George Sarant

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EUROPEANS AND AMERICANS

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My first reaction upon returning home from a trip to Europe, (in this case Spain) is one of embarrassment. I can’t imagine what people think when they arrive here from abroad to a dismal airport, and then are transported along really terrible roads to their destination, at least here in New York.  The contrast with the immaculate roads and traffic system over there is stark, and even gassing up (albeit at high prices) is far more pleasant at extremely well maintained facilities. There is absolutely none of the all too familiar grunge we have here, apart from the unfortunate presence of graffiti.  That only exists because it is tolerated, as Spain still appears to be reacting to the Franco years and rigid Catholicism, and so have gone to the opposite extreme.

Things have definitely changed. As my wife noted, decades ago there was virtually nothing around the coast of Marbella. Now the entire Costa del Sol is one long continuous chain of resort development, populated mostly by tourists from more northern European countries, especially Great Britain. But nowadays it is impossible to tell where anyone is from until they open their mouths, because they all are dressed like sloppy Americans. Often that consists of t-shirts with American subjects they might not even understand, jeans, and sneakers (or godawful flip-flops). So if you’re planning on traveling abroad and don’t want to stand out as an American, the good news is that they all look like Americans these days. It has become a generic “western” look. Good taste is another matter.

Equally ubiquitous is the unfortunate presence of American popular culture on radio and tv. Now I love my country and I’m proud of it, but not of the crap that Hollywood puts out, which seldom reflects the true reality of American life. The radio is full of American music, or if not, Europop derivatives of it. The end result is that it is difficult to find any true local culture these days, and that is a sad thing. When traveling we want things to be quaint, with plenty of local color.    But people, given a choice in most places want to be “modern.”  Unfortunately the price of that is too often a loss of cultural authenticity. That is compounded by the idea of “Europe” itself.

For Europe as it exists today is largely an American creation. American forces saved it from the Nazis and then the Communist tyranny, and continue to provide it with a defensive shield and one of the longest stretches of peace it has ever known. But after a prior century of horrible wars people have lost faith in everything and live only in the present, to the detriment of future generations. They can, and should be more than second-rate Americans, but that will only happen if a sense of nationhood is restored. They unfortunately are infected with the same self-loathing and obsession with “racism’ as the American left, and similarly denigrate their own past and institutions. But the truth is that they are the source of a truly great civilization and the foundation of our own. Our ties run deep and we share a common destiny.

On that basis I would favor even closer ties than we have now. It is kind of annoying when arriving there to see one line for EU members while we get lumped in with third world peoples. I think we ought to have a reciprocal special status for say, NATO members, in terms of movement, travel and trade. If this is categorized as  a “Eurocentric” view I’ll accept that and be damned proud of it.

A few notes on Spain, specifically, and Andalusia, where I spent my time. Notwithstanding poor economic conditions the country is perfectly safe to visit. Whatever crime there is is petty thievery that is easily avoided with common sense. Driving to the major cities and sites is pleasant, outside of the congested coast. Gas prices were not as bad as I expected, considering what we’re paying here today, running about $6 per gallon. When you drive inland there is little traffic and wide open spaces similar to driving out west. Entering a major city is easy because all you need to do is take the main boulevard into town and follow the signs for the city center, where most of what you want to see is usually located anyway, and then park in an underground garage, which is easily found. The weather is still like summer, warm enough to swim, and there is still daylight until 8 o’clock. Castles, cathedrals, and gardens are everywhere, and a pleasure to visit. If you want to visit the Alhambra in Granada you need to get tickets months in advance, otherwise the only way you can get in is through tour operators, who scoop up most of the available tickets. It is worth a visit, but I think the equivalent site in Cordoba is more impressive, as is the cathedral in Seville. The sites are still attractive, and to the extent you can avoid other tourists, they can still magically transport you back to an earlier time.

