2018 in Environmental Review for Southeast Asia


November 10, 2018

By: Gregory McCann

ttps://www.asiasentinel.com/society/2018-environmental-review-southeast-asia/

As 2018 comes to a close it is worth taking a look at the environmental trends throughout the year, with a special emphasis on those within the last six months or so, in order to gain an understanding of what has been happening to this region’s natural heritage and so that we might know what to look for in 2019—and how to address the upcoming challenges.

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A lloincloth-clad tribesmen blockading blockading logging roads in Malaysian Borneo.

While we can say that a lot has been happening everywhere, and this is especially true for Malaysia. The country produces durian that Chinese consumers covet. This means rain forests that are currently home to tigers are being converted into plantations so that more and more of the spiky, pungent fruit can be sold to China. That means bad environmental news, with China the driver. Furthermore, clearing forests will drastically reduce the number of pollinators such as bats and other wild animals, which will in turn lower the durian’s quality.

Another fruit—palm oil—is almost always the whipping boy for conservation problems in Malaysia (and beyond), however, the country is making headway in its own sustainable certification program, which attempts to incorporate Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs) into development blueprints across Malaysian Borneo. Nonetheless, huge development projects in Peninsular Malaysia are pushing the environment to the breaking point, with gargantuan Chinese-funded residential projects such as Forest City across the strait from Singapore serving as a striking case in point.

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However, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad recently shut down several Chinese Belt and Road projects.  Malaysia also wants to ban importing plastic waste, as well as single-use plastic straws. Nonetheless, serious problems remain. Even without the durians-to-China issue, tiger numbers are tumbling fast, scenic Langkawi island is coming under so much stress that it may lose its Unesco status, while in Sarawak the forest-dwelling Penan indigenous group continue to block bulldozers and fight for their traditional lands.

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Tabin Wildlife Reserve is located in the eastern part of Sabah, Malaysia

However, a rehabilitated Bornean orangutan was successfully rewilded in Sabah’s Tabin Wildlife Sanctuary, the first orangutan to fully return to the forest after such a long spell in captivity and rehabilitation, and a clouded leopard was sighted within the vicinity of a local hospital.

Across the Strait in Indonesia ecological issues are festering as well. While a new species of songbird has been identified on Rote Island, five other bird species have lost their protected status. The endemic Sumatran laughing thrush is fast disappearing, while the Helmeted Hornbill is relentlessly persecuted in Indonesia. The caged bird trade is bringing many species to the brink of extinction in the archipelago, and biologists say many forests where they work are becoming increasingly “quiet.”

Forest fires raged in South Sumatra and Riau provinces in 2018, and Chinese developers are stubbornly pushing ahead with a hydroelectric dam in the , home to the rarest species of orangutan in the world. The Critically Endangered Sumatra rhinoceros is still in big trouble but there is a movement on to save it, while a pregnant Sumatran tigress was caught and died in a pig trap in Riau.

Like Malaysia, Indonesia has a major palm oil problem, but the country’s anti-graft department says it’s ready to take action against transgressors who are felling natural forest and breaking other laws. Sadly, the Bali government wants to build an elevated highway right on top of some of its last undeveloped sandy beaches. The small volcanic island of Krakatoa in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra has spewed lava and ash this year.   Widespread deforestation, poaching, overfishing, and plastic pollution has been taking over this island nation. Indonesian Presidential contender Prabowo has said that if he is elected to office he will review China’s Belt and Road plans, which could include a cancellation of the , and a court in Aceh recently threw down its stiffest penalty to date for two men caught trying to sell a tiger pelt.

Asia Sentinel recently reported on the surprising number of wildlife to be found in Singapore today. Thailand also received high environmental marks in a recent Asia Sentinel critique, however, Thai-language media recently uncovered a story about a Vietnamese national caught with tiger bones in the kingdom— particularly worrying report as Vietnamese poachers are among the most tenacious in Asia.

