I’ve been watching TV and reading the news and following everything I can about Egypt today. And what’s clear is … nothing. Changing channels and watching Twitter and reading blogs simultaneously create a sense of rapid change when in fact much of the footage is repetitive, the information is incredibly spotty, and reporters on the scene who have no way of knowing what’s going on six blocks from them are discoursing on the potential of regime collapse. It is very important in these circumstances not to extrapolate from people throwing things and tanks rolling about to world-historical change. This may be such a moment, but we’ve seen such footage innumerable times before — as in Thailand last year — without major result.
It’s getting harder to pick the most noteworthy headline among geopolitical events in East Asia. For the second time in two weeks, a high-ranking South Korean defense official has abruptly resigned (this time, the army chief of staff). His departure followed intelligence disclosures suggesting that North Korea has as many as four uranium-enrichment sites in operation, a level of activity previously unsuspected by the South Korean public. But are those developments more portentous than the most recent communications from Japan? And what about the Russian patrol aircraft that interrupted the U.S.-Japan naval exercise last week?
Japan’s announcements on defense this month figure collectively as the augury of a seminal shift. It’s not all that unusual for Tokyo to announce an increase in the size of the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF). But the reason invoked on this occasion amounts to a crack in the foundation of the U.S.-guaranteed security regime in the Far East. Japan plans to reorient its defense policy toward the emerging threat from China — and plans, in general, to defend its interests against Chinese and North Korean threats more proactively than at any time since 1945.
The Japanese will officially abandon the Cold War–era “basic defense doctrine,” which provided for territorial defense but not for the projection of military power beyond Japan’s recognized borders. Besides adding more submarines to the fleet, they will look at a military build-up in the southern chain of Japanese islands, near the Senkaku archipelago disputed with China. And on Sunday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan startled South Koreans by telling an audience that Japan would consider changing JSDF policy to allow for the deploying of troops to South Korea to rescue Japanese citizens.
The point here is not that any such move by Japan is suspicious. The point is that Japan perceives the need for a new, more active security posture. The tacit U.S. guarantee since World War II has been a balance in the Far East: the three great powers there — Russia, China, and Japan — held in check with a network of alliances and military presence. In the past two decades, however, the U.S. has failed to effectively counter what are arguably the most important threats to stability in the region: Chinese maritime aggression and the North Korean nuclear-weapons program. Against that backdrop, the Obama administration’s determined reliance on China to deal with North Korea looks — from the Asian side of the Pacific — like ceding China too much power. If America will not broker a balanced stasis, Russia and China will arm themselves for emerging opportunities, and everyone else will follow suit. Read More
A college course could be built around the new UN report on North Korea’s continuing proliferation activities. The report, released on Friday, was ready for publication in May 2010 but was delayed for six months by China’s Security Council veto. That veto having been lifted, the report is now available to the public.
The news stories surrounding the report are focused on North Korea’s attempts to ship weapons and their components to Iran and Syria, in the months after the “tough” sanctions adopted by the UN in mid-2009. (Pyongyang’s underground nuclear test in May 2009 prompted the newest sanctions.) The UN report cites four instances of cargo being interdicted by other nations, including episodes in Thailand and the UAE that were widely reported in the Western media.
But the real story in this report is its dryly precise account of the implementation of sanctions. Read More
Fred Hiatt is hopeful — as so many observers have been during the Obama administration — that the president is “turning the corner” on his foreign policy, specifically in the area of human rights and democracy promotion. Hiatt recounts some of the administration’s failings:
The administration criticized the narrowing of freedom in Russia, but cooperation on Iran was a higher priority. It chided Hosni Mubarak for choking civil society in Egypt, but the autocrat’s cooperation on Israel-Palestine mattered more.
Sadly, in fact, it seemed fellow democracies often paid a higher price for real or supposed human-rights failings: Colombia, for example, where human rights was the excuse for not promoting a free-trade agreement.
But it’s worse than that, really. We stiffed the Green movement and cut funding to groups that monitor Iranian human rights abuses. We facilitated the egregious behavior of the UN Human Rights Council. Our Sudan policy has been widely condemned by the left and right. Our record on promotion of religious freedom has been shoddy. We acquiesced as Iran was placed on the UN Commission on the Status of Women. We turned a blind eye toward serial human rights atrocities in the Muslim World. We flattered and cajoled Assad in Syria with nary a concern for human rights. We told China that human rights wouldn’t stand in the way of relations between the countries. We’ve suggested that Fidel Castro might enjoy better relations and an influx of U.S. tourist dollars without any improvement in human rights. And the administration ludicrously sided with a lackey of Hugo Chavez against the democratic institutions of Honduras. The list goes on and on.