Written by georgesarant

October 6, 2012 at 6:51 PM

ACTS OF WAR

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The attacks on our embassies around the world are clearly being orchestrated. How did Al Qaeda flags suddenly appear all over the world at the same time? Contrary to what the administration is saying, this is not just about an obscure, anti-Islamic film. It is a coordinated assault on the United States.  It is now apparent that the Libyans provided advance warning three days before American personnel were murdered, but these warning were ignored. The Libyans themselves are more pro-American than just about anyone in the Muslim world. But there, as elsewhere, there is a Salafist fundamentalist Islamic movement that demands a literal interpretation of the Koran and wants to take things back to the 7th century. Now these guys can scream and demonstrate against presumed offenses, but even they do not bring RPG’s to a demonstration. The goofy “film,” or at least the idea of it, no doubt did enrage many Muslims, but  all of this was just an added bonus for Al Qaeda, which organized these attacks beforehand, specifically for September 11 as part of its continuing war on the United States and the west.

The administration’s apology tour and outreach to Muslims policy is in shambles. The President thought all he had to do was simply make a speech in Cairo and his charisma would move the masses, but the end result is that he is actually less popular in the Islamic world today than George Bush was. But this fumbling has been obscured by the media’s dutiful diversion of attention from the actual substance of things that are happening to focus on an alleged  Romney mistake in  criticizing the administration. They were actually recorded coordinating questions to Romney, which he, unlike the President, actually answered. Any remaining credibility these partisan hacks may have had has now all but vanished.  On top of this we have the left-wing response, which right away is seeking to curtail our rights of free expression in order to accommodate external foes, rather than to defend our way of life. The government has hauled in the creator of the video for questioning, allegedly on other grounds, while at least Google has courageously refused to bow to pressure to take it off of You Tube.  When will they understand that, to paraphrase Pericles, we may not be interested in the rest of the world, but the rest of the world is interested in us?

These brazen assaults are a result of the government’s desire to be loved, which  betrays a fatal weakness. For it has stood Machiavelli on his head by choosing to be loved rather than feared, and has wound up with neither. It will not use any terminology regarding the “War on Terror.” But the security breach at our consulate was an act of war, as are the continuing attacks on our embassies and should be responded to accordingly.  Al Qaeda is targeting American diplomats, and Americans, around the world, and we should be responding to them as we would to an attack on the homeland. But respect for the US has fallen to such an extent that we can’t even get some countries to allow our Marines in  to defend our embassies, and instead are withdrawing personnel. Is it even safe for us to be traveling now? It is time to dispense with the illusion of being loved and instill some real fear in our enemies, for that is the only way to gain any respect.

 

Written by georgesarant

September 16, 2012 at 10:58 PM

SUPPORT THE SYRIAN PEOPLE

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The Syrian people have been engaged in a heroic struggle to overthrow one of the most  tyrannical regimes in the world, with little more than moral support from the West. This is shameful especially given the intervention in Libya, where conditions were not as bad. The Assad government has murdered some 20,000 of its own citizens so far and is clearly on the way out, yet we are providing very little help. Yes, people are tired of war, but this doesn’t require troops, just supplies, weapons, and at most some air cover. Fellow tyrants in Iran are supporting the regime, and Russia and China are blocking any action by the UN, despite a majority in favor of it. They will have a lot to answer for when this regime falls, and it will fall.

Imagine living in a country where one family has been in control for decades. Then consider a government and elite  that is largely populated by members of a single minority sect, the Alawites. It would be like ,say, the Methodists controlling everything here and oppressing everyone else. Then imagine they started killing anyone who opposed them. The Assad government is guilty of such war crimes. It is disgraceful to allow this killing to go on, when it wouldn’t take much to topple the tyranny at this point.

Hesitation and excuses are made because of a fear of causing “instability” in the middle east, which is kind of an oxymoron. Everyone knows the regime is going to fall so why not align ourselves with the winners? Instead of worrying about what may follow we should be in a position to influence that. Given that Syria is an ally of Iran, it would also be a major victory over that odious, oppressive government, which has been an ongoing vicious enemy. Instead of trying to “engage” with these tyrants we should actively oppose them. When I say “we” here I don’t just mean the United States, but the western world, and NATO in particular.

Unfortunately the fall of Sarkozy leaves the west without a dynamic leader, although there is one other. Ironically he is in the middle east, namely Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. He understands the Iranian regime and what their intentions are in terms of obliterating his country. Changing the regime in Syria would be a severe blow to Iran, and might even give the opposition there the courage to rise, and hopefully we would support them this time.

