Articles by Peter Lee:
April 20, 2013 by Peter Lee
Will President Obama become a late and unlikely convert to realpolitik and allow John Kerry to sacrifice America’s nuclear non-proliferation principles on the battered altar of North Korean diplomacy? And will the fearsome pivot to Asia turn into a dainty pirouette, an American pas de deux with China as the two great powers search for a way to dance around the North Korean nuclear problem?
Potentially, the North Korean nuclear crisis is a good thing for the US and South Korea–and perhaps even for China!—if President Obama is ready to bend on some cherished non-proliferation beliefs. That’s what the North Korean leadership is begging him to do, amid the nuclear uproar.
Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, seems to be interested in getting, if not on the same page, in the same chapter with North Korea, and maybe pick up a geopolitical win (with Chinese acquiescence) similar to the successful effort to push Myanmar (Burma) out of its exclusive near-China orbit.
April 6, 2013 by Peter Lee
By a creepy coincidence, I watched the man vs. wolf in the Arctic thriller The Grey the same week that Roger Ebert died.
Creepy because The Grey is a relentless meditation on death and Roger Ebert, who had already experienced his first, traumatic bout of cancer when the film came out in 2012, had this to say about the effect that the movie had on him:
I was…stunned with despair. It so happened that there were two movies scheduled that day in the Lake Street Screening Room (where we local critics see many new releases). After “The Grey” was over, I watched the second film for 30 minutes and then got up and walked out of the theater. It was the first time I’ve ever walked out of a film because of the previous film. The way I was feeling in my gut, it just wouldn’t have been fair to the next film.
Caution: non-stop spoilers from here on in.
February 23, 2013 by Peter Lee
Prime Minister Abe was compelled to get into China’s grill about the Senkakus dispute in a Washington Post interview setting the table for his meeting with President Obama, claiming the PRC had a “deeply ingrained” need to challenge neighbors over territory. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs laid into Abe:
“It is rare that a country’s leader brazenly distorts facts, attacks its neighbor and instigates antagonism between regional countries,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. “Such behavior goes against the will of the international community…We have solemnly demanded the Japanese side immediately clarify and explain.”
People’s Daily ran with the ball under the heading “How Japan Misleads the US”, proving that the PRC will not hesitate to take offense any time Japan makes an overt play for US strategic support against China—and will avoid criticizing the US on the issue in order to work the wedge between Tokyo and Washington a little deeper.
January 24, 2013 by Peter Lee
As the moving finger of chaos hovered over Mali and Algeria last week, I took another look at Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers. I am somewhat puzzled that this movie is not at the heart of the Zero Dark Thirty debate.
Because in many ways, perhaps intentionally, ZDT is the mirror-image doppelganger of Algiers. Both of them effectively employ an objective documentary style to depict a brutal, successful exercise in counter-terrorism. And both of them deal with torture. In The Battle of Algiers, torture works! Right away! In the very first scene! Short-circuiting any need for liberal handwringing or right-wing defensiveness for the next two hours of the film!
The film opens with Colonel Mathieu, the supremely able, objective, and ruthless commander of the French counter-terror effort in Algiers against the Algerian National Liberation Front or FLN, striding in to confront a scrawny, scraggly, beaten little man surrounded by a crowd of sturdy, confident French soldiers in crisp camo (in an interesting irony, Pontecorvo revealed that the “soldiers” were cast from students from Kabilye—an Algerian district known for its light-skinned Berbers– at the local university).
January 21, 2013 by Peter Lee
China’s PRC regime has been preparing for escalating confrontation with Japan if Tokyo decided it really wanted to test the commitment of the United States to back it in the crisis over the Senkaku/Daioyutai Islands. Showing Japan the undesirability of openly aligning with the United States as the U.S. pivots into Asia—instead of giving some lip service at least to PRC interests and priorities—is pretty close to an existential issue for the PRC.
And the PRC knows that the U.S. appetite for giving Japan military support over the Senkakus/Diaoyutai is extremely limited, despite the brave talk of the U.S. defense appropriations bill. If an incident had occurred between the PRC and Japanese ships and planes jostling around the islands, the U.S. would have been faced with the very difficult choice between exacerbating a crisis in Asia and admitting the limitations of the “pivot”, not only to Japan but to Vietnam, the Philippines, and, for that matter, everybody else.