As I and other observers have noted, the Obama human rights policy has more often than not focused on America’s ills – supposed Islamophobia, homophobia, racism, and the like: “Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton have found some victims of rights-transgression who are of very great interest to them — indeed, since some of them are here at home, and sinned against by America herself!”
But Hiatt thinks Obama is turning over a new leaf: “[A]couple of weeks ago, in his second annual address to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama declared that ‘freedom, justice and peace in the lives of individual human beings’ are, for the United States, ‘a matter of moral and pragmatic necessity.’” Yes, but we’ve heard pretty words before. What makes Hiatt think that this time around Obama honestly means it? He concedes that the proof will be in what Obama actually does:
If Obama’s speech signals a genuine shift, we will see the administration insist on election monitors in Egypt or withhold aid if Mubarak says no. It will wield real tools — visa bans, bank account seizures — to sanction human-rights abusers in Russia and China. It will not only claim to support a U.N. inquiry into Burma’s crimes against humanity but will call in chits from friends in Thailand, Singapore or India to make such an inquiry happen.
And maybe the administration will stop sabotaging Obama’s message on his most active foreign policy front: the war in Afghanistan. There, in its almost aggressive insistence that the war is about protecting the U.S. homeland — and only about protecting the U.S. homeland — the administration undercuts its claim to be a champion of “universal values.”
You’ll excuse me if I’m skeptical, but we’ve been down this road before. And to really be serious about human rights, Obama would need to undo and revise his entire Muslim-outreach scheme. Instead of ingratiating himself with despots, he would need to challenge them. Instead of telling Muslim audiences in Cairo that the most significant women’s rights issue was “for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit — for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear,” he would need to start challenging regimes that countenance and promote violence against women, child marriages, stonings, lashings, honor killings, etc. He would likewise need to revisit systematically our “reset” with Russia and our indifference to Chavez’s shenanigans in this hemisphere. Is this president going to do all that?
It’s lovely that the president is planning a trip “through Asia designed in part to put meat on the bones of his new rhetoric … [where] he will announce grants for nongovernmental organizations that the administration hopes will flower into the kind of domestic lobbies that can push their own governments to promote democracy abroad.” But unless there is a fundamental rethinking and reworking of foreign policy, this will be simply another PR effort that does little for the oppressed souls around the world.
As with most such outbreaks, there are legitimate grievances behind the protests being mounted by the “Red Shirts” of Thailand. That truth renders the events there even more strongly reminiscent than they might otherwise be of similar incidents around the globe during the Cold War. Thailand’s precarious situation could spiral out of control very easily. It is not at present being driven by outside forces or even apparently being exploited by them. But U.S. influence in the region is at stake along with Thai democracy. If a consensual stability is not restored in favor of the status quo long presided over by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, there will be no lack of interested outsiders seeking to shape Thailand’s future.
Most readers are familiar with the basic narrative about populist politician Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted from power in a military coup in 2006 and convicted of corruption charges in 2008. A February 2010 court decision ordering him to return $1.4 billion to the state was ostensibly the precipitating event for this spring’s prolonged protests by his Red Shirt supporters.
But fewer may be aware that Thaksin’s search for quarters in exile landed him this spring in Montenegro, the autonomous coastal province of Serbia that has become famous for its special relationship with Russia. Thaksin now holds a Montenegrin passport and has reportedly visited Russia during this year’s period of Thai unrest. The sitting prime minister of Thailand, for his part, is not leaving Russia uncourted. The Bangkok Post noted last week that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva plans to visit Moscow himself in early June, in spite of having canceled trips to the U.S., Vietnam, and Australia because of the unrest at home.