When such evil regimes are threatened we must stand with the people and be on the side of history.  We should be taking steps to assure that they are succeeded by free and open societies instead of burying our heads and looking the other way, or worse, “engaging” with the oppressors. What was done in Libya can be done in Syria. Libyan elections did not produce an Islamic tyranny but a rather liberal government committed to an open society. To repeat I am not suggesting sending troops, but simply providing logistical support. We ignore these things at our own peril. For even if we want to ignore the rest of the world, the rest of the world doe not want to ignore us.

Written by georgesarant

August 8, 2012 at 6:13 PM

WHITHER RUSSIA?

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No country suffered more than Russia during the 20th century, with millions upon millions killed in war and through Communist oppression. That alone would leave one to think they would want to throw off the yoke of tyranny, but their parliamentary elections lead one to think otherwise. Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, got just under 50% of the vote, and even that required ballot stuffing, cheating, and suppression of the opposition. But the opposition parties that did compete are hardly reassuring. The Communists came in second with 20% of the vote. That’s the same party that was responsible for the deaths of millions of Russians and totalitarian repression. The best spin that can be put on this is that some of it was a protest vote for a party that otherwise represents older pensioners. Next in line was A Just Russia, a left-wing socialist party with 13% followed by the Liberal Democrats, who are anything but, with 12%. The latter are even more nationalistic and xenophobic than Putin’s party. Real liberal democrats didn’t even get enough votes to be represented in parliament.

This outcome indicates that Russians may be tiring of Putin, but nevertheless clearly have a penchant for “strong” leadership. The electorate seems to be fertile ground for xenophobic demagogues and nutty nationalists. Genuinely democratic forces hardly register. None of this would matter if they didn’t possess a huge nuclear arsenal, but that is their trump card in international relations. This is otherwise a country of 140 million with a declining population, a huge chunk of the earth’s territory, and vast natural resources, which are still mismanaged. The leadership continually postures with aggressive anti-western rhetoric, creating enemies where there are none, essentially running a gangster regime. Putin, a former KGB man, is clearly nostalgic for the Soviet Union and his party organization emulates the Communists. None of this bodes well for the future, that is, the future of the Russians themselves.

The reality is that the long term threat to Russia comes not from the west, but from the Muslim population along the central Asian border, and a rising China along the eastern border. Posturing against the west does nothing to advance the real geopolitical interests of the country. In fact Russia only has a future if it is firmly anchored in the west. This could eventually include membership in the EU, but at present they aren’t even able to join the WTO. Unfortunately, given these electoral preferences, Russia is likely to have repressive governments for the forseeable future and thus will remain a thorn in the side of the west, as it continues to align itself with other tyrannical regimes. But as they continue to make mischief with countries like Iran it may eventually come back to haunt them.

Written by georgesarant

December 5, 2011 at 5:41 PM

Posted in international

US ECONOMY AND THE WORLD

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Vladimir Putin described the United States as a “parasite” on the world economy due to the pre-eminence of the dollar, which presumably provides certain advantages. This comes from someone late to the world economic party, considering that Russia still can’t even qualify for the World Trade Organization and remains an economic backwater. But then Putin is nostalgic for the Soviet Union, the Cold War, and great power status. He thinks by being antagonistic to the US he elevates Russia, but no one wants to play his game on this end. The long-suffering Russian people deserve better than the gangster government they have, and attempting to deflect blame for life’s miseries via ultra-nationalism will not rescue a grossly mismanaged state. Given that he’s not exactly buff he should also keep his shirt on.

It is easy to understand resentment of American dominance, although this comes at the expense of no other country. Indeed in all of history there has never been a more benevolent world power. Since World War II the American military has kept the world at relative peace not only for the US but for everyone else, thus providing stability and prosperity. This has come at huge cost to the American people, and the US has the burden of carrying a load for the world in other areas as well. The American economy is still the engine driving the world economy, and if it sputters so does everyone else. Americans are also subsidizing the rest of the world in terms of innovation across the board, but particularly in health via new cures and drugs. For example, the Nobel Prizes in medicine has been awarded to more Americans than to researchers in all other countries combined. Eight of the 10 top-selling drugs in the world were developed by U.S. companies. With this, however, come all the development costs, which are largely born by the US market. So the US is hardly “leeching” on the world economy but rather is carrying a heavy burden.

