Argument

Oh, You Silly Man

How John Kerry got rolled by Vladimir Putin on a plan to save Syria.

The photographs showing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry smiling and slapping palms with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are being circulated by many Syrians opposed to the Bashar al-Assad's regime as visual obituaries of their cause. Weren't these men supposed to be on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict? And why does the Herman Munster-ish Lavrov look happier than his American counterpart?

Perhaps because the atmospherics of Kerry's recent visit to Moscow were meant to show that his hosts were under no illusions as to who was the more desperate and bowed party. First, Kerry's motorcade sat in Moscow traffic for a half hour because of a military parade rehearsal for Victory Day, which celebrates the Soviet defeat of the Nazis in World War II. Then Russian President Vladimir Putin kept Kerry waiting for three hours before granting him an audience, upon which he fiddled with his pen and more resembled a man indulging a long-ago scheduled visit from the cultural attaché of Papua New Guinea than participating in an urgent summit with America's top diplomat.

The pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia claimed that Kerry had been "counting on convincing Moscow not to block sanctions against Damascus. It didn't work." Even if false, the framing of the story provides good insight into how the Russian government viewed these talks. And in the end, Kerry gave Putin exactly what he wanted: Washington's assent to a renewed push for negotiations to end the geopolitical catastrophe in Syria.

Sometime before May is behind us, the United States and Russia will host a conference based on the parameters of the Geneva Protocol, which was agreed to late June 2012 under the auspices of the United Nations. The communiqué calls for a "Syrian-led political process leading to a transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people." To pave the way such an agreement, the document demands the end to armed violence by both sides, the release of political prisoners, granting journalists freedom of movement throughout the country, and the "[c]onsolidation of full calm and stability." Since this would-be roadmap was cobbled together almost a year ago, more than 50,000 Syrians have died in the Assad regime's desperate attempt to crush the uprising.

The underlying assumptions are that Russia can "produce" Assad or his representatives, pressuring them to attend this confab, and that the United States can produce both the political and military wings of the Syrian opposition with which it has chosen to partner, namely the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Command, headed by Gen. Salim Idris. Neither of the latter bodies existed when the Geneva Protocol was first introduced, and Idris now finds himself forced to do what Russia's clients in this conflict never have to do -- beg.

Indeed, while Assad imports long-range missiles from Iran and allows Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Suleimani to build a 150,000-strong sectarian militia to inherit the responsibilities of the Syrian military, Idris is writing open letters to his patron asking for more help. The U.S. response is to ask Idris's men to kill al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra fighters first, and only then turn their attention back to President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

Syria has allegedly been subjected to sarin gas attacks, seen the deaths of more than 70,000 people and the displacement of nearly a quarter of its entire population, and become a haven for a growing and ambitious al Qaeda franchise. Now Kerry wants the world to believe that it can travel back in time and revive a diplomatic initiative that was stillborn even at the time. It's not going to work.

As the Russians like to remind the world, nowhere in the Geneva Protocol is there a demand that Assad must resign or even promise not to take power again in future. John Kerry appears to agree: In a joint press conference in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the secretary of state offered this stark reappraisal of President Barack Obama's repeated insistence that Assad quit the scene. "[I]t's impossible for me as an individual to understand how Syria could possibly be governed in the future by the man who has committed the things that we know have taken place," he said. "But ... I'm not going to decide that tonight, and I'm not going to decide that in the end."

Kerry was forced to hastily repudiate his wishy-washiness in Rome by reminding reporters of the original U.S. stance. But his initial response may convince the Russians that the U.S. position on Assad's departure is negotiable.

Kerry's comment about Assad's future mirrored Obama's now-notorious "red line" on the use or mobilization of chemical weapons. After the White House admitted that Assad likely used chemical weapons against his own people -- a step that Obama once said would be a "grave mistake" -- America's next diplomatic move on Syria was this effort to revive moribund peace talks.

