the art of the impossible

I really just don’t get our foreign policy debates. They’re confused to the point of being schizophrenic. Down is up. Left is right.

Take this post by Max Fisher about Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese dissident lawyer who the Chinese government hates for saying accurate things about the terribly repressive Chinese government. Things like pointing out that the Chinese government has forced the sterilization of women in order to enforce the one child policy. Guangcheng has escaped from Chinese authorities, as you’ve likely heard, and is probably in American custody. This is tricky, of course, but it’s also the case that we may be obligated under international law to provide him with sanctuary. Yet Fisher proclaims that “This Blind Chinese Lawyer May Be the Toughest Foreign Policy Challenge Obama Has Ever Faced.”

Really? When we launch undeclared wars in foreign countries without accountability or review, this is the toughest foreign policy challenge? When we rush into regime change in Libya, after we all were sure we weren’t going to be doing any more of that? When we have systematically dismantled all of the checks and balances on the executive branch’s ability to engage militarily? I just don’t get it. We think nothing of deploying ordnance and changing regimes inconvenient to us. But this is worth thinking hard about. For me, personally, I’d like the decision to give asylum to a dissident who has already escaped from his repressive regime to be easier than the decision to wage war. But it’s the reverse.

It’s insane to me how little the practical question of what we can actually accomplish matters in our foreign policy debates. Still. After everything. “Democracy promotion,” a weasel’s euphemism if I’ve ever heard one, is very very hard, even in the dubious ways that neoconservatives define it. You can make a strong historical case that it’s never actually been accomplished. Spiriting away a single dissident who is already in our custody would be very, very easy. Also, “democracy promotion” involves killing people. A lot of people. Saving Chen would kill, in my rough estimate, zero people. (China is not going to war with us over Chen Guangcheng.) Yes: I understand that diplomatic relationships are very important and very delicate. But just consider the difference in how seriously the foreign policy media is taking this situation and how mundane they find killing innocent people with drones, or how credulous they are when our elites say they can kill the bad guys and install the good guys.

 






54 replies
  1. 1
    JMG says:

    Well taken point, Mr. deBoer. I would add that friction between the U.S. and China can cost powerful U.S. interests real money, while blowing up brown people merely adds to the zeroes in the limitless-by-choice Pentagon budget.

  2. 2
    4tehlulz says:

    Everything is the most-challenging Blah blah blah blah blah for Obama alright?

  3. 3
    amk says:

    Obama’s ‘katrina moments’ never end. That of course includes Freddie’s navel gazing on muammar qadaffi. Just a mere ‘inconvenience’.

  4. 4
    Ash Can says:

    I’m basically with JMG up there. To some people, evidently including Max Fisher, it’s not a real foreign policy issue if big private-sector bucks aren’t involved.

  5. 5
    300baud says:

    I agree entirely with your point, but I think you’re missing the longer-term implications of the act of giving him sanctuary. Anything one does with China endangers human lives. We’ve been working for decades to pull them in the direction of greater respect for human rights, and to engage them in ways that reduce the likelihood of war on their part.

    I’m in favor of taking him in, but I recognize that act could trigger a crackdown that oppresses or kills a lot more than one guy. Or it could reduce the pace of the gradual opening that has been allowing the Chinese to demand better government on their own.

  6. 6
    Mino says:

    According to Andrea Mitchell, it’s the timing vis-a-vis Iran that’s the problem.

  7. 7
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    The important thing here is to give the Rmoneytron an opening that might make the general election more of a horse race, which is the priority number one of the Village right now.

    The Rmoneytron will of course blue screen on this, as it does everything else, too busy worrying about Czechoslovakian policy implications. but the Village help team has to make an effort, their phoney-baloney jobs depend on it.

  8. 8
    El Cid says:

    __

    “This Blind Chinese Lawyer May Be the Toughest Foreign Policy Challenge Obama Has Ever Faced.”

    Without that cute contrarianism, they fear that this might seem like a minor and not sufficiently interesting issue.

    But if you make it sound like a blind Chinese lawyer seeking asylum is really a lot tougher than all these other things which ordinarily would seem tougher, then you claim to have a much more interesting story.

  9. 9
    whetstone says:

    When I saw the headline, I thought “that has to be from Slate or the Atlantic.”

    That’s just how things are pitched on the Internet these days. Everything has to be The Most or The Best or The Worst, because that means more pageviews. The Atlantic is particularly awful about this.

    It really distorts things; it’s infuriating.

  10. 10

    I’m amused at the idea that it was America who decided to wage war in Libya. I could have sworn the war was already under way (well under way) before America did anything.