But the extent to which American problems are displaced across the world can be overstated. The stock market dropped over 700 points this week not due to anything domestic but rather because of fear of defaults and economic collapse in Europe. So while markets crashed and even gold went down, where did money from around the world flow? To US Treasuries, for safety and security, actually driving down the yield. In this context the S&P downgrade of US debt from AAA makes no sense. True the government has to rein in borrowing and cut back on debt, but that process will work itself out. The momentum is all in the direction of cutting spending and debt reduction over time. The economy may be doing poorly at the moment, in no small measure due to the federal government, but this will be set right. After all change is coming; change you can believe in.

Written by georgesarant

August 6, 2011 at 6:04 PM

LIBYA AND SYRIA

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The administration’s half-hearted policy in Libya is a no-win situation all around. Americans may be war weary, but the preservation of the NATO alliance is still in our interests as well as theirs. It is true the Libya campaign has unmasked the impotence of the Europeans in carrying out any mission without significant American support. The Europeans continue to bury their heads and avoid adequate expenditures for their own defense. However it is hardly in our interests to see this mission fail. We made a commitment to this effort and to avoid looking impotent ourselves we need to see it through. It would not take a major effort on our part to finally topple daffy Quadafi, who has American and British blood on his hands. Having come out in favor of his overthrow we should make it happen, and then leave the post-Quadafi situation to the Europeans.

The case against Quadafi is that he has murdered his own people. By that standard the Assad regime in Syria is even worse, yet we are standing by as what is clearly a popular revolt is being brutally suppressed. There is a tacit policy of supporting the status quo in Syria in the interests of “stability.” This is nonsense. The fall of this Iranian ally would clearly be in the interests of the West. Without direct engagement on the ground we have sufficient forces in the area to support the revolt, and given its resilience in the face of murderous suppression it would likely succeed.

Again Americans are war weary, but having gone this far and largely succeeded in Iraq and Afghanistan it makes no sense to precipitously withdraw, thereby vastly increasing Iranian influence. The sacrifices we have made should not be in vain. Iran is the greatest threat to world peace and “stability” at the moment, but we effectively have them encircled. Until that regime is toppled by its own people the treat remains and we ignore it at our own peril. Regime change in Syria would be a major blow to Iran, not only there by in Lebanon, given Syrian mischief in that country.

Unfortunately the administration continues to project weakness, which only emboldens our enemies. This is suicide. Neo-isolationism is a dangerous fantasy and it is disturbing to hear some Republicans taking this position. The fact of the matter is that we may not be interested in the world, but the world is interested in us, and we cannot wish away those intent on destroying us.

Written by georgesarant

June 26, 2011 at 2:54 PM

Posted in international

THE POST-BIN LADEN WORLD

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Justice was long delayed, but the killing of Bin Laden brings some degree of closure, particularly for those of us living in New York, to the horrors of September 11, 2001. Yet joy is tempered by the fact that we know we are always going to be a target for the fanatics and must be ever vigilant. All those involved in this successful mission deserve our praise and thanks. Even better they apparently recovered a treasure trove of computer information that will aid in the war against the terrorists, which needless to say, continues.

Still at large is Ayman al Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s number two, who if anything is far more evil than Bin Laden, who was something of a nut case. But Zawahiri is an Egyptian doctor for whom there is no excuse. Also at large, is the “American”leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, Anwar al-Awlaki , who probably represents a greater threat at this point.

There are only remnants of Al Qaeda left in Afghanistan, and with the demise of Bin Laden there is less reason for our presence there. Our conflict was never really with the Taliban, but the fact that they refused to give up Bin Laden. But as awful as they are, given our flaky Afghan government allies, we need to rethink our policy there. The Afghans are the most backward white people in the world, and bringing them into the modern world may be an exercise in futility. As for the opium crop, instead of antagonizing farmers we should simply buy it up, given how much we’re already spending there.

