All About the Benjamins

Bashar al-Assad has outlived so many predictions of his imminent demise at this point that it would seem unwise to bet against him. Nonetheless, a series of military and diplomatic setbacks combined with a wave of defections in recent weeks have raised expectations that the Syrian president may finally be on his last legs. While Assad will likely exit the scene eventually, observers may be looking at the wrong signals when assessing his regime's vulnerability.[[SHARE]]

In a Dec. 20 article last year for Foreign Policy, we wrote of Assad: If he betrays the interests of his closest Alawite allies, for instance by implementing reforms that will dilute their share of the spoils, they will probably murder him before any protesters can topple his regime. ... Captive to the needs of his coalition, he ignores the welfare of the 23 million average Syrians and shuns world opinion." We calculated at the time that Assad could count on 3,600 elite supporters. Should they stop working to neutralize the rebellion, Assad would be gone immediately.

What keeps those supporters on Assad's side? In a word, money. As long as he has enough to keep his cronies loyal, he will live to fight another day. Eventually he might lose the battle against the rebels, but that is down the road. If he runs out of cash, he will be gone today.

Assad must worry day and night whether enough money will come in to prevent big fractures in his backing among the ruling elite. So far, he seems to be managing this threat well. Al Jazeera reports that the total cumulative defections within his regime amount to just 73 individuals, almost none of whom are from the ruling Alawite clan and perhaps none of whom are from the inner circle of key backers. The press has made much, for example, of defections by Syrian diplomats, yet only one or two of 13 diplomatic defections have been by senior officials -- the former ambassadors to Iraq and the United Arab Emirates. Most of the diplomatic defections have been by consuls and other lower-level functionaries.

Likewise, much was made of the three (out of 39) cabinet members who have defected since the uprising began, including Prime Minister Riad Hijab last August. But Hijab had been in office for just two months and was Sunni, not Alawite. Indeed, the defectors are almost never Alawites and are, therefore, almost certainly not members of Assad's winning coalition -- the people whose backing is essential to keep him in power. Assad's official inner circle, which comes from a diverse set of backgrounds, is mostly for show, while the true inner circle -- like the General Staff of the military -- is all Alawite. Their defection would be a risk to his survival; it is they who must be kept loyal and that means they must be paid better by Assad than by any credible alternative.

That then raises the question: Where does the money come from? The question is easy to answer: Iran, Iraq, Russia, and a bit from Venezuela. Assad is estimated to need about $500 million a month to keep his regime afloat. The Times of London reports that Iran alone has given Syria about $10 billion -- enough to sustain the regime for almost two years. The Iraqi regime is pledged to political neutrality on the Syrian rebellion, which turns out to mean that they are unwilling to interrupt their economic dealings with Assad's regime and they oppose sanctions -- ostensibly to protect the well-being of the average Syrian. They seem to have given billions to Assad as well.[[PAGEBREAK]]

If there is anything positive to be taken from the Syrian situation, it is that U.N. sanctions on Iran have so devalued that country's currency that Tehran may not be able to afford to sustain both itself and Assad for long. Given that choice, there is no doubt the mullahs will sacrifice Assad. How long it will be before they get to that point is difficult to say. There are factors pulling in both directions. Reports have surfaced of fissures between Ayatollah Khamenei and his head of intelligence over the cost of supporting Assad. These tensions have likely only grown as the rial has plummeted in value and as Iran has acknowledged sending elite forces to aid Assad. More intense sanctions against Iran might prove to be the most effective tool the West has to bring down the Assad regime. But it is far from obvious that doing so will improve the situation or serve the interests of any NATO member except for Turkey.

The beginning of the Syrian rebellion provided an opportunity for Western interests to step in and take an active role in organizing the more secular elements among the rebels. That, however, did not serve the electoral interests of Obama's core constituents or voters in other Western countries facing elections. Hence, with their own survival being foremost in their calculations, Western leaders did little to bolster pro-Western insurgents or to topple Assad by offering him a soft landing. While the West pondered its next steps, others, as must always be expected, saw an opportunity to organize the rebellion around their own agenda.

