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« Blast from my past: "The Chinese Are Our Friends" (2005) | Main | Blast from my past: "The Pentagon's New Map" (2003) »

Blast from my past: "Mr. President, Here's How to Make Sense of Your Second Term . . . " (2005)


Mr. President, Here's How to Make Sense of Your Second Term, Secure Your Legacy, And, Oh Yeah, Create a Future Worth Living

by Thomas P.M. Barnett


Esquire, February 2005, pp. 90-93-128-29.


So you say you have no concern for your legacy. That some historian eighty years from now will figure out if you were a good president or not. Fair enough, but let's review so far. Your big-bang strategy to reform the Middle East took down Saddam, which was good; you've completely screwed up the Iraq occupation, which is bad; and now you don't seem to know exactly where you're going, which is not so great. This brings me to the bad news. The two players with the greatest potential for hog-tying your second term and derailing your big-bang strategy don't even live in the Middle East. Instead, they're located on little islands of unreality much like Washington, D. C.: Taiwan and North Korea. When either Taipei or Pyongyang decide to sneeze, it's gonna be your legacy that catches a cold, and here's why: Either country can effectively pull all your attention away from the Middle East while simultaneously torpedoing the most important strategic relationship America has right now. Yeah, I'm talking about China, a country your old man knows a thing or two about (hint, hint), even if the neocons don't have a clue. Your posse rode into town four years ago convinced that China was the rising military threat to America, only to be proven wrong by bin Laden on 9/11. Enough said.

3 SIMPLE STEPS: Iran, you can have the bomb, but you must recognize Israel. Next, China. Let's be partners. Sorry, Taiwan, the defense guarantee's got to go. We've got bigger fish to fry. Namely, Kim Jong Il.

What I'm here to tell you is this: You can achieve the fabled Middle East peace, but only if you lay down an effective fire wall between that region and the two potential flash points that can still ignite East Asia and send this whole global economy up in flames in a heartbeat. China is the baby you can't throw out with the bathwater you've dubbed the "global war on terrorism." You lose China, you might just kill globalization, and if that happens, it won't be just a matter of what historians write eighty years from now; you'll spend the rest of your days wondering why the world thinks you personally destroyed the planet's best hope for ending war as we know it.

So here's the package you need to pursue: Co-opt Iran, lock in China, and take down North Korea. Let's get started, shall we?

Nixon Goes to Tehran

WORK WITH ME ON THIS ONE. Iran getting the bomb could be the best thing that's ever happened to the Middle East peace process.

Whoa! Don't put down the magazine before I've had a chance to explain.

Iran is the one country standing between you and peace in the Middle East. You can't solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without its say-so, because the mullahs are the biggest potential spoilers in the region. They fund the terrorist groups that can effectively veto peace efforts in both Jerusalem and Baghdad. Iran is the one regional power that can still menace the Gulf militarily. Everyone else there operates in Tehran's shadow.

You and I both know Nixon would have inevitably headed to Tehran by now, absent 9/11 and your subsequent Axis of Evil speech. The Shiite revolution is a spent force in that country, whose sullen majority pretends to obey the mullahs while they pretend to rule over a very young population that's frighteningly ambitious for a better life. We're looking at a very late-Brezhnev-type situation here, with the Gorby already on the scene in the person of reformist president Mohammad Khatami. His version of perestroika took one step forward and then ten steps back once we lumped him in with Saddam and Kim, but even though his preferred course of treatment is on hiatus, the political diagnosis remains the same for Iran.

I know, I know. If the mullahs are so weak and scared, then why do they reach so obviously for the bomb?

Look at it from their perspective, Mr. President. Those scary neocons just toppled regimes to Iran's right (Afghanistan) and left (Iraq), and our military pulled off both takedowns with ease. Moreover, your administration has demonstrated beyond all doubt that you don't fear leaving behind a god-awful mess in your war machine's wake. Frankly, you're as scary as Nixon was in his spookiest White House moments on Vietnam. All I'm saying is now's the time to cash in on that reputation with Iran.

And don't tell me we can't do that rapprochement thing with a hostile regime that supports international terrorism. If we could do it with the Evil Empire back in 1973, we can do it with the Axis of Evil's number two today.

Our offer should be both simple and bold. I would send James Baker, our last good secretary of state, to Tehran as your special envoy with the following message: "We know you're getting the bomb, and we know there isn't much we can do about it right now unless we're willing to go up-tempo right up the gut. But frankly, there's other fish we want to fry, so here's the deal: You can have the bomb, and we'll take you off the Axis of Evil list, plus we'll re-establish diplomatic ties and open up trade. But in exchange, not only will you bail us out on Iraq first and foremost by ending your support of the insurgency, you'll also cut off your sponsorship of Hezbollah and other anti-Israeli terrorist groups, help us bully Syria out of Lebanon, finally recognize Israel, and join us in guaranteeing the deal on a permanent Palestinian state. You want to be recognized as the regional player of note. We're prepared to do that. But that's the price tag. Pay it now or get ready to rumble."

