Book Review: Hun Sen’s Cambodia


April 14, 2015

BOOK REVIEW

Hun Sen’s Cambodia

by John Bethelsen

http://www.asiasentinel.com/book-review/book-review-hun-sen-cambodia/

In the western mind, as Sebastian Strangio so eloquently writes, Cambodia remains “nearly synonymous with the terror and mass murder that engulfed the country in the mid-1970s, when the Khmer Rouge seized power and embarked on a radical experiment in communism.”

Hun Sen's CambodiaThe country has struggled on from that period, modernizing and tearing down its forests, building dams and highways, destroying the gorgeous traditional architecture that once characterized Phnom Penh for the same faceless high-rises that have peopled so many Asian cities at the same time millions of tourists stream to the magnificent temple complex at Angkor Wat.

But in the 35 years since that devastating period, which took the lives of an estimated 2 million people in a senseless bloodletting on the part of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, the country has continued to attempt vainly to cope with its past. The United States especially, and other western powers should struggle with their own disgraceful role in that past, backing the murderous Khmer Rouge in a misguided attempt to contain the Vietnamese and their supposed ties to the then Soviet Union.

 Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for 25 of those years, has seen to it that except for one or two superannuated leaders, the rank and file have escaped judgment for their crimes. After negotiations got the trials back on track, “the only trial the United Nations wanted was one Hun Sen could not control.  The only trial Hun Sen wanted was one he could.”

The result is a country that has never come to terms with what happened. “There is no doubt Cambodia is in need of some sort of a reckoning, Strangio writes. “If there is one unifying theme to the country’s relationship with its ghastly past, it is this profound lack of resolution. After overthrowing the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the ruling CPP promoted rituals of remembering, but also of forgetting.”

Most of the survivors have simply picked up the pieces and moved on as best they could, some finding consolation in Buddhism and others simply choosing silence.

Much of the country’s recent history has been dominated by the presence of hundreds, perhaps thousands of foreign NGO workers attempting to rebuild the institutions that were simply demolished as Pol Pot set out in his appalling attempt to revolutionize the country. About a third of the foreign aid goes ‘technical assistance,’ “the hiring of highly paid foreign development consultants to write reports and project assessments,” he writes. “In 2002, donors paid 700 international consultants an estimated $50-70 million, an amount roughly equivalent to the wage bills of 160,000 Cambodian civil servants.” Dependence on this foreign ‘consultariat’ means that large amounts of aid simply flow back out of the country.”

That has meant that the country today is stuck in what Strangio calls a “dependence spiral,” in which the lack of government capacity to run it is matched by continuing aid disbursals.

“What started out as an investment in Cambodia’s future has evolved into an entrenched development complex that has eroded democracy, undermined the livelihoods of the poor, and given powerful elites a free hand to keep plundering the nation’s resources for their own gain.”

Nonetheless, the presence of those myriad international aid workers has managed to keep some rein on Hun Sen’s proclivities towards dictatorship. Cambodian society, Strangio points out, is considerably freer than most Asian nations, with “fewer political prisoners than China, Vietnam or Burma.  It jails fewer bloggers than Thailand or Vietnam and prosecutes fewer journalists than Singapore.”

More than 2,600 NGOs are registered with the government, 80 percent of them local. Civil society groups employ 42,000 people “who are involved in every conceivable area of government from good governance land rights, environmental conservation and gender equality to health care, anti-human trafficking and wildlife rescue. They work tirelessly to monitor and document government abuses of every sort and their reports are transmitted via a vigilant English language press.”

But it is difficult to call Cambodia a democracy. “Twenty years after the UN jump-started civil society in Cambodia, it lives on under Hun Sen as a mirage for the benefit of well-intentioned foreigners and donor governments.  While Cambodia remains freer than many other Asian countries, the outcome is a purposefully selective freedom.  Indeed, few countries have seen such a wide gap between norms and realities.”

But, as he points out, the mirage of democracy is clearly better than no democracy at all although it is a mirage nonetheless. While the NGOs have fought to clean up the unspeakable disaster that Cambodia was left with in 1979, the country more than anything else has swung back to being what it was prior to the enlightened leadership of Norodom Sihanouk, the modernizing, quixotic and beloved king who walked a decades-long tightrope between the contending powers that sought to impose their will on it.

There is undeniable change.  The young have had enough of Hun Sen and, in 2013 elections, almost certainly would have thrown him out if the election had been anything near free and fair.

But today, “If the past 30 years of Cambodian history have shown anything, it is that political changes imposed from the outside are often superficial, and only last as long as foreigners can bring political leverage to bear on the country’s leaders,” he writes. “Outside attention is refocusing. With growing aid and support from China, Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party have an escape hatch from western pressure.  Twenty years ago it might have seemed if Cambodia lay in a democratic slipstream. Now it seems like the dream of a half-forgotten age.”

