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So touching to see the Obamas’ expression of sympathy for Nigerian girls kidnapped and enslaved by Jihadists — except that the Obama administration supported Jihadists who enforce female genital mutilation, namely Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. One would think that some feminist somewhere in the mainstream media would have the perspicacity to ask Jay Carney whether the Muslim Brotherhood’s aggressive defense of FGM is sufficient grounds to repudiate the organization. The hypocrisy of the Obamas vies for vileness with that of the MSM.

Dr. Dre and Putin

May 9th, 2014 - 4:12 pm

Unlike Pat Buchanan and some other conservatives, I don’t think that Vladimir Putin’s support of traditional values makes him a good guy. Freedom comes first. I also support traditional values but I don’t want the government to shove them down my throat. Banning obscenity from entertainment media, Putin’s latest ukase,  would keep Shakespeare, Goethe and Dante out of circulation in their original form, not to mention Rabelais or Villon.

What we do with our freedom is another thing. Apple has just bought Dr. Dre’s earphone company for $3.2 billion, making the rapper one of the country’s wealthiest men. One presumes that the selling point of his earphones is not their superior technical characteristics but their association with Dre’s rapping, which is too disgusting to illustrate on this site; readers may satisfy their prurient curiosity here.  Dre raps about drug use, rape, pimping and violence: he is a repulsive degenerate whom a healthy society would excrete and forget. Dre’s $3.2 billion score gauges the popularity of evocations of rape and murder.

There is no guarantee that freedom will prevail over dictatorship. I reviewed some of the history here.

Democracies do not necessarily field the most efficient or enthusiastic armies. The French under Napoleon and the Germans under Hitler were the best soldiers of their day. Democracies have one important advantage, namely the capacity to correct errors. Democracies do not necessarily make better decisions than dictatorships in each case, but they are less like to perpetuate errors. It is easy to replace an elected leader who goes mad; not so a charismatic tyrant. This makes the ultimate victory of democracies more probable, but hardly inevitable. It may be likely that a charismatic tyrant will make decisive errors, but it is far from assured that such error will be made soon enough to make it possible to defeat the tyrant at the right moment. I like to think that providence was at work during the Second World War, but that sort of question is above my pay grade.

A people can will itself out of existence democratically as well as by any other means: France did so during the 1930s, and survived the clutches of Nazi Germany thanks to the Allies.

Putin’s mission is to save Russia from dissolution. Ten years ago, with a fertility rate of just 1.2 children per female and fourth-world life expectancy for men, Russia seemed doomed. The fertility rate since has recovered to 1.7, for reasons we do not adequately understand. Part of the reason surely is renewed national self-confidence.

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Update: Bloomberg reports that Russia is seeking Chinese investment. What Bloomberg has a very superficial idea of what is at work: Russia and China now are collaborating on strategic technology. For example, Putin has approved the same of Russia’s new S400 air defense system to China, brushing aside past Russian rancor about Chinese reverse engineering of Russian systems. Russia has opened the door to Chinese tech investments in China which it previously prohibited.

“An historic investment-for-resources deal between Russia and China will neuter Europe’s punitive efforts over Ukraine and redraw the world’s energy map, but more importantly create a Eurasian dynamic that otherwise would take decades to evolve. In the 1970s, former US president Richard Nixon used the region’s complexities to divide Cold War enemies. Now his doctrine is being used against America,” write my Asia Times Online colleague Francesco Sisci today. I hope he’s wrong. Last month I noted in this space that Germany fears a Russian turn towards Asia more than any other outcome of the Ukrainian sitcom.

Sisci writes:

BEIJING — It has not happened yet, but expectations are already enormous. A massive strategic and economic shift is expected to result from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s to China in May.

After decades of fruitless talks, Moscow and Beijing are now likely ready to sign a sweeping deal which will see China invest billions of dollars in Russia, with vast resources being sold in the other direction. This correspondent first saw the agreement signed 20 years ago, when Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin were the presidents, and not much occurred since. However, this time things seem to be real.