Russia’s interest is as much in drawing Thailand away from China as it is in cooling the traditional warmth between Bangkok and Washington. The year 2009 saw an unprecedented agreement between China and the Abhisit government to hold a joint military exercise billed as a rival to the “Cobra Gold” series with the U.S., the recurring Thai-hosted war game that draws up to 15,000 troops from the U.S. and East Asian nations. Growing military cooperation between Thailand and China is a continuation of policy inaugurated under Thaksin Shinawatra; efforts to cultivate or preempt such cooperation are in prospect regardless of who comes out on top in Thailand. Meanwhile, Russia’s re-energized ties with Vietnam, which now include a major arms deal and ongoing improvements to the naval base at Cam Ranh Bay, position the Russians next door to Thailand — as well as athwart China’s strategic vista to the south.
Adding to the prospect of instability is the Malay Muslim minority in southern Thailand. The Malay Muslims have taken a back seat to the Red Shirts this year, but their restiveness has by no means subsided. They will seek to take advantage of any evidence of weakness in the regime. The likelihood that they will have outside help is strong if the fate of Thailand is in doubt.
Regional observers think King Bhumibol will have to step in as he did in 1992 and demand that the opposing factions settle their differences. But this very critical view of that option, from Australia’s center-left Sydney Morning Herald, implies a reason (other than his ill health) why he hasn’t done that yet: it might not work. An ineffective royal appeal would be the signal for political chaos.
On the other hand, the status quo in Thailand cannot continue for much longer anyway. Bhumibol is 82, and his oldest son is unpopular. Although this situation is rife with difficult issues, the Obama administration should surely be doing more than closing the U.S. embassy in Bangkok to business, evacuating American personnel, and being “deeply concerned,” as State Department spokesmen have reported in daily briefings for the last six weeks.
It’s worth noting that Russia is not evacuating any diplomatic personnel from Bangkok. Moscow and Beijing are more determined than Obama is to play a major role in restoring stability to Thailand. That will not work in our favor. American influence in Asia is heading the same direction as our influence in the Middle East.
A common complaint heard among American officials and policy analysts is that in East Asia — one of the most important and conflict-prone areas of the planet — there is no security architecture comparable to NATO. The U.S. has ties to many key countries, notably Japan, South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, Australia, Thailand, and Taiwan. But they do not have strong ties to one another, and there is no joint military planning of the kind that NATO undertakes. That does not seem likely to change in the future, because, although all those nations are suspicious of growing Chinese power, they also do not want to antagonize the 500-pound panda by forming an explicit alliance for its containment. The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, formed in 1954, was a colossal failure and is unlikely to be resurrected.
But there are still steps that U.S. officials can take to encourage greater cooperation among our regional partners. In this regard, I was struck a few days ago while visiting Pacific Command headquarters, looked at Camp Smith overlooking Pearl Harbor, by the near-total absence of coalition allies. At Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Base in Tampa, there are substantial liaison offices from more than 50 countries — allies that are working with the U.S. to deal with Iraq, Afghanistan, Somali piracy and other issues. Since 9/11, an entire “coalition village” has sprung up around Centcom headquarters. There is nothing comparable at Camp Smith. In fact, when I asked about coalition representation, I was told about a handful of low-ranking liaison officers from Australia and a few other nations.
This would seem to be an obvious opportunity we are not taking advantage of — to encourage discussion and cooperation among disparate Asian nations hosted by our own regional military command. That would not be as good as a formal alliance structure, but it could represent a small, but useful step, in the right direction.
Mark Steyn predicts future historians will marvel at the omission of any discussion of Iran at this week’s Nuclear Security Summit:
For once, the cheap comparisons with 1930s appeasement barely suffice: To be sure, in 1933, the great powers were meeting in Geneva and holding utopian arms-control talks even as Hitler was taking office in Berlin. But it’s difficult to imagine Neville Chamberlain in 1938 hosting a conference on the dangers of rearmament, and inviting America, France, Brazil, Liberia, and Thailand . . . but not even mentioning Germany.
For the proper historical analogy, we may have to look back even further – to the 1921 Washington Conference on naval disarmament in the Pacific, which Churchill described in the opening chapter of “The Gathering Storm:”
At the Washington Conference of 1921 far-reaching proposals for naval disarmament were made by the United States, and the British and American governments proceeded to sink their battleships and break up their military establishments with gusto. It was argued in odd logic that it would be immoral to disarm the vanquished unless the victors also stripped themselves of their weapons.