Cambodia has been the subject of a long list of very good books since William Shawcross published his brilliant “Sideshow” in 2002. This is an articulate and valuable addition to that library, by a longtime resident and former Phnom Penh Post reporter who struggles, in 322 pages, to come to his own conclusions about the cataclysm that overtook a gorgeous country and which continues to play itself out today as the Chinese especially increase their sway.

‘The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security’


March 9, 2015

NY Times SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW

‘The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security’

In foreign policy, every success is just the start of the next crisis. Brent Scowcroft (above with President G.H.W. Bush) has pointed this out often in his four ­decades at the top of the American national security establishment. When the Soviet Union was conceding defeat in the nuclear arms race, he wondered if Gorbachev would instead “kill us with kindness.” When the Evil Empire was crumbling, he fretted about loose ­nuclear weapons and ethnic slaughter. When American troops were routing Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf war of 1991, he worried that “Iraq could fall apart,” leaving us to pick up the pieces. Again and again, this taciturn Mormon has been the Woody ­Allen of American foreign policy.

In “The Strategist,” his informative but inelegant biography of Scowcroft, Bartholomew Sparrow argues that this former national security adviser (to both Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush) and still-reigning wise man (as he nears his 90th birthday) could also be considered “the United States’ leading foreign policy strategist of the last 40 years.” But just as there are writer’s writers, Scowcroft is a foreign policy strategist’s foreign policy strategist, not widely known outside the guild. One of Ronald Reagan’s national security advisers cited him as a model; so did one of Barack Obama’s. “They all wanted to be Scowcroft,” one study says of his successors. Sparrow, a professor at the University of Texas, wants to narrow the gap between guild esteem and public acclaim.

But the qualities that account for this esteem make Scowcroft a tough subject for a biographer: How do you give color to the classic gray man? Journalists have ­described him as having “the gaunt demeanor of a church elder,” his words “carefully weighted to ensure that they contain not a gram more of information than their author wishes to convey.” Even after hours of interviews, Sparrow’s Scowcroft remains a steely and reticent figure.

As national security adviser, Scowcroft was known for being a trusted “honest broker,” scrupulous about presenting different views and sticking to a fair process for debating and deciding among them. He also brought an unglamorous focus on details, since strategies, he said, “succeed or fail depending on whether they are implemented effectively.” Sparrow tries to discern a strategic vision as he traces his subject’s central role in many of ­recent history’s main events. What emerges is less a coherent vision than a distinct ­temperament — one resistant to the temptations of wishful thinking and suspicious of promises of either easy war or easy peace. “We’re humans,” Scowcroft has said. “Given a chance to screw up, we will.” That temperament has surely frustrated more than one commander in chief looking for the simple choice or smooth way forward. But it also may, more than anything, explain Scowcroft’s celebrated record.

When he was coaxing the Cold War to a peaceful end, a foreign policy triumph for which Scowcroft deserves a nontrivial share of credit, he rejected triumphalism in favor of caution. He was always “very worried about all that could go wrong,” one former aide told Sparrow, ordering preparation for all manner of unintended consequence as others gloated. Soaring rhetoric made him wince; Reagan’s thunderously cheered call to “tear down this wall” struck him as a “lousy statement” that only “made it less likely that Gorbachev would tear down the wall.” When it did come down, Scowcroft resolved that there would be “no jumping on the wall.” If ever there was a real mission-­accomplished moment, this was it. Yet compare that response to the later Bush administration’s triumphant reaction to the fall of Baghdad.

This caution held true of more controversial turns in Scowcroft’s career as well. In the wake of the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Scowcroft was caught by news cameras giving a respectful toast on an unannounced trip to China. He thought it less important to project outrage or serve up punishment than to get the United States-China ­relationship back on track. What seemed the morally ­upright stance, Scowcroft argued, would do little more than provoke a backlash by an insecure Communist leadership. “If this meant appearing less than zealous about defending the human rights of Chinese dissidents,” Sparrow writes, “so be it.” But Scowcroft was denounced as “supine” by the just-departed American Ambassador, Winston Lord, “obscene” and “embarrassing” on the floor of Congress.

Scowcroft has called his approach ­“gardening,” designed to patiently foster long-term change. For vindication of the long view, Sparrow considers an earlier diplomatic effort that met with ­opprobrium: the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which at first seemed to trade acceptance of Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe for token concessions on self-determination and human rights. When the ­agreement was signed by the Ford administration, some White House aides protested, the president’s approval rating fell and even Ford’s own party blasted him in its 1976 platform for “taking from those who do not have freedom the hope of one day getting it.” Yet to Scowcroft, Helsinki’s token concessions would create a framework for more meaningful change. And ultimately, far from bolstering Soviet power, the ­accord turned out to be, in the assessment of the historian John Lewis Gaddis, “the basis for legitimizing opposition to Soviet rule.” Eastern-bloc human rights organizations started calling themselves Helsinki groups.

