• Review: Ken Burns’ Vietnam

    October 2, 2017 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Iraq



    Though Ken Burns’ 10-part PBS documentary The Vietnam War doesn’t try very hard, he can’t be blamed for failing as a filmmaker even if he had. It can’t be done. There are too many Vietnam War’s to accurately portray in a documentary, even one 18 hours long. So fair enough. But Burns’ real failure is not as a documentarian per se, it is one of courage.


    Burns teases us at the beginning of the series that there will be courage here, a reckoning of sorts, riffing off the final pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, showing war footage in reverse, so bombs return to their mothership’s belly, rockets are sucked out of the bush back onto helicopters, and, in case the point wasn’t clear yet, the 1st Cav walks backwards onto their Huey’s and departs the rice paddy. See, it’s an antiwar movie.

    Well, not really, or maybe not also. Burns quickly moves on to the next test, getting all the greatest hits in. There’s the iconic image of a Vietcong prisoner being shot in the head, and Nick Ut’s photo of a naked Vietnamese girl running from a napalm raid, alongside that footage of bombs dropping, exploding Kodachrome orange against greener-than-green foliage. If the Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black hadn’t been written during Vietnam, it would be necessary to invent time travel to place it alongside the war. And yep, there’s Dylan, a hippie chick with flowers, grunts in the jungle, Marlboro hard packs and M-16s at the ready. Check, check, check – Oh Suzy Q!

    No, wait, it’s one of those balanced documentaries. Burns treats us to the trope-ish story of Ho Chi Minh foolishly writing fan letters to American presidents over the years, starting way back with Woodrow Wilson at the end of WWI, thinking the American love of freedom, ye olde tale o’ democracy, the experience as fellow colonialists, should in fact bond the United States to his side over the imperialist French. That didn’t happen, you see, so it’s ironic. There’s also a bunch of actual Vietnamese interviewed in Burns’ movie, albeit disproportionately far too many identified as formerly of the “South Vietnamese Army.” The ties to the CIA of several of those interviewed are also left obscured.

    For the Americans in the audience, there’s also a dollop of “Vietnam as a test of manhood/the test of manhood is actually a metaphor for broken American dreams of the 20th century.” Burns had no choice with this one, as it is required as much as the shots of Saigon whores in their tight ao dai’s. America loves the manhood story; it’s the version of Vietnam that allows us to revere a crusty old war monger like John McCain (Episode Four of Burns’ film even includes a shot of George W. Bush in the Air National Guard), and leaves people who took deferments like Donald Trump and Bill Clinton forever in shame.

    Burns does the manhood theme proud, though, slipping us both the noble grunt version via gritty personal anecdotes from guys you don’t know (though rough-and-tumble Marine guy Karl Marlantes pops up), and the Oliver Stone subreddit, where manhood is proved only after it is broken down (forget Platoon, his real telling was in Born on the Fourth of July.) Stone and his subject Ron Kovic don’t appear for Burns’ camera, but a non-celebrity grunt named John Musgrave is on camera to illustrate the journey from gungho killer to “it was all a lie, man.”

    OK, fair enough, Dad shouts at the TV screen, this is Ken Burns for heck’s sake. He does jazz, he does Americana, he gets baseball in a way that sends George Will reaching for the Viagra, of course he’s gonna go folksy. That’s why we donate and get the PBS tote bag each year. At least he filmed this one in color, all 79 individual interviews.

    But where Burns lets us down is where nearly everything that has or maybe will be written about Vietnam lets us down. He is too easy on the politicians who cynically manipulated the public, he is too easy on the bulk of the media who gleefully participated in the manipulation (everything short of proclaiming WMDs in Hanoi), too easy on individual soldiers who took advantage of lax leadership to, in historian Nick Turse’s words, kill anything that moves (My Lai was one, far from the only.)

    Burns drinks too deeply from the cup of “hate the war, not the warrior.” Deaths were committed because of a policy that demanded body counts, a number of “enemy” killed, as the borderless war’s only metric of accomplishment. As Turse writes and Burns omits, “U.S. commanders wasted ammunition like millionaires and hoarded American lives like misers, and often treated Vietnamese lives as if they were worth nothing at all.” In 2017 America, where the military is fetishized, personal responsibility is lost.

    Burns indeed lets all of us off too easy. Us, the American people, the voters, the spectators, the ones who bought the epic story that Vietnam was a struggle between two great forces for the soul of civilization, Communism versus Freedom. The American people in 1962 (or ’65, or ’68, or 1945, or 1954) were not yet cynical. They were easily convinced what was little more than a continuation of colonialism was instead a firewall of the Cold War. We had come out of WWII winners, with anything that would have made that less than the Good War hidden for another couple of generations. Vietnam was then our bad childhood, and should have left us with no such excuse for Iraq (Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya…)

    Burns lets us off too easy because he does not demand we not let it all happen again, and that is his sin, omission.

    “With knowledge comes healing,” the filmmaker told Vanity Fair about his goal, but that is not the film he made.