This is a win-win for everybody. The ruling mullahs desire survival most of all, and once Iran opens up economically, its people will stop blaming them for all that's wrong with the country because they'll be too busy taking advantage of all that opportunity. Israel wins because Tel Aviv finally gets someone on the Muslim side who is big enough and scary enough to sit down with the "Little Devil" as a real nuclear equal but still willing to guarantee Israel's existence. I know, it might seem insane to Israel (especially the Likud party), but mutually assured destruction really works and, frankly, Mr. President, now's the time to use some of that political capital you've built up with Ariel Sharon.

No doubt some neocons will try to sell you on a military option in Iran, but don't pull that thread under any circumstances, because if you do, you'll find yourself having to go medieval across an "arc of crisis" stretching from Riyadh to Islamabad, and nobody's got cojones that big. Trust me, Afghanistan and Iraq alone are enough to tap Central Command and Special Operations Command.

I'm also aware that there are plenty of regional experts who'll tell you we've got to do this or that with Egypt or Saudi Arabia, but, frankly, neither of those regimes has shown the ability to do squat when it comes to forging a lasting Middle East peace. Iran's the key. Squeeze it now while it's scared--and while Arafat's still dead. America has played bad cop long enough with Iran. For crying out loud, Iranians are the only people in the Middle East who actually like us!

What's more, Iran is the gateway for bringing both India and China into the mix. Both countries have recently cut huge oil and gas deals with Tehran. You know you want India and China to feel secure about their energy flow, and you know Iran's simply too big a player on both counts for either country to pass up. Plus, India considers itself both a major Gulf security player and Iran's natural mentor, while China's emerging alliance with Tehran (not to mention its ties with Pakistan) should be exploited for all it's worth. New Dehli and Beijing want to stabilize the Islamic arc of crisis as much as you do.

If detente with Iran secures Iraq to the south, then it's clear whomwe need to romance in the north on the issue of the Kurds--Tur-key. Yes, the role of the Kurds in Turkey is a long and complex tale, but who the hell else is going to step up to the plate on that one?

The price tag is not hard to dream up. You twist some arms in the European Union until they either fall off or Turkey's admission gets fast-tracked. If NATO won't come to our rescue in the Sunni triangle, it's the least Old Europe can do.

Speaking of the triangle, that stinker's going to remain ours for the long term, but with Israel and Palestine off the table and real cooperation from both Iran and Syria in clamping down on all those jihadists with a one-way ticket to paradise, we'll extinguish the dream of the Saddam Baathists who are still fighting hard by effectively killing Iraq as a unitary state. Eventually, Iraq's Sunni population will realize that it can either become the recognized master of the triangle and nothing else (the same narrowing solution we forced on the Serbs in the Balkans), or it can choose to live in the region's new West Bank, surviving on intifada for the rest of its days.

Lock in China at Today's Prices

TO UNDERSTAND CHINA TODAY, you have to remember what it was like for the United States back in the early years of the twentieth century. Here we were, this burgeoning economic powerhouse with a rising yet still relatively small military package, and all the old-school powers worried about us as an up-and-coming threat. While the European form of globalization predominated at that time, our upstart version ("We don't need no stinkin' empire!") would come to dominate the landscape by the century's midpoint, primarily because Europe decided to self-destruct all its empires via two "world" wars that in retrospect look like the European Union's versions of the American Civil War.

China is the United States of the early twenty-first century: rising like crazy, but not really a threat to anyone except small island nations off its coast. (God, I miss T. R. and the Rough Riders.) Hu Jintao, China's current president and party boss of the country's fourth generation of leaders, has tried to calm global fears by proposing his theory of Peacefully Rising China, a tune that, frankly, none of the Pentagon's hardcore neocons can carry.

Why? The far Right is still gunning for China, and precious Taiwan is its San Juan Hill. Nixon burned Taiwan's ass back in the early seventies when he effectively switched official recognition from Taipei to the mainland, so the price it demanded was the continued "defense guarantee" that said we'd always arm Taiwan to the teeth and rush to its rescue whenever China unleashed its million-man swim of an invasion.

That promise is still on the books, like some blue law from a bygone era. Does anyone seriously think we'd sacrifice tens of thousands of American troops to stop China from reabsorbing Taiwan?

