On The Beauty of Ambiguity

Posted: Apr 01, 2008 12:01 AM
On The Beauty of Ambiguity

Peace, it's wonderful. So are some other things - like democracy, common sense and practical policies as opposed to angry slogans. The latest election results from Taiwan, aka the Republic of China, represent a victory for all of those.

The results were not only a landslide victory (58 percent of the vote) for the Kuomintang, or Nationalists, but a well deserved slap at the current, ever controversial president and leader of the other party, the Democratic Progressives.

Ineligible to succeed himself as president, Chen Shui-bian has been bad news for years, a veritable poster boy for term limits. His push for an independent Taiwan, which Red China considers a breakaway province, provoked not only Beijing but Washington, for this country has a very real stake in preserving the peace of the region.

It got so bad at one point - in late 2003 - that President Bush publicly reproved Taiwan's president, and blocked American sales of advanced warplanes to that beleaguered island.

Taiwan's voters now have proved far more responsible than their troublesome president. They not only turned to the opposition party in this election, but, by soundly defeating two referenda, turned down his idea of applying for separate United Nations membership under the name of Taiwan.

With the other, huge China wielding a veto at the UN, the whole idea was never going to go anywhere. It was just another showy provocation, and Taiwan's voters had the good sense to realize it.

It was hard to see what purpose these referenda were supposed to serve except the same one that mischievous little boys have when they tease bulls - and risk getting gored.

Back in 1992, Taiwan and the mainland signed a formal agreement to disagree. They agreed that there was only "one China" while not getting into the contentious question of which government was its legitimate ruler, the People's Republic on the mainland or the Republic of China on Taiwan. No need to go into detail. Better the vaguest peace than the clearest war.

It was a good sign when Ma Ying-jeou, now Taiwan's president-elect, visited this country in 2006 and spoke highly of that 1992 agreement. Why be needlessly specific? The newly elected president has a far lighter touch then the incumbent, which befits an ancient culture known for its subtleties. Call it strategic ambiguity.

A highly successful (and at the time much under-rated) American president named Eisenhower knew all about strategic ambiguity. He relied on it back in 1955 to defuse a crisis between the two Chinas, a crisis that threatened to drag the United States into war. Back then the flash point was a couple of offshore islands, Quemoy and Matsu, that were being bombarded from the mainland, and returning fire.

Presidential press conferences those days were full of questions about the mounting crisis: How far was Washington prepared to go to back its ally? Would the United States enter the fray? Why fight for those two little islands? Hadn't the president just said he was prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons in the event of war in Asia? (A similar message from Ike years before might have had something to do with Red China's finally agreeing to an armistice in Korea.)

The experts at the State Department urged the president not to say anything about the mounting crisis lest he inflame it, a request his press secretary, James C. Hagerty, dutifully relayed just before a press conference was due to begin. "Don't worry, Jim," Ike assured his aide, "if that question comes up, I'll just confuse 'em."

It did, and he did. The old general addressed the issue at such length and with so much circumlocution that by the end of his statement no one was sure just what he'd said. ("The only thing I know about war are two things: the most unpredictable factor in war is human nature in its day-by-day manifestation; but the only unchanging factor in war is human nature. And the next thing is that every war is going to astonish you in the way it occurred, in the way it was carried out. So that for a man to predict Š what he is going to use and how he is going to use it would, I think, exhibit his ignorance of war; that is what I believe. So I think you just have to wait, and that is the kind of prayerful decision that may some day face a president.") In short, his response was a masterpiece of strategic ambiguity.

The usual Washington sophisticates called his unclear answer to a very clear question incoherent, which it may have been. The pundits didn't realize that incoherence was just what the situation called for. Only a rare observer like the sage Murray Kempton of the New York Post realized that Dwight David Eisenhower was inarticulate like a fox.

Great thing, ambiguity. As the voters of Taiwan have just had the uncommon common sense to recognize. Thank you, people of Taiwan, or is it Republic of China? Never mind. There's no need to be specific.

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