    We should know better but we were the ones who bought the epic story that Iraq, et al, like Vietnam, was a struggle between two greats forces for the soul of civilization, Terrorism versus Freedom (feel free to substitute in Islam and Christianity.) We had to fight them over there (the beach at Danang instead of the beach at San Diego) or we’d fight them over here, the smoking gun a mushroom cloud over Cincinnati. We let Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon lie to us about the war, then let five successive modern presidents, including a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Kissinger also won the Peace Prize for ending the war he first helped prolong) lie to us about Iraq in a spin of our illusion of invincibility and moral rightness.

    Burns tips his hand in the first minutes of his series when the narrator intones the war was “begun in good faith.” Who could have known Vietnam was a war for independence, not a civil war as sold to the American people? That Pakistan supported the Taliban with U.S. aid money? That there gosh dang it weren’t any WMDs in Iraq? Burns doesn’t tell us that Vietnam was not an exception, it was a template.

    And so we all say “thank you for your service” today with the same uninformed conviction that we said “baby killer” back then. Americans need to die for freedom, yes, that’s standard, but civilians from the other side need to die in vast, angry clouds of millions, too, for their freedom. Agent Orange in the ‘Nam to punish the next generation of slopes, depleted uranium across the Middle East for the baby ragheads. There are no names of any Vietnamese civilians on that wall in Washington DC.

    Burns tried to be all things to all people, while failing at the most important task, making history valuable to the present. He does not seem in search of lessons, only in creating a catalog of Vietnam stuff and leaving it on the table for us to poke at, historical amuse bouche. By eschewing experts from his interviews to focus on “real people” and their anecdotes, Burns by default puts himself into the expert role. He then chooses not to responsibly occupy it.

    Ken Burns had a chance to reach for a higher goal with his work on Vietnam. Instead, there is no reckoning, and it is doubtful there ever will be. You can’t close the book on Vietnam if you want to keep it open for Syria, or Iran, or wherever America again makes war on an industrial scale on nations far less advanced, and commits torture, assassinations, and mass killings all the while trying to hide its dirty hands from the American public with the media’s financially-comfortable cooperation.

    Each of these wars is not the equivalent of stepping on a Lego in a darkened bedroom. It’s the same story, the same war. It has the same ending. It serves the same purpose. It’s Vietnam. We just slog through 18 hours of Vietnam documentary because it lasts 18 hours. After the 25th similar shot of helicopters landing, you may not even be sure why you’re still watching. You want to finish Burns’ documentary with the feeling the American people will rise up and shout “we won’t be fooled again,” but instead shut off the TV knowing we have, and will.



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  • Obama in Hanoi: Vietnam Arms Embargo to Be Fully Lifted

    May 24, 2016 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Military

    obama


    What other nation on earth would signal its intent to “bury the hatchet, and what it believes to be the start of a new relationship, other than the United States, by lifting an arms embargo?


    The United States is rescinding a decades-old ban on sales of lethal military equipment to Vietnam, President Obama announced at a news conference in Hanoi on Monday, ending what the New York Times called “one of the last legal vestiges of the Vietnam War.”

    “The decision to lift the ban was not based on China or any other considerations,” Obama said. “It was based on our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving toward normalization with Vietnam.”

    So, to sum up: the sale of weapons is a sign of normalization. Appropriate, in that that is what is normal in America’s foreign relations in the 21st century. Not whether a nation is an ally or adversary per se, but whether they are a customer for our defense industry. For example, Saudi Arabia. Sure, they fund Sunni terrorism globally and played a role in the horrible events of 9/11, but they are also one of America’s most prolific buyers of weapons, and so are courted.


    As for the arms ban being “one of the last legal vestiges of the Vietnam War,” one does wonder what the Vietnamese might have say about that.

    Started under false pretenses and brutally fought for unclear purposes, America’s war on Vietnam took a terrible toll. No one really knows, but estimates of the death count on the Vietnamese side run from half a million to a million and half. That is before you include the untold numbers who continue to die or suffer birth defects due to the prolific use of defoliants like Agent Orange. While the American deaths in the war were “voluntary” in the sense that America started the war and pointlessly continued it for years, the Vietnamese had no choice.

    To now say that bygones are bygones, and seal the deal with the export of American weapons into Vietnam, seems a new low in cynicism by a fading American Empire.



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  • Echoes of Vietnam, or Between Iraq and a Hard Place

    June 22, 2015 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Iran, Iraq, Military

    Kim Phuc story

    Words seem to mean different things in the Middle East. “Training” is a new term for escalation, and “Iraq” seems more and more like the Arabic word for Vietnam.

    But the terms “slippery slope” and “quagmire” still mean what they have always meant.


    In 2011, making good on a campaign promise that helped land him in the White House, President Barack Obama closed out America’s eight-year war in Iraq. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed.

    Then America went back. In August 2014, Obama turned an emotional appeal to save the Yazidi people from Islamic State into a bombing campaign. A massive tap was turned and arms flowed into the region. The number of American soldiers in Iraq zoomed up to 3,100, quietly joined by some 6,300 civilian contractors. The reputed mission was training – or whipping the Iraqi Army into shape.

    After another inglorious retreat of the Iraqi Army, this time in Ramadi, the Obama administration last week announced a change: America will send 450 more troops to establish a new base at al Taqaddum, Anbar Province.