Making matters worse, a new and improved road through Kaeng Krachan National Park will likely lead to greater disturbance to the forest’s wildlife, while a few provinces to the north a Burmese national gunned down a binturong. There is rising sentiment to build a Kra Isthmus Canal in Thailand. A large crocodile was caught off the Krabi coast, a whale shark was recently spotted of Koh Racha, and local conservationists have thus far succeeded in fending off a new marina development project in Phuket. However, the deluge of Chinese tourists into the kingdom is pushing Thailand to its breaking point, and it was largely Chinese tourists who are responsible for the closing of Maya Bay in Koh Phi Phi, which remains closed indefinitely so that it can recover.

In Laos, the Nam Theun 2 Dam has been such a disaster that its main financer, the World Bank, has thrown in the towel and walked away.  In Dead in the Water: Global Lessons from the World Bank’s Hydropower Project in Laos contributing author Glenn Hunt remarks: “For one of the pillars that was supposed to be the primary source of income, it’s been an unmitigated disaster.” With about 140 dams either under construction or on the drawing board in its quest to be the “battery of Asia,” Laos faces the potential for most disasters and large-scale environmental and social degradation in a country that has already lost its wild tigers, leopards and many other species.

Despite the tragedy that unfolded in Attapeu province when a large dam collapsed, Laos remains bullish about constructing more dams. And the dam-building frenzy is harming the environment and wildlife all around the country. And while a recent Guardian write-up describing the fantastic-look Nam Et-Phou Luey ecotourism program up in the north of the country describes a healthy tiger population in this region, perhaps the author was given old data.

Wild elephants are reportedly being skinned alive in Myanmar to satisfy a new Chinese demand—for “blood beads,” which are blood-filled chunks of elephant fat. The previous link provides a window into some twisted tastes: “The online trader wants his customers to know the elephant was skinned quickly, with blood still fresh in its veins.” Chinese demand for elephant skin used in bags in jewelry was already shocking, but things can always get worse when it comes to wildlife.

But in more uplifting news from the country, Irrawaddy dolphins are being given greater protection, and the government is also cracking down on illegal wildlife trade in the city of Yangon.

Taking note of how poorly elephants working in tourism are treated across Asia, Vietnam has launched the region’s first “ethical elephant experience.” The country has also taken an interest in seeing that its shrimp farming industry become more sustainable, while the government also recently signed a deal with the EU that promises a reduction in illegal logging (though some in neighboring Cambodia have serious doubts about this). We reported earlier this year that Vietnam’s wildlife is in rough shape, and things haven’t taken much of a turn for the better since.

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Virachey National Park—A major tourist attraction in Cambodia

And finally, Cambodia.  A recent camera-trap check in Virachey National Park so delighted the Ministry of Environment that he shared some of the photos on their Facebook page; even the Thai media took notice of the results. Asia Sentinel reported earlier this year that Cambodia is probably the last hope for Indochina’s wildlife, and this still holds true, despite the fact that nearly 110,000 snares were found in a single national park. A man was recently killed by a wild boar near the Cardamom Mountains, while Kratie province is cracking down on illegal mining, and at the same time the central government is demanding that villagers who grabbed national park land return it.

In other news from the region, the Maubere tribe of Timor-Leste is bringing back ancient customary laws to help protect its forests, seas, and coastline. Chinese demand for logs is wiping out the forests of the Solomon Islands. India is losing tigers and elephants, while two elephants were struck by a train and killed in Sri Lanka.

As always, China casts a menacing shadow over Southeast Asia, and nowhere is this more clear than on the Mekong River and in the South China Sea. The region, with the help of the US and Japan, must find a way to manage Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and beyond, and the some of the numerous dams that it has planned for the region have to be cancelled or scaled down.