I know, I know. China's still "communist" (like I still have a full head of hair if the lighting's just so), whereas Taiwan is a lonely bastion of democracy in an otherwise . . . uh . . . increasingly democratic Asia. So even though the rest of Asia, including Japan, is being rapidly sucked into China's economic undertow (as "running dogs of capitalism" go, China's a greyhound), somehow the sacredness of Taiwan's self-perceived "independence" from China is worth torching the global economy over? Does that strike anybody as slightly nuts?

Here's the weirdest part: China's been clearly signaling for years that it's perfectly willing to accept the status quo, basically guaranteeing Taiwan's continued existence, so long as Taipei's government maintains the appearance of remaining open to the possibility of rejoining the mainland someday.

Now I know people say you don't read books, Mr. President, but being a Southerner, you know something about the Civil War. Imagine if Jefferson Davis and the leftovers of the Confederacy had slipped away to Cuba in 1865 to set up their alternative, nose-thumbing version of America on that island. Then fast-forward to, say, 1905 and imagine how much the U. S. would have tolerated some distant, imperial power like England telling us what we could or could not do vis-a-vis this loser sitting just off our shore. Imagine where old Teddy Roosevelt would have told the Brits they could shove their defense guarantee.

My point is this: In a generation's time, China will dominate the global economy just as much as the United States does today. (Don't worry, we'll be co-dominatrices.) The only way to stop that is to kill this era's version of globalization--something I worry about those neocons actually being stupid enough to do as part of their fanciful pursuit of global "hegemony." That nasty, far poorer future is not the one I want to leave behind for my kids, and I expect you feel the same about yours. China won't go down alone; it'll take most of the advanced global economy with it. So on this one, let's go with those vaunted American interests I keep hearing about and look out for number one.

This may seem a back-burner issue, but there's credible talk of Taipei doing something provocative like adding the word Taiwan in parentheses behind its official name, the Republic of China. That may not seem like much to us, but Beijing's reluctant hand may be forced by this act. Seems crazy, doesn't it?

Again, how much of the global economy--how many American lives--are you prepared to sacrifice on your watch just so Taiwan can rejoice in this moment of self-actualization?

I vote for zero. Zip. Nada.

Take America's defense guarantee to Taiwan off the table and do it now, before some irrational politician in Taipei decides he's ready to start a war between two nuclear powers. Trust me, you'd be doing Taiwan a favor, because it's my guess that our defense guarantee would evaporate the moment any Taiwan Straits crisis actually boiled over, leaving Taipei severely embarrassed and Beijing feeling excessively emboldened.

Let's lock in a strategic alliance with rising China at today's prices, because it's got nowhere to go but up over the coming years. Buying into this relationship now is like stealing Alaska from the czars for pennies on the dollar; it'll never be this cheap again.

More to the point, preemptively declaring a permanent truce in the Taiwan Straits is the quid we offer for Beijing's quo in the solution set that really matters in East Asia today: the reunification of Korea following Kim Jong Il's removal from power.

Kill Kim: Volumes 1, 2 & 3

NOW WE GET TO THE GOOD PART. The Koreas issue is the tailbone of the cold war: completely useless, but it can still plunge you into a world of pain if middle-aged Asia slips and falls on it. North Korea is the evil twin, separated at birth, and yet, because it's still joined at the hip with its sibling, its better half grows ever more irrationally distraught as time passes, contemplating the inevitable invasive surgery that lies ahead.

So while it might seem at first glance like a job for Team America: World Police, you'll want something less South Park in its comic simplicity and a little more

Tarantinoesque in its B-movie grandeur. That's right, we need a Deadly Viper Assassination Squad to make Kim an offer he can't refuse.

Kim Jong Il's checked all the boxes: He'll sell or buy any weapons of mass destruction he can get his hands on, he's engaged in bizarre acts of terrorism against South Korea, and he maintains his amazingly cruel regime through the wholesale export of both narcotics and counterfeit American currency. Is he crazy? He once kidnapped two of South Korea's biggest movie stars and held them hostage in his own personal DreamWorks studio. But if that doesn't do it for you, then try this one on for size: The Kim-induced famine of the late 1990s killed as many as two million North Koreans. If that doesn't get you a war-crimes trial in this day and age, then what the hell will?

Here's the squad we need to assemble: China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, plus Russia.

You just shook hands with China over Taiwan. Japan's there because both China and America are on the team and because it's got the most cash to finance the reconstruction. The Aussies and Kiwis are invited out of respect for their longtime security role in Asia, and the Russians are in because they might just run a pipeline to Japan through the Korean peninsula when it's all said and done. As for the wobbly South Koreans, just smack 'em upside the head and tell them it's strictly business--nothing personal.