In the past, the two parties failed to finalize the fine print of the deal. There were too many differences on the price of gas, the route of the pipeline, the ownership of resources in Russia and on the distribution network in China. Now all these problems are solved — or so it appears — because of a sudden change of heart in Russia linked to the ongoing Ukrainian crisis.

The threat for Russia resulting from the crisis is that Europe will not buy its gas and oil, or will decrease its purchases. Oil prices have remained pretty low, despite the fact that the supply from other oil-exporting countries has been low or dwindling…

Now, and for the foreseeable future, problems with the oil supply hurt the producers far more than the Western consumers, who now have access to the American hoard. This makes it an issue of life and death for Russia to find an alternative consumer to Europe. Europe may suffer somewhat without Russian oil, but Russian economy could easily crack without its sales.

Now, apparently, China could realize up to 30% of its energy needs from Russia, which would equal over a third of the latter’s production. This will partially unload the European gun of not buying Russian oil and create a new dimension to ties in the whole Eurasian continent. Russian can play Europe against China and vice versa. Beijing knows this, and it is interesting to think about why China is willing to be played and help Russia in this way.

This seems a bit premature; Russia might not let its economic relations with Europe collapse so easily. Germany not only buys hydrocarbons from Russia: as The Economist reported recently, “Russia is Germany’s 11th-biggest export market, worth €36 billion ($48 billion) last year. The Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, a lobby group representing big businesses, says that 300,000 German jobs depend on trade with Russia, 6,200 companies with German owners are active in Russia, and German companies have invested €20 billion there.” Russia does not relish the prospect of economic dependency on China. That is the logic of misguided Western policy, however. We may pull defeat out of the jaws of Cold War victory, two decades after the fact. The stupidity of Western policy is epic.

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Why Liberals Don’t Care About Consequences

April 29th, 2014 - 12:35 pm

No amount of evidence will convince liberals that they were wrong. Evidence abounds, to be sure: Appeasement invites aggression. Handouts increase dependency. Coddling terror-states like Iran elicits megalomania. Big government stifles the economy. They don’t care. Really.

John Kerry romanced Basher Assad and Vanity Fair published a fawning profile of the Assad family, while the Obama administration secretly courted Iran. As a result we have in Syria the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the Arab world in modern times. Algeria racked up more casualties during the independence war of 1954-1962 and the civil war of 1991-2002, to be sure, but the casualties are coming faster in Syria and the displacement of immiserated civilians is greater. Do you hear liberals wringing their hands and asking, “Where did we go wrong?” They don’t, and they won’t. Ditto the disaster in Libya, which is turning into a Petri dish for terrorists post-Qaddafi. It doesn’t matter. Being in love with yourself means never having to say you’re sorry.

In the one part of the Middle East where nothing bad is happening or likely to happen–namely Israel–liberals are in full-tilt panic, with John Kerry warning that Israel will turn into an apartheid state. It’s not just Kerry, who is a national embarrassment, but the whole liberal world that thinks this way. In reality, Israel’s booming economy is enriching Israeli as well as Palestinian Arabs, to the extent that the kleptocratic Palestinian Authority lets them do business. There is no urgency at all to Israel’s situation–not, at least, where the Palestinians are concerned. Iran is another story.

Why don’t liberals seem to notice the catastrophic consequences of their policies, and why to they imagine imminent horrors where none exist? If you corner a liberal and point to a disaster that followed upon his policy, at very most he will say–with a tear in the eye and a quivering upper lip–”We did the right thing.”

It’s all about having done the right thing according to the dogma of the ersatz liberal religion. Liberalism has nothing whatsoever to do with policy and its real-world consequences. Instead of finding one’s salvation on the path of traditional religions, liberals look for salvation in a set of right opinions–on race, the environment, income distribution, gender, or whatever. Last month I called attention to Joseph Bottum’s new book An Anxious Age, which I reviewed at the American Interest. Jody argues that modern liberalism is the old Mainline Protestantism, and especially the old Social Gospel, turned into a secular cult. I wrote:

Today’s American liberalism, it is often remarked, amounts to a secular religion: it has its own sacred texts and taboos, Crusades and Inquisitions. The political correctness that undergirds it, meanwhile, can be traced back to the past century’s liberal Protestantism. Conservatives, of course, routinely scoff that liberals’ ersatz religion is inferior to the genuine article.

