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America's "Siberian Dilemma"

Kurt Campbell is an expert on Asia and security issues who is now chief executive of the Center for a New American Security. He served in the Pentagon in the Clinton administration, in charge of Asia/Pacific issues, and earlier taught at Harvard. He has written widely, for popular and academic audiences, about everything from Japan to nuclear policy.

On this occasion he has written an interesting and thought-provoking piece for the NY Times on what he describes as America's "Siberian Dilemma":

"A trip through Asia, even a relatively brief one, reveals some disquieting concerns over the current American position in the region. In these waning months of the Bush Administration, with the country bogged down and preoccupied in Iraq, the United States faces the unpalatable choice posed by the “Siberian dilemma” in Asia. Just what is the Siberian dilemma and how does it apply to the unforgiving urban battlefields of Iraq? And more to the point, what does this have to do with Asia?

The fishermen of northernmost Russia go out onto the frozen lakes of Siberia in temperatures at times approaching 60 degrees below zero centigrade to fill their catch. They know from experience that the biggest fish congregate at the center of lakes where the ice is the thinnest. They slowly make their way out across the ice listening carefully for the telltale signs of cracking. If a fisherman is unlucky enough to fall through the ice into the freezing water, he is confronted immediately with what is known as the Siberian dilemma. If he pulls himself out of the water onto the ice, his body will freeze immediately in the atmosphere and the fisherman will die of shock. If, however, he chooses to take his chances in the water, the fisherman will inevitably perish of hypothermia. Such is the stark choice presented by the Siberian dilemma.

With sand instead of ice, President Bush faces a kind of Siberian dilemma of his own making when it comes to his political and diplomatic efforts with regard to Iraq. We are now entering the most consequential phase of the unpopular war, and America’s power and prestige (as well as President Bush’s legacy) hang in the balance."

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