Those are the Seven Samurai that walk into Kim Jong Il's palace and offer him three possible endings to this thriller: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Version #1 (Good) is the Baby Doc Duvalier package. Keep your money, keep your women, keep your entourage, keep it all . . . just somewhere else. China can offer Kim a fabulous forbidden city somewhere in Inner Mongolia. Hell, promise this Cecil B. Demented a five-picture deal and tell him Steven Spielberg wants to do lunch.

If he doesn't bite on that one, then show Kim Version #2 (Bad). He goes on trial in the Hague for years on end, paraded around like the freak job he is, and once he's thoroughly stripped of what passes for his "majesty," we'll let him rot in a jail cell for the rest of his days.

Version #3 (Ugly) is delivered sotto voce. Just have Paul Wolfowitz show Kim the "six-month reconstruction plan" the Pentagon neocons drew up for the postwar occupation. If he thinks you're bluffing, then instruct Wolfie to slip him some of those morgue shots of Uday and Qusay looking all stitched up like a pair of Frankensteins. Kim'll get the hint. Your administration has proven that you're willing to wage war with almost no concern for the resulting VIP body count, the subsequently incompetent occupation, or the inevitable political uproar back home. I say when you've got it, flaunt it.

If it comes to trigger-pulling, can we pull it off? You know we can, and even here we've got a choice between the stripped-down package (i.e., just kill Kim) and the tricked-up models (e.g., smash-and-grab WMD, decapitating command-and-control, pounding ground forces). North Korea's military will prove less brittle than Saddam's Republican Guard but hardly invulnerable. Plus, on this one the local players will provide plenty of boots on the ground (South Korea, China) and humanitarian aid (Japan) just to prevent refugees from flooding across their borders. Moreover, Kim's slim power base sits atop a Mafia-like criminal empire that features the usual "honor" among thieves, so bribing his fellow kleptocrats with golden parachutes is quite feasible. Finally, the postconflict investment flow will be heavy on this one, because there will be no insurgency, no jihad, no nothing, just a gulag's worth of political prisoners to set free.

But the truth is, it probably won't come to that simply because both you and the neocons have such a scary reputation that you can likely stare down Lil' Kim, so long as you've got China glaring at him disapprovingly over your shoulder. You know China would just as soon jettison Kim because he's a genuine nut and he's terrible for property values. So what you really need to offer the Chinese on the far side is something truly useful, and that something is an Asian NATO. That's right: Kim's tombstone should mark the spot where a NATO-like security alliance for East Asia is born.

If you terminate Taiwan's defense guarantee in order to bring Beijing to Kim's table, then you offer to kill all your plans for missile defense to get the Chinese to pull the chair out from under him. Star Wars has been the single worst boondoggle in the history of the Pentagon--nearly $100 billion wasted and not even Tang to show for it. By securing America's military alliance with China, Japan, and Korea, you not only kill the concept of great-power war in Asia for good, you've just ended Osama bin Laden's bid to pit East against West.

That's it. And you've got about ten months to get it all rolling, with maybe another twenty months to wrap most of it up. By the summer of 2007, your presidency and all the power you wield right now will begin to be severely discounted by politicians both at home and abroad.

Mr. President, I know you're committed to following through on what you've set in motion in the Middle East, and I know you're hell-bent to prove all the eggheads wrong about the possibility of democracy taking root there--and I like your certitude on both points. You're the just-do-it president. You react from your gut more than either your heart or your brains, and you know what? You're as big a gift from history as 9/11's wake-up call turned out to be--and almost equally hard for many Americans to swallow.

You believe that America will defeat global terrorism only if it is willing to transform the Middle East in the process, and I agree. But just as we had to make peace with the Soviets before we could "tear down that wall," your administration will have to make peace with Iran's mullahs before we can begin dismantling the many walls that still isolate that insular region from the global economy and the mutually assured dependence that defines its long-term stability and peace. The road to lasting security in both Jerusalem and Baghdad starts in Tehran, and ultimately it must run through Beijing as well.

You lock down Asia by putting a leash on Taiwan, inviting China into the copilot seat and shoving Kim underground, and you'll not only free up America's military resources for more-urgent tasks in the Middle East, you'll create a sense of strategic despair in the minds of bin Laden and Zarqawi that they'll never be able to overcome. Their dream is to split up the advancing core of globalization and stop its creeping embrace of their idealized Islamic world, which they know will be forever altered by that integration process. Their best strategic hope in this conflict is that some hostile great power will rise in the East to challenge the American-led West. You lock in China today, Mr. President, and you will corner and kill transnational terrorism tomorrow.

And not that you care, Mr. President, but there's your legacy.

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