Chalk it up to the early twentieth century belief that it was ships that killed people. Churchill wrote that Japan, then just becoming a rising Pacific power, “watched with an attentive eye.” Two decades later, the U.S. ended a world war in the Pacific with bombs not yet invented when the U.S. had led the world in dreaming of disarmament.
The 2010 Washington Conference was an idea President Obama announced last year in his Prague disarmament speech, which set forth his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. The speech featured the odd logic that America had a moral responsibility to disarm, as “the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon.” The speech was marred by North Korea’s firing, on the morning of the speech, rockets designed to demonstrate a long-range missile capability, and neither Iran nor North Korea found the speech particularly persuasive: a year later, they still resist Obama’s solution to their nuclear weapons programs – talks.
Future historians may find the Prague speech a useful guide to the themes that pervaded the Obama administration. Obama began by noting that, when he was born, “few people would have predicted that someone like me would one day become the President of the United States” – an observation he would repeat in the video he sent as the world celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall without him. He noted the Czechs’ Velvet Revolution had “showed us that peaceful protest could shake the foundations of an empire, and expose the emptiness of an ideology,” proving “moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon” – but stood by in silence months later as he watched regime-threatening demonstrations in Iran.
He provided another trademark “let me be clear” moment – one the Czechs learned several months later was not quite as clear as they thought:
So let me be clear: Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile activity poses a real threat, not just to the United States, but to Iran’s neighbors and our allies. The Czech Republic and Poland have been courageous in agreeing to host a defense against these missiles. As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven. (Applause.)
The balance of the speech set forth a lengthy series of proposals – arms reductions, treaties that would be “sufficiently bold,” strengthened international inspections, “real and immediate consequences” for rule-breakers, a global summit, etc. – ending with an applause-producing assertion that “Yes, we can.”
It was all there: the self-referential view of history, the rhetoric divorced from reality, the disingenuous let-me-be-clear assurance, the implicit denigration of his country for its supposed sins, the celebration of the moral leadership he would bring to the world, the panoply of proposals – all delivered while rockets were fired and centrifuges were spun, with no U.S. response other than a conference at which the rockets and centrifuges were not discussed.
It’s going to be impossible to keep up with these reports and rumors, but one new item merits discussion. Emanuele Ottolenghi has pretty thoroughly discredited the originators of the rumor that bombs shipped to Diego Garcia are for an imminent attack on Iran. Now, however, there’s a report from a less-dismissible source that the original intention may have been to ship the bombs to Israel. Much of the blogosphere is running with the story that Obama “diverted” the shipment, with the timing of these revelations apparently related to Washington’s ongoing tiff with Jerusalem.
My assessment up front: the blogosphere’s got that story wrong. The U.S. may well have decided to change the destination of bombs being prepositioned overseas, but the decision was clearly made at least two months ago, before the January 2010 contract to ship the munitions to Diego Garcia was posted. Nevertheless, if the World Tribune report is valid, that change in our prepositioning plan could be part of a disquieting trend in the Obama administration’s arms policy toward Israel.
A key fact in this tangled tale is that Israel has been one of the U.S. military’s principal foreign prepositioning sites for the last 20 years. (Others are South Korea and Thailand.) Munitions we store with these hosts, while intended for our own forces’ use in contingencies, can be used by the host nations in the case of national emergency. We only store such stockpiles in nations with which we have defense agreements. A previous ammunition shipment to the storage sites in Israel became quite famous a year ago when the cargo ship bearing it was originally scheduled to arrive during the IDF operations in Gaza. In light of a December 2009 agreement on doubling the size of our munitions stockpile in Israel, it’s quite probable that we intended to ship additional bombs to the storage sites there this year.
The World Tribune piece appears to be discussing a U.S. policy-related shipment of this kind, rather than the diversion of arms that were actually sold to Israel. I don’t believe that a weapons sale is being reneged on. But a decision to suspend further prepositioning of U.S. munitions at the Israeli sites would be in character with the Obama administration’s emerging policy of delaying and blocking military sales to Israel. The most notable instance involves the Apache Longbow helicopter: a pending sale of Apaches to Israel was blocked by the administration in June 2009, due to the concern that they would be used to threaten Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
The U.S. has delayed arms sales to Israel before, but as the JINSA article above notes, Obama’s policy of slow-rolling Israel while concluding major arms deals with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan is a new one. His administration’s bumpy history with Israel lends weight to the possibility that our military prepositioning strategy is being modified to prevent further growth in the munitions stockpile Israel might be able to drawn on. Implementing policy by this arcane method has the advantage of being a quiet and attritional approach.
