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Scot Marciel is a quiet American in the very best sense. He’s also the author of the finest book on American policy towards Southeast Asia I’ve ever read. Released just a few months back, Imperfect Partners: The United States and Southeast Asia is Marciel’s memoir of his time as US Ambassador to ASEAN, Indonesia and Myanmar, and on various roles in Washington in between. The book has been my close companion of late, and it defies the erstwhile truth that such tomes must be achingly dull bromides of conventional pieties, and/or self-justifying celebrations of the author’s own actions and wisdom. Marciel’s book is nothing like that. It’s frank, genuinely wise, at times funny, and full of revealing anecdotes on a great many key players – from Yudhoyono to Aung San Suu Kyi, Thaksin Shinawatra to Trump.
Given my recent experiences, I was much taken last week with the story of the release of what were effectively American hostages by Iran, in exchange for the unblocking of more than $US6 billion in frozen Iranian assets. At over $1 billion for each hostage, it was not surprising that the deal quickly became ensnared in Washington’s deeply partisan politics. Finding reasoned analysis on the issue was thus difficult but, wonderfully stepping into the breach has been Australia’s own recent prisoner of Iran, Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert. In various media across the week, Kylie highlighted the awful timing of the deal (coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s “morality police”, all for the crime of allegedly not wearing her head scarf properly), and the fact that the price for future hostages had now risen dramatically, while compassionately noting the joy the release brought to the hostages and their families. Deep waters, expertly navigated.
With little new to engage me on the TV, and with the crushing disappointment of Netflix’s The Diplomat seared into my brain, recently I’ve returned to the guilty pleasure of binge-watching The West Wing. This relentlessly optimistic vision of what US politics might look like if saints took up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is easily mocked. But turn the captions on and you’ll get some of the best dialogue ever written for the screen, as well as some still funny and unashamedly “inside the beltway” jokes. Clouded as it might be these days, the City on the Hill can still be imagined.