Beyond that, Chinese citizens have to be educated about wildlife product consumption, including shark fins, tiger parts, bear gallbladder, elephant skin and blood, and much more, which have no known scientific value. And in a shocking and disturbing announcement,  China has said that it will lift its decades-old ban on the trading of tiger parts and rhino horn, a move that will almost certainly put these species in greater danger.  Or else one of the most biologically rich regions of the world loses everything that made it so special.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator of Habitat ID, and the author of Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. You can support his conservation projects in Cambodia and Sumatra here.

Hun Sen’s Power Paradox


November 9, 2018

Hun Sen’s Power Paradox

by Dr. Sorpong Peou, Ryerson University

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/11/07/hun-sens-power-paradox/

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Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is continuing to push the limits of personal power consolidation. While his strategies have been highly successful so far, they are likely to result in greater political insecurity in Cambodia.

Several concerning developments have emerged in 2018. Since the Supreme Court banned the main opposition party — the Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP — in November 2017, Hun Sen has further consolidated his power by appointing family members to top government positions.

Some of these promotions were of his children. For instance, in late 2017 Hun Sen appointed his third son, Hun Manith, as General Director of the General Directorate of Intelligence, a new intelligence unit designed to train spies for combat against terrorists and any suspected threat from ‘revolutionary’ forces. Hun Sen also promoted his son-in-law, Dy Vichea — former head of the Ministry of Interior’s Central Security Department — to Deputy Chief of the National Police. Most importantly, Hun Sen elevated his eldest son Lieutenant General Hun Manet (pic below) as a General (four star) following his promotion to Deputy Commander in Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF).

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These tactical moves are part of the Prime Minister’s long-term strategy to consolidate power, which has been in place since he removed his then co-prime minister, Norodom Ranariddh, from power in July 1997. Hun Sen has used coercive means to tighten political control over state institutions and co-opt loyal followers. Hun Sen now maintains tight control over the judiciary and electoral processes at both the local and national level and his party, the Cambodian People Party (CPP), dominates the bicameral legislature.

Why has Hun Sen carried out these tactical moves? For some commentators, they are simply a part of Cambodia’s entrenched political culture of authoritarianism, nepotism and patrimonialism.

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While there is some truth to this way of looking at Cambodian politics, it overlooks Cambodian leaders’ deep sense of insecurity, which drives them to weaken opposition forces by all means necessary. Hun Sen has been comparatively more successful than past Cambodian leaders in consolidating power, and is continuing to expand his domination of Cambodian politics after more than three decades.

Despite this success, Hun Sen still appears to feel insecure. His efforts to fill top government positions with family members are not simply about building a family business empire but rather about shutting down potential threats from within and without. This may explain why Hun Sen maintains a bodyguard unit of up to 6000 well-equipped and highly-paid troops.

Hun Sen’s sense of political vulnerability is also reflected in the words of Hun Manith, who reportedly said that the new General Directorate of Intelligence was designed to deal with ‘internal and external disturbance from a hostile and ill-intended group of people’ and that ‘the political and security situation and competition in the future will be more intense than in previous years’.

But Hun Sen is making the same mistake of the many Cambodian leaders before him: maximising political security by endlessly consolidating power. Hun Sen appears to believe that this strategy will continue to work for him. The problem with this strategy, though, may emerge from Cambodia’s external environment.

Hun Sen has taken advantage of the post-Cold War peace dividend and is also enjoying growing support from China. But he runs the risk of over-relying on Beijing’s support. The extent to which China is prepared to protect the CPP is difficult to determine, but what is clear is Chinese leaders’ long history of abandoning their allies when much was at stake. While Hun Sen may be aware of this possibility, his strategy to weaken domestic political challenges may increase his political insecurity.

Another problem with power consolidation through nepotism or patrimonialism is that it tends to invite resistance and opposition from both within the party and without. At some point, forces opposed to Hun Sen will grow stronger and nastier, especially if an economic downturn hits the country. And if Western democracies begin to impose sanctions on Cambodia, not only will ordinary Cambodians suffer, but the ruling elite will also face a legitimacy crisis. In this scenario, the CPP is likely to resort to even more repressive violence and may even end up self-imploding.