We should note that Israel already has the types of bombs listed in the manifest for the Diego Garcia shipment. We sold the IDF several thousand of them in the last decade. There is no need to hyperventilate over the erroneous implication that a type of weapon Israel desperately needs is being withheld. But the possibility that the Obama administration hopes to control the limits on Israel’s options is not so easily dismissed.
Deciding what we do with our own weapons is, of course, America’s sovereign right. The discretion and logistic convenience we retain by storing bombs at Diego Garcia are things any administration might seek. But while this bomb shipment may be a politically unremarkable logistic decision, reports that it may have implications about our relations with Israel are credible after months of one-sided policy from the Obama administration.
While most of the world rattles on about how Israel’s impudent decision to build apartments for Jews in an existing Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem will harm the peace process, the real obstacles to peace staged yet another demonstration of Middle East realities. In the last two days, Palestinian terrorists fired three rockets into southern Israel. Two landed near the town of Sderot in Southern Israel on Wednesday. One adult and a child suffered from shock from that blast. Then today, a rocket hit nearby Moshav Netiv Ha’asara, killing a worker from Thailand. Thirty such rockets have landed in southern Israel since the beginning of 2010.
Apologists for the Hamas terrorists, who run Gaza as a private fiefdom, were quick to blame the attacks on splinter groups beyond the control of the supposedly responsible thugs of Hamas. Two such groups claimed responsibility. One is an al-Qaeda offshoot, and the other is none other than the al-Asqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, the terrorist wing of the supposedly moderate and peace-loving Fatah Party that controls the West Bank.
The rockets were an appropriate welcome to the Dame Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s top foreign-policy official, who was in Gaza for a visit. Though Ashton won’t meet with Hamas officials, her trip to Gaza is seen as helping the ongoing campaign to lift the limited blockade of the terrorist-run enclave even though Israel allows food and medical supplies into the Strip, so there is no humanitarian crisis. Those who would like to see this Hamasistan freed from all constraints say that the “humanitarian” issues should take precedence over “politics.” But their humanitarianism takes no notice of Israelis who still live under the constant threat of terrorist missile attacks. Nor do they think Hamas should be forced to free kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for an end to the blockade.
Such “humanitarianism” is also blind to why Israelis are leery of any further territorial concessions to the Palestinians – because they rightly fear that the ordeal of Sderot could easily be repeated in any part of Central Israel, as well as in Jerusalem, once Israel’s forces are forced to completely withdraw from the West Bank. Gaza is not just a symbol of the failures of Palestinian nationalism, as the welfare of over a million Arabs has been ignored as Hamas pursues its pathologically violent agenda of hostility to Israel. It is also a symbol of the failure of Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal policy, which Americans once hoped would allow the area to become a zone of peace and prosperity.
For all of the recent emphasis on Israel’s behavior, Gaza stands as both a lesson and a warning to those who heedlessly urge further concessions on Israel on behalf of a peace process in which the Palestinians have no real interest.
You think the UN can’t become more of a farce? You think the Obami can’t look any sillier for showing deference to the three-ring circus, most particularly the UN Human Rights Council? Think again. Claudia Rosett tells us:
While Iran’s regime bloodies its dissidents, the nuclear weapons-loving mullahs are seeking a treat for themselves at the United Nations: Iran is running for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. Utterly perverse though it would be, Iran might snag that prize. The 47 seats on the Geneva-based Human Rights Council are parceled out among regional groups of UN member states. This year the Asian bloc has four seats opening up. Five contenders have stepped forward: Malaysia, Maldives, Qatar, Thailand—and Iran.
Why, how special that would be! As Rosett observes, “If Iran’s government wins a seat on this council, it would send a horrifying message to Iranian dissidents. They have been enduring mass arrests, beatings and murders in their quest for genuine human rights inside Iran.” And one can only imagine the new stream of Israel-bashing and anti-American venom that would spew forth should Tehran capture a seat.