Since Scowcroft long prided himself on a “passion for anonymity,” it was a “shocking gesture,” in Sparrow’s words, when he took to The Wall Street Journal in 2002 to warn, under the headline “Don’t Attack Saddam,” of the dire consequences of an invasion of Iraq. The administration was staffed by protégés and former colleagues, and George W. Bush is the son of one of his best friends. To them, this public counsel was an act of betrayal — ­prophetic perhaps, but betrayal just the same. All the more so because, a decade earlier, Scowcroft had been a key advocate of using American military power to respond to Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

Scowcroft and His GeneralHonest broker: Scowcroft with General H. Norman Schwarzkopf in 1990

In both cases, despite the apparent tension, Scowcroft had been focused on the same goal: preserving order. When ­Hussein threatened to upset the ­existing order, he felt Washington had to respond. And when the Bush administration threatened the existing order, he also ­responded.

In the final years of the Cold War, Scowcroft’s conservative focus on order may have been sufficient: Progress was on his side. But today, at a time when the international system is changing, for better or worse, the imperatives have ­become more complicated, less clear-cut. Scowcroft ­acknowledged later that once the Cold War ended, “we were confused, ­befuddled. We didn’t know what was ­going on, and we didn’t think it mattered much.” Or as Sparrow puts it, he does not try to “alter the nature of the game; . . . he plays the game set before him.” It was Scowcroft who helped momentarily push and then retract the widely derided concept of “the new world order.”

At one point in “The Strategist,” ­Sparrow paraphrases Seneca: “Luck is the result of preparation coupled with ­opportunity.” Scowcroft would most likely agree. In looking back at his accomplishments, he talks of “guiding and managing forces,” of “not bucking a tide.” Even if the imperatives today are different, Scowcroft’s temperament is still a useful tonic. For if anything makes Scowcroft a “great man,” it is that he does not see great men (or women) as all that significant.

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, a member of the secretary of state’s policy-planning staff from 2009 to 2012, is an Eric and Wendy Schmidt fellow at the New America Foundation. He is writing a book about George Marshall.

A version of this review appears in print on March 8, 2015, on page BR24 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: On His Watch

NY Times Book Review: ‘Hell and Good Company’, by Richard Rhodes


March 7, 2015

Sunday Book Review

‘Hell and Good Company’, by Richard Rhodes

Paul BermanIs it possible to speak intelligently about supremely ideological political events from a standpoint that airily dismisses the supremely ideological politics? Richard Rhodes has put this question to a test by writing an aggressively anti-ideological history of one of the most extravagantly ideological events that has ever occurred, the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.

The Spanish war broke out because, on one side, the radically leftist Socialist Party pushed the Republican government ever further to the left, and large parts of the labor movement pushed still more sharply leftward, unto the zones of collectivist and libertarian revolution — and because, on the ­opposite side, the national army and most of the Catholic Church and other parts of society veered sharply rightward, unto the nether regions of the fascist extreme. And, well, the two sides could not get along. Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin made their own specialized contributions. Three years of this and Generalissimo Francisco Franco became the caudillo of Spain, and wartime atrocities gave way to peacetime atrocities.

From Rhodes’s standpoint, though, the various sane and insane doctrines and intrigues that entered into these events need not concern us overmuch. His preface explains: “Spain today is a democracy. Who was a Communist, who a fascist, who connived with whom in the Spanish labyrinth are questions for academics to mull.” No one will mistake the dagger thrust in Rhodes’s remark, and connoisseurs of the literature of the war will recognize that his anti-academic blade is directed, in particular, at the historian Gerald Brenan, who wrote a classic study called “The Spanish Labyrinth.” Brenan was not, as it happens, an academic. He was a Bloomsbury bohemian. Still, he was a meticulous scholar. He knew exactly who was a Communist and who a fascist. Also, who was a Republican, a Catalan Socialist, a non-Catalan Socialist, a non-Soviet Leninist, an anarchist, an anarcho-syndicalist, a nationalist (Spanish, Basque, Catalan), a Catholic ultra-rightist, a monarchist and so on. Gerald Brenan was a great historian.

Rhodes (right), by contrast, prefers to tell “the human stories that had notRhodes yet been told or had been told only incompletely.” And he wishes to recount the “technical ­developments of the war.” He recruits a little platoon of wartime protagonists for these purposes, and he sends these people marching episodically through the Spanish events, in the expectation that as the anecdotes pile up, he will succeed in ­revealing something new and significant. It cannot be said that he reveals great numbers of previously unknown personalities.

Last year, Amanda Vaill published her own anecdotal history of the Spanish Civil War, “Hotel Florida,” in which she described the largely English-speaking circle that populated the Madrid hotel of her title, where Ernest Hemingway stayed. Rhodes has selected the central figures of his book, too, from the same crowd at the same hotel — the New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews, the British scientist J. B. S. Haldane, the American volunteer soldier Robert Merriman, the journalist Martha Gellhorn and onward to Hemingway himself.