The majority of Syrians may not be religious fundamentalists. But as in Egypt's revolution and the 1979 revolution in Iran, the organized few are, and we should expect power to devolve to them when the Assad regime is brought down. As emphasized in our book, The Dictator's Handbook, the short-term political interests of politicians always trump the longer-term "national interest." And so it has been with Syria. A future American president will have to learn to deal with a possibly even worse Syrian regime. Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama was prepared to acknowledge that waiting and doing nothing would saddle future leaders with an almost assured headache. After all, there were precious few votes among Democrats or Republicans for action today that would forestall disaster tomorrow.

Return of the Silviosaur

With one tactless remark last week, an Italian cabinet minister may have inadvertently triggered the fall of the country's technocratic government and the return to center stage of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Corrado Passera, the normally suave and experienced economic development minister told a television interviewer that "a return to the past would not be good for Italy." The remark was an explicit reference to Berlusconi's Popolo della Libertà-led government, which stepped down in November of last year. The immediate reaction was a salvo of criticism from leaders of the PdL and the party's decision to withdraw its support from Prime Minister Mario Monti's government. Berlusconi then strongly hinted that he was planning to throw his hat back in the ring: "I cannot let my country fall into a recessive spiral without end. It's not possible to go on like this," he said in a statement, noting that he had been "besieged by requests" to run.[[SHARE]]

On Saturday, Monti announced that his government would resign, saying the PdL's withdrawal of support clearly represented "a no-confidence vote for the government and its policies." Later that day, Berlusconi confirmed what was already obvious to everyone. "I am running to win," he told reporters. Elections must now be held within 60 days of the dissolution of parliament, and the world will wait to see if  Berlusconi can return to the prime minister's office for a fourth time. If he does, the consequences for Italy and for the rest of Europe are likely to be dire. Even if he does not win, the negative effects will color the whole campaign.

Berlusconi had been hinting at this for a while. A couple of weeks ago, he promised  that he would "pull a dinosaur out of the hat"; the implication was that he was the dinosaur. The given explanation is predictable: Monti's economic policies, according to Berlusconi, are not working, and he has to return in order to save Italy... again. But, given that this is Berlusconi we're talking about, the real reasons are more complicated.

The first is Sunset Boulevard on the Tiber. Berlusconi is the aging star who refuses to accept that he is past his prime and still craves the adulation and attention of fawning fans and the media. He is 76 and despite (or sometimes because of) the very visible pancake makeup, he looks his age and more. His comeback bid is a dangerous ploy, as he also knows that he risks an electoral disaster and bitter criticism from his own former party faithful. The potential for humiliation is likely the reason he has waited so long to jump back in. But that risk evidently wasn't enough.

Berlusconi may also want to return to politics in order to protect himself and his friends. Last week, the cabinet debated a decree that would prevent anyone convicted of crimes carrying a two-year sentence or more from running for office. As the law would only apply to those convicted at all three levels of Italy's court system, only a couple of parliamentarians would be affected -- though quite a few more at lower levels of government.

Even though Berlusconi has faced dozens of criminal indictments over the years and was convicted of tax fraud by a Milan court in October, he has never been convicted at the highest level. But there is talk that before the law is passed, it might be modified to include first- or second-level convictions, in which case Berlusconi would be in trouble personally. The current draft law says that anyone convicted while in office will have to stand down. Berlusconi is expecting judgment in February on the so-called Ruby case, in which he is accused of soliciting an underage prostitute and abusing his power. That would only be a lowest-level conviction, but he likely feels the noose tightening. Some of his close associates, including longtime friend Senator Marcello Dell'Utri, who was convicted at all three levels for false accounting and given a sentence of two years and three months, are feeling the heat as well.[[PAGEBREAK]]

Berlusconi and PdL party secretary Angelino Alfano have also made it clear that another reason for their decision to abandon Monti's government is the lack of progress on justice reform, though they have a fairly unique understanding of that concept. When Berlusconi was prime minister and Alfano was justice minister, they did nothing to answer the most pressing issue facing Italian justice: the years it takes to reach a definitive sentence. This is not only a problem of equity and justice but a serious discouragement to investment; no one is going to invest in Italy if they can't expect the courts to decide civil cases.