Joseph Bottum, by contrast, examines post-Protestant secular religion with empathy, and contends that it gained force and staying power by recasting the old Mainline Protestantism in the form of catechistic worldly categories: anti-racism, anti-gender discrimination, anti-inequality, and so forth. What sustains the heirs of the now-defunct Protestant consensus, he concludes, is a sense of the sacred, but one that seeks the security of personal salvation through assuming the right stance on social and political issues. Precisely because the new secular religion permeates into the pores of everyday life, it sustains the certitude of salvation and a self-perpetuating spiritual aura. Secularism has succeeded on religious terms. That is an uncommon way of understanding the issue, and a powerful one.

It’s hard to make sense of liberalism without recourse to theology–not the superficial theology of doctrinal comparison, but Jody’s sensitive investigation of how the liberal religion looks from the inside, from the vantage point of its true believers (the “poster children,” as Jody calls them). It’s a rare book that helps us to peer more deeply into everyday phenomena, and Jody’s is one of them. It really must be read.

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Simon Schama made his reputation as a cultural historian, and one would expect his new “Story of the Jews” to have something to say on the subject of Jewish culture. His incompetence strains the capacity of the Yiddish language for derogation. He is a yutz. Of the many silly things in his PBS series, the silliest perhaps was the claim that Harold Arlen’s and E.Y. Harburg’s song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” expressed characteristically Jewish longing for a better world–as if longing for a better world were a distinctively Jewish activity. As far as music and poetry are concerned, Schama hasn’t a clue; the text and voice-leading of the song following long-established, overused conventions for the evocation of nostalgia. These are taught to undergraduates in musical analysis. Schubert and Wagner among many others employed them. (In the context of a review of Wagner’s Siegfried for Tablet magazine, I recorded a brief discussion of the musical examples, embedded below. The review itself analyzes the musical trick in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”).

I didn’t like anything else about Schama’s presentation, but I can claim professional credentials in this particular matter.

Garcia Marquez Lied About Macondo

April 23rd, 2014 - 1:21 pm

Gabriel Garcia Marquez died last week. His was a reputation built on the enthusiasm of the reading public, not just the accolades of the critics. He was beloved, and for all the wrong reasons. I despised his work when forced to read it in undergraduate Spanish-language courses and again when I tried to read it later in life. His most popular work, 100 Years of Solitude, pictures the unreality and weirdness (the “miraculous real,” mistranslated as “magical realism”) in the isolated Colombian hamlet of Macondo through several generations of the Buendia family. They eventually are carried off by a cyclone in Garcia Marquez’ account. But that isn’t what happened to them. They were murdered hideously in Colombia’s “Violencia” of 1948-1958, along with 300,000 other Colombians, after committing hideous murders of their own.

Wikipedia says the following about Colombia’s civil war:

Because of incomplete or non-existing statistical records, exact measurement of La Violencia’s humanitarian consequences is impossible. Scholars, however, estimate that between 200,000 and 300,000 lives were lost, 600,000 and 800,000 injured, and almost one million displaced. La Violencia affected 20% of the population, directly or indirectly.

Yet, La Violencia, did not come to be known as La Violencia simply because of the number of people it affected; it was the manner in which most of the killings, maimings, and dismemberings were done. Certain death and torture techniques became so commonplace that they were given names. For example, “picar para tamal,” which involved slowly cutting up a living person’s body, or “bocachiquiar,” where hundreds of small punctures were made until the victim slowly bled to death. Former Senior Director of International Economic Affairs for the United States National Security Council and current President of the Institute for Global Economic Growth, Norman A. Bailey describes the atrocities succinctly: “Ingenious forms of quartering and beheading were invented and given such names as the “corte de mica”, “corte de corbata”, and so on. Crucifixions and hangings were commonplace, political “prisoners” were thrown from airplanes in flight, infants were bayoneted, schoolchildren, some as young as eight years old, were raped en masse, unborn infants were removed by crude Caesarian section and replaced by roosters, ears were cut off, scalps removed, and so on”. While scholars, historians, and analysts have all debated the source of this era of unrest, they have yet to formulate a widely accepted explanation for why it escalated to the notable level it did.