All this is taking place against more caffeinated legislative efforts to assist the opposition. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced a bill on May 6 that would provide U.S. arms and military training to vetted rebels, and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) took to the floor today calling for precision air strikes using stand-off systems on Assad's aircraft and missile launchers. What the Kremlin correctly gleans from such schizophrenic shifts in U.S. policy and rhetoric is that Washington hasn't got a coherent strategy to speak of. And the Putinists surely won't have missed this tucked-away quote from an unnamed U.S. official: "If [Assad] drops sarin gas on his own people, what's that got to do with us?"

Russian security officials will read that as an open invitation to Russia to assist the White House in putting off intervention in Syria. Already, they've been all too happy to oblige: A day after Kerry left Moscow, the Wall Street Journal reported on an "imminent" deal between Russia and Syria to furnish Assad with S-300 missiles -- the same high-tech, anti-aircraft system that Washington pressured Russia not to sell to Iran. The supposed package will include "six launchers and 144 missiles, each with a range of 125 miles," and the first delivery is scheduled to occur within the next three months. Such weapons would no doubt boost the argument of non-interventionists in Washington who contend that Syria's air defenses are too formidable to impose a no-fly zone.

Putin's mind lies open like a drawer of knives, yet the United States -- and even some members of the Syrian opposition -- persist in the illusion that the Russian leader can change. But why should he, when it's the West's position on Syria that's proven eminently mutable? Lavrov wasn't being glib or unscripted himself when, in an interview with Foreign Policy, he said that he was "gratified to note some positive change which occurred on the part of those who have been denying any possibility for a dialogue as long as President Assad is in Syria."

Lavrov then reiterated Russia's right to sell arms and anti-aircraft weaponry to Assad, and noted that it was the Americans, not the Russians, who were backing down on their demands. Fyodor Lukyanov was similarly correct in his assessment in al-Monitor on Thursday: "Russia's position is certainly not changing.... Rather, it is the US that is refining its point of view -- not due to Russia, but as enthusiasm wanes regarding what Syria might look like after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leaves."

From the beginning, the Russian strategy has tracked well with that of the Assad regime's: prolong the conflict to the point where jihadists are the most visible presence on the other side, then frame it in the grammar of the global war on terror. Taking a page from Assad's book, Russia has characterized all of Syria's rebels -- including recent military defectors from the regime -- as "terrorists." It has tried to lay the blame for the Houla massacre -- in which 108 civilians, including many women and children, were butchered by pro-regime shabiha -- on the opposition. It has facilitated the regime's propaganda about the rebels' use of chemical weapons by insisting that the United Nations restrict its forensic investigation to just one area in Aleppo, rather than allowing the U.N. team to launch a full investigation across the country. Russia is also aware that the United Nations cannot access Syrian territory without Assad's permission, which is as unforthcoming as it is convenient for those who believe that no amount of credible or "concrete" U.S. intelligence on weapons of mass destruction will be taken seriously after Iraq.

Lavrov was certainly right to say that Russia's position has been "consistent." Now compare this to the White House, which first established a policy of regime change when Obama said that Assad had to "step aside" in August 2011 -- only to then quietly rescind that policy by backing former U.N. Syria envoy Kofi Annan's failed six-point peace plan in March 2012.

One almost envies the Kremlin at this late hour. After much intransigence at Turtle Bay and a steady stream of arms shipments and military advisers to the Assad regime, Putin finds that his expectations for restoring Russia's great power status have actually been exceeded. He wanted to be equal to the United States in foreign affairs, but on Syria, he's clearly now the man to see. Happy Victory Day.

MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Iron Man vs. the Super Censors

In China, even Tony Stark can’t get around the culture police.

Last week, Robert Downey Jr. took Beijing. On May 1, the blockbuster franchise Iron Man 3 opened in China, pulling in a record-breaking $21 million on its first day and $65 million over the long weekend. If you've already seen it here in the United States, you haven't quite seen all of it. That's because Chinese audiences were treated to a version that's about four minutes longer, and noticeably different in some awkward ways. Call it kowtowing to the Chinese market or product placement, but it's clear that Beijing's censors had their hands all over this one. To please Chinese authorities, filmmakers changed the name of the film's villain from Mandarin to Man Daren (meaning "big man"), added a plug for a Chinese milk drink that can recharge Iron Man, and inserted a bizarre, almost laughable, scene where the movie's hero goes to China for a critical surgery operation.