Berlusconi's main concern, by contrast, is that judges and magistrates should bear personal civil liability for their actions. In his ideal world, if a prosecution fails, the prosecutor should be personally liable for damages to the accused. It is a measure that smells of vendetta, as well as a way to discourage any prosecutor, not just the over-zealous. His other hobbyhorse is limiting police use of telephone taps. It is no coincidence that wire taps, both those used in court proceedings and those leaked to the media, like the conversations of the girls who went to his parties, have been very damaging to his reputation.

According to current polls, a return to power would still be a long shot for Berlusconi. The center-right is on a downward slope at the moment; they lost regional elections in Sicily in October, and the PdL is currently polling anywhere between 12 and 20 percent nationwide, a disaster compared to the 37 percent they garnered in 2008. Monti had been polling at around 47 percent prior to his announcement. But it's definitely to Berlusconi's advantage to have the election sooner -- when public anger against Monti's pro-European, pro-austerity policies is high -- rather than later, when party infighting will only drag the PdL further down.

There's also a new player on the scene whose emergence may be to the former prime minister's advantage. The Five Star Movement, a recently created party led by the popular comedian Beppe Grillo -- a kind of Genoese Stephen Colbert -- has emerged as the second most popular party in the country, according to pollsters. The party's ideology is mostly left-wing but is defined more by anger against Italy's traditional parties and politics. Berlusconi, though often a target of Grillo's barbs himself, hopes to tap into this discontent and regain some of the alienated center-right voters who have embraced the new party's populist, euroskeptic message. About half of Italy's electorate is either undecided or planning not to vote. They do not like Monti's austerity measures or the old parties. If Berlusconi can mobilize even a small proportion of them, he will increase his share enormously.

The consequences of Berlusconi's threatened return have already been felt. The spread between German and Italian government bonds, which had dipped below 300 for the first time since early last year, immediately jumped to well over 300 after his announcement last week, a tangible demonstration that Berlusconi's claim to be "saving the Italian economy" was nonsense. European stocks plunged on Monday following news of Monti's departure and the potential of Berlusconi's return. It now falls to the old triumvirate of President Giorgio Napolitano, the European Union, and the markets to persuade Berlusconi to step back. If they fail, Italy may once again find itself at the mercy of the Silviosaur.

Can the Nuclear Talks With Iran Be Saved?

The world's major powers are locked in a dead-end conflict with Iran over its nuclear program. Last week, talks in Istanbul between Iran and the five members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, ended badly, with no sign of a breakthrough on the horizon.

As the former head of safeguards for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), I have spent much of the past decade watching the ups and downs of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. In the last few years, the stalemate has only deepened. During that time, I have learned that proposals and counterproposals too often fulfilled either one side's concerns or the other's, making it difficult to start the process of cooperation. Here's a proposal that could let both sides break this impasse and start rebuilding the trust needed to get at bigger issues.

The Iranians have been enriching uranium to 3.5 percent U-235 for the last four years, flouting U.N. resolutions and Western sanctions. Last February, they also began enriching to 20 percent, sparking further concerns in the West that Tehran is working toward the capacity to make nuclear weapons.


Iran says it needs that higher-enriched uranium for fuel for its aging Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), which produces medical isotopes for the country's hospitals. This is a widely recognized, legitimate need; every country relies on such radioisotopes, for example, in cancer treatment and other medical procedures. But the West is also legitimately concerned about Iran enriching uranium to 20 percent, not least because that gets Iran closer to the 90 percent enrichment required to make weapons-grade U-235. These concerns have grown as Iran has limited its cooperation with the IAEA and brushed aside questions about possible military dimensions of its nuclear program.