    You may not agree with what was decided, but making Libya all about America (or the west/Nato/whatever characterization you want) is just flat out wrong.

  11. 11
    Mino says:

    Yes, Mittster couldn’t resist inserting his ham hands.

  12. 12
    Mino says:

    @existential fish: It’s always all about us, doncha know.

  13. 13
    elm says:

    It’s tough because China is powerful and the War! industry doesn’t won’t profit off of this decision.

    By contrast, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya were weak and friendless and the war profiteers took in billions in profits from those wars.

  14. 14
    amk says:

    @existential fish:Whatcha talkin bout Willis? Dontchaya know that facts have librul bias and all that.

    libuls = their own worst enemies.

  15. 15
    Danny says:

    When we rush into regime change in Libya, after we all were sure we weren’t going to be doing any more of that?

    Maybe you shouldn’t throw the first stone, Freddy, because this is pretty clueless. The No Fly Zone/Air intervention in Libya was:

    1) Supported by Libya’s neighbours.
    2) Supported by the international community and authorized by a UNSC resolution. The U.N. Charter is U.S. law, by the way.
    3) Supported by the Arab League.
    4) Carried out by a coalition including western imperialists like e.g.: Sweden, Qatar and the UAE.
    5) To a large extent promoted by Britain and France, rather than the U.S.
    6) And the case for us participating was honestly and transparently made by POTUS in a prime time speech to the nation.

    Your cute little appropriation of John Kerry’s soundbite from ’04 (speaking about Iraq) is disingenuous and muddies the water. But I guess there will always be a few dead-enders who will never appreciate the difference between doing it right (Noble Anvil or Oddyssey Dawn), and doing it wrong (Iraqi Freedom)…

  16. 16
    4tehlulz says:

    @Mino: Why Iran? North Korea I can understand cuz that shit is deteriorating, but I don’t think the Chinese are going to be selling DF-31s to Tehran anytime soon.

  17. 17
    MattF says:

    I suspect that moaning over the difficulty of the decision is part of an argument to hand Chen over to the Chinese authorities, as long as said authorities promise to be nice. I’m not saying that’s what Obama/Clinton will do, but I’m sure there’s a ‘Let’s list all the options’ side that wants to do the wrong thing.

  18. 18
    amk says:

    @Danny: Hey, false equivalency. How does it work ? Mebbe “freddie” can educatematify us ?

  19. 19
    different-church-lady says:

    Yet Fisher proclaims that “This Blind Chinese Lawyer May Be the Toughest Foreign Policy Challenge Obama Has Ever Faced.

    Really? When we launch undeclared wars in foreign countries without accountability or review, this is the toughest foreign policy challenge? When we rush into regime change in Libya, after we all were sure we weren’t going to be doing any more of that? When we have systematically dismantled all of the checks and balances on the executive branch’s ability to engage militarily?

    You’re both hyperventilating.

  20. 20
    Mike Goetz says:

    “We think nothing of deploying ordnance and changing regimes inconvenient to us.”

    If this is your read on how Libya went down, you are totally clueless.

  21. 21
    Roger Moore says:

    In fairness, this is a decision that will not be solved by blowing stuff up, which is what our foreign policy machine has been built to do. Instead, it will require a degree of subtlety and finesse that, at least when a (R) has been in the White House has been notably lacking for a long time.

  22. 22
    Mino says:

    @4tehlulz: Oil purchases, I would think.

  23. 23
    ericblair says:

    @MattF:

    I suspect that moaning over the difficulty of the decision is part of an argument to hand Chen over to the Chinese authorities, as long as said authorities promise to be nice. I’m not saying that’s what Obama/Clinton will do, but I’m sure there’s a ‘Let’s list all the options’ side that wants to do the wrong thing.

    Like Libya, the chattering idiots don’t know how this is going to play out so can’t figure out how to blame Obama for doing the wrong thing yet. So they have to keep it at a wishy-washy could-go-either-way level by saying that this is Reel Hard and Obummer is in over his head, until everything is over with and they can start in on the proper Monday morning quarterbacking.

  24. 24
    Belafon (formerly anonevent) says:

    This is tricky, of course, but it’s also the case that we may be obligated under international law to provide him with sanctuary.

    Actually, I don’t think there any international laws that exist that we have approved that would require us to give him sanctuary. Because Republicans have been opposed to accepting these international laws, we have often times negotiated with each individual country. In a lot of cases, the agreement is “We’ll hand over your citizens if you will hand over ours.” I wouldn’t be surprised if this is our agreement with China. In that case, choosing not to hand the person over would be a diplomatic incident.

