Monday, 1 February 2010

Parallel Universe "H": Hun Sen, Hamid Karzai, Hu Jintao

via CAAI News Media
Author: Dr. Greg Austin
31 January 2010 - Issue : 871

The former Khmer Rouge guerilla, Hun Sen, is now -- 25 years after his installation by occupying Vietnamese troops -- still Cambodia's Prime Minister. For much of the time since the successful UN intervention in that country almost two decades ago, donor countries and their human rights groups have been appealing for an end to corruption, respect for human rights, and establishment of rule of law and democracy.

The argument has been that Cambodia deserved a peace dividend and that voters in donor countries should reasonably expect that for all of their support Cambodian leaders would be able to deliver and should want to deliver a legal system and society governed by acceptable standards. Thus there were two competing visions of the future of the country -- one foreign and one local. This is normal in international politics.

The existence of parallel universes of aid donors and aid recipients has been illustrated this past week with the convening of two separate international conferences on Afghanistan -- one in Istanbul on 26 January and one in London on 28 January. Iran, one of Afghanistan's two most powerful neighbors, attended in Istanbul but not London. The long term future of Afghanistan lies with the Istanbul constellation, including Iran.

The London Conference has in many respects been a huge success in that it laid down some clear markers for a desired transition toward a reduction of the foreign military forces. This is fundamentally important for maintaining support at home for the intervention. Yet the air of unreality, incompleteness and wishful thinking was unmistakeable. The position of most governments in London was premised on confidence that they could manage the transition.

Hopefully luck is on our side and we will be influential, working alongside the government and communities of Afghanistan. Robert Gates, the United States Defense Secretary, has acknowledged the Taleban as part of the fabric of Afghanistan. He had at the same time been describing it as a scourge and a cancer, so what meaning he was conveying is a little unclear. We can recall that Hamid Karzai was according to several sources a member of the Taleban political movement for two years or so before becoming and ardent opponent.So we are thrown back on the inevitable dilemma of ethics and governance and negotiating with the "enemy" and with allies with complex personal histories. The parallel universes do of course have to intersect at some point.

The dilemma of parallel universes -- one foreign, the other local -- was revealed with amazing force in January in the American reactions to the latest revelations about censorship in China and Google, and allegations of cyber attacks by Americans on a Chinese competitor. In these reactions, we have seen the same disposition as we have seen in respect of Cambodia and Afghanistan, that is exuberant self-absorption by critics in a vision of "China as we want it to be", rather than a more sober accounting of how we work with the "China that is" to get it closer to where we want it to be.

Just as Hun Sen was a member of the Khmer Rouge, and Karzai a "member" of the Taleban, China's President Hu Jintao was, according to several reports, a Red Guard at Qinghua University in the critical year of 1966 when violence erupted on the campus with considerable ferocity.

A black versus white approach to international politics and peace will always leave us in parallel but separate universes -- one foreign, one local. To ensure our own security in the real world, we need to see the grey scales in all of their variety. That does not mean we abandon our own principles, but compromise is inevitable. Where that balance sits with each person is a matter of individual conscience. We make our own choices and we must bear the consequences of that.

Robust engagement with those who think very differently from us is the only way of satisfying our own need -- and theirs -- for an imperfect security and prosperity that can satisfy both groups. The important operational principle is that the compromise point never remains static. The irony is that we do need vociferous defense of principle to ensure that the struggle continues.

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