A tentative deal fell through last year that would have swapped much of Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium for research reactor fuel that would have been produced by a Russian -- French -- U.S. consortium. Further talks have been inconclusive. And all the time, Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium continues to grow. It now has more than 3 tons, which should be sufficient, if further enriched, for one to two nuclear devices. In 2012, with the introduction of advanced centrifuges, Iran will be in a position to convert its current stock to high-enriched uranium in less than a year's time.

This troubling scenario is actually a golden opportunity for the United States and its partners to get together with Iran and agree to replace the TRR with a new reactor monitored by the IAEA.

The bottom line for Iran and the West is providing a secure supply of medical radioisotopes in a way that does not enable Iran to enrich uranium that could be diverted to a weapons program.

Iranians ought to be concerned about the safety of the TRR, which uses outmoded technology. It was located well outside Tehran when it was built in 1967, but the city's sprawling growth has seen apartment complexes and office buildings bump up against the research reactor site. And this is an earthquake-prone region.


Currently, Iran is constructing a heavy-water reactor in the city of Arak that is not best-suited for radioisotope production and that produces plutonium, which has raised proliferation concerns. But this reactor design could be modified to accommodate a new research reactor using low-enriched fuel instead. After all, when Iran announced the Arak reactor plan in 2003, its stated rationale was that the TRR was aging.

Then, last June, the Iranian government said it would design another research reactor, to be operational in five years. Ali Akbar Salehi, the president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, did not disclose a location or specifics -- all the more reason to seek a comprehensive solution for Iran's research reactor projects.

The offer to help build a new, more secure research reactor to replace the TRR could revive the fuel swap program, in which Iran would agree to send more of its enriched uranium out of the country to be converted into fuel for the new reactor. The outcome would provide Iran with a solid supply of medical isotopes and a new, up-to-date training facility for its scientists. And it would address proliferation concerns by limiting the increase of stocks of enriched uranium and future production of plutonium.

There would be a gap of a couple of years in which isotopes would not be produced in Iran while the new reactor wasbeing completed. To meet the medical needs of the country, one interim solution would be to follow the approach taken by many other countries: Iran could buy raw material from the world market and prepare medical isotope kits in Tehran using current production facilities until the new reactor with up-to-date hot cells is operational.

A modern, more powerful research reactor will require a substantial part of Iran's current stocks of enriched uranium -- ensuring that they are not available for further enrichment for weapons -- and provide a secure, reliable supply of radioisotopes for decades to come. It would only be a first step, however. Iran will still need to address the world's broader concerns about the scope and intentions behind its nuclear program. But successful cooperation on a new reactor might make those conversations a little bit easier.

Couples Retreat

There are many reasons why marriages fail, but often the culprit is disagreement over money. Apparently, countries joined in long-term political unions behave no differently than spouses. Such is certainly the case for France and Germany, whose partnership forms the backbone of that ever-expanding, increasingly motley family known as the European Union. But the family has now fallen on hard times -- cousins have loans coming due they are hard-pressed to make good on, Spain, Ireland, Italy, and Portugal among them. If a widening sovereign debt crisis, a common currency in free fall, and austerity plans weren't enough bad news for Europe, it appears that the already rocky relations between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have reached a new low.


Last month, an unidentified source told El País that Sarkozy banged his fist on the table and threatened to leave the euro if Merkel didn't agree to a Greek bailout. She did. This past Monday, the chancellor suddenly canceled a tête-à-tête dinner with the French president. Tit for tat? But Berlin claims it was Paris that stood them up. The EU Summit that begins today in Brussels comes just in time, then. For it's not only Sarkozy and Merkel's partnership that needs couples therapy, but the larger relationship between European governments and their peoples, who are increasingly dismayed at the breakup of a social compact that has produced unparalleled peace and prosperity over the past half-decade.