So, if the Japanese forces had decided to engage in some pushback on the provocative PRC actions around the Senkaku/Diaoyutai, the PRC would have made sure that things got pretty ugly pretty quick. And if the PRC wanted to try to strangle the pivot in its cradle, they might have rolled the dice, provoked an incident, and let the crisis escalate.
December 7, 2012 by Peter Lee
A line that coulda shoulda been in Skyfall but wasn’t. Skyfall was enjoyable, in a grim sort of way. I certainly regretted the shortage of many of the signature Bond tropes—babes, booze, quips, and gadgets—that enlivened the earlier films, especially in the self-mocking days of Sean Connery and Roger Moore, and made the gaping plot holes more endurable.
The wheels come off Skyfall in the final act, where Bond returns to his ancestral home in Scotland with his bosslady, M, to lure the archvillain, Silva into a trap. For some reason, although MI6 is aware of this ruse, Bond receives no official backup and has to fight off a helicopterload of henchman relying only on his wits, courage, Dame Judy Dench, and the decrepit but murderous old family retainer and caretaker, Kincade, played by Albert Finney.
In the good/bad old days, Roger Moore would have marched into the old homestead calling peremptorily for Kincade! only to be pleasantly nonplussed by the appearance of the current officeholder, Kincade’s gorgeous granddaughter, wearing nothing but a bikini under an ankle-length fur coat and wielding a shotgun. Then, after some improbable but amusing mayhem, the villain would be subjugated, Felix Leiter would appear to mop up the underlings, and M would be on the helicopter back to London harrumphing, “Where’s Bond?” Cut to Moore luxuriating with the lovely Ms. Kincade in a profusion of mink before a roaring fire, purring, “I’ve always wanted to explore the hills and valleys of my native Scotland…”
November 20, 2012 by Peter Lee
According to Russia’s TASS news agency, a grim milestone was achieved in Syria a few days ago: several peaceful demonstrators in Aleppo were massacred. The twist is that the demonstrators were calling for protection by the Syrian army to end the destruction of the city; they were shot by insurgents.
A single, thinly sourced news item is not needed to demonstrate the profound moral and strategic disarray afflicting the Syrian insurrection as the country totters toward collapse. A handier and more reliable reference point is the abrupt and forcible reorganization of the overseas Syrian opposition at the behest of the United States.
The Syrian National Council (SNC) is now just a junior partner in a broader opposition grouping, the “Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces” (SNCORF). Reportedly, this new group was formed at the insistence of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She is retiring in a few weeks and apparently wished to pull the plug on the ineffectual SNC and replace it with something less overtly Sunni/Muslim Brotherhood-esque. The SNC’s major sponsor, Qatar, and the great minds at the Doha branch of the Brookings Institute responded with the marvel that is SNCORF.
November 19, 2012 by Peter Lee
To outside observers, the carnage inflicted on the Rohingya minority – a five-month spasm of violence and de fact ethnic cleansing ostensibly stemming from the rape of a Buddhist woman by three Rohingya men – in Rakhine Province is indefensible and inexplicable.
What is even less understandable to Westerners is the virtually universal closing of ranks among local and national governments, pro and anti-government Buddhist monks, junta apologists and pro-democracy activists, President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, all uniting to deny the apparently undeniable fact that an old fashioned pogrom is taking place against Rohingya minority and other Muslims.
Friends of Myanmar are puzzled and dismayed that the progressives they have championed have joined forces with the country’s most reactionary forces to deny the overwhelming evidence that Rohingya – a dark-skinned Muslim ethnic minority with cultural and linguistic ties to neighboring Bangladesh – are being driven out of their homes by a campaign of intimidation, arson, and violence in 2012 that builds upon years of marginalization and demonization.
November 9, 2012 by Peter Lee
The caption on this post on the China Weibo blog of the Durex condom company reads “The difference between Obama and Romney is…” Actually, I think the PRC regime-meisters might have a slight preference for President Obama as “the devil you know.” Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is a protean shape-shifter and it was never clear where he might come down on the reckless-feckless-clueless continuum in China affairs.