But this is what comes from extending recognition to a murderous regime—one must then accept it as the legitimate representative of a member of the “international community.” And when one combines that with the fiction that the UN Human Rights Council is actually about human rights, then one winds up in the perverse world in which Ahmadinejad gets to pronounce on human rights and introduce all manner of resolutions that almost certainly will not be aimed at regimes that steal away protesters in the middle of the night, or at those those nations that turn a blind eye to honor killings, but rather to Israel, of course.
This development—indeed the potential of this ever coming to pass—should remind us how inept and foolhardy has been Obama’s engagement policy as well as his decision to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council. Rosett notes that on February 15, a report detailing Iran’s atrocities will come before the Council along with the mullahs’ own “Orwellian” report “claiming metiulous respect for human rights, as redefined by Tehran’s lights—arguing that because ‘the system of government in Iran is based on principles of Islam, it is necessary that Islamic standards and criteria prevail in society.’” It is a preview of things to come.
And from the Obami, can we expect robust opposition to Iran’s membership, a principled walk-out should Iran secure its seat, and a re-statement of our determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapon? No, no! That would only send the democracy protesters rushing into the arms of the regime and fritter away all the goodwill we have racked up (doing nothing to aid them), don’t you see? Welcome to the Alice-in-Wonderland diplomacy of the Obami. Feel safer yet?
Bill McGurn writes:
For a man whose whole appeal has been wrapped in powerful imagery, President Obama appears strikingly obtuse about the symbolism of his own actions: e.g., squeezing in a condemnation of Iran before a round of golf. With every statement not backed up by action, with every refusal to meet a leader such as the Dalai Lama, with every handshake for a Chavez, Mr. Obama is defining himself to foreign leaders who are sizing him up and have only one question in mind: How much can we get away with?
McGurn argues that Obama would do well to take a break from his “not George W. Bush” approach to everything and back up his new rhetoric with some minimal action. He might, for example, actually meet with some dissidents as Bush did:
George W. Bush also made it a point to meet with dissidents and signal which side America was on. He met with a defector who spent 10 years in the North Korean gulag. He met with persecuted Chinese Christians, marked the 20th anniversary of a famous pro-democracy uprising in Burma by meeting with Burmese dissidents in Thailand, and awarded the Medal of Freedom to a jailed Cuban political prisoner. In 2007, he even spoke to a whole conference of dissidents in Prague organized by another alumnus of the Soviet prison system: Natan Sharansky.
Obama also might fund the Iranian dissidents, sign onto legislation to help the democracy advocates evade censorship, get working on those “crippling” sanctions, and make clear we’re done engaging a regime that lacks the support of its people. But it is far from clear that Obama means to do more than sprinkle in some complimentary words for those whom he has done nothing to aid and much to undercut since the June 12 election. Absent some concrete actions, those words lack meaning and sincerity.
Obama, we’re told, has penned a letter to North Korea’s diminutive thug Kim Jong-il. This is not a good thing. You recall the dreamy letter to Vladimir Putin and the video suck-up-o-gram to the “Islamic Republic of Iran.” Both were ill-fated attempts to lure the unlurable with an open hand. At best they had no impact; at worst they conveyed a desperation and naiveté that no doubt impressed those leaders, albeit not in the way we intended. The news reports don’t say what was in the letter. The administration isn’t saying. But as the Washington Post dryly puts it:
It is relatively unusual for an American president to send the North Korean dictator a personal communication so early in his term. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush eventually sent letters to Kim, but only after extensive diplomatic efforts to restrain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Efforts early in Bush’s term to send a letter were stymied by an intense debate over whether to use an honorific such as “his excellency” to address Kim.
Given the cringe-inducing behavior of the Obami, one can imagine that the letter might be less than the model of toughness and resolve we would hope. We’ve dispatched an envoy to engage in bilateral talks with the North Koreans and gone mute on the regime’s atrocious human-rights record. As Stephen Hayes points out, Obama in his Oslo speech omitted North Korea from his list of human-rights miscreants:
So why wasn’t North Korea mentioned? Was it merely an oversight–did Obama officials simply forget how bad things are there? Or was it a strategic omission–a signal to Kim Jong Il that the U.S. government will set aside concerns about human rights if his regime will return to the nuclear negotiating table? …
The very fact that the high-level face-to-face meetings took place is a blow to human rights in North Korea, as any such discussions necessarily lend legitimacy to the repressive regime in Pyongyang, particularly when such bilateral talks came after repeated demands for them from the North Koreans. And the fact that the Obama administration seems unwilling not only to “call attention to” human rights abuses in North Korea but even to mention them suggests that Obama’s “unwavering commitment” to human rights around the world is mere Oslo rhetoric.