Rhodes draws the tone of his narrative from these people and their writings — clenched, grim, occasionally lyrical, dashing and stoical, in the 1930s style. He draws from them a simplifying picture of the war. He describes Franco as a “43-year-old traitor” and the enemies of Franco as “the long-suffering Spanish people,” which shows that Rhodes’s heart is in the right place, and his commitment to nuanced description is in the wrong place. He also draws from these individuals a good many of his military details — from Matthews and Haldane especially, as if these men were eyewitnesses with solid reputations for accuracy. The solidity of Matthews’s reputation melted into liquid long ago, mostly because of his naïveté about Communism, and as for Haldane, he was notorious for applying the principles of Stalinism even to hard science, which for some reason seems to leave Rhodes unconcerned.

Rhodes himself is under no delusions about Soviet policy in Spain. He records some of the attacks by Soviet security men and Spanish Communists on the non-Communist left, which undid the anti-fascist cause. And he recounts anecdotes about a couple of additional English-speaking writers, John Dos Passos and George ­Orwell, who composed ferocious criticisms of their fellow English speakers in Spain for failing to understand those particular attacks and even for colluding in them — immortal criticisms, which have become staples of the ­modern liberal sensibility. But these immortal ­criticisms bear on precisely the controversies that Rhodes prefers to leave to academics, which means that on this topic, his book has nothing to contribute.

He does recount a number of stories about wartime medical developments, and these passages make up his best ­pages. He introduces us to Frederic Duran Jordà, a Catalan doctor who pioneered a technique for administering blood transfusions, and to a Canadian doctor named Norman Bethune who advanced the technique. He mentions the Communist International, too, and hints at its ability to mobilize medical professionals around the world, which is the sort of undertaking that lent Communism its prestige in those years. But the politics of medicine is likewise not his theme.

Homage_to_Picasso__Guernica

Still another strand of his narrative follows Pablo Picasso, in Paris, as the artist goes about painting his civil war protest mural, “Guernica.” The politics of art does not arouse Rhodes’s curiosity. The mural does lead him, though, to discuss the aerial attack on the city of Guernica by Franco’s German and Italian allies in 1937, which was Picasso’s subject. And the attack plunges Rhodes into the arcana of military technology — a congenial topic for him, as shown by the best-known of his previous books, his entirely admirable “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” He ­recites the names of airplanes and the components of explosives.

Guernica, he tells us, was bombed by a German twin-engine Dornier 17 with a “long, narrow, tubular fuselage,” ­followed by Italian Savoia-Marchetti 79 trimotors, followed by a Heinkel 111B with Fiat fighter escorts, followed by Junkers-52 trimotor bombers with “corrugated duralumin fuselages,” which dropped, among other things, incendiaries: “The two-pound incendiaries — tubes 14 ­inches long and two inches in diameter of Elektron (an alloy of 92 percent magnesium, 5 percent aluminum and 3 percent zinc) filled with thermite — were packed in droppable metal dispensers each holding 36 bombs.”

Rhodes' BookHere, at last, is a topic for academic pedants! Still, something is to be said for reciting airplane names. Rhodes ­observes correctly that during the war, the Axis powers provided military support to their right-wing allies in Spain, and the Soviet Union likewise to the Spanish Communists. But the Western democracies ­declined to support the Spanish democrats. Anti-interventionism was the principle of the hour among the Western powers; and the hour concluded with democracy’s defeat and a fateful forward lurch for the fascists of Europe and the outbreak of a much wider war. The names of those Heinkels and Junkers and Savoia-Marchettis drive the point home, and a gloomy home it is — doubly gloomy if you take the occasion to reflect on our own era of Russian and Iranian eagerness to intervene, and Western reluctance to intervene, in the internationalized civil war of the present catastrophic moment, which is in Syria.

Paul Berman is a columnist at Tablet and the author of “Power and the Idealists,” among other books.

NY Times Book Review: ‘Thieves of State,’ by Sarah Chayes


February 23, 2015

Sunday Book Review

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/books/review/thieves-of-state-by-sarah-chayes.html?ref=books

‘Thieves of State,’ by Sarah Chayes

Chayes’s “Thieves of State” makes a strong case that acute corruption causes not only social breakdown but also violent extremism. She calls this a “basic fact,” showing that where there is poor governance — specifically, no appeal to the rule of law and no protected right of property — people begin a search for spiritual purity that puts them on a path to radicalization.

Thieves of State_978-0-393-23946-1

Across much of the world, populations suffer daily shakedowns by the police. At roadblocks, market stalls and entrances to government buildings, thugs in uniform gather “like spear fishermen hunting trout in a narrows,” as Sarah Chayes writes. But that isn’t the half of it. Globally, the three most important desiderata of our age — security, resilience and poverty reduction — are consistently being hollowed out by structural theft on a much larger scale, operating across corporations, governments, military establishments and civil services.