The cute, weird, quaint and magical mannerisms of Macondo obscure a bitter, desperate, paranoid propensity to violence. Garcia Marquez’ tale is more popular than the actual history of rural Colombia for the same reason that the fairy-tale “Hansel and Gretel” is more popular than accounts of cannibalism, which became widespread in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). From a purely narrative standpoint, though, I never forgave Garcia Marquez for wasting my time. A short story, a novella at best, was expanded into a novel where nothing happened a dozen times (beating Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” where nothing happens twice).

Garcia Marquez was a journalist and his Spanish never challenges the reading ability of a high-school student, unlike that of the great Latin American novels he emulated: Tyrant Banderas by Ramon del Valle-Inclan, and Explosion in a Cathedral by Alejo Carpentier. The latter is about the violence following the French Revolution in Europe as well as the Caribbean, and is to my taste the great Latin American novel of the 20th century. If you want to understand Latin America, these are the books to read. I also recommend the films of the great Luis Bunuel. To be sure, I don’t like fiction. These are exceptions.

Postscript: Lesson Redux

April 18th, 2014 - 11:45 am

Composed on election eve 2008.


I wandered the beach at midnight by the hamlet of Oyster Bay,
A fugitive from the fell report that would come on Election Day.
And upon a hill in the distance I espied a flickering light
Where the shade of Rudyard Kipling kept its vigil through the night.
And the shade of Kipling chortled through the dank November chill
To the ghost of Theodore Roosevelt there on the porch at 
 Sagamore Hill:

“You ought to admit it fairly, as a business people will:
You have had no end of a lesson: it will do you nothing but ill,
Not on a single issue, or in one direction or twain,
But conclusively, comprehensively, and several times and again.

“You have lived too long with the stink of your sweat, and mistaken it for a perfume;
Beyond the horizon there rose a mirage, and it lured you along to your doom.
The mirage showed an ersatz American world from Tokyo to Timbuktu
In which every belligerent nation and tribe would look and think like you,
Where Shi’ite and Sunni and Turkmen and Druze, and Yazidi and Shabak and Kurd,
Would settle their problems by voting, instead of by massacre as they preferred,
Where the Taliban killers of Kandahar, and the mullahs who govern Iran,
And the suicide bombers of Hezbollah, and each sev’ral religion and clan,
Would stack up their guns by the parliament’s door, and embrace those whom they detest
‘Til the murderous hordes of the bloody Mideast look like Methodists in the Midwest.
In fact they all hate their neighbors more than ever they hated you,
Which is why they invest in your government bonds, just like any Christian or Jew.
You were taught an imperial lesson there on the Mesopotamian plain,
I fear it will profit you hardly at all; you will live in a planet of pain.
Your citizens ought to recite this verse, whenever your flag is unfurled:
‘O, we are an almost-chosen Land, the swankiest club in the world,
The club of survivors who left the Old World to sink in Eternity’s sand, And founded the New.’

That was then. Alas for your almost-Chosen Land!” 

The specter of Roosevelt boomed out in reply, “I fear it is even worse:
Where an almost-Blessing has succored this land, now there follows an almost-Curse,
A Biblical curse from Him with Whom we find ourselves at odds,
And chastens the almost-Chosen folk that whored after foreign gods.
I fear that the land will expectorate us, like the heathen who lived here before us,
And we will die out like the Romans of old, or the dodo and brontosaurus.
We have builded an idol offensive to God as the Israelites’ Golden Calf,
But stupider still, and with poorer excuse, and more obnoxious by half.
We have named the idol ‘Inclusiveness’, but forgot what inclusion entails:
The nations are drops of the bucket, and specks of small dust on the scales.
We included the remnant that left its past to rot on a distant strand,
And made them an almost-Chosen folk for an almost-Chosen land,
That was the source of our Blessing, but today the source of our Cuss
Is the foolish idea that the rest of the world is exactly the same as us.
We never have done stupider things in the past than were done by this President George,
And the very same God who sustained us so long has sent us instead a scourge
In the form of Barack Obama, a malevolent fellow with smarts,
Who took our measure with malice and gazed too deeply into our hearts.
We hail him the God of Inclusiveness, this self-promoting know-it-all,
The way Moctezuma mistook Cortes for the deity Quetzalcoatl!
The Aztecs invited their conqueror in, and that put an end to their drama,
And tomorrow, America does the same thing by electing Barack Obama.
Generations to come (if any there are) will condemn us for losing the scrimmage,
And we’ve no one to blame but ourselves for the sin of adoring our own silly image.”