And then there’s the news of a North Korean shipment of 35 tons of arms seized in Thailand en route, perhaps, to Pakistan or Middle East, to be used by those seeking to kill Americans or our allies, one supposes.
Given all this, one wonders why the president is penning missives to the North Korean despot. It seems that the Obami are still enamored of their own charms and still bent on “drawing out” the world’s thugs. Maybe a better gambit would be to fund fully our missile-defense systems. Granted, it’s more expensive than a postage stamp, but it’s a whole lot less foolish than writing “Dear Dictator” letters.
How’s our Burma outreach going? Well, not so well. Frankly, we aren’t even effectively reaching out to our allies on the subject. As this report explains, Obama, in his meetings with Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein and other Southeast Asian leaders, called for the release of Nobel Prize–winning democracy dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. He didn’t do anything more, however, and the pro-democracy advocates are noticing:
Mr. Obama failed to secure any mention of political prisoners in a communique issued by the meeting’s participants afterward. That failure disappointed dissidents who were hoping the president’s involvement would encourage Southeast Asian leaders to take a harder line on Myanmar’s junta, which is accused of widespread human-rights abuses but remains a trading partner with much of the region.
The failure to single out Ms. Suu Kyi was “another blow” to dissidents who want more pressure on the regime, said Soe Aung, a spokesman for the Forum for Democracy in Burma, a Thailand-based organization. “We keep saying again and again that the U.S. should not send a mixed signal to the regime.”
For all his powers of persuasion, he seemed unable — or was it unwilling — to round up support for Suu Kyi’s releases. But we are told that “U.S. officials had taken pains to reduce expectations for the meeting, which occurred between sessions at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and was part of a new initiative by the Obama administration to increase interaction with the Myanmar government.” Well, the “new initiative” sort of raised the expectations, didn’t it? The Obami seem confused once again. The Obami seem confused once again. They are contemplating a ”new initiative” to be launched on Burma, and promising that “engagement” offers a more productive way forward. But they don’t quite grasp that when there’s no result to all this, because the Burma regime is impervious to “engagement,” then the Obama effort will look like a failure. That is how things usually work; the apparent denseness of the Obama team after months and months on the job is not heartening.
And meanwhile, “criticism from dissidents will likely intensify if results aren’t seen soon, increasing the pressure on U.S. officials to show progress or walk away. ‘I think there is a need for some gestures now’ from the Myanmar side, or the U.S. might have to scale back its re-engagement with the regime, said Sean Turnell, a Myanmar expert at Macquarie University in Australia. He called the meeting ‘very disappointing’ because of the failure of Southeast Asian nations to follow Mr. Obama’s lead and press for Ms. Suu Kyi’s release.” Disappointing indeed. But hardly surprising to anyone other than the Obami.
Last week I was in London attending a Global Leadership Forum, sponsored by the Royal United Services Institute, the Princeton Project on National Security, Newsweek International, and Berwin Leighton Paisner LLP. The attendees–from both the United States and Europe–included academics, scholars, journalists, diplomatic advisers and others who inhabit the foreign policy world. The event was well-organized, the conversations wide-ranging, and there was a genuine effort to hear from a diversity of voices (hence my invitation). But there is no question that the dominant outlook of most of those in attendance was left-leaning, which itself made the trip illuminating.
I came away from the gathering (portions of which I missed) with several broad impressions. One was that multilateralism has become virtually an end in itself. What matters to many Europeans and liberal-leaning Americans is the process rather than the results. What almost never gets discussed is what happens when one’s desire for multilateralism collides with achieving a worthy end (for example, trying to stop genocide in Darfur or prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb). The child-like faith in multilateralism as the solution to all that ails the world would be touchingly innocent if it weren’t so terribly dangerous.
