Saturday, May 9, 2009

Mongolia and Conservatism in the US

Over the weekend I was finishing up Robert P. Newman's "Owen Lattimore and the 'Loss' of China" (UC Press 1992), and I came across the following passage:

Sokolsky reviewed the "great power of Ghengis [sic] Khan, which in the 13th Century conquered China and conquered much of Europe, east of Germany. It held Russia for a prolonged period. It held India and the Mongol Empire in India. It is Mongolia which is being revived as a power in this attempt to force upon the world the United Nations. This peril which is really greater than one imagines because, to us, the name Mongolia hardly means anything anymore and yet, out of that desert land has come this great power which at one time dominated much of the world and which can do it again if armed and given the direction and guidance that could lead to that. This, then, is our peril at the time." (pg. 507)

The passage is a transcript from a radio broadcast on ABC July 16, 1961 in which conservative columnist George Sokolsky was reacting to news that Owen and Eleanor Lattimore were in the People's Republic of Mongolia on a study tour at the same time the Kennedy administration was exploring the possibility of diplomatically recognizing Mongolia. According to Newman, a firestorm was unleashed by the coincidence of these two events among ultraconservatives, causing people like Sokolsky to make fatuous comments like the one above. Surely only the truly ignorant and uneducated at the time would have accepted the recognition of Mongolia as first step in reviving the Mongol Empire under the auspices of the United Nations?

Yet, these sorts of musings unfettered by reality and basic research seem to still find their way into conservative media in the United States. The above passage reminded me of a full page ad printed last year in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) by Center for Individual Freedom (CFIF) expressing real and immediate concern that Mongolia was backsliding in its commitment to protect private property rights and democracy, implying that it was moving down a path ideologically hostile to the foreign policy of the US. True, the ad was not an editorial, so it did not necessarily represent the views of the newspaper. But, WSJ still printed the ad, which called for punitive action against Mongolia in the form of removing its Millennium Challenge Account funds if progress was not made in its allegedly deteriorating record of upholding the rights of private businessmen.

I believe the very same week an article was printed in the Washington Times painting Mongolia as a significant player in a worldwide sea born smuggling ring of illicit materials to rogue states. The Times article is an amusing read because it comes across as a similar attempt to Sokolsky's passage above to construct a conspiracy from one's readers' active imaginations without reference to common sense or basic fact. I do not contest that Mongolian ships have occasionally been used for nefarious purposes (I have not researched this, so it could be true), but taking it to the level of geo-political maneuvering sort of defies logic. I would not be surprised to learn that 9 in 10 Mongolians and an equal ratio of parliamentarians are unaware that Mongolia even has a maritime fleet. It is more likely a criminal matter than a geo-political matter. The government can hardly enforce the traffic laws in Ulaanbaatar, should we be surprised that it is unable to control who flies the Mongolian flag on international waters on occasion? The argument in the editorial seems very far fetched and construed to support a particular agenda.

This entry is not intended to be a survey of US conservative views on Mongolia but rather a reflection on historical and modern examples of the strange views on Mongolia that can make their way into print in the US. It is altogether possible that liberal outlets also have an odd predilection to present fantasy about the situation in Mongolia, but so far I have only seen the really weird stuff come from the right. It makes one wonder what the fascination with Mongolia is and why there is little effort to actually do even the most rudimentary research to support conjectures about the country. The simple answer probably involves the desires of business interests seeking to reap profits or ideologues seeking to promote particular beliefs in a world that matches that which is invented for the pages of newspapers. Understanding reality, in the case of Mongolia's reality, may not be nearly as attractive for those particular people. It's not exactly mass denial or outright lying but rather a wishful attempt to use the power of argument to bend reality to conform to the requisites of one's own agenda.

One conclusion that I have come to from reading Newman's book is that Owen Lattimore's biggest crime was actually doing research (e.g. learning local languages and customs and interviewing regular people in Inner Asia) and then reporting the truth back to power. One can see recent parallels in other geo-political hot spots in the world in which prominent people have suggested listening, showing empathy, doing field research, and reporting the truth about people who inhabit those areas to make better policy decisions. When there is big money involved, though, it is fair to surmise that it is easy for people with active imaginations to paint a picture they want policy makers and the public to believe is true. It does make one pause and consider that with $100 billion worth of copper and gold sitting in the Gobi Desert, it behooves everyone--Mongolians and foreigners with a vested interest in Mongolia alike--to be educated about the basic facts of the world and Mongolia's own history. Otherwise, even ideas as ludicrous as Sokolsky's above or the Washington Times editorialist's can potentially gain traction in the absence of credible and forceful arguments based on facts and reality.

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