    It is clear the United States no longer believes the Iraqi Army exists. What is left of it is largely a politically correct distribution tool for American weapons, and a fiction for the media. America will instead work directly with three sectarian militias in their separate de facto states (current bases in America’s Iraqi archipelago include one in Sunni Anbar, another in Kurdish territory and three in Shi’ite-controlled areas). The hope is that the militias will divert their attention from one another long enough to focus on Islamic State. It is, of course, impossible; everyone in Iraq — except the Americans — knows Islamic State is a symptom of a broader civil war, not a stand-alone threat to anyone’s homeland.

    It is also significant that the United States will circumvent Baghdad’s objections to arming and training Sunni tribes. Baghdad has not sent any new recruits to the U.S. training facility at Ain al-Asad, in Sunni territory, for about six weeks; the United States will instead engage directly with Sunni recruits at Taqaddum. Obama’s new plan will also bring U.S. arms for the Sunnis straight into the new base, bypassing Baghdad’s control.

    This is likely only the beginning of Obama’s surge. General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined the establishment of what he called “lily pads” — American base-lets scattered around the country. Of course, like Taqaddum, these lily pads will require hundreds more American military advisers to serve as flies, at risk of being snapped up by an Islamic State frog. Any attack on U.S. troops would require a response, a cycle that could draw the U.S. deeper into open conflict.

    The new strategy also revises the role of American troops in Iraq. “Advise and assist” is the new “training.” While careful to say Americans would not engage in combat per se, signals suggest advice and assistance will be dispensed quite close to the front.

    In sum: More troops, more bases, more forward-leaning roles, all operating at times against the will of a host government the United States appears to have lost patience with. The bright light of victory is years down a long tunnel.


    We’ve seen this before. It was Vietnam.


    Some details are different. The jumps from air power to trainers to advisors to combat troops took years in the Vietnam War. Obama has reached the advisor stage in just months. The Iranians fighting in Iraq do share a short-term goal with the United States in pushing back Islamic State, but like the Russians and Chinese in Vietnam, ultimately have an agenda in conflict with American policy.

    Meanwhile, similarities scream. As in Vietnam, a series of U.S.-midwifed governments in Baghdad have failed to follow Washington’s orders; they have proceeded independently amid incompetence and corruption. Both wars are characterized as good versus evil (baby killers in Vietnam, jihadis chopping off heads with swords in Iraq); both were sold under questionable pretenses (humanitarian intervention in Iraq, reaction to an alleged but doubtful attack on U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964) and as part of a great global struggle (against communism, against Islamic extremism). Despite the stakes claimed, few allies, if any, join in. In each war, the titular national army — trained, advised and retrained at great cost — would not fight for its country. The host country is charged with ultimate responsibility for resolving its (American-created) problems, even as America assumes a greater role.

    In Vietnam, Americans were caught between two sides of a civil war. Iraq has at least three but, once again, America sits in the center, used by all, trusted by none. One even sees in Obama a touch of Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In its obituary, the New York Times wrote, “[McNamara] concluded well before leaving the Pentagon that the war was futile, but he did not share that insight with the public until late in life. In 1995, he took a stand against his own conduct of the war, confessing in a memoir that it was ‘wrong, terribly wrong.’ ” Like McNamara, Obama’s years-long uncertain approach to Iraq may suggest he privately knows the war can’t be won, but publicly escalates it anyway, caught in the roller-coaster of his times and its politics

    One difference between Iraq and Vietnam, however, is sharp as a razor. The United States eventually left Vietnam. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed. But unlike in Iraq, the United States was not foolish enough to go back.




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  • Book Review: American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity

    February 23, 2015 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Afghanistan, Democracy, Iraq, Military

    Kim Phuc story

    Chris Appy’s American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity is a book-length essay on the Vietnam War and how it changed the way Americans think of ourselves and our foreign policy. This is required reading for anyone interested in foreign policy and America’s place in the world, showing how events influence attitudes, which turn to influence events.



    Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam

    Appy’s book is valuable to its readers in showing how Vietnam became the template for every American war since, from novelties like the invasion of Grenada to the seemingly never-ending conflicts post-9/11. But before all that, there was Vietnam, and, larger lessons aside, Appy’s book is a fascinating, insightful, infuriating and thought-provoking study of that conflict, from its earliest days when America bankrolled the French defeat, to the final, frantic evacuation of Saigon. This is a history, yes, but one where events are presented not as isolated factoids but toward building a larger argument. Drawing from movies, songs, and novels, as well as official documents, example after example shows how America was lied to and manipulated.

    We begin with Tom Dooley, a Navy physician who had one of the best-selling books of 1956, Deliver Us from Evil. Presented as fact, the book was wholly a lie, painting a picture of Vietnam as a struggling Catholic nation under attack by Communists, with only America as a possible Saviour. Despite Dooley’s garbage selling millions of copies in its day, few have ever heard of it since. It did however establish a forward-leaning pattern of lies to engage and enrage the American public in support of pointless wars.