I would like to share a few observations.
A common emotion on the Democratic side, other than elation, is amazement at the fact that the Romney team was genuinely surprised and dumbfounded by its defeat, which to them was “a bolt from the blue.” Mr. Romney had apparently not even considered the contingency of a concession speech, which is perhaps why his remarks were mercifully short and relatively engaging.
October 30, 2012 by Peter Lee
Regarding the epic financial machinations allegedly practiced by the family of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, his supporters can draw consolation from the fact that the Wen family compares favorably to the Bo Xilai family in the matter of financial sophistication, investment success, and in not murdering its financial adviser. They may also be heartened by the thought that China’s tycoons are achieving parity with the West in best practices of legalized insider trading and self-dealing.
There is another group that definitely feels thrilled and empowered by the New York Times’ blockbuster revelation concerning an alleged US$2.7 billion nest egg possessed by Premier Wen Jiabao’s family. That group is not China’s dissidents. It is Western print journalists, who feel under siege around the world, and especially in China.
October 25, 2012 by Peter Lee
Jaded China watchers observe the fall of Chongqing’s “Red Leader” Bo Xilai and see little more than the disposal of another corrupt Communist sociopath who crossed multiple red lines – not of reckless criminality, but of naked ambition, of disobedience to the Center, and of unseemly and embarrassing behavior involving foreigners – and got slapped down by the party leadership.
Score one for the Chinese Communist Party, in other words, for the efficient use of party disciplinary functions, media operations, and kangaroo courts to wrap up the messy package without overt violence and organized public dissent or embarrassing private leaks from Bo’s allies inside and outside the CCP, thereby maintaining the public veneer of leadership unity going into the transitional 18th party congress.
This interpretation is not satisfactory to China’s reformers, who see the country lurching into crisis and hope to shoehorn the Bo Xilai affair into a narrative of national political, social and economic renaissance.
August 15, 2012 by Peter Lee
I think there is some misunderstanding about Israel’s concern over Iran’s nuclear program. To use Alfred Hitchcock’s term, the Iranian bomb is simply “the MacGuffin”, the psychologically potent but practically insignificant pretext for action, reaction, and drama. To my mind, the main object of Israel’s foreign policy as practiced by Benjamin Netanyahu, is to preclude US and European rapprochement with Iran.
If peace breaks out in the Middle East, in other words, Iran, its markets, and its oil would quickly become remarkably popular with Western governments and investors.
June 8, 2012 by Peter Lee
The Difference Engine
by William Gibson and Bruce SterlingI recently had the good fortune to read two excellent and complementary books in tandem. One was The Difference Engine, a famous piece of sci-fi alternate history by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.
It takes place in Victorian England—a different Victorian England, still driven by steam and innocent of electricity, but one in which Charles Babbage’s machine for mechanical computing has been perfected. New but oddly familiar vistas of technology, pollution, wealth, crime, control, and oppression confront the characters and the reader. Gibson has said that The Difference Engine remains his favorite among his books and the only one he re-reads.
Coming from the author of Neuromancer, that’s no small claim. Unsurprisingly, the book has become something of a touchstone for the steampunk movement, which it anticipated by about a decade.
May 30, 2012 by Peter Lee
If Assad loses control of his armed forces and the regime loses its legitimacy as the expression of Syrian nationalism, the ingredients don’t seem there for a Lebanon-style civil war with local proxies armed by regional or global actors.
That’s because I don’t think that Russia, China, or even Iran see any upside in arming some Ba’ath regime generals of primarily Alawite backgrounds trying to beat back an insurrection powered largely by Syria’s dominant Sunni majority. Alawites are estimated at 12% of Syria’s largely Sunni population and don’t look to do well if the Syrian uprising transforms into an explicitly sectarian confrontation.
Lebanon, on the other hand, is split between Christians, Sunnis, and Shi’ites with no one group holding a clear demographic advantage (especially since there hasn’t been an official census in Lebanon for decades), providing multiple opportunities for regional and global patrons to make mischief through their durable local proxies.