The real problem now is Pakistan, which is virtually a failed state. It is noteworthy that Bin Laden lived in plain sight in a modern development outside of Islamabad. It is just not credible that elements of the Pakistani government did not know about this. Today’s Pakistan encompasses much of the heartland of ancient India, and the biggest mistake the British made was to allow the creation of Pakistan out of a portion of British India, to provide a Muslim majority state. The Pakistanis are in fact Indians, who were converted by Muslim invaders, and it is the only state founded specifically to be an Islamic country. That is the whole rationale for their existence. Initially a moderate form of Islam prevailed, but after a military dictatorship promoted Islam, and the Saudis financed a vast number of madrassas, providing little in the way of education outside of Islam, a significant portion of the population has been radicalized. Given the fact that they possess nuclear weapons the Pakistanis represent a far bigger problem than the Afghans. Continued instability there is a cause for concern and provides a greater rationale for remaining in Afghanistan than Afghanistan itself.

Bin Laden’s strategy of provoking the United States to overreact, thereby inflaming the Muslim world has failed. He totally misread us in terms of determination and staying power. But he partially succeeded in one intentional objective- wrecking our economy by forcing huge expenditures on wars that would consume vast resources and weaken our economy. What we need to do now is pursue a smarter and cheaper targeted anti-terror policy and instead of larger scale military engagements focus on pursuing terrorists.

Written by georgesarant

May 4, 2011 at 1:33 PM

Posted in international

THE ARAB AWAKENING

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From the Maghreb in North Africa to the Persian Gulf we have witnessed mass protests over the past several days, resulting in regime change in a number of cases, with others on the brink. Where some governments have yielded to the popular will, in Libya we currently see thousands being killed, even as army units and officials defect to the opposition. Largely peaceful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have resulted in the departure of long-serving dictators. These revolutions were spearheaded by young, secular activists who made great use of technology and social media to organize, from the bottom up, a spontaneous movement that rapidly gained popular support. They were clearly educated, and middle class by the standards of their country. There was nothing “Islamic” about these movements; indeed the Islamists were caught by surprise. The youthful protests were as much a result as economic malaise as a desire for freedom, given high unemployment and dismal prospects even for the educated. In Egypt the average age is only 24 and there are some 20 million Internet users. They are young people seeking a better life in dysfunctional societies without opportunity, and they have no interest in jihad or clerical rule.

In Tunisia, where the movement began, there is a largely secular society established by its first President, Habib Bourguiba, who once jumped off a stage and ripped a veil from a woman’s face to emphasize secular modernity. However, in Egypt, to put things in perspective, Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the demonstrations can hold about 250,000 people. There are 18 million in Cairo, and more than 80 million in Egypt, most of whom are poor peasants barely living at subsistence levels. The average Egyptian survives on less that $1000 a year, and 40% get by on $2.00 a day. They are a world away from the events in Cairo and Alexandria. It is the same peasantry that has endured for thousands of years as regimes have come and gone. It is not clear what their sentiments are, and how they will respond in a democracy, should one emerge. Power remains in the hands of the Army, which has promised a new constitution to be approved by a referendum, and free elections. The Army is popular and the guarantor of stability in the country. Much will depend on their willingness to cede power to an eventual elected civilian government. Although there appears to be a genuine interest in freedom, in reality economic concerns are equally salient.

Let us hope that the young seeking a better life are not disappointed as their expectations rise. In Egypt there has been something of an Islamic revival. Thirty years ago there were few headscarves in Cairo. Now they are ubiquitous, but this does not equate with radical Islamism by any means. My guess is that Islamism will not ultimately triumph in this situation. Young people want a better life; that is life in this world, not the next, and revolution opens possibilities and optimism that there will be change and opportunity. They have no more desire to be ruled by clerics than we in the west do, especially having seen the results in Iran. Islamism can only take hold when there is desperation, hopelessness, and alienation with the possibilities of this life. The only risk is that reformed governments will be unable to deliver.

Some analysts in the west have worriedly pointed to the fact that revolutions often result in radical extremists taking power, as in France, Russia, and Iran. I do not see that happening in this instance because power ultimately rests with the men with guns, who are part of a professional army.

