Monday, November 21, 2005

More on Mongolia

Long before the president's recent visit brought attention to Mongolia, our favorite writer Robert Kaplan traveled there and made some remarkable observations on the strategic importance of the place, and also on the impact one man with a vision (in this case LTC Tom Wilhelm) can have. The linked article, from Atlantic Monthly, is also in Kaplan's newest book Imperial Grunts. Two good excerpts:

The morning I arrived at the American embassy in Ulan Bator, Wilhelm, newly promoted to colonel, greeted me wearing a gray suit, a white shirt, a tie, and suspenders. Born in 1959, raised in Orlando, Florida, and given formative military training at West Point and the Army Ranger school, in Fort Benning, Georgia, Wilhelm had risen through the ranks of the military as the Cold War order was falling apart. On the ground in several theaters of military operation, he had witnessed the messy collapse of communism in Eurasia. Known to warlords in Bosnia as "Mean Mr. Tom," and to colleagues in Tajikistan as "Aga Tom," he became the ultimate area expert on the former Soviet empire and its shadow zones, from Yugoslavia all the way to Mongolia.


Wherever he is, the mission is everything for Tom Wilhelm. In his eyes, to avoid taking bureaucratic risks, or to shade the truth for the sake of a diplomatic advantage, is unmanly, the worst of offenses. "I'm the guy who gutted the [Department of Defense] environmental program for Mongolia, because it was unimplementable, and I didn't see what DOD was getting out of it," he told me almost as soon as we had met. One of Wilhelm's early moves in Ulan Bator was to scrap many existing military-assistance programs and replace them with new ones—including a humanitarian dental project in a key Mongolian-Chinese border area—that would support the three-pillars strategy. "I chose to come here and not to work at the JSTAFF [Joint Staff] at the Pentagon, because in Mongolia I knew that I could make a difference," Wilhelm told me. Even as a military officer he was a policymaker by another name.

Thanks to the always informative Mudville Gazette for helping distribute this info.