One key reason the United States and its allies have struggled to establish sustainable democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq is that the governments of those countries are mired in graft, caught in a mafia-like system in which money flows upward. The same goes for parts of Africa and Asia, and most of the former Soviet Union. The tenure of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, is being defined by his war on corruption, and in December President Hassan Rouhani of Iran spoke out against corruption there.

Chayes’s “Thieves of State” makes a strong case that acute corruption causes not only social breakdown but also violent extremism. She calls this a “basic fact,” showing that where there is poor governance — specifically, no appeal to the rule of law and no protected right of property — people begin a search for spiritual purity that puts them on a path to radicalization.

In a limited sense, this is Chayes’s own story too: A former reporter for NPR in AlgeriaSarah Chayes and Afghanistan, she abandoned journalism to work for a nongovernmental organization in Kandahar, then was a social entrepreneur there on her own account, finally becoming an adviser on corruption to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff. She (right) is now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Her personal narrative is even more complicated than any summary might suggest. In 2001, Chayes helped found a charity “of unclear mission,” run by President Hamid Karzai’s Baltimore-based elder brother, Qayum, about whom she has this to say: “Not for years would I begin systematically comparing his seductively incisive words with his deeds. Welded to his brother’s interests, he behaved in ways that contradicted his language so starkly that for a long time I had difficulty processing the inconsistency.”

KarzaiElsewhere “those brothers” (there are six besides Hamid Karzai himself) are characterized as “self-serving,” with the younger half-brother Ahmed Wali singled out as someone “who stole land, imprisoned people for ransom, appointed key public officials, ran vast drug trafficking networks and private militias, and wielded ISAF like a weapon against people who stood up to him.” This, mind you, was also someone at whose house Chayes had dinner one night in 2003, in the course of which she watched C.I.A. officers “hand him a tinfoil-wrapped package of bills.”

Her experience corroborates an October 27, 2009, report in The New York Times,John Kerrry which stated that Ahmed Wali Karzai was on the C.I.A. payroll. It also prompts one to wonder at Senator John Kerry’s response at the time. “We should not condemn Ahmed Wali Karzai or damage our critical relations with his brother, President Karzai, on the basis of newspaper articles or rumors,” he said.

Ahmed Wali Karzai was assassinated by a police official and longtime confidant on July 12, 2011. About six years before that, Chayes severed her own relationship with the Karzais. After leaving for a few months, she returned to Kandahar in May 2005 with a project that, on the surface, could never smell of corruption and intrigue.

Armed with an oil press and $25,000 from Oprah Winfrey, she set up a cooperative producing scented soap and beauty products, taking advantage of Afghanistan’s horticultural riches. But she soon found that even this innocuous activity put her on the sharp end of corruption, as she tried to do simple things like deposit money in a bank without paying a bribe for the privilege of doing so. So she began, in an amateurish way, to develop ideas for limiting corruption in places like Afghanistan.

Very quickly, the amateur became professional. Chayes was soon called upon by NATO and ISAF to give expert briefings with a focus on anti-corruption measures. “ ‘Sally the Soap-Maker Gives an Ops Brief’ was how I jokingly came to refer to my main presentation,” she writes. This led to a job with ISAF, and then another as special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flitting between Washington and Kabul as the United States laboriously and somewhat unwillingly developed an anti-corruption strategy for Afghanistan.

Any such strategy was bound to conflict with political and military exigencies, which presumably explains Kerry’s response to the report in The Times. But Chayes’s Afghan interlocutors told her again and again that poor governance was actually what was perpetuating the conflict, with graft generating disenchantment and driving people toward the Taliban. “Western officials,” she writes, “habitually flipped the sequence: First let’s establish security, then we can worry about governance.”

Ordinary Afghans, meanwhile, took Western inaction on corruption as approval. Aid just added to the problem, in Chayes’s view: “Development resources passed through a corrupt system not only reinforced that system by helping to fund it but also inflamed the feelings of injustice that were driving people toward the insurgency.”

Chayes refers to the body of medieval and Renaissance advice literature known as “Mirrors for Princes” to contextualize current abuses of government. She begins with the most famous mirror of all, Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” but it is lesser-known figures like William of Pagula and John of Salisbury who give her the most ammunition. She also uses the “Siyasat Nameh” — the “Book of Politics” — of the 11th-century Persian administrator Nizam al-Mulk.

Among the counsels that Nizam al-Mulk gave his sultan was: Listen to the griev­ances of your subjects directly, without intermediaries. Chayes argues that the ­voices of a majority of Afghans are drowned out by the Taliban on one side and by the Karzai government on the other. ISAF, she says, listened only to the government.

Many of the other countries Chayes brings into this chatty study (“John of Salisbury, as usual, nailed it”) show similar patterns. In each case, there are slightly different “variations on a theme,” as she has it, ranging from the military-­kleptocratic complex (Egypt) to the bureaucratic kleptocracy (Tunisia), the post-Soviet kleptocratic autocracy (Uzbekistan) and the resource kleptocracy (Nigeria). In her epilogue, titled “Self-­Reflection,” Chayes also discusses Western countries and the global financial crisis of 2008.