The French-German pair makes for Europe's oddest political couple. Sarkozy's hyperactive yet casual cockiness is a foil to Merkel's dogged solidity. Where he is effusive, she is reserved. Apparently, she can no more stand his Gallic cheek-kissing ways than her government can stomach Paris's hands-on proposals for addressing Europe's financial crisis. As far back as 2007, rumors were flying so thick about Merkel's distaste for Sarkozy's cuddliness that a German government spokesman felt obliged to tell the Daily Telegraph that, au contraire: "The chancellor rejoiced in the president's warm greetings." Things have only gone downhill since.

Does the evident friction between Sarkozy and Merkel suggest that the French-German motor that has powered Europe for the past 60 years -- and has often required minor tuneups along the way -- might finally be falling apart? On the eve of the EU summit, all the two leaders could agree on was a prohibition against the naked short-selling of some shares and bonds. They'll have to do better than that. The meeting promises a growth strategy for Europe leading up to 2020 and is intended to produce the basis for reforms Europe would like to see in the international financial order in advance of the G-20 meeting in Toronto at the end of June. But it is precisely around the question of exactly how to ensure that the European Union never again faces a sovereign debt crisis such as the one Greece precipitated earlier this year that France and Germany have trouble agreeing.


Sarkozy attempted to seize the opportunity created by the crisis to establish a eurozone secretariat, an economic if not a political government that would take the management of the EU's economic policy out of the hands of central bankers and finance ministers who are widely seen to have bungled their jobs. Not surprisingly, EU finance ministers -- backed by Germany -- categorically rejected this attempted coup. With Jean-Claude Trichet at the head of the European Central Bank and Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the helm of the International Monetary Fund, Merkel might have felt she was already encircled by Frenchmen bullying her on economic policy. The chancellor stood firm. Sarkozy backed down, telling reporters in a joint news conference days before the summit, "We would be better off making the European systems a bit lighter by not creating institutions, to focus instead on being more pragmatic." Merkel couldn't have put it better herself.

These are not the sorts of disagreements that France and Germany, the backbone of the European project, have traditionally aired in public. But could this be a sign of maturity rather than failure? Europe expert Christian Lequesne, director of the Center for International Relations Studies and Research at Sciences Po in Paris, notes that for these leaders born after World War II, "Europe is something that has been achieved. The French-German relationship is now 'interest-driven' not 'values-driven.' Lequesne explains that though Sarkozy must take into account Germany's economic power, the country simply doesn't fascinate him in the same way Britain does. Merkel, with her East German origins, also feels no particular affinity with France. "She often sees France in terms of well worn clichés, an arrogant country, lacking in discipline," Lequesne continued. Still, she too must accommodate France, particularly for the political weight it carries in Europe.        

Like it or not, the two countries are stuck with each other. In a show of solidarity over the weekend, France stunned many observers by joining Germany in announcing austerity measures. After denying austerity was in the works for months, Prime Minister François Fillon pledged to cut 45 billion euros from the nation's budget and raise the retirement age to 62 years. He told a meeting of new members of his political party, UMP, "We've made a commitment to bring down our deficit from 8 to 3 percent by 2013, and we will concentrate all of our efforts on it." France, like Germany, now has the credibility to ask the European Union's profligate members -- including Greece -- to drink the same bitter medicine and cut their bloated deficits down to size.

Predictably, French citizens are already hitting the streets: The militant union Force Ouvrière organized a protest of between 23,000 (according to police estimates) and 70,000 (according to the organizers) in Paris on June 15. But the backlash to austerity promises to be pan-European: Following violent protests in Greece last month, 75 percent of Spain's civil servants staged a strike on June 8, and 20,000 protesters took to the streets of Berlin on June 12. Unions across Europe are uniting to plan a huge demonstration in Brussels on Sept. 29 with the theme of "Yes to more growth. No to austerity measures."

As Reuters reported on June 10 during the meeting of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Geneva, the view of European unions is that "ordinary families are being asked to pay for the crisis three times -- first as taxpayers to bail out the banks, second as workers with lost jobs and cut wages in the recession, and now as citizens with cuts in pensions and social services." It doesn't help Sarkozy that the announcement of austerity measures comes bang in the middle of the trial of Jérôme Kerviel, the dashing young trader at Société Générale whose hugely leveraged bets lost his bank more than 5 billion euros in 2008 and who epitomizes the culture of financial profiteering many French blame for their current woes.