    The Dooley line runs through the faux Gulf of Tonkin Incident to fake stories from Gulf War 1.0 of Iraqi troops throwing infants from their incubators to Gulf War 2.0’s non-existent WMDs to Gulf War 3.0’s “Save the Yazidi’s” rationale for America re-entering a war already lost twice. “Saving” things was a common sub-theme, just as Vietnam was to be saved from Communism. It was no surprise that one of the last American acts of the Vietnam War was “Operation Babylift,” where thousands of children were flown to the U.S. to “save” them.

    Vietnam as a Template

    Vietnam set the template in other ways as well.

    — The 1960’s infamous domino theory was raised from the grave not only in the 1980’s to frighten Americans into tacit support for America’s wars in Central America, but then again in regards to the 1991 model of Saddam, never mind the near-constant invocations of tumbling playing pieces as al Qaeda and/or ISIS seeks world domination.

    — Conflicts that could not stand on their own post-WWII would be wrapped in the flag of American Exceptionalism, buttressed by the belief the United States is a force for good/freedom/democracy/self-determination against a communist/dictator/terrorist evil. Indigenous struggles, where the U.S. sides with a non-democratic government (Vietnam, the Contras), can never be seen any other way, truth be damned to hell. Wars for resources become struggles for freedom, or perhaps self-preservation, as we fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.

    — A sidestory to such memes is the invocation of “Munich.” If we don’t stop _____ (Putin?) now, he’ll just go on to demand more. Better to stand and fight than commit the cardinal sin of appeasement. That “appeasement” and “diplomacy” are often confused is no matter. We are not dealing in subtleties here.

    — Killing becomes mechanical, clean, nearly sterile (remember the war porn images of missiles blasting through windows in Gulf War 1.0?) Our atrocities — My Lai in Vietnam is the best known, but there were many more — are the work of a few bad apples (“This is not who we are as Americans.”) Meanwhile, the other side’s atrocities are evil genius, fanaticism or campaigns of horror.


    No More Vietnams

    Appy accurately charts the changes to the American psyche brought on by the war. Never before had such a broad range of Americans come to doubt their government. The faith most citizens had in their leaders coming out of WWII was so near complete that the realization that they had been lied to about Vietnam represents the most significant change in the relationship between a people and their leaders America, perhaps much of history, has ever seen.

    The aftermath — No More Vietnams — is well-covered in Appy’s work. The No More Vietnam mantra is usually presented as avoiding quagmires, focusing on quick, sharp wins. Instead, Appy shows politicians have manipulated No More Vietnams into meaning greater secrecy (think Central America in the 1980’s), more over-the-top justifications (“You don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”) and an emphasis on keeping American deaths inside the acceptable limits of the day to tamp down any public anti-war sentiment.

    Throw in increasingly clever manipulation of the media (“Pat Tillman was a hero,” “Malaki/Karzai is a democratic leader with wide support”) and indeed there will be no more Vietnams per se, even as conflicts that bear all the hallmarks continue unabated. Americans may have developed an intolerance for Vietnam-like wars, but failed to become intolerant of war.



    Post-9/11

    For readers of the 9/11 era, explaining the changes America underwent because of Vietnam seems near-impossible, though American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity succeeds as well as anything else I have read.

    Before Vietnam, we accepted it all. That was the way of it. You could call it patriotism, or you could call it naivety, or even faith. We hadn’t yet realized our leaders would lie to us about things as important as war. There had been no Watergate, no fake WMDs. American Exceptionalism was not a right-wing trope twirled inside the confection of “Morning in America.” Our education was very expensive in the form of that blood and treasure commentators love to refer to.

    You finish with the feeling that Appy wishes the lesson of Vietnam would be for the American people to rise up and shout “we won’t be fooled again,” but close the book sharing with Appy the thought that we have, and will. “There remains,” concludes Appy, “a profound disconnect between the ideals and priorities of the public and the reality of a permanent war machine that no one in power seems able or willing to challenge or constrain… the institutions that sustain empire destroy democracy.”

    How did we reach such a state? Better read this book to find, in Appy’s words, what our record is, and who we now are.




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • No, Obama is Not Spending $2.7 Mil on Communist Propaganda in Vietnam

    May 6, 2014 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Other Ideas

    If ignorance was bliss, you’d think more people would be happy. In the media, ignorance just seems to make people angrier, and thanks to the Internet, we all get to listen to them.


    A number of conservative outlets have featured a story like this one, “Obama Spending $2.7 Mil to Broadcast Communist Propaganda to Vietnam.” The article quotes from somewhere (no attribution or link):

    The Department of Health and Human Services is spending $2,797,979 on a study that brings television to more than a dozen remote villages in Vietnam to study its impact on their culture and reproductive behavior.

    And concludes:

    Can we have a study in which we take away money from government bureaucrats in the United States while using government bureaucrats in Vietnam as a control group to see which country goes bankrupt faster? Instead we’re funding the broadcast of Communist propaganda to rural Vietnamese villages like the anniversary celebration of the Communist Party.

    Disclaimer

    Because I’m trying to dilute ignorance here rather than fan its flames, a disclaimer is needed. I am neither a conservative, nor a liberal, a libertarian, a Presbyterian, a Rastafarian or believer in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I support public leaders who might serve the public interest, and oppose those who don’t. So, denizens of the Internet, remain in your basements and do not accuse me of loving Obama or hating Obama. Only four more hours to your meds anyway, be strong for me buddy.

