. While Hollywood often depicts the CIA and other intelligence agencies such as the NSA (Enemy of the State, 1998) as malevolent entities, it inevitably presents them as nearly omnipotent.

Too bad the real world doesn’t bear much resemblance to the reel world. In fact, the upcoming film based on the classic TV series Get Smart might provide a more accurate picture of our intelligence capabilities.

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Vandals in Berlin

January 27, 1945—the date of the liberation of Auschwitz—is commemorated in Germany as Holocaust Day, and this year it was marked by vandalism. The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin was defaced, evidently by neo-Nazis, who treated it as if it were a public latrine. Even more distressing is the revelation that such vandalism has been a constant problem since the memorial’s opening, a problem that has been deliberately downplayed by city authorities, allegedly to discourage copycat acts.

Since the controversial memorial’s site was selected in 1992, fear that it would invite just this sort of vandalism has abounded. It stands at the very epicenter of Berlin, just south of the Brandenburg Gate, around the corner from the new American embassy. But now we see that it is not the location of the memorial but its peculiar design that makes it prone to defacement. Designed by Peter Eisenman, the monument consists of some 2,711 concrete pillars, or stelae, arranged on a rigid geometric grid and spreading out over five acres. The paths between these pillars are so narrow that only one person can comfortably pass between them. Eisenman’s intent, it seems, was to make the viewer’s confrontation with the monument’s bleak, pitiless geometry as intense and solitary an experience as possible. Too solitary, alas: it clearly offers an endless number of secluded corners for mischief.

When the memorial opened two years ago, Eisenman resisted attempts to make it more secure against vandalism, including restrictions on admittance and on behavior within the memorial. He stalwartly argued for the right of children to play on the site, and to jump from pillar to pillar, saying that these activities evoke “the sounds of life” of an urban Jewish neighborhood. A memorable battle he lost in this arena was his objection to the treatment of the concrete pillars with an anti-graffiti coating. Eisenman told reporters that graffiti ranks as a healthy and legitimate creative outlet in his native New York, and that he “didn’t want the graffiti coating” because he considers vandalism “an expression of the city.”

Any thriving city, we should recognize, can express many things. The trick lies in recognizing which of these expressions constitutes a death threat—an obligation all the more incumbent on the Berlin authorities for the tragic gravity of the monument’s origin and purpose.

January 27, 1945—the date of the liberation of Auschwitz—is commemorated in Germany as Holocaust Day, and this year it was marked by vandalism. The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin was defaced, evidently by neo-Nazis, who treated it as if it were a public latrine. Even more distressing is the revelation that such vandalism has been a constant problem since the memorial’s opening, a problem that has been deliberately downplayed by city authorities, allegedly to discourage copycat acts.

Since the controversial memorial’s site was selected in 1992, fear that it would invite just this sort of vandalism has abounded. It stands at the very epicenter of Berlin, just south of the Brandenburg Gate, around the corner from the new American embassy. But now we see that it is not the location of the memorial but its peculiar design that makes it prone to defacement. Designed by Peter Eisenman, the monument consists of some 2,711 concrete pillars, or stelae, arranged on a rigid geometric grid and spreading out over five acres. The paths between these pillars are so narrow that only one person can comfortably pass between them. Eisenman’s intent, it seems, was to make the viewer’s confrontation with the monument’s bleak, pitiless geometry as intense and solitary an experience as possible. Too solitary, alas: it clearly offers an endless number of secluded corners for mischief.

When the memorial opened two years ago, Eisenman resisted attempts to make it more secure against vandalism, including restrictions on admittance and on behavior within the memorial. He stalwartly argued for the right of children to play on the site, and to jump from pillar to pillar, saying that these activities evoke “the sounds of life” of an urban Jewish neighborhood. A memorable battle he lost in this arena was his objection to the treatment of the concrete pillars with an anti-graffiti coating. Eisenman told reporters that graffiti ranks as a healthy and legitimate creative outlet in his native New York, and that he “didn’t want the graffiti coating” because he considers vandalism “an expression of the city.”

Any thriving city, we should recognize, can express many things. The trick lies in recognizing which of these expressions constitutes a death threat—an obligation all the more incumbent on the Berlin authorities for the tragic gravity of the monument’s origin and purpose.

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