Current and future Cambodian leaders need to realise that security maximisation through unrestrained power consolidation is counterproductive and dangerous. Security does not necessarily result from others’ insecurity. But for this to happen would require CPP leaders to shift from a self-serving strategy to one that considers the security of others through effective dialogue and democratic power sharing.

Dr. Sorpong Peou is a Professor with the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, Toronto

Cambodia’s Assertive Foreign Policy


Cambodia’s Assertive Foreign Policy

ttps://www.khmertimeskh.com/50542473/cambodia-foreign-policy-in-defiance-of-hegemony/

EDITORIAL

Cambodia is keen to lead the Non-Aligned Movement, and revive its glory days when it was a bulwark against hegemonic powers. Reuters

Cambodia’s Foreign Policy stance is now more assertive after the formation of the new government in the Sixth legislature. Prime Minister Hun Sen is determined not to bend to international pressures and intervention, especially with regard to democracy and human rights.

Cambodia is building the foundation of democracy based on its own experiences and strengths. Recently, Prime Minister Hun Sen told Kyodo News in Tokyo that the Japanese model of democracy is more suitable in the a Cambodian context. Early this year, spokesperson of the Cambodian People Party (CPP), Mr Suos Yara, told media that the party’s interest was in pursuing a centrist democracy.

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In his remarks at the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in September, Mr Hun Sen stated, “human rights nowadays have become ‘a mission to impose civilisation’ for some powerful nations or, perhaps, as their operating standards as the pretext for the interference under the name of political rights protection”.

Moreover, during his talks with the Cambodian community, when he met them, in Tokyo early this month, the prime minister called upon Cambodians to stand up to defend their independence and sovereignty at any cost – even sacrificing foreign development assistance. He said, “If we Cambodians wish to be independent, we must be brave. I bow to no one”. So, what has made Cambodia more assertive?

At the global level the international system is becoming more uncertain, even anarchic, and the power shift from a unipolar to multi-polar world is in the making. There is no guarantee that a multi-polar world will be more stable. What we do know is that geopolitical risks and uncertainties are high.

In such an increasingly fluid international system – some analysts have argued that the world is entering a new Cold War – Cambodia is forced to be more cautious and determined to protect its independence and sovereignty especially under the framework of the non-aligned movement (NAM).

In his conversations with the Cambodian community in Brussels, Mr Hun Sen declared his intention to revive and lead NAM after getting re-elected in the seventh general election in 2023.

This signals that Cambodian ruling elites predict the world is moving towards a Cold War 2.0 and thus the need for Cambodia and other developing countries to stay independent and united to protect each other’s interests under the framework of NAM.

NAM, a group of independent states that do not want to align with any major power bloc, was formed in 1961 in the context of a heightening Cold War between the two opposing blocs led by United States and the Soviet Union. The then Prince Norodom Sihanouk was one of the founders of the movement. Now, NAM has more than 100 member countries.

At the regional level, ASEAN is thriving to stay neutral amidst a tug of war between China and the US. Some ASEAN member states are treaty allies and strategic allies of the US while other members have close strategic ties with China. ASEAN risks being divided if it cannot forge a united front and takea common stance on external relations.

Cambodian ruling elites are of the conviction that ASEAN is an important shield to ward off adverse impacts from geopolitical competition between major powers.

Aligning ASEAN with NAM will help ASEAN members become more resilient. ASEAN needs to expand and deepen its global networks particularly in strengthening its strategic partnership with global organisations such as the United Nations, NAM, and World Trade Organization to maintain and strengthen a rules-based international order.

At the national level, domestic politics is also evolving fast. In such a transitional period, the risks remain high for ruling elites to maintain the power status quo. The opposition or resistance movement remains active although some of them are quiet. The opposition movement is capable of organising a series of protests against the establishment if there is a leadership compounded with triggering factors. This in turn will lead to political and social instability.