    Golden Fleece

    A Golden Fleece Award was presented each month by Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire, from 1975 to 1987, to identify what he viewed as wasteful government spending.

    One Award was given in honor of a $57,800 study of the physical measurements of airline stewardesses, paying special attention to the “length of the buttocks” and how their knees were arranged when they were seated. Another Award made fun of the money spent on insect sex.

    Basic research is often very important, and very easy to mock. The buttocks measuring was one part of data-gathering that led to safety equipment standards for aircraft. Fly sex research led to sterile screw-worms that were released into the wild and eliminated a major cattle parasite from the U.S., saving the cattle industry $20 billion.

    Back to Vietnam

    The media claiming the U.S. is funding Red propaganda, and/or just throwing away money, are, not surprisingly, wrong.

    Reading the actual grant from the U.S. National Institute of Health (for only $705k; not sure where the $2.7 million number came from), we learn that the purpose has little to do with Commies:

    Billions of dollars are spent worldwide on television campaigns to promote population health even though we lack clear evidence of a causal link between television and family formation and reproductive health. Although a substantial research literature documents television’s effects, existing research is primarily associational; making it impossible to establish a causal direction or to eliminate the possibility that a third variable is responsible for the observed associations. In defending these existing research problems, many note that because television is so widely available, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to randomly assign members of a target audience to comparison and intervention groups.

    The idea of researching the impact of something at the cost of maybe millions to better spend billions seems to make sense. The idea of finding a place without any TV that is also safe to work in and somewhat accessible means that isolated hill villages in Vietnam are exactly the kind of location you need.

    We’re All Right

    Weird conservative media, you are wrong about the Vietnam study. People who think they should write in and criticize me for liking or hating Obama, you are too shallow to get this is all not about “liking” a leader anyway, plus of course the fact that Obama himself had nothing to do with an individual NIH grant. In the spirit of a happy ending, I for one feel much better knowing the government is spending at least some of my tax money on basic research, and thus maybe a tiny, tiny, tiny amount less on drones and the NSA.

    A fella can dream, can’t he?



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  • Review: Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam

    April 25, 2013 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Iraq, Military

    There are ghosts in Washington that few will talk about, roaming the halls of the Pentagon, inside the State Department and the CIA, and at the White House, moaning “Vietnam, Vietnam.” Nick Turse, in his new book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, awakens those ghosts and gives them a voice, and in the process has written one of the most important books about the American War in Vietnam. As America again makes war on an industrial scale on nations far less advanced, and commits again torture, assassinations, mass killings and keeps secret prisons while all the while trying to hide its dirty hands from the American public, that Turse’s book was published in 2013 is no accident.

    Kill Anything That Moves is a painstaking, detailed, minutely-cataloged 370 pages of the atrocities America committed in Vietnam . Like much of the scholarship of the Holocaust, Turse seeks to document in straight forward, simple language what happened so that no one will be able to someday pretend—as the men who run from the ghosts in Washington now do—that it never happened. To make clear his intent, Turse gives us a trail to follow, 85 dense pages of sources and footnotes.

    What Happened

    The slaughter at My Lai is the signature event for most Vietnam war historians (the massacre took place almost 45 years ago to date, on March 16, 1968), the single instance, the aberration, the time when a small group of poorly-led soldiers went rogue and gunned down civilians. There were photos this time. Everything else, TV and movies tell us, is an exaggeration, propaganda, the drunken and drugged memories of freaked out veterans who came to hold Jane Fonda in too high a regard.

    What really happened is Turse’s story. His book began with a different focus when as a graduate student in Public Health, Turse began looking into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Vietnam vets. By chance an archivist asked Turse whether he thought witnessing war crimes might be a cause of PTSD and directed Turse to the forgotten papers of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group. That group had been set up by the military in the wake of My Lai to compile information on atrocities, not so much to punish the guilty as to “to ensure that the army would never again be caught off-guard by a major war crimes scandal.” Turse tells us the group’s findings were mostly kept under cover and the witnesses who reported the crimes were ignored, discredited or pushed into silence.

    Until Now

    Kill Anything That Moves is a hard book to read. You want to look away but finally turn the pages and read of mass killings and targeted assassinations of Vietnamese civilians, rape committed casually and coldly in sight of officers, sport killings and road rage incidents. Turse painstakingly documents each incident, in many cases starting with the War Crimes Working Group reports and then adding his own first-person interviews conducted in Vietnam with eye witnesses. Mostly aged, the witnesses speak calmly now, and Turse reports what they say without embellishment. Still, the ghosts are there and you half expect to see drops of sweat on the pages.

    But however horrific the many, many individual acts of brutality are to read about, Turse’s larger conclusion is even worse. Turse comes to understand that most of the atrocities were committed with official sanction, in fact, were committed because of U.S. policy that demanded body counts, number of “enemy” killed, as the borderless war’s only metric of accomplishment. He writes, “U.S. commanders wasted ammunition like millionaires and hoarded American lives like misers, and often treated Vietnamese lives as if they were worth nothing at all.”