It promises to be a long, hot summer for Sarkozy, whose popularity ratings ahead of the austerity announcement had already dipped below 30 percent. Still, Sarkozy is in a better position to take political risks than Merkel. Last month, the chancellor suffered the wrath of German voters -- who resent being asked to tighten their belts to bail out easy-living countries such as Greece -- and lost her majority in the upper house of parliament. Like Sarkozy, her poll numbers have sunk to new lows: In Germany, calls are mounting for Merkel to dissolve the Bundestag and hold early national elections. While Sarkozy  may not survive the next French election (were the vote to be held today, polls show that Dominique Strauss-Kahn would win), Merkel may not even survive the next few weeks.


If Merkel pays the ultimate price for failing to reconcile German domestic sentiments with European crisis containment and loses her chancellorship, her departure will see the end of a pairing that both fascinated and frustrated. Merkel's fall would take down with it her pro-business coalition government of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats. As yet, however, given Germany's divided political scene there is no clear alternative -- despite assurances to the Stuttgarter Zeitung newspaper from Sigmar Gabriel, head of that the Social Democrats, that the party could "immediately take over the government."

No doubt, Sarkozy would spend little time mourning Merkel's departure. No matter the dance partners, the pas de deux between France and Germany will continue. The future of the European Union and its single currency depend on it. But more alarming than the friction between Paris and Berlin is the growing divide between European leaders and their citizens. Unless the European Union comes out of the summit this week and goes into the G-20 meeting at the end of June with a strong and united front in favor of imposing pain on banks and other financial institutions equal to what they're demanding from their citizens, it won't just be Sarkozy and Merkel's relationship that will be on the rocks -- but the larger social compact that forged the European welfare state in the postwar era. All the more so if overly aggressive austerity measures stall recovery and plunge Europe into a long recession, as economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman have warned. This is the real and very tangible threat to the European Union, and for the sake of the family, Merkel and Sarkozy had better put aside their personal differences and start getting down to business.

Chinese Takeout

The prospect of cobalt in Kandahar has sparked lively debate about whether new mineral wealth -- if it pans out -- will aid or hinder U.S. policies in Afghanistan, as well as whether the country will fall prey to the so-called resource curse, as political scientist Michael Ross and others fear. But a short-term focus on Afghan-U.S. relations might be a mistake: The real winner from new natural-resource wealth beyond the Khyber Pass will be China. If the United States really cares about stabilizing Afghanistan's central government and eliminating terrorist havens, it needs to start working now to persuade Beijing that these are shared goals.


First, some background: Chinese foreign investment and aid has accelerated dramatically over the past decade, especially in Africa. In November 2009 alone, for example, China's largesse amounted to $10 billion in low-interest loans and $1 billion in commercial loans to the continent. With Beijing as cheerleader, trade has soared from $1 billion in 1992 to $106.8 billion in 2008.

In part this is due to China's willingness to do business with undemocratic, corrupt, and brutal regimes -- for example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, and Zimbabwe. The DRC provides the best cautionary parallel to Afghanistan: The discovery in the late 1990s of copper, coltan, and other minerals in eastern Congo gave new life to a civil war that has now claimed upwards of 4 million lives. Flagging combatants were funded by mineral extraction, and much of those resources eventually flowed to China. The fact that violence is still simmering in eastern Congo -- and despite the costs that extraction imposes on the Congolese people -- has not been enough to deter Beijing from wooing Congo's government for access to the country's abundant resources.

So, if there's any thought that war in Afghanistan might dissuade Chinese investment there, it's best to dispense with that notion immediately.