And that was the answer that Roosevelt made without regret or apology;
If Kipling were still alive you would find it reprinted in every anthology.

Vladimir Putin happily allowed the Kiev authorities to shoot a few pro-Russian demonstrators while keeping his military forces on ice across the border. I predicted (and am sticking to my story) that Russia will not seize more territory in Eastern Ukraine–not for the time being, in any case. Russia will stand back and watch Ukraine implode, the way Egypt did during the two years following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Before the Maidan coup, Putin was willing to sit on $15 billion in arrears to Gazprom and put up $18 billion in new money. Now he wants $35 billion in back gas bills, on top of Ukraine’s $15 billion a year current account deficit. The IMF wants massive cuts in subsidies, which will make the Kiev government an object of hatred without putting  a dent into the problem. Western taxpayers won’t cough up $50 billion for Ukraine, not even a small fraction of it.

Yankee Doodle went to Maidan, stuck a feather in his hat and called it democracy. Our foreign policy ideologues are like UFO cultists who are so convinced that space aliens are invading the earth that they see moon men in every glare of swamp gas. In this case, it isn’t moon men, but aspiring republicans. First Tahrir Square, then Maidan, were glorious proof of the Manifest Destiny of Western democracy.

A Google search with the terms “Putin” and “genius” yields over 10 million hits. If I hear another pundit’s panegyric to Putin’s great intellect, I’ll lose my lunch. Putin is not that smart; the trouble is that we are complete idiots. When Ukraine imploded, our leaders–from Victoria Nuland at the State Department to the neo-conservatives–rather assumed that we would reverse Ukraine’s polarity to the West, and humiliate Russia with the loss of Crimea. Putin called our bluff, and we had no viable military options.

Putin doesn’t need to send the Red Army into Ukraine. Every Ukrainian officer above the rank of major came up through the ranks in the Red Army. Ukrainian commanders won’t fight the Russians. They are the Russians. Yesterday we watched Ukrainian paratroopers turn their armored vehicles over to Russian separatists. Maybe John McCain can send them more weapons to hand over to Moscow.

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Between the February 2011 fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the July 2013 military coup that ousted the ill-fated Muslim Brotherhood regime, I published nearly two dozen articles contending that Egypt’s economy was the problem. Egypt is a banana republic without the bananas, dependent on imports for half its caloric consumption. The foreign policy establishment ignored Egypt’s economic free-fall, focusing its tunnel vision on the players on the political stage. The liberal internationalists of the Obama administration agreed with the neoconservatives that the “Arab Spring” would give rise to a new era of Muslim democracy, and both John Kerry and John McCain counseled patience and sympathy for Egypt’s Islamists. That this was delusional is demonstrated by events: the majority of Egypt’s adult population, nearly 40 million people, took to the streets to demand the Brotherhood’s ouster in the summer of 2013.

Now, long after the fact, comes Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, warning of Egypt’s impending insolvency and urging American aid to prevent it. In what the CFR calls a “Contingency Planning Memorandum,” Dr. Cook writes:

Egypt is experiencing a deep economic crisis. The country’s foreign currency reserves are less than half of what they were before the January 2011 uprising, threatening Egypt’s ability to pay for food and fuel. Egypt’s budget deficit is 14 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and its overall debt, which is the result of accumulated deficits, is more than the country’s economic output. In this difficult economic climate, roughly 45 percent of Egyptians live on less than two dollars per day. Inflation, which reached as high as 12.97 percent after the July 2013 military coup, is currently at 11.4 percent. Tourism revenue—traditionally a primary source of foreign currency along with Suez Canal tolls and remittances from Egyptians working abroad—is less than half of what it was in the last full year before the uprising. Foreign direct investment has dried up outside the energy sector. Unemployment remains high at 13.4 percent. Among the unemployed, 71 percent are between fifteen and twenty-nine years old. This economic weakness makes it politically difficult to address the problems that contribute to a potential solvency crisis because the necessary reforms will impose hardship on a population that is already experiencing economic pain.