In Libya the situation is somewhat different. Muamar “Daffy” Qadaffi has turned the guns on his own people, resorting to bringing in mercenaries from African countries as army units defect. The US once had an air force base in Libya until Colonel Qadaffi overthrew King Idris. But it is the flag of the old king that the rebels are now waving. With the east and much of the countryside lost, Qadaffi is left with a base in Tripoli, where his forces continue to slaughter the opposition. The French and British have taken the lead on this as the administration has again been clueless. What needs to be done now is to establish a no fly zone so that Qadaffi cannot attack his own people from the air.

It ought to now be clear that the desire for freedom does exist in the Arab world. Through modern communications young people realize there is a better life elsewhere, that there are alternatives to tyranny, and that opportunity in their own societies can only be realized through change. The clock cannot be turned back.

Written by georgesarant

February 27, 2011 at 11:24 PM

Posted in international

WHITHER CHINA

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Chinese President Hu Jintao recently completed a triumphant visit to the United States, at least according to the Chinese media. American officials wound up looking like fools as they sat through an anti-American song played by pianist Ling Ling, to the delight and contempt of Chinese nationalists and hardliners. The prevailing narrative these days is that China is rising while America is declining. This may well be the case over the next few decades if we allow it, but there is nothing inevitable about it. If we seriously reduce our deficit and institute pro-growth policies so that the economy grows at 5% this won’t happen. But the government is a long way off from getting the economy on a solid footing. On the other hand there is no certainty that China will continue to grow at a 10% rate indefinitely any more than Japan did.

China faces a host of internal problems. There is rising inflation and a property bubble that may eventually collapse. There is misallocation of capital by state enterprises, and rising discontent amongst a population that is still overwhelmingly poor. The government’s top priority is maintaining internal order and a “harmonious society” that keeps the Communist party elites in control. This is a bit tricky insofar as they have largely scrapped communist ideology in practice, but to be logically consistent they ought to do so officially, by rejecting Marxism as a foreign ideology and returning to Confucian roots. There has already been a revival of Confucianism, and a full embrace would legitimize the government in accordance with Chinese tradition. If this is accompanied by a merit system, rather than one that favors party functionaries, the government would be on solid ground, even if not democratic.

But in the long run, China will be outpaced by India. India is like a slow-moving elephant that has a long-term consistency once it is headed in the right direction. Its population will eventually pass China’s, and will be considerably younger due to China’s one-child policy. Even at a slower rate of growth in the long-term this means a larger economy. However, neither will be anywhere near the west on a per capita basis. Nor is it inevitable that the United States will be outproduced if we get our fiscal house in order, increase saving and investment, fix our dysfunctional education system, and encourage economic growth without bureaucratic obstacles. For this to happen we need a leadership that is optimistic and inspirational to move this country out of the current doldrums.

Written by georgesarant

January 28, 2011 at 10:08 PM

Posted in economy, international

RESOLVING THE KOREAN DILEMMA

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The North Korean artillery fire into South Korean territory is clearly an act of war. Four people were killed and significant damage was sustained. This is being attributed to internal North Korean machinations as the dictatorship changes hands, but an explanation is not an excuse. North Korea has embarked on a continued path of aggression for years without paying any price. The response so far has been inadequate, particularly from China, which continues to prop up this criminal state, allegedly for fear that refugees would flood into China.

There are 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea and currently in harm’s way. We have had this burden since the end of the Korean war, which clearly has not really ended. Apart from a show of overwhelming military force, we must be prepared for the possibility that these incidents may escalate, entirely due to the insanity reining in North Korea.

I believe there is a solution to this otherwise intractable problem, and that solution involves a deal with China. One of the reasons China continues to prevent the North Korean regime from collapsing is that it would result in a state containing US forces right on China’s border. This is understandably unacceptable to the Chinese, and pointless for the US if the Korean peninsula is reunited under South Korea. We should offer the Chinese a guarantee that we will remove our forces from Korea if they will pull the plug on North Korea. There is then far less reason to prop up the regime, and it is a win-win all around. The Chinese don’t lose face, we are relieved of the burden of interminably stationing troops in Korea, and the North Korean regime would be history. This has to happen before they get a nuclear weapon, which they are on the verge of doing, with terrible consequences for proliferation around the world. Mopping up and reuniting with the north would then be South Korea’s problem, and that country is wealthy enough to take on that burden.

Written by georgesarant

November 24, 2010 at 6:09 PM

Posted in international