Being aware of the risks, the Cambodian ruling elites have taken measures to counter and preempt future chaos that might be orchestrated by the opposition movement. Therefore, negotiations leading to political reconciliation and between the ruling party and the outlawed opposition party will be slow. Political trust is the main stumbling block of the national reconciliation process.

Within the context of rising uncertainties and risks at the global, regional and national levels, a strong, transformative political leadership is required. Whoever that can lead and navigate Cambodia through such uncertainties will earn public trust, confidence and support. Cambodia’s foreign policy will need to be more flexible and pragmatic in tactics and strategies but firm on core principles and values, which include independence, sovereignty, neutrality, and non-alignment.

Three foreign policy strategies that Cambodia should pursue are the promotion of a rules-based international system, smart implementation of a hedging strategy, and proactive strategic diversification. Building an international alliance against hegemonic power is one of the main objectives of Cambodia’s foreign policy in the new era.

Cambodia will chair the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in 2020 and ASEAN again, in 2022 in a rotating chairmanship. These are the two main occasions  when Cambodia can play its international role. In addition, in early 2019, Cambodia will launch the Asian Cultural Council, an affiliate body of the International Conference of Asian Political Parties, to promote its soft power through cultural diplomacy.

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Members of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces ready for deployment on peacekeeping missions. KT/Mai Vireak

There is an urgent need to create a new world order, not dictated by either the US or the European Union or one global policeman. Cambodia can pave the way for a new world that is non-aligned and joined together in the deepest feelings of fraternity and brotherhood.

General West Pointer and Economist Dr. Hun Manet Cambodia’s next Prime Minister?


October 18, 2018

General West Pointer and Economist Dr. Hun Manet Cambodia’s next Prime Minister?

Author: Jonathan Sutton, University of Otago

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/10/17/is-hun-manet-cambodias-next-strongman/

The perception that Hun Sen is establishing a family dynasty in Cambodia has been reinforced with the promotion of his eldest son Hun Manet to the second highest rank in the nation’s military earlier this month. The move came after several of the military’s top leaders, including then commander in chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) General Pol Saroeun, resigned in order to stand for political office in the July general election.

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Gen. Dr Hun Manet is a  West Pointer with A Doctorate in Economics from Bristol University ,United Kingdom

Hun Sen’s justification for promoting his son likely extends beyond simple nepotism. Although Hun Sen is still relatively young at 66 — and despite his repeated pledges to remain in power for at least the next decade — health problems have led to a number of trips abroad for treatment. A deteriorating condition could make it difficult for him to retain control of the country effectively.

But surrendering power in an authoritarian regime is a dangerous game. Leaders who do so give up control over the very political, economic and military resources that protect them from prosecution or internal competitors while in office.

Indeed, vulnerability to former opponents and rivals after leaving power is one of the reasons that so few non-democratic states are able to achieve stable, regular leadership turnover. It is also one of the reasons that so many authoritarian rulers try to remain in office indefinitely, only relinquishing power on their deathbed — or at gunpoint.

This concern for what might happen if Hun Sen were to leave power may be one of the driving motivators behind Hun Manet’s promotion. Along with the Prime Minister’s personal bodyguard unit, which is bigger than the militaries of some countries, a close member of the family with extensive military support would make anyone in a post-Hun Sen era think twice about coming after ‘the Strongman’.

If Hun Manet is indeed the designated heir (Hun Sen does have five other children, most of whom are politically active and well connected), his high rank in the military could also help to avert the kind of internal conflict seen last year in Zimbabwe. Competition between military and civilian factions over who would replace the ailing Robert Mugabe played a major role in his downfall. Indeed, Mugabe’s disastrous attempts to promote his wife in his place show that it is absolutely vital for a would-be heir to attract the support of senior elites in authoritarian regimes, with popular support (an area where Hun Manet does not excel) being less important.