He wants the US to resume food aid, and he wants Egypt to come to terms with the International Monetary Fund — this after the Obama administration suspended military aid, and the Saudis paid for $2 billion of weapons from Russia. It is laudable that Dr. Cook has noticed Egypt’s economic problems, but situation has since changed. First, the Gulf States are financing the country’s emergency needs and will continue to for some time, because the Sunni world cannot afford to let the most populous Arab country collapse while it is trying to position itself against Iran.

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One doesn’t hear Chinese leaders talk of “an end to evil,” as Richard Perle and David Frum entitled their neo-con manifesto of ten years ago; China’s atittude to the world beyond its borders is governed by self-interest, which mainly means arrangements conducive to the flow of trade. By “borders,” to be sure, the Chinese mean their historic territory, including Tibet and Taiwan. Outside of that, the Chinese have no wish to become imperial masters. They do not particularly like other cultures and other peoples, believing their own to be the best and most virtuous, and do not wish upon themselves the trouble of ruling them. China’s economy, though, has a limitless appetite for raw materials and a burgeoning need for higher-value-added exports. In private conversation, Chinese officials insist that they are content to follow the American lead in such matters as Iran’s nuclear program. They do not envy America its position of world policeman.

American fecklessness, though, might conceivably push China to take a more active role. That will not be a simple decision for China to make, if ever it does, but it is not out of the question. That is why Isreali President Shimon Peres’ April 9 comment in Beijing about China’s prospective role in containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions is so striking:

( During his state visit to China, Israeli President Shimon Peres said Tuesday that China is a key to preventing a nuclear Iran. “China has a central role in the efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. Iran is the center of terror in the world. Iran funds terrorism and exports it across the entire Middle East and beyond,” said Peres, whose trip was the first to China by an Israeli president in 10 years.

One can only speculate, as I did in the Oct. 28, 2013 Asia Times essay reprinted below. The facts on the ground, though, are suggestive. China is Saudi Arabia’s biggest rading partner and will depend on Saudi oil indefinitely. It buys hydrocarbons from Iran, but far less. It is by far the most important investor in Pakistan, and is likely to become a major presence in the economic and military life of Turkey, as it builds high-speed rail across Asia to Istanbul, and possibly provides Turkey with an air defense system. Faced with an assertive Russia on the Black Sea and in Syria, where Turkey is deeply committed to the opposite side, Turkey could use a friend to the east. Its gigantic foreign indebtedness, moreover, begs the question of where it will find adequate foreign investment. China has more to lose from regional instability than any other country, given its energy dependency, and its influence in the region is growing. If it wished to put pressure on Iran, it surely could, by a number of means.

Perhaps President Peres knows something that the rest of us do not; perhaps he merely gave voice to wishful thinking. But it is a reasonable supposition that the vacuum left by the implosion of American influence in the region may be filled much faster than we might have expected.


A Pax Sinica in the Middle East?
By Spengler

English-language media completely ignored a noteworthy statement that led Der Spiegel’s German-language website October 12, a call for China to “take on responsibility as a world power” in the Middle East. Penned by Bernhard Zand, the German news organization’s Beijing correspondent, it is terse and to the point: now that China imports more oil from the Middle East than any other country in the world, it must answer for the region’s security. “America’s interest in the Middle East diminishes day by day” as it heads towards energy self-sufficiency, wrote Zand, adding:

China’s interest in a peaceful Middle East is enormous, by contrast. Beijing is not only the biggest customer of precisely those oil powers who presently are fanning the flames of conflict in Syria; as a VIP customer, Beijing has growing political influence, which it should use openly. The word of the Chinese foreign minister has just as much weight in Tehran and Riyadh as that of his American counterpart.

