Minsk, Belarus—On Sunday, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was reelected to five more years in office. He garnered 80 percent of the vote, according to official numbers. In past elections, Lukashenko, often called “Europe’s last dictator,” all but prevented anyone from directly challenging him. But, this year, he earned widespread recognition for orchestrating an election that was “much freer than the past,” featuring all the trappings of an open and fair process.
Where on earth is the United States headed? Has it lost its way? Is the Obama effect, which initially promised to halt the souring of its global image, over? More seriously, is it in some sort of terminal decline? Has it joined the long historical list of number one powers that rose to the top, and then, as Rudyard Kipling outlined it, just slowly fell downhill: “Lo, all our pomp of yesterday / At one with Nineveh and Tyre”? Has it met its match in Afghanistan?
The editor of a journal recently asked me to write an article addressing this question: “What will Afghanistan look like in 2020?” I declined, saying that my contribution would consist of two words: “Who knows?” I should have added: “Who cares?” The answer, of course, in that everyone in Washington seems to care. Indeed, Washington obsesses about Afghanistan—hence, the never-ending stream of assessments and reassessments, study group reports and op-eds to which we are treated, each possessing a shelf life of approximately 15 minutes.
Many minor Wikileaks scoops have attracted media notice—like the fact that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi apparently always travels with a buxom Ukrainian “nurse”—but one frightening disclosure in particular has not received nearly enough attention. In several cables written from the U.S.
On December 19, citizens in the former Soviet republic of Belarus will head to polls to vote in the country’s presidential election, the fourth since 1994. But Belarusians don’t have any real hope of unseating incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since winning the presidency 16 years ago. Widely known as “Europe’s Last Dictator,” Lukashenko has cracked down on independent media, routinely broken up public protests, and “disappeared” prominent opposition leaders.
A few years ago, when I was still teaching at the University of Chicago, I had my first Chinese graduate students, a couple of earnest Beijingers who had come to the Committee on Social Thought hoping to bump into the ghost of Leo Strauss, the German-Jewish political philosopher who established his career at the university. Given the mute deference they were accustomed to giving their professors, it was hard to make out just what these young men were looking for, in Chicago or Strauss. They attended courses and worked diligently, but otherwise kept to themselves.
Most of the talk about Iran and the Wikileaks documents has centered around the revelation—hardly a surprise—that Arab states are wary of Iran’s nuclear program. This is indeed an important story: The depth of the fear from Egypt, Oman, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia is striking (in one document we learn that, in 2009, Saudi Arabia promised Morocco discounted oil if it joined in the effort to contain Iran).
One can just imagine what the Wikileaks records of Richard Holbrooke’s diplomacy would have looked like. His salty, roustabout’s slinging of abuse when needed; his explosive pugnacity while negotiating in person and his relentlessly unsentimental drive towards a result—none of it would have looked pretty on paper. Yet he pulled off the impossible by imposing stability on the Balkans with the Dayton Accords.
Nothing in the Wikileaks saga has been more typically American than the search for a good-news angle on the whole depressing story. Merely keeping a stiff upper lip is not enough, it seems. We need to assure ourselves that what looks like a disaster is really a victory. There may eventually be a revisionist backlash, but two weeks into the affair the dominant trend among commentators has been what you might call Wiki-triumphalism. Here’s the argument that’s taking hold.
Sakineh Ashtiani was mistakenly reported to have been released from custody earlier this week—before this print magazine article went to press. Though pictures of her at home appeared on Iranian television, the network subsequently stated that she had been brought there “to recount details of the killing of her husband at the crime scene”—in what might be regarded as a forced confession. As far as can be ascertained, she is still being held by Iranian authorities. I know only a little about Sakineh.