This is an important book that should be required reading for officials in foreign service, and for those working in commerce or the military. The story will interest the nonspecialist reader too, though the balance of exciting narrative, academic discourse and policy-wonk-speak will unsettle some. Indeed, Chayes touches on how language itself becomes corrupt. The standard terminology of military and diplomatic engagement (and much corporate rhetoric) is often evasive, with usage reflecting differences in value systems — as when assassination by drone is described as “targeted killing.”

While I am in full agreement with what Chayes says, I found her own prose style raising my hackles on occasion, with its effortful interpolations of color (“the legendary but painfully dilapidated blue and white Mediterranean port city of Algiers”), verbs on steroids (“I wheeled and strode over to our battered red pickup truck, clambered aboard, and roared off to the bank”), and its chapters that begin with such sentences as “Wait a second.” I did, but I wish she had.

Giles Foden is the author of “The Last King of Scotland.”

Malaysia, Singapore and two views on the last 50 years


February 19, 2015

Malaysia, Singapore and two views on the last 50 years

Bilahari-Kausikan-Singapore2by Bilahari Kausikan For The Straits Times

A new book fails to give due weight to the cooperative aspect of bilateral ties, says the writer.

I have known Tan Sri Kadir Mohamad, the former KSU (the equivalent of our Permanent Secretary) of Wisma Putra, for more than 30 years. We first met in 1984 when he was the Deputy Chief of mission at the Malaysian Embassy in Washington, DC and I was a newly minted First Secretary at our embassy.

In the subsequent decades our paths often crossed – the world of Kadir's BookSouth-east Asian diplomacy is not large and Malaysia is our closest neighbour – and on occasion I worked with him in ASEAN and on some bilateral matters. So when I heard that he had written a book on Malaysia-Singapore relations, I hastened to procure a copy.

The content was as I expected: a very journeyman-like effort. There were no significant errors of fact on bilateral issues that I could detect. Mr Kadir is nothing if not a consummate professional, and contrary to popular belief, good diplomats of every country generally tell the truth and stick to the facts, although there is no obligation to always tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Bilahari's ST article Malaysia and Singapore: Two Systems, One World

In any case, all the most important facts have long been placed in the public domain, mainly by Singapore in answers to parliamentary questions or by the release of documents on water talks more than a decade ago. A reader expecting dramatic new revelations will be disappointed.

Mr Kadir’s interpretations of the facts are of course different from the interpretations that I or other Singapore diplomats would have placed on the same facts. But that is only to be expected, and I am not inclined to quibble with him.

A different interpretation cannot change the most important fact of all: On almost every bilateral issue the book deals with – water, Pedra Blanca, the bridge and land reclamation – the outcome was not one that Malaysia had set out to achieve.

Diplomats try to promote their countries’ interests. So it is entirely understandable that in the twilight of his career, a distinguished Malaysian diplomat would want to place his version of events on the record and vent a little. It would be churlish to deny him even this satisfaction.

I will only take issue with his conclusion, encapsulated in the title of his book and the thread running through it, that it has been “Fifty Years Of Contentions”. Of course, Malaysian and Singapore interests often clashed. Relations between neighbours are always more complicated than relations between distant countries. But the interests of our countries have at least as often coincided.

Diplomacy is not, or at least ought not to be, a zero-sum game. Nor should any one aspect of any relationship be allowed to colour the entire relationship.

Although we contended over bilateral matters, Malaysia and Singapore have simultaneously worked together very well on other issues, for example as we did in ASEAN and the United Nations during the decade-long struggle in the 1980s – which coincided with some tense episodes in bilateral relations – to prevent a fait accompli in Vietnamese-occupied Cambodia. We still cooperate closely in ASEAN.

And even when the outcome of bilateral contentions was in Singapore’s favour, Malaysian interests were not irrevocably hurt. The 2010 agreement on the implementation of the 1990 Points of Agreement on railway land was beneficial to both countries. Malaysia still buys cheap processed water from Singapore.

After 18 years, Kadir’s search for letter still goes onMr Kadir’s failure to give sufficient recognition to the cooperative aspect of bilateral relations is, I think, due to the over-emphasis he places on what he describes as Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s “baggage full of bitterness and a heart filled with anger” over Separation. He describes his book as “…the story of how one man dictated the form and substance of relations…”

Separation was of course a traumatic event for both countries that did indeed shape and set in motion the essential dynamic of Malaysia-Singapore relations. But not in the way Mr Kadir thinks it did.

He places far too much emphasis on the personal element. It is undeniable that Mr Lee was a dominant personality in Singapore politics and policy making for many years. But I suspect that in trying to understand Singapore, Mr Kadir looked in a Malaysian mirror and saw Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Both were dominant personalities in the government and politics of their respective countries but not in entirely the same way. Far more than Dr Mahathir, Mr Lee worked within and respected the Cabinet system. Mr Lee was acutely aware that any agreement he reached with Malaysia had to outlast his tenure in political office and even his lifetime and therefore sought collective agreement.