  25. 25
    handsmile says:

    When I last heard of Max Fisher, he was staging productions at Rushmore Academy. His recent promotion to be associate editor at the Atlantic does not make him a significant voice in American foreign policy debates. What seems to have convinced Fisher of Chen’s importance is that Chinese police roughed up American movie star Christian Bale.

    Conclusively noteworthy in his column is the absence of the name Bo Xilai whose spectacular fall from power has been roiling international relations with China in light of the upcoming People’s Party Congress and Bo’s reputation. (To be fair, Fisher did write a rather trivial column on Bo earlier this month.) The scandal continues to unfold with allegations that Bo tapped the phone of President Hu Jintao and that his wife was responsible for the murder of a British businessman.

    The Obama administration has been scrupulously neutral in public pronouncements on this matter. Any awkwardness in this week’s “Strategic and Economic Dialogues” will likely be the result of US uncertainty as to the next generation of Chinese leaders and Politburo members. Human rights sadly but simply does not play a prominent role in contemporary US-China relations, even in the case of so exemplary a figure as Chen Guangcheng.

    Let me recommend this NYRB article, “China’s Falling Star,” as more informative than Mr. Fisher’s typing: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/n.....-bo-xilai/

  26. 26
    Gex says:

    Perhaps the difference can be found in the Bell Curve. Asians are, after all, better than the brown people in the Middle East. Or something like that.

    Although in reality I believe we are just like any bullies. We can’t actually scare China into backing down, we can’t easily take them in a fight, so we tiptoe around them. But these littler kids on the playground, especially those whose lunch bags hold lots of oil fields, are the prime targets for our bullying. We want their lunch money.

  27. 27
    Neldob says:

    It’s remarkable how the Chinese dissident gets lionized and Bradley Manning and Assange get persecution and prosecution.

  28. 28
    Mino says:

    @handsmile: Andrea mentioned the asylum seeker that we threw back a short time ago. One who was involved in the internal squabble taking place was handed back by our people. That might give us some wiggle room.

  29. 29
    Ramiah Ariya says:

    But there is a big difference – China is actually your match in terms of ability to hurt you. Iraq or Libya are not. The defining characteristic of American foreign policy is “bullyism” which never works with countries your match. Hence, this is indeed a big foreign policy challenge.

  30. 30
    Mino says:

    @Neldob: Manning in particular has resulted in the standard for “giving aid to our enemies” becoming “embarrassed our stupid selves.” That’s a capital offense nowadays.

  31. 31
    The Bobs says:

    Things like pointing out that the Chinese government has forced the sterilization of women in order to enforce the one child policy.

    If you are going to criticize the Chinese government, there are a lot worse things than this to talk about. It’s a poor example.

  32. 32
    amk says:

    @ericblair: Reminds me of that brilliant black engineer’s line in one of kaleefornia govnor’s hasta la vista baby movies – “I’m being judged on things I haven’t even done yet ?”.

    amurika is fucked up country.

  33. 33
    Brachiator says:

    @Freddie deBoer:

    For me, personally, I’d like the decision to give asylum to a dissident who has already escaped from his repressive regime to be easier than the decision to wage war. But it’s the reverse.

    I have no idea what the foreign policy implications of the asylum question is, and apparently neither do you. Instead of posting a link to one dipshit pundit so that you can score an easy hit, why not something more substantial?

    Even the Guardian, the go to media site for Balloon Juice posters, has more background on what this means to China:

    Hardliners have had the initiative ever since, but this year’s events have opened up new possibilities. The state security apparatus is controlled by Zhou Yongkang, who has already been weakened by the fall of his ally Bo Xilai and – now aged 69 – is due for retirement at the upcoming congress. This is an opportunity for prime minister Wen Jiabao, who has long talked about the need for political reform, but previously appeared powerless to do anything about it.
    __
    Dali Yang, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, said the two recent cases have given Wen ammunition to argue that current policies intended to maintain stability – particularly the excessive use of force – are counterproductive. Whether he takes the risk to push for change, however, remains to be seen….
    __
    “Chen Guangcheng’s flight occurs at a very delicate moment not only because of the Bo Xilai crisis but also the upcoming 18th party congress and more importantly because the party leadership is obviously divided about many substantive economic and political issues,” said Cabestan. “In the post-Arab spring, Bo Xilali crisis, not only Zhou Yongkang but the whole leadership have become more risk-adverse than ever: they are very much aware of the domino effect of Chen Guangcheng’s release.”