At the same time, things may not be as simple as they appear. One puzzle is the question of why changes to the top military hierarchy have been so quick and so extensive. Having disbanded the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party last year, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was virtually guaranteed victory at the polls. Yet Pol Saroeun — one of the most prominent military figures in the regime since the fall of the Khmer Rouge — and two similarly long-serving and prominent deputies — Generals Kun Kim and Meas Sophea — were nominated by the CPP to step down and run for civilian positions.

The reasons for this sudden move are not entirely clear. In addition, the position of Commander in Chief of the RCAF has gone to the virtually unknown General Vong Pisen, who had only a small public profile in his position as deputy head of the National Military Police (recent stories are limited to his role in policing illegal logging along Cambodia’s border with Vietnam). Even more intriguing is the fact that several special military units formerly under Pol Saroeun’s command were transferred from the control of Vong Pisen to Hun Manet — a move that attracted little publicity.

These hints of a changing distribution of power within the RCAF have led some observers to suggest that Vong Pisen’s new position is ‘merely ceremonial’ — that Hun Manet is now the real force of power in the nation’s military. Together with the marked lack of change within the CPP following the election, others have argued that Hun Sen is making these moves because he still does not fully trust the military or other senior elites outside his own family. Hun Manet’s promotion may therefore be as much about securing Hun Sen’s control over the RCAF as it is about preparing his eldest son to become prime minister.

Even if Hun Manet’s promotion really is just about a future succession, it seems unlikely that he will be ready to take over from his father in the next few years. To avoid the kind of destructive internal divisions that could threaten the CPP’s hold on power in the event of a leadership change, Hun Manet needs to be able to convince senior elites that he is capable of independently retaining control as a strong ruler once his father has left the scene.

Although the boundary between party and military is becoming increasingly blurred, Hun Manet’s military credentials do not automatically equal party support. Whether he is capable of managing the endemic rivalries and factionalism that characterise the party remains to be seen.

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There is little positive evidence that Hun Manet has enough support among the Cambodian political elite to hold power on his own any time soon — a change of leadership in the kingdom still seems a distant prospect. For now, it is still Hun Sen’s regime.

Jonathan Sutton is a recent PhD graduate from the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago.

 

Book Review: The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam


October 14, 2108

By: John Berthelsen

https://www.asiasentinel.com/book-review/the-road-not-taken-edward-lansdale-and-the-american-tragedy-in-vietnam/

There was a time when Edward Lansdale was arguably the most famous American in Asia, ostensibly the model for the hero of the novel “The Ugly American” by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer and widely thought of – erroneously – as the protagonist of Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American,” both books about a US aid official in a war-torn Southeast Asian country, in Greene’s case Vietnam.

Today, Lansdale, who died in 1987, is largely forgotten. But during the 1950s and 1960s, he was a legend, a man who literally single-handedly turned around the Philippines, ending the Communist Hukbalahap revolution and installing as president Ramon Magsaysay, an incorruptible and effective leader in a shambolic country.  Purportedly an officer with the US Air Force, he was actually on a kind of permanent loan to the Central Intelligence Agency.

As Max Boot writes in this impressive, extremely well-researched biography, the decisions  by generations of American planners stretching from the Kennedys to Richard Nixon to ignore Lansdale’s advice on how to handle wars of rebellion and insurrection were beyond tragedy. Lansdale’s advice, which worked in the Philippines, was to combine clever propaganda with a dedication to democracy, of making sure that all levels of society had a stake in its success, and finding credible local political figures to work with.

It wasn’t just the Road Not Taken, the title of Boot’s 713-page history. Refusal to heed Lansdale resulted in what would arguably be the loss of Vietnam and the death of 2.5 million Vietnamese along with 56,000 Americans who should never have been there in the first place and who, once there,  did absolutely everything wrong.