By contrast, even after he retired as Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir attempted to influence the way his successors dealt with Singapore on bilateral issues when he did not agree with them. Many Malaysians certainly believe he tries to influence Malaysian domestic politics and policies to this day.

And the metaphor of “baggage” used by Mr Kadir and others is a singularly inappropriate – and simplistic – way to try to understand the complex dynamic of bilateral relations set in motion by Separation. “Baggage” connotes something that is carried by an individual or a group of individuals and which can be jettisoned or changed if necessary. The implication is that if this does not occur, it is only because those individuals are unwilling to do so or have been prevented from doing so. And Mr Kadir argues, or at least strongly implies, that this was what in fact Mr Lee did.

But the reason for Separation, or rather the reason why, as Mr Kadir bluntly and perhaps less euphemistically argues in his first chapter, “it was necessary to expel Singapore” goes far beyond individual personalities.

Singapore is organised on the basis of multiracial meritocracy. Malaysia is organised on the principle, politely described in Article 153 of its Constitution as “the special position of the Malays”, but more popularly and politically potently understood as “Ketuanan Melayu”.

Time has eased the sharp edges of Separation, and time will certainly ease them further. But it is difficult to conceive of either Singapore or Malaysia discarding their respective fundamental organising principles. They are embedded in our societies and political systems, not by the will or whim of any individual, however powerful, but by the collective choice of the majority in both countries.

There are of course Singaporeans who do not agree with the Government and some do not like Mr Lee. Some Singaporeans may well already have only the vaguest of notions of who Mr Lee is and what he has done. But I have yet to meet any serious-minded Singaporean who really wants to abandon our fundamental organising principle and adopt something akin to the Malaysian system.

Nor can I imagine Article 153 of the Malaysian Constitution ever being repealed. We may have been once one country, but are now and for evermore two countries. The existential tension between two countries organised on fundamentally irreconcilable political principles that defines the dynamic of Malaysia-Singapore relations is not going to go away and so must be managed and is being managed.

Once this is understood, a balanced and holistic view of Malaysia-Singapore relations becomes possible. It is a relationship based, like every other interstate relationship throughout history, on national interests, some of which will converge and some of which will diverge.

The complications in Malaysia-Singapore relations are the inevitable ones of proximity and an entangled history. They have some special characteristics, but that is in general not particularly unusual between neighbours anywhere. Every close relationship has its own special characteristics.

It is the purpose of diplomacy to broaden the area of convergence between national interests whenever possible and manage the tensions when interests diverge. That Singapore and Malaysian diplomats – Mr Kadir included – have succeeded in doing so at least as often as we have failed should not be overlooked.

Even if Mr Kadir is right that “the bitterness and anger towards Malaysian leaders that engulfed Lee Kuan Yew on 9 August 1965 … remains with him until this day” – and I think Mr Kadir is profoundly mistaken, entirely misreads Mr Lee, and may well be unconsciously projecting some of his own attitudes onto him – it did not prevent Mr Lee from concluding what was, until the 2010 railway land agreement, the most important Malaysia-Singapore agreement: The 1990 Linggiu Dam agreement.

In his speech at the launch of Mr Kadir’s book, former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi cut to the core when he said Malaysia cannot blame Singapore entirely for bilateral problems, but “… must also look at ourselves in the mirror”. Good advice.

The writer, a former Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs, is now ambassador-at-large.

– See more at: http://www.straitstimes.com/news/opinion/invitation/story/malaysia-singapore-and-two-views-the-last-50-years-20150218#sthash.CFPsvDRx.dpuf

Note: Tan Sri Kadir Mohamad’s book should be read along with Dr. Lily Zubaidah Rahim’s Singapore in the Malay World: Building and breaching regional bridges (New York: Routledge,2010) and Dr. Michael Leifer, Singapore’s Foreign Policy: Coping with Vulnerability  (London: Routledge, 2010).

 

Book Review: ‘Huck Finn’s America’ by Andrew Levy


February 16, 2015

BOOKS of the Times

Fresh Terrain in Huck’s Adventure

‘Huck Finn’s America’ by Andrew Levy

Reviewed by

mark_twain2Mark Twain

The famous preface to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” reads like a goad: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

No book is as regularly ransacked. Bowdlerized, when not outright banned, from the moment of its publication in 1884, it has been read like a rune and interrogated for its embodiment of American anxieties about race and freedom and language, the call of the open road (or river). “The brilliance of ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ ” Toni Morrison wrote, “is that it is the argument it raises.”

In “Huck Finn’s America,” a capacious, companionable study of the novel, some 20 years in the making, Andrew Levy allows that, “One doesn’t say anything new about Huck Finn — a fact that, in itself, is not even a new thing to observe.” But in sifting through the scholarship, he discovers contemporary readers might have been misconstruing the book. We understand “Huck Finn” as a story for children and also a serious book about race. But in Mark Twain’s time, it was the other way around: The novel was regarded as lighthearted minstrelsy that contained a pointed and controversial critique of how childhood was being debated.