    Officers, seeking validation and promotion, made it clear in case after case that their troops must come back from the field with a high body count. Given that demand, standards of accountability were purposefully loose. Any Vietnamese man killed was labeled Viet Cong (VC). When that number was not enough, orders were given to sweep through areas and kill anything that moved or ran, man, woman or child, on the assumption that only a Viet Cong would run. When even that tally was insufficient, civilians were executed in place, the soldiers planting captured Chinese weapons on them to justify the ‘Count. Once reality became so flexible, soldiers lost touch with any standard, creating “rules” that allowed them to kill everyone—if she stands still she is a trained VC, if she runs she is a VC taking evasive action. If men are present the village is VC, if men are missing the village has sent its males off to fight with the VC and so either way, burn it all down.

    America’s actions were, in Turse’s words, “Not a few random massacres… But a system of suffering.” The deaths were “widespread, routine and directly attributable to U.S. command policies.”

    In short, the atrocities were not war crimes, they were policy.

    Iraq is the Arabic Word for Vietnam

    Nick Turse’s book wasn’t published by accident in 2013. While it details terrible, terrible things Americans did in Vietnam some 45 or more years ago, one need only open a web browser to see that the atrocities have not stopped—call them out now, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the secret CIA prisons across the world, the black sites in Afghanistan.

    As the Iraq War sputtered to a close, at least for America, Liz Sly of the Washington Post wrote a sad, important story about the legacy of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

    The story highlights, if that word is even permissible here, some of the long series of atrocities committed by the U.S. in Iraq, instances where our killing of civilians, whether by accident or purposeful or something smeared in-between, ruined any chance that the U.S. could in fact capture those hearts and minds and build a stable society in our image. We could hold ground with tanks but only achieve our broader national security goals via memory. It was true in Vietnam, and it will be true in Syria or the Horn of Africa or wherever we drag the fight on to next. Vietnam’s CIA assassination program, Phoenix, was just a low-tech version of today’s drone killings.

    While focusing on the massacre at Haditha, Sly also referenced the killings at Nisoor Square by Blackwater under the “control” of the State Department and several other examples. In a sad coda to the war, even online she did not have space to touch upon all of the incidents, so ones like the aerial gunning down of civilians captured so brilliantly in the film Incident in New Baghdad, or the rape-murder of a child and her family from the book Black Hearts, are missing. There are just too many.

    Accountability?

    Sly’s article quotes retired Army Colonel Pete Mansoor, who commanded a combat brigade in Baghdad in 2003-04 and then returned as executive officer to David Petraeus during the Surge, explaining the fog of war, the ambiguity of decision making in a chaotic urban counter-insurgency struggle, and exonerating those who made wrong, fatal decisions by saying “when you look at it from the soldiers’ point of view, it was justified. It’s very hard.”

    Though I doubt he would find many Iraqis who would agree with him, and though I do doubt Mansoor would accept a similar statement by an Iraqi (“Sorry we killed your soldiers, it was hard to tell the good ones from the bad ones”), his point carries some truth. I cannot let this review of Nick Turse’s book end without asking the bigger questions outside of his scope as a documentarian.

    The issue is not so much how/when/should we assign blame and punishment to an individual soldier, but to raise the stakes and ask: why have we not assigned blame and demanded punishment for the leaders who put those 19-year-old soldiers into the impossible situations they faced? Before we throw away the life of a kid who shot when he should not have done so, why don’t we demand justice for those in the highest seats of power for creating wars that create such fertile ground for atrocity? The chain of responsibility for the legacy left behind in our wars runs high.

    In this rare moment of American reflection Turse’s book offers, ask the bigger question, demand the bigger answer. Those Vietnamese, those Iraqis, those Afghans — and those Americans — killed and died because they were put there to do so by the decisions of our leaders. Hold them accountable for their actions, hold them accountable for America.

    Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam is available from Amazon.com




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Why COIN Failed in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan

    July 3, 2012 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    My former colleague Bill Johnson, himself a veteran of multiple COIN interactions on both the military and civillian sides, offer this insight:

    The problem in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan is not that COIN can’t work. The problem is that one can only counter an insurgency if a legitimate government, supported by the majority of the people but opposed by an insurgency, exists.


    The governments in each of these three cases were illegitimate, created and supported by force from the United States, after which the United States had it’s creation adopt the superficial trappings of democracy in order to have some claim on legitimacy. There was not in any case a legitimate government, and thus no insurgency–legitimate government is a necessary condition for an insurgency to exist.


    What existed in these cases was a legitimate government not to our liking (Vietnam), a power vacuum caused by the total destruction of the existing government (Iraq), and an illegitimate government which we toppled and replaced with another illegitimate government (Afghanistan). In none of these cases could COIN be properly executed. The conditions demanded by COIN theory simply did not exist.


    Our support of Colombia’s battle with the FARC is the closest we have come to actually putting COIN theory into practice, and we and the Colombians have had some success there. This is largely due to the fact that most Colombians support the government established by the Constitution the Colombian people approved in 1991. The sad part about this success story is that there would be no insurgency and no FARC if the United States would do away with its failed policy to ban drugs.