China’s situation, Zand continues, is rather like Germany’s after reunification: a state whose economic power is growing will eventually be asked what it puts on the table politically. He concludes:

The time when American could be counted on to secure Beijing’s supply lines soon will come to an end – America’s budget deficit will take care of that by itself. Whoever wants to be a world power must take on responsibilities.

I have no idea how China envisions its future role in the Middle East. Americans will learn the intentions of the powers who gradually fill the vacuum left by Washington’s withdrawal from the world “well after the fact, if ever”, as I wrote on September 16 (See US plays Monopoly, Russia plays chess, Asia Times Online). That is why I have retired from foreign policy analysis. It is helpful, though, to take note of what the rest of the world is saying, particularly when not a single English-language source made reference to it. Der Spiegel’s public call for China to assume a leading geopolitical role in the Middle East, though, did not appear out of context.

American commentators have regarded China as a spoiler, the source of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons technology, Iran’s ballistic missiles, and other alarming instances of proliferation. It is worth considering a radically different view of China’s interests in the lands between the Himalayas and the Mediterranean: no world power has more to lose from instability than does China.

Iran’s nuclear weapons program poses the greatest risk to the region, and China has been viewed as uncooperative in the extreme by Western diplomats trying to tighten the economic screws on Tehran. Chinese companies, moreover, have helped Iran bypass trade sanctions, but at great cost, and with a complex result. The New York Times on September 30 profiled the problems of Iran’s economy under the sanctions, and took note of the country’s dependence on China:

One economist, Mohammad Sadegh Jahansefat, said the government had been taken hostage by countries benefiting from the sanctions – particularly China, which he called the worst business partner Iran had ever had.

“China has monopolized our trade – we are subsidizing their goods, which we are forced to import,” he said, adding of its work in the energy industry, “They destroy local production and leave oil and gas projects unfinished so that no one can work with them.” [1]

China’s capacity to exert pressure on the Iranian regime is considerable. Apart from its interest in avoiding nuclear proliferation in the Persian Gulf, China has a number of points of conflict with Iran, well summarized in an October 17 survey by Zachary Keck in The Diplomat. [2] The one that should keep Tehran on its toes is the Islamic Republic’s border with Pakistan. Iran announced October 26 that it had hanged 16 alleged Sunni rebels in Baluchistan province on the Pakistani border, the latest in a long series of violent incidents.

“With a population of 170 million, Pakistan has 20 million men of military age, as many as Iran and Turkey combined; by 2035 it will have half again as many,” I observed in 2009 (see Hedgehogs and flamingos in Tehran, Asia Times Online, June 16, 2009). It also has nuclear weapons.

Iran sits between two Sunni powers -Turkey and Pakistan – that depend to a great extent on Saudi financing, and that also have excellent relations with China. Turkey’s still-disputed agreement to buy a Chinese air defense system represented a revolution in Chinese-Turkish relations, motivated by a Chinese promise to transfer the whole package of relevant technology to Turkey and to help the Turks to manufacture the systems, a more generous offer than ever Ankara got from the West. Turkey is the logical terminus for the “New Silk Road” of road, rail, pipelines and broadband that China has proposed to build in Central Asia.

China, it might be added, also has excellent relations with Israel, whose premier technical university just was offered a US$130 million grant from Hong Kong magnate Li Ka-shing to fund part of the costs of building a branch in China. Chinese provincial and local governments will contribute another $147 million. The seamless interchange of ideas and personnel between Israel’s military, universities and tech entrepreneurs is a success story in miniature that China hopes to reproduce in scale. As Singapore-based political scientist Michael Raska reports, China’s military modernization envisions the spread of dual-use technologies to private industry.

Without attributing any geopolitical intention to Beijing, the visible facts make clear that China has the capacity to exercise strategic influence in the Middle East, and it has an unambiguous interest in maintaining stability. What China might choose to do, Washington will learn after the fact, if ever. If China wished to influence Iran, for example, it has considerable means to do so, and a great deal else besides.

1. Iran Staggers as Sanctions Hit Economy, New York Times, September 30, 2013.
2. China and Iran: Destined to Clash?, The Diplomat, October 17, 2013.