    The US does business with China, which has no problem repressing its own people, and killing Tibetans, but little freddie wants to pretend that it’s just about the US launching undeclared wars.

    Dope.

  34. 34
    danimal says:

    I don’t always agree with you, but my God, you are so right about the need for reprioritization in our FP discussions.

    The rights of people to not be killed have somehow become an afterthought. It’s not a good thing.

  35. 35
    Mino says:

    @Brachiator: Thanks for fleshing out the context.

    Hillary sure earns her salary, doesn’t she?

  36. 36
    handsmile says:

    @Mino: (#28)

    The asylum seeker you (and Andrea/Mrs. Greenspan?) may be referring to is Wang Lijun, police chief of Chongqing province hand-picked by Bo Xilai, whose unofficial visit to a US consulate in March seems to have precipitated Bo’s disgrace. As neither Wang or Bo has been seen from or issued any statement since their respective arrests, motives and virtually all else in the scandal remains speculative.

    From the NYRB article I linked to above:

    Wang, who had overseen a brutal crackdown on crime, had been targeted in a corruption investigation and fled to the US consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu. What he hoped to accomplish there is unclear. Some speculated he wanted to turn over dirt on his boss to the US government, but how that would help him is a mystery. Others say Wang requested asylum but this would have been naïve since the Americans have no way to ferry him out of the country, even if they had been inclined to give refuge to a man known for his “strike hard” police methods. Still others say that by fleeing to the US consulate Wang guaranteed he would be arrested by national state security instead of police working for Bo—credible reports say that Wang was fearful of Bo after he launched a corruption investigation against Bo’s family, which Bo stopped by sacking Wang. Perhaps most plausible is he simply fled in panic without a clear plan. In any case, a day after he entered the consulate he left and was taken into custody.

  37. 37
    Mino says:

    @handsmile: Thanks.

    Wonder if novelists are licking their lips anticipating what they could do with the convolutions?

  38. 38
    catclub says:

    @Mike Goetz: “We think nothing of deploying ordnance and changing regimes inconvenient to us.”

    If this is your read on how Libya went down, you are totally clueless.

    Not really, consider how much deliberation goes into spending
    a billion dollars in a year on,… say education, or healthcare, and compare that to the rate at which missiles and money were expended to operate a no fly zone.

    Was there concern about, How are we going to pay for this?
    What will we cut in order to pay for this? Why is that? When every other little thing must be both justified AND paid for without raising taxes, therefore needing to find some other cuts for it to go through, but not so for military adventures?

  39. 39
    Brachiator says:

    @Mino:

    Hillary sure earns her salary, doesn’t she?

    Oh hell, yes. To be fair, I had previously criticized some of her work at State. I am seriously reconsidering eating my words. Her trip to China is happening at a critical moment from the Chinese leadership. And so far she has not missed a beat.

    Some background on Chen Guangcheng from the BBC

    Born 12 Nov 1971
    __
    Nickname: The Barefoot Lawyer
    __
    Went blind as a child
    __
    Campaigned for women forced to have abortions or sterilisation under China’s one child per family policy
    __
    Jailed for four years in 2006 for disrupting traffic and damaging property
    __
    Released from jail in 2010 placed under house arrest
    __
    Daughter barred from school during much of 2011, reports say
    __
    Escapes house arrest, April 2012

    The activists who helped him escape did so at great risk to themselves.

    Meanwhile, the EU is urging China to show restraint.

    The EU has urged China to “exercise utmost restraint” in the case of Chen Guangcheng, the activist who fled house arrest last week.
    __
    China should avoid “harassment of his family members or any person associated with him”, it said, amid reports that some close to him had been rounded up.

    This incident is heating up, both as a human rights and foreign relations issue.

  40. 40
    Ben Franklin says:

    Sometimes you have to ignore the torpedoes and steam full ahead for what’s right.

    China is in the tank for the dollar. They need the cash flow. We won’t ever be able to
    nudge the current regime toward human rights awareness. They will do what is in their best Bizness interests. ‘Nuff said.

  41. 41
    Mino says:

    @Brachiator: Andrea M. mentioned the underground railway that got him 400 miles to sanctuary. And that some had been rounded up.

    In any case, I had read somewhere that China was rethinking its one-child policy because of the imbalance it was creating. So, again, there might be wiggle room.

  42. 42
    Brachiator says:

    @Mino:

    Andrea M. mentioned the underground railway that got him 400 miles to sanctuary. And that some had been rounded up.

    Interesting. Thanks for this.