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Susan Rice: No More Vietnams, But in a Bad Way

    June 28, 2012 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Iraq, Military

    Susan Rice, our ambassador to the UN and someone on the short list to replace Hillary as SecState in 2013, continues to set new personal bests in terms of ignorant statements. Describing (in her acid riddled mind) what makes Obama’s foreign policy distinct from that of its predecessors, Rice mooed:

    We just don’t have that Vietnam hangover. It is not the framework for every decision — or any decision, for that matter. I’m sick and tired of reprising all of the traumas and the battles and the psychoses of the 1960s.


    I could just throw out the old “Those that don’t study history are doomed to repeat it” line here and hit the bar early, but Rice’s remark is so idiotic that I’ll skip happy hour for now (the sacrifices we make for country).

    Tom Ricks starts us off:

    Just because you weren’t alive during the Vietnam War doesn’t mean you won’t go down that road. I generally am a fan of the Obama administration, on both domestic and foreign policy. But the one thing that gives me the creeps is their awkward relationship with senior military officials. Mistrusting the Joint Chiefs, suspecting their motives, treating them as adversaries or outsiders, not examining differences — that was LBJ’s recipe. It didn’t work. He looked upon the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a political entity to be manipulated or, failing that, sidelined. That’s a recipe for disaster, especially for an administration conspicuously lacking interest in the views of former military officers or even former civilian Pentagon officials.

    Anytime anyone tells me that the lessons of Vietnam are irrelevant, that’s when I begin looking for a hole to hide in.


    Rice again now:

    What frustrated me about the 2004 (John Kerry) campaign was, there we were, relitigating ‘Where were you in nineteen sixty-whatever?’ as the big freaking issue between Bush and Kerry — you know, ‘Did you serve, did you not serve, what did your swift boat brothers think?’  And I’m thinking, ‘What does that have to do with me and the world we’re living in today?’ 


    Ok Susan, you ignorant bonehead, here it is:

    Vietnam echoes through everything we do because we are repeating mistakes. We should not invade countries that do not pose a threat to the US. We should not be in wars without a coherent objective. We should not create governments unsupported by their people and then kill Americans trying to prop them up. We should not spend our money and lives abroad when we have problems at home that need those resources. We should not borrow money to fund wars in ways that wreck our economy. We should not piss off the rest of the world unnecessarily with wars of choice. We should not see America’s power solely as the rampant use of military force. We should express a little more humility toward the world and be seen as a little less of a bully. We should stop inventing straw men (communists, terrorists) that feed the military-industrial complex and distract us from the real issues facing America. We should not ignore the lessons of history because they seem politically awkward in an election year.

    Bonus: We should not employ as ambassadors to the UN people so ignorant of history and so ready to throw away lessons for political positioning. You are, to paraphrase Robert Reich speaking of the Clintons, “the arrogance of power combined with the inexperience of youth.”

    Susan, this blog has spent a lot of time drawing lessons from Vietnam, so have a look before you ejaculate dumbness again.




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  • State Department Won the Vietnam War

    May 18, 2012 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Remember the Vietnam War? You know, the one from Rambo, the war that was supposed to stop Communism from rolling Asia like dominoes? Fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here? Kennedy? Johnson? Nixon? Bueller? The US fought in Vietnam in one form or another from the late 1950’s until we gave up in 1975 and lost. Helicopters on the roof of the Embassy, hippies taking over the country, some history stuff went down, babies.

    Vietnam was America’s first modern counter-insurgency war. There are a lot of definitions of counter-insurgency (COIN), but it boils down to a war that can’t be won and isn’t fought in the traditional Red Guys clash with Blue Guys and the winner seizes territory way, like Private Ryan and Tom Hanks did in World War II. A COIN struggle is characterized primarily by a “hearts and minds” struggle, a multi-spectrum approach to winning the loyalty of the people by protecting them, helping them, establishing a local government, that kind of thing. The failure to do this in Iraq is the subject of my book, and the ongoing failure to do this in Afghanistan will be the subject of some other person’s book to come.

    If you check Wikipedia or ask the Vietnam Vet next door, you’ll find out that we did not succeed in winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. If you want to read the best book written about how COIN and Vietnam, it is Street Without Joyby Bernard Fall.

    One of the crucial elements of the failure to win the real war in Vietnam was the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program, run by the same State Department that flopped in Iraq. Formed in 1967, CORDS was headed by a State civilian, Ambassador Robert W. Komer. CORDS pulled together all the various U.S. military and civilian agencies involved in the hearts and minds effort, including State, USAID, USIA and the CIA (who tagged on the remnants of the Phoenix Program, just because). CORDS civilian/military advisory teams were dispatched throughout South Vietnam.

    So how’d that CORDS thing work out for ya’all? It failed in conjunction with the whole war effort. We lost the war. Nothing four Presidents said about Vietnam was true and tens of thousands of people died for no purpose. We did not win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.

    Meanwhile, on the other side of the Looking Glass, according to the State Department’s slick self-congratulatory monthly magazine (thanks taxpayers!), CORDS “was a success” and in fact somehow contributed to the defeat of the Viet Cong in the Delta by 1972, where per the State Department, the wiley Commies couldn’t even muster a squad-sized action. It is true– read it all here in the State Magazine (p. 16) you’re paying for anyway.

