In the early spring of 2003, as U.S. troops in Iraq were consolidating their hold over Baghdad, few people had their eyes on Mongolia. And yet what was happening at the time in that country—90 percent of whose foreign military training and assistance now comes from the United States—was critical to the extension of America's global liberal influence. "Mongolia is a vast country completely surrounded by two anti-American empires, Russia and China," S. Galsanjamts, a member of Mongolia's national-security council, told me recently. "It is therefore a symbol of the kind of independence America wants to encourage in the world." Today, more often than not, the United States is encouraging that sort of independence not by intervening militarily on a grand scale but, rather, by placing a few quietly effective officers in key locations around the globe.
Last year I traveled to Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, to meet Colonel Tom Wilhelm, one of the best of this new breed of American soldier-diplomats. Wilhelm's official roles at the time of my visit included serving at the U.S. embassy as the defense attaché, as the security-assistance officer, and as the liaison for the military's Pacific Command (PACOM). The embassy is a small building and somewhat less imposing than other posts, befitting the low "threat assessment" assigned to Mongolia. The country lived under virtual Soviet domination for seventy years, a generation longer than the satellite states of Eastern Europe, and public opinion is staunchly pro-American. At the time of the Iraq crisis the Mongolians staged no anti-war demonstrations. Indeed, they deployed a contingent of 175 soldiers to Baghdad last year, to help with policing efforts—a move that marked the first entry of Mongol troops into Mesopotamia since 1258, when Hulagu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan's, arrived and exterminated most of the population of Baghdad.
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.
Wilhelm's plans for the morning I arrived were typical in their variety: he had to deliver personal thanks to the parents of a Mongolian-born U.S. Marine fighting in Basra, Iraq; he had to plan for a visit of the chief of the Mongolian military, Major General Tsevegsuren Togoo, to Washington; and he had to make arrangements for a visit by fourteen American brigadier generals. Also due to arrive was Lieutenant General Wallace Gregson, then the commander of the Third Marine Expeditionary Force ("III MEF" as it's written, and "Three MEF" as it's spoken). That last visit was the most important: if there were ever a land war in Asia—on the Korean Peninsula, for example—III MEF would play a role just as prominent as that played during the invasion of Iraq by I MEF, which marched from Kuwait to Baghdad.
In his office at the embassy Wilhelm kept two saddles and a tent. He likes to hunt and fish. He owns a World War II-vintage motorcycle with a sidecar. On his travels in Mongolia he took with him a bottle of Tabasco sauce, which he used liberally. I once saw him popping hot green peppers into his mouth at a Mongolian border post, while talking up the benefits of the Harris Falcon-II Series tactical hand-held radio to a Mongolian colonel.
Of average height, with a sturdy, fireplug build, Wilhelm is an explosive, energetic man. He has a maniacal laugh. His forceful and enthusiastic manner communicates Ready, aim, fire! with each sentence. He walks fast, and his trains of thought move faster still; on foot and in conversation I found it hard to keep up with him. He can quote from memory Robert Service's poetry of adventure and wanderlust. In e-mails he sent me before I arrived, he wrote about Central Asian history and the medieval traveler William of Rubruquis before closing with "GO ARMY, BEAT NAVY! CHEERS FROM THE STEPPE, TOM."
Wilhelm's assignment to Ulan Bator occurred against the following backdrop: Mongolia, with one of the world's lowest population densities, is being threatened demographically by the latest of Eurasia's great historical migrations—an urban Chinese civilization is determined to move north. China—which ruled much of Mongolia from the end of the seventeenth century until the early twentieth century, during the Manchu period—covets the oil, coal, uranium, and empty grasslands of its former possession. Given that a resurgent China has already absorbed Tibet, Macao, and Hong Kong, reabsorbing Mongolia—a country that on the map looks like a big piece of territory bitten away from China—seems almost irresistibly a part of China's geopolitical intentions.
Only three full-time defense attachés serve in Ulan Bator—representing Russia, the United States, and China, the three countries with past or future imperial interests in Mongolia. Americans, of course, are uncomfortable with the idea of having or running a global empire, but that responsibility is being thrust upon them nevertheless in Mongolia as elsewhere. And unconventional men like Tom Wilhelm, largely out of sight, are the ones carrying the load and transforming the world order. I went to Mongolia to see him in action.
Ulan Bator is a composite of any number of ex-communist capitals I have seen in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, with an additional bone-chilling bleakness. The city is dominated by gray cement and brown dirt, with barely a tree in sight. Soviet-era apartment blocks abound, and resemble penitentiaries. The stench of lignite for heating buildings lasts deep into spring. Yaks feed on weeds in garbage-strewn lots on the city's outskirts, where people inhabit traditional circular felt-lined tents, known in Mongolia as gers (and in Turkic countries as yurts). Underground utility pipes house the homeless, and shipping containers function as kiosks. When I was there, people went around with white masks over their mouths and noses, because of the SARS epidemic, and this added a strange, futuristic element to the cityscape.
There is romance, too. Ulan Bator was once the Sacred City of the Living Buddha. The Buddhist lamaseries of Gandantegchinlen Khiid and Dashchoilon Khiid, revived since the fall of communism, are cavernous, dusky-red, gilded worlds of chanting saffron-robed monks and hammered-brass prayer wheels. Sculptures of frightening deities sit in dilapidated wooden cases sanctified by dust, reminiscent of faded black-and-white photos in an antiquarian's library. An eighty-foot-tall gilded statue of the Buddha at Gandantegchinlen Khiid, which was built to replace one destroyed by the Communists, is a gaudy spirit of beauty and wonderment. It is a welcome contrast to the austere surroundings, dotted still with statues of local Communist bosses that, curiously, have not been torn down, and that people pass in silence.