“The current fight over ‘Huck Finn’ is most recognizably a fight over the ‘n-word,’ ” — which appears more than 200 times in the book — “and whether or not the book ought to appear in secondary school Andrew Levyclassrooms,” Mr. Levy, an English Professor at Butler University, writes. But in the 1880s, another noisy public discussion reigned.

Children were being conceived of as a social class for the first time. Public playgrounds and pediatricians had started appearing. The number of public schools increased, and compulsory attendance came to be enforced. There were battles over corporal punishment and whether dime novels (the video games of their day) were a dangerous influence. With “Huck Finn,” Twain “was contributing something more than a lighthearted ‘boy’s book,’ ” Mr. Levy writes. “He was thinking and speaking about literacy, popular culture, compulsory education, juvenile delinquency, at risk children and the different ways we raise boys from girls, and rich from poor.”

Debates about race simmered at the time, too — Reconstruction began collapsing in those years — but Mr. Levy says Twain was less central to that conversation. “He was somewhere nearby, ingenious, outraged, self-interested, vastly more interested in how many Americans play with race than in how they rise above it, or render its terms obsolete at the ballot box.”

Twain began composing “Huck Finn” in the summer of 1876, Mr. Levy writes, in a “little octagonal study filled with cats” in Elmira, N.Y. Life seeped into the writing; Twain’s small daughter Susy, a terrific liar and a terrible speller, acted as partial model for Huck, and the book’s central plot derived from a real incident. A friend of Twain’s once found a fugitive slave hiding out on an abandoned island and tried, and failed, to help him. The slave was caught, mutilated and murdered.

Mr. Levy shows that much of the violence in the book, abhorred by critics at the time, was ripped from life. Twain’s childhood was filled with gothic horrors — he watched his father’s autopsy through a keyhole — and the newspapers of the day served up a steady fare of thrilling savagery. “I have to have my regular suicide before breakfast, like a cocktail, and my side-dish of murder in the first degree for a relish and my savory assassination to top off while I pick my teeth and smoke,” Twain wrote.

The papers at the time were especially excited by a new menace: feral boys, “made morbid by the habit of reading,” an editorial cautioned. “Victims as well as the patrons of the literature of crime.”

One of the most sensational stories of the day bore some resemblance to “Huck Finn”: the case of William Berner, the “boy murderer” of Cincinnati, who, with an accomplice, an older black man named Joe Palmer, robbed and killed their employer with so many different methods that multiple counts of murder were issued. Riots followed the trial, and editorials blamed another black man for inciting the violence, suggesting that, as with the “boy murderer” case, black men “seemed to open the gates to civil unrest, just or criminal. And boys, especially white ones, were always ready to rush through.”

Reformers began calling for more public schools, which gave rise to a fresh set of worries (all of them very familiar). Was the family being supplanted by schools and media? Was the new education system breeding pampered narcissists?

Huckleberry FinnThe Book I read when I was a School Boy –DDM

At the time, taking children’s stories seriously — by “writing about children as children alone meant taking sides with the reformers,” Mr. Levy writes. But Twain’s fictional children were victims and villains, sanctified by their unruliness, blasphemy and self-sufficiency — and openly contemptuous of becoming “sivilized,” as Huck might say, let alone suffering the indignities of standardized education.

Mr. Levy is excellent on Twain, on his drawl, his gait, his evolution on race matters — from youthful racism to passionate believer in the reparations owed former slaves — and even better on his contradictions. Twain, Mr. Levy reminds us, a friend to Frederick Douglass and benefactor of black college students, also commissioned the grotesque drawings of Jim for the novel and had a cheerfully proprietary relationship with black culture. “He saw that you could play with race: you could produce blackness. And you could make money-making blackness.”

The novel, though, too often feels like a shadowy presence in Mr. Levy’s book. We don’t get nearly enough of the text, which creates a curious distance — as if a doctor were examining a patient from the next room. Without the story closer at hand, Mr. Levy seems to pronounce and exalt rather than to delve and persuade. He repeats himself; chapters eddy instead of build.

But Mr. Levy lands his crucial point with feeling. The book, though familiarly cast as a fable about youth or racial progress, is, in fact, a brutal story about vulnerability, abuse and violence (some 13 bodies are very imaginatively dispatched) and a more deeply conflicted book about race than most readers realize. “These two mistakes are really twins of one mistake,” Mr. Levy has said in an interview. “Both signify that we, as Americans, are too easily convinced that we are moving forward when sometimes we are moving in circles.”

It’s peculiarly American amnesia, he says, a way of forgetting built into the very architecture of “Huck Finn.” In the sourest happy ending in literature, Huck learns from Jim that the brutal father he has been running from was long dead, that he has essentially been moving in circles. His last words to us are bitter, “I been there before.”