China, which has a narrow land border with Afghanistan, already invests heavily in the war-torn Central Asian state. The state-owned China Metallurgical Group has a $3.5 billion copper mining venture in Logar province. Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei are building digital telephone switches, providing roughly 200,000 subscriber lines in Afghanistan. Even back in the war's early days in 2002 and 2003, when I worked in Afghanistan, the Chinese presence was acutely visible in Kabul, with Chinese laborers on many building sites and Chinese-run restaurants and guesthouses popping up all over the city. As Robert Kaplan has pointed out, these investments come with a gratuitous hidden subsidy from the United States -- which has defrayed the enormous costs of providing security amid war and looting.

With its massive wealth, appetite for risk, and willingness to underbid others on labor costs and human rights conditionality, China is the odds-on favorite for development of any new Afghan mineral resources. Chinese firms will control the flow of new funds, and the way those funds are distributed between the central and local governments. It's all well and good that Barack Obama's administration has recommitted to building civil projects in rural Afghanistan, but consider the relative scale of building a school to establishing a multimillion-dollar mine (not to mention the transport networks and infrastructure required to get the extracted minerals out) and it's easy to see what kind of influence the Chinese will bring to the table.

It is critical for Washington to start making the case to Chinese leaders that pure self-interest mandates they leverage this power wisely -- to promote stability, not catalyze new conflict, in Afghanistan. So far, China's investment in Logar has been in keeping with its "noninterventionist" foreign policy and was accompanied by development aid, but no overt political strings. Washington must require more from Beijing, however, to avoid upending all its hard-won gains.

The Obama administration has already asked China to contribute troops to the Afghan effort. This is a good first step, but a few hundred token soldiers will not make China a strategic partner in its Afghan campaign. It needs to persuade Beijing that the campaign is indeed China's campaign, too -- if not by touting democracy promotion and human rights, then surely economic benefit -- and that U.S. and Chinese strategies on Afghanistan converge.

This is not as hard as it sounds: As China-Africa expert Deborah Brautigam's careful work shows, China has on some occasions acted as a surprisingly responsible lender, for example using resource-backed infrastructure loans that force some gains to be reinvested in development. Although many have warned of a new Sino-colonialism, Brautigam's work suggests that perhaps China's awareness of its gargantuan and growing need for foreign export markets will make it a better "colonial" power than any European country ever was.

For China as much as the United States, the goal of a stable, central Afghan government that provides no haven for terrorists is a desirable goal. China has worried in the past about whether Afghanistan might provide a refuge for Uighur separatists. Leaving aside the ethics and wisdom of Chinese policies in the Uighur community's home region of Xinjiang, it's safe to say that Washington and Beijing share a common goal in preventing terrorism. Both countries would benefit from a stabilized government in Kabul that is able to command the loyalty and respect of provincial governments and populations. That, however, requires that Hamid Karzai's government deal with its endemic corruption problem. And though no one expects Afghanistan to turn into Norway, perhaps it can be nudged away from the DRC path and toward the model of a Saudi Arabia or a Kazakhstan.

When it comes to corruption, however, state-run Chinese firms have not seemed troubled by greasing the wheels of power brokers in Sudan, Zimbabwe, or elsewhere. Getting Beijing to understand the rot this breeds seems a hard sell for the Obama administration. If that fails, however, Chinese ears might perk up somewhat at the mention of how integral a stable central government in Kabul is to the security of Pakistan, a close ally of Beijing.

Stability in Pakistan should be an important goal for China. It is by now clear that the Taliban's campaign west of the Durand Line is inextricable from the destabilizing efforts of Islamist militants in Pakistan. If China does not want another nuclear basket case on its border, then it should care deeply about instability in Afghanistan. Currently, however, Beijing is still freeloading, relying on Washington to provide security for its limited interests. Perhaps the tantalizing prospect of $1 trillion in minerals might be enough to change the strategic equation.

Working together, China and the United States have a better chance of guiding Afghanistan to a happy outcome for all than will Washington on its own. To be sure, this is no easy task: There's plenty of evidence that aid conditionality by Western governments has not done as much good as hoped. But cold economic realities dictate that Chinese firms are likely going to be the big players in this new gold rush, and Washington had better wake up to the fact that it has a short window in which to convince Beijing to collaborate in making Kabul a better place.