There were the predictable assertions made about how the United States, under George W. Bush, was “unilateralist” and that, in the words of one former Clinton Administration official, “multilateralism was a dirty word” in the Bush Administration. This charge is simplistic and demonstrably untrue–and one could cite as evidence everything from the lead up to the Iraq war (in which the United States went to the UN not once but twice, and gained unanimous approval of Resolution 1441); the war itself (which included support from the governments of Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Italy, Spain, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, Norway, El Salvador and many other nations); the E3; the Quartet; the Six Party Talks; the Proliferation Security Initiative; a slew of free trade agreements; and more. In fact the Bush Administration was criticized by Democrats for being too multilateralist in their dealings with North Korea; it was said by John Kerry, among other liberals, that we should engage in bilateral talks with North Korea rather than rely on the Six Party Talks.
Another impression I had was that many (if not most) Europeans and American foreign policy experts are caught in a time warp, acting as if we are still in 2006. They simply want to wash their hands of Iraq. They hate the war, are seemingly impervious to the security and political progress we have seen in Iraq since last summer, and they want the next Administration to downplay Iraq as an issue, which they believe has “obsessed” the Bush presidency. What they don’t seem to understand is that ending U.S. involvement in the war won’t end the war. In fact, if Obama or Clinton follow up on their stated commitments, it is likely to trigger mass death and possibly genocide, revitalize al Qaeda, strengthen Iran, and further destabilize the region. The irony would be that the plans laid out by Democrats, if followed, would increase, not decrease, Iraq’s dominance of American foreign policy. An Iraq that is cracking up and caught in a death spiral is not something that even a President Obama or Clinton could ignore.
The third impression I came away with is the widespread view in Europe, as well as among some Americans, that the U.S. has suffered a huge, almost incalculable, loss of “moral authority” (its worth recalling that we heard much the same thing during the Reagan years). The evidence cited is always the same: Guantanamo Bay, rendition and secret prisons, and waterboarding. They are invoked like an incantation. The effect of this is that you would think that the United States is among the leading violators of human rights in the world.
During one of the panel sessions I said it was fine to place on one side of the moral ledger waterboarding three leading al Qaeda figures, which I consider to be a morally complicated issue–but that it’s also worth putting on the other side of the moral ledger the fact that we liberated more than 50 million people from two of the most odious and repressive regimes in modern history. Liberation was not the only impulse that drove the two wars, but it was one of them, and a noble one at that. I borrowed a line from Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic who, while a harsh critic of the execution of the Bush Administration, has written “I find it impossible to denounce a war that led to the removal of a genocidal dictator.” That is especially true now that we have the right strategy in place, that we’re seeing progress on almost every front, and that we have a decent shot at a decent outcome in Iraq. The situation is still hugely challenging and success, if we achieve it, will be long in coming. But the collapse of will that I witnessed among some leading foreign policy voices on both sides of the Atlantic, while not surprising, was still discouraging. It is no wonder that world leaders who do not share that exhaustion are the objects of condemnation.
For the past several decades Malaysia, along with its neighbor, Singapore, one of the primary exhibits pointed to by those intent on extolling the virtues of benign authoritarianism. Ever since winning independence from Britain in 1957, the country has been ruled by the National Front, a political bloc dominated by the United Malays National Organization, representing the country’s ethnic Malay majority.
Under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled from 1981 to 2003, the government pursued a policy of economic diversification. Formerly dependent on mineral mining and plantations, Malaysia turned into a high-tech manufacturing powerhouse. Its per capita GDP, at $14,400, is now higher than Thailand’s, Turkey’s, or Bulgaria’s. That wealth is instantly visible to anyone who visits Kuala Lumpur, which is full of high-rise office buildings, expensive malls, and ritzy restaurants.
But now the National Front’s control is cracking, and that is a good thing. The Wall Street Journal sums up the recent election results:
Although the National Front mustered just enough seats to form the next national government, it lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time in almost 40 years.
Exceeding its most optimistic forecasts, an alliance of three opposition parties also secured control of five of Malaysia’s 13 state administrations. The opposition now controls the crucial states of Penang and Selangor, home to much of Malaysia’s industrial base and to billions of dollars in U.S. and other foreign investments.
“This is a major political earthquake,” said Ibrahim Suffian, executive director of polling firm Merdeka Center in Kuala Lumpur. “The monopoly of power has now been broken.”
Indeed it has. Along with another of its neighbors, Indonesia, Malaysia is now starting to show that “Islamic democracy” is not an oxymoron. This is a development to be applauded in the long run, though in the short run it will undoubtedly cause some dislocations, especially for a business class that has gotten cozy with the ruling party.
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.