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After his triumph in the Philippines, Lansdale was posted to Vietnam, where he took on the task of shepherding a truncated country in chaos after partition following the departure of the French, as a million Catholics fled the north. He became mentor to Ngo Dinh Diem, wreaking order out of the disarray and putting South Vietnam, as it was known, on what appeared to be a solid footing before he returned to the US in 1956

That was pretty much the end of Edward Lansdale’s effectiveness. He was posted back to the United States as the Kennedys and the hawks took over.  A long procession of Americans who knew little of the country’s history and cared less decided that Diem was a liability, saddled as he was with his autocratic brother and the brother’s harridan wife Madam Nhu. On Oct 31, 1963, with the Kennedys’ acquiescence, Diem and his brother were murdered in an armored personnel carrier.

On that same day, ironically, Lansdale was officially retiring at the Pentagon. As Blow writes, “While colleagues were delivering flowery toasts and speeches in honor of Lansdale, (Defense Secretary) Robert McNamara walked in. And he kept on walking, striding purposefully forward, one polished wingtip after another, never looking at what was going on through his polished spectacles, much less stopping to join in the tributes to a man who had left behind a successful advertising career to devote the last 21 years of his life to his country’s service.”

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It was McNamara, of course, who was the architect of America’s descent into the folly of the Vietnam War.

Lansdale didn’t leave the service of his country. He was instead put in charge by the Kennedy brothers of attempting to oust Fidel Castro from Cuba, something Lansdale from the start said would be folly. He argued against the disastrous attempt by the Kennedys to invade Cuba, using CIA operatives and anti-Cuban exiles, which ended up one of the administration’s worst embarrassments.  Dubbed Operation Mongoose, the campaign against Castro was characterized by loony attempts to poison El Jefe, to lay dynamite charges in seashells near where Castro swam and other stupidities

Lansdale would be rehabilitated somewhat by Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson and would return to Vietnam to head pacification efforts in a country that already was too far gone to be saved. US troop levels climbed and continued to climb. Lansdale was looked upon as a woolly-headed liberal by most of the establishment in the country – and by the press establishment as well, with the disdain particularly full-throated by David Halberstam of the New York Times and other establishment press figures.  I was there at the time as a correspondent for Newsweek Magazine, and Lansdale was pretty much a shadow. Few ever went to see him. We all were too busy covering the war by that time although a few still believed in his attempts to mold the country into something other than sadly what it became – a killing ground.

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Of course, the folly of the war was never in doubt. And the bigger problem was how American foreign policy followed Vietnam down the rabbit hole.

”The key American shortcoming, in the early twenty-first century, as in the 1960s, was the inability to constructively guide the leaders of allied states in the direction desired by Washington. The Kennedy administration had seen a downward spiral into a hostile relationship with Ngo Dinh Diem after Lansdale’s return home at the end of 1956. Something similar happened with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai and Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki under the Bush and Obama administrations. What was missing was a high-level American official who could influence those allies to take difficult steps such as fighting corruption without risking a blowup or backlash. Lansdale believed such tricky tasks could be accomplished by a ‘person who was selflessly dedicated to the ideal of man’s liberty, was sustained by spiritual principles of his own faith, was demonstrably sensitive to the felt needs of the people of a foreign culture and had earned their trust.’”

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Lansdale pulled it off twice. But reading Boot’s account, particularly of Vietnam, as official after official came and went, knowing nothing of the country and willfully refusing to learn while piling on the ammunition, is heartbreaking.

Boot was one of George Bush’s Vulcans, a right-wing neocon. But this book, written while he was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a remarkably level-headed and astute  account of how US foreign policy went wrong and how it remains tragically wrong today. The US remains tied up in Afghanistan 17 years after it entered, with no idea how to extricate itself. Nor is the country’s foreign policy any more nuanced or intelligent anywhere else.  With the current administration, which has emptied out the State Department, it is unlikely to get any better any time soon.