    In any case, I had read somewhere that China was rethinking its one-child policy because of the imbalance it was creating. So, again, there might be wiggle room.

    It’s clearly beginning to cause demographics problems. And the question of forced sterilizations makes it another example in the sad worldwide war against women.

  43. 43
    Suffern ACE says:

    Well, I’m sure no matter what the administration does it will be declared a disaster and Mitt Romney will claim he would have done the opposite, which would also be a disaster, but demonstrate his keen business saavy. He’s becoming more like Newt Gincrich every day.

  44. 44
    eemom says:

    @Brachiator:

    The US does business with China, which has no problem repressing its own people, and killing Tibetans, but little freddie wants to pretend that it’s just about the US launching undeclared wars.

    Well after all, it’s not like more than one major foreign policy clusterfuck can exist at the same time. And it’s not like a situation involving a single person instead of many can unexpectedly cast a glaring light on an 800 pound gorilla like US impotence against Chinese human rights abuses.

    ‘Sides, “it’s also the case that we may be obligated under international law to provide him with sanctuary.” Sheeyit, fuck “foreign policy challenge” — this one’s a no-brainer.

  45. 45
    eemom says:

    @Brachiator:

    This incident is heating up, both as a human rights and foreign relations issue.

    Yup, and snark aside, it would have been awfully nice to have an intelligent post on the subject instead of Boy Wonder’s 4th grade composition.

  46. 46
    Clime Acts says:

    @Mino:

    Andrea mentioned the asylum seeker that we threw back a short time ago. One who was involved in the internal squabble taking place was handed back by our people. That might give us some wiggle room.

    That you, Alan Greenspan?

  47. 47
    Tony J says:

    @handsmile:

    Chinese police roughed up American movie star Christian Bale.

    Nitpick – Bale is Welsh (like Tom Jones, Richard Burton and the Sundance Kid), I don’t – think – he’s taken US citizenship.

  48. 48
    Brachiator says:

    @eemom:

    ‘Sides, “it’s also the case that we may be obligated under international law to provide him with sanctuary.” Sheeyit, fuck “foreign policy challenge”—this one’s a no-brainer.

    Unfortunately, nations can easily find weasel ways to ignore “obligations.” To paraphrase the pirate captain,

    “Hang the obligations. They’re more like guidelines anyway”

    Still, it is interesting to see that apparently the US is supplying the asylum. And according to one story I heard this morning, the Chinese government might be happy to see the dissident go into exile outside the country, but he wants to stay and find a way to continue his work.

  49. 49
    Amir Khalid says:

    @Tony J:
    The Welsh are, of course, British by nationality.

  50. 50
    mainmati says:

    @existential fish: Agreed. The Libyan Uprising was started by the Libyan people. Hello folks, this happened just last year, remember, not the 14th century? And Cameron and Sarkozy were the early and active interveners. Obama was reluctant for a long time and when people complain that he didn’t seek Congressional approval does anyone seriously think the GOP would have signed off on it? Because they have opposed nearly everything Obama has proposed. Guantanamo is one thing but Libya should be a no-brainer.

  51. 51
    ET says:

    Replace Chinese with Cuban and I wonder how this story would play out.

  52. 52
    Brachiator says:

    @ET:

    Replace Chinese with Cuban and I wonder how this story would play out.

    Wel, Cuba doesn’t have nukes and is not a major power, so a direct swap doesn’t work.

    Even so, it is much easier for Cubans to defect.

    Two Cuban actors who went missing in Miami 10 days ago en route to the Tribeca Film Festival have surfaced, announcing that they are indeed defecting to the United States.
    __
    “Una Noche’s” Javier Nunez Florian and Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre, both 20, made an appearance this weekend on America TeVe, a Miami Spanish-language station, saying that they were in good health and that they were seeking political asylum.
    __
    On Sunday morning in New York, a third Cuban actor in the film, Dariel Arrechada, and the picture’s British director, Lucy Mulloy, said they were gratified to learn of the pair’s safety. “We were just relieved that they were OK,” Mulloy said. “I spoke to them on the phone and told them it was an important decision and I was going to support them in whatever they wanted to do [here].”
    __
    The pair, who are a couple and are staying with relatives of De la Torre’s in Miami, have hired a lawyer to help with their asylum claim. They have not said whether they’ll continue to pursue acting careers in the U.S.

    Hope this helps answer your question.

  53. 53
    Odie Hugh Manatee says:

    It’s pretty sad when I can get more information about the whole story from the comments here than from the FP post.

    Facts always spoil a good firebagging.

  54. 54

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