When U.S. films come to Chinese theaters, it's pretty easy to see the meddling hand of Chinese censors. But Beijing exerts an almost equally tight control on Chinese cultural exports abroad, contorting the surge of the nation's culture on the world stage.

China is growing in importance as not just as an importer, but also as an exporter of culture. Yet the assertive push to showcase the work of Chinese writers, artists, and cultural innovators inevitably draws attention to those voices and visionaries who are blocked by censorship and related forms of government oppression.

Iron Man 3 was released into a Chinese film market that's heating up quickly. In the last year, nearly 100 new IMAX screens have opened up in China, with over 1,000 more planned. Box office revenues rose by 37 percent in 2012 to $2.7 billion, powering China past Japan as the world's second-largest film market. Approximately 10 new cinema screens open every day. Tapping this lucrative market has become a near obsession for Hollywood executives facing lackluster sales at home. Plots, characters and themes are now being developed with Chinese audiences -- and Chinese censors -- in mind. 

The trend is not confined to the big screen. In October 2012, the Shanghai government opened two huge, new, state art museums, including the Shanghai Art Palace which, at 2.1 million square feet, is bigger than New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art. Both offer an ambitious range of both Chinese art and splashy global exhibitions. Beijing is holding an international architectural competition to design a 1.4 million square foot art museum near the Olympic Stadium. These investments are part of a strategy dubbed "Going Out, Inviting In," which encourages museums to mount shows abroad.

The cultural push goes beyond art. In the last decade, China has opened up more than 350 Confucian Institutes in over 100 countries, with plans to bring the total up to 1,000. Modeled on the British Council and Alliances Françaises, the centers teach Chinese languages and hold performances, kids' events, and conferences. The institutes also fund the travel of thousands of foreign scholars and professionals to China each year. Chinese state-run media companies have established outposts throughout Africa, filling a vacuum left as Western media cuts back on foreign bureaus. And in 2012, the state broadcaster China Central Television entered the U.S. market with a glossy new network broadcasting government-approved news.

These efforts will likely gain momentum under China's new leadership. Since his appointment in November, President Xi Jinping has spoke often about "China's Renaissance" and "China's Dream." The Song, Tang and Han dynasties to which Xi's slogans hearken were known not just for their political influence or economic strength, but also for their artistic achievements.

Just as the United States set up its own libraries and information centers abroad in the mid-twentieth century, the Confucian centers are partly a natural byproduct of a wealthier, more globally engaged China. A better understood and more influential Chinese culture can grease the wheels of Beijing's economic and political engine, just like American music, movies, and sitcoms did, and still do, for the United States.  

But the dividends of Chinese cultural investments will be discounted as long as Beijing keeps censoring its most interesting exports. Many of its boldest faces internationally have made their name while resisting Chinese government controls. Just last month, the well-known Chinese director Feng Xiaogang used an acceptance speech for a Chinese Film Director's Guild Award to lament: "In the past 20 years, every China director faced a great torment, and that torment is [beep]." By cutting out the offending reference to censorship, Chinese censors put the spotlight on themselves.

When Chinese novelist Mo Yan won the 2012 Nobel Prize for literature, scarcely a story in the international media reported the news without also mentioning Liu Xiaobo, the jailed Chinese dissident awarded the Nobel Peace Prize two years earlier in recognition of his defiance of Beijing. Mo's failure to more openly challenge the constraints of the Chinese regime, or to support Liu, made his achievement as controversial as it was crowning.  

China's cultural push is by necessity largely confined to film, television, radio, exhibits, and in-person events. Severe controls over the Internet and social media make it difficult for it to effectively promote its culture through today's most powerful global platforms. China's most frenzied and dynamic cultural outlets -- its microblogging sites -- are defined by censorship and by a dizzying array of user-tactics aimed to evade it.

Beijing's billions in cultural investments aim to showcase China's accomplishments and contributions. But for every great Chinese painting, poem or film exhibited internationally there is a tale of the creations that are buried or distorted by censorship. The story of China's cultural emergence has spawned a counter-narrative of the state's war against its own greatest writers and artists. The heroes in that story are not those on screen, but those who are kept off.

WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images