Chinese lessons

From a WaPo piece on Rice's recent Middle East tour:

At one point, Rice said that the difficult circumstances in the Middle East could represent opportunity. "I don't read Chinese but I am told that the Chinese character for crisis is wei-ji, which means both danger and opportunity," she said in Riyadh. "And I think that states it very well. We'll try to maximize the opportunity."

But Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, has written on the Web site http://pinyin.info, a guide to the Chinese language, that "a whole industry of pundits and therapists has grown up around this one grossly inaccurate formulation." He said the character "ji" actually means "incipient moment" or a "crucial point." Thus, he said, a wei-ji "is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry."
It would be comforting to know that top policy-makers do not get their strategic thinking from pop psychology books. But then again we are dealing with a president that got excited about democratization because he read Nathan Sharansky's book and a few years later apparently got bored with the whole idea.

Update: I forgot to include these choice quotes from Neil King's article in the WSJ:

While traveling this week through the Middle East and Europe, Ms. Rice engaged in several long historical tutorials with reporters in tow. Her point in referring back to the Cold War, she said, isn't to argue that history repeats itself or that the analogy is exact.

"The reason that I cite some of these other times, like Europe, is that it is so clear in everybody's mind that the United States and its allies came out victorious at the end of the Cold War," she said in Kuwait. "But if you...look at the events that ultimately lead to that, you would have thought that this was failing every single day between 1945-1946 and probably 1987 or 1988."

Her contention is while things may look bad now in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, history is on the administration's side. She pushed a similar argument to reporters last month. The Middle East is "moving toward something that I am quite certain will not have a full resolution and that you will not be able to fully judge for decades," she said.

Critics dismiss Ms. Rice's references to the Cold War as both convenient and a sign of her limited frame of reference. The challenges facing Europe in 1946, they say, bear little similarity to those of the Middle East in the 21st century.

"The administration's reservoir of historical analogies seems limited to the 1914-1991 period. And it's all about Europe," said Adam Garfinkle, a former Rice speechwriter who edits the foreign-policy journal The American Interest. "No one in a senior position in this administration seems to have even the vaguest notion of modern Middle Eastern history."

When asked this week about what moments in Arab history inform her thinking, Ms. Rice said she had read about "the British experience" in Mesopotamia in the 1920s, which led to the founding of modern Iraq and the withdrawal of British forces. "I know a number of things that went right, and I know the things that went wrong," she said.
What also comes out in the article is the idea that Rice's main strategic objective is securing a new regional arrangement that favors Israel:

On this trip, which wrapped up in London, Ms. Rice has portrayed her main mission as firming up what she calls "a new alignment" of moderate states allied with the U.S. to push back against Iran. Ms. Rice also has shown a new interest in trying to promote an Arab peace deal with Israel after years of inactivity.

Four years ago, the administration theorized that the U.S. invasion would spawn a democratic Iraq, on good terms with Israel, that would break the regional mold and compel erstwhile enemies to end hostility toward the Israelis. Now, Ms. Rice says it is the Iranian ascent wrought by the war that makes Arab states more open to negotiations.
Yet, the leading initiative for Arab-Israeli peace is an Arab one and was announced in March 2002 in Beirut -- and been ignored by successive Israeli administrations, as well as the Bush administration. So it's not so much peace that they are interested in, but have their cake and eating to. Understandable from an Israeli right-wing perspective, but should American politicians be towing the same line?

[Thanks, X]
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.