The Guide Book Wars

Off the beaten track here…but it’s a weekend, so come with me to Burma for a minute.

Or rather, to the offices of the leading guide-books specializing in the exotic parts of the third world. Burma is, of course, a repressive isolated military-totalitarian backwater that keeps its leading democracy activist locked up under house arrest. Even most liberals have the good sense to hate it. So how do you publish a guidebook for travellers who might want to visit there, especially since most of the money these tourists want to spend goes straight into the state’s coffers? Especially since said democracy activist advises against tourism for that reason?

If you’re the publishers of the Rough Guide series, the answer is simple: you don’t publish. And you advise people not to go there. Even though you make your money covering odd and exotic places, there are some things beyond the pale. Engagement with the Burmese regime simply isn’t worth the price.

If you’re the publisher of Lonely Planet, you publish but present the arguments of both sides up front. And you try to steer people away from government-owned properties and attractions.

And, if I read correctly the article in Irrawaddy that I linked above, you still fail to do so despite your best efforts to walk the line, and you end up helping the state:

The current Lonely Planet guidebook devotes a half page to the Strand, a gleaming white monument to the glories of the British Empire. “Though well beyond the budget of many visitors to Myanmar as a place to spend the night, the Strand is well worth a visit for a drink in the bar, high tea in the lobby lounge or a splurge lunch at the café,” says the guide. Some independent travel writers find themselves splurging in uncomfortably close proximity to expense account government spooks.

The writers of travel guides like these are…well, if I may offer a rank generalization, not usually in the Fox News key demographic. The consumers of Lonely Planet and Rough Guides I’ve encountered around the world, if my generalize again, tend also to be of the hemp-granola-crystals-and-incense sort. But both of these guides clearly understand the perils of engagement with a regime like Burma’s.

Neither was tempted by the third option: act as a mouthpiece for the Burmese government, tout their businesses, and do what they say in exchange for a preferred status in reporting there. That option, of course, is what CNN’s bureau chief admitted to embracing to keep its operations running in Saddam’s Baghdad.

But limited engagement with fascist regimes–Iran and Syria–is also the chosen course advanced by the Iraq Survey Group. And it’s also the policy urged by Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

The reason we took this little detour to Burma is this: even limited engagement is problematic. Even limited engagement helps keep evil in power and grants it legitimacy. Morally, it’s pretty skeevy. Politically, it encourages a regime’s supporters and dismays its opponents. Strategically, it doesn’t solve anything and may allow enemy regimes to grow stronger. Practically, most of the regimes whose interests lie diametrically opposed to ours shouldn’t be trusted to honor any such negotiations anyway.

“Neocons” and hawkish conservatives are often criticized for a simplistic shoot-first worldview. But it bothers me that I have seen very little evidence that the Left takes seriously the problems associated with “engagement”, or even acknowledges that there are any. Usually I see the litany of problems in Iraq, often followed by a defense of the moderation of the “real” Iranian regime–and then a leap the conclusion that therefore, negotiation with Iran must be called for. Hey, it’s different, so it must be better, right?

No. In the small matters such as a guidebook for Burma, well-meaning writers who (whether liberal or not) are cosmopolitan and politically aware and sip green tea with the Dalai Lama know damn well that such a choice is a complicated one, and that sometimes isolation is the right decision–even if it is a painful and costly one–and that not only won’t engagement won’t solve anything, it may make things worse.

DPRK PS: President Bush’s recent agreement with North Korea has come under such criticism as well. John Bolton, for one, doesn’t like it at all. I’m not sure what to make of it yet–I certainly don’t trust Kim Jong Il as far as Madeline Albright could throw him; but on the other hand our time and resources are limited and Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and Israel-incineration rhetoric make controlling their nuclear program more of an immediate priority than KJ’s.

What I do see on the Right is a debate that acknowledges the essentially cruddy character of all the options we face. Isolation or engagement, attack or appeasement–none of them are a reflexive feel-good option. When Bush makes any kind deal with Musharraf or the Saudis–or remember Dubai!— he takes heat from the Right, as well as the Left who kick him for political points. We’re living in risky times, and we can’t afford a fuzzy-headed ideological preference for any particular tactic–unless “prudence” counts as an ideology.

Just remember all this when those who demand we engage with Iran’s mullahs bill themselves as the “realists”.

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