    The article is just spiffy, using words like “swashbuckling” non-ironically to describe State’s men in Vietnam, and claiming in 1967 State’s Vietnam Training Center was “the center of things” (1967 was the freaking “Summer of Love” so State thinking their Training Center was the center of anything is beyond nerd land.) We learn that many FS men “enjoyed their tours.” In fact, US military officers “watched in awe” as the first State Department troopers deplaned, just like in that movie Platoon no doubt.

    Here’s a keen description of precisely how State won the Vietnam War (those in Afghanistan now, pay attention):

    [We] would pick a house at random, politely ask if we could come in and chat, and enquire about the perspective of the resident on everything from the state of the rice crop to the price of cooking oil to the honesty of local officials.

    Dammit! Why didn’t we know that before spending $44 billion and nine years trying to solve Iraq and win that war! All we had to do was “politely ask.”

    OK, fun’s over. Here’s the problem. If State is still clinging to the bizarre idea that it succeeded in Vietnam, and propagandizing its own employees with the same, what hope is there that they will ever make any progress about the failures visited upon Iraq, and the failures now ongoing in Afghanistan?

    Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it we’re told. But those who make up their own versions of history to fit present political needs are simply doomed in advance.



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Jeepers, If Only I was Vietnamese

    April 21, 2012 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State




    The State Department just can’t do enough for bloggers’ freedom overseas.


    Here is State social media superhero Alec Ross burning up the Twitter, for freedom:



    The news is less positive for bloggers inside the State Department. Jesslyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project wrote on Salon:

    (The State Department’s) actions are a transparent attempt to retaliate against Mr. Van Buren for his book—by trying to impose bureaucratic and constitutionally-questionable prior restraints on his blogs, evidenced by the facts that 1) Mr. Van Buren is being subject to disparate treatment (hundreds of State Department blogs flow out onto the Internet uncleared); 2) the State Department links to uncleared blogs it likes; 3) none of Mr. Van Buren’s writing or speaking has contained classified orpersonally identifiable information; 4) all his written works (including his book) contain the State Department disclaimer that they do not represent the views of the government; and 5) he has never misrepresented himself as an official spokesman for the State Department (instead, he speaks in the first person and uses bland designators such as “Author”).


    Tại sao là Alec Ross một kẻ ngốc như vậy?



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  • Deterrence Failed in Ukraine: Is Strategic Ambiguity Over Taiwan Better than a Treaty?

    April 30, 2022 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , ,
    Posted in: Biden, Military

    The answer is one failed in Ukraine, one has kept the peace. The question, going forward, is the model the strategic clarity of NATO’s Article 5 or the strategic ambiguity of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act?

    The principle of collective defense is at the very heart of NATO, created by a 1949 Treaty. Its history is embedded in WWII, when the Nazis gained a massive advantage in the earliest days of the war by playing the various European nations against each other, picking off territory while London and Paris bickered over what to do. NATO was be the solution. Article 5 of the NATO treaty says “An armed attack against one or more of the [signers] shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them… will assist the Party or Parties so attacked.” The critical points are that the treaty is inclusionary — all NATO members, large or small — and exclusionary in that it only applies to NATO members. An attack on NATO member Poland triggers Article 5. An attack on Ukraine or Taiwan, not NATO members, does not.

    The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA; also the U.S.-PRC Joint Communique) grew out of Mainland China dictator Mao’s threat to “liberate” Taiwan and Nationalist dictator Chiang Kai-shek’s demand for U.S. support to reclaim the Mainland. With the Korean War sopping up American blood, Washington had no desire to join what would have been a land war to rival WWII. Instead, it established diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and signed a mutual defense treaty in 1954. That lasted until 1979, when the U.S. switched its diplomatic recognition from the people of Taiwan to the people of the Mainland (China; but note the diplomatic wording) and Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act. The TRA listed two obligations to Taiwan: to sell it arms and to maintain the U.S.’ capacity “to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” against Taiwan.

    The actual wording in the TRA is instructive: “Peace and stability in the area are matters of international concern… any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes is considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” This represents diplomatic brilliance, and came to be known as “strategic ambiguity,” a policy understood to mean the U.S. doesn’t have to defend Taiwan, but it can. The circumstances and means of defense are left unspoken. China matched this with a policy of “strategic patience.”

    The most important thing about the TRA is it works. The Mainland has not invaded Taiwan. Despite changes in leadership as dramatic as Mao (albeit in 1976) to Deng to Xi the Mainland has not invaded. Despite Taiwan changing from military dictatorship to democracy, the Mainland has not invaded. Despite global changes including the Korean and Vietnam wars where China and the U.S. fought each other directly, development of nuclear weapons by China, fall of the Soviet Union, the Mainland has not invaded. The Chinese military has gone from peasants with rifles to a blue water navy and the Mainland has not invaded. China has gone from agrarian isolation to an essential part of the industrialized global economy, and the Mainland has not invaded. Ukraine happened, and the Mainland has not invaded.

    The irony is deterrence worked in Ukraine, at least from Putin’s point of view. It prevented the U.S. from getting involved in the shooting war between Russia and Ukraine. The NATO treaty was written to compel its signatories to act once someone moved against them (the treaty was obviously written with the Soviet Union in mind though Article 5 has only been invoked once, following 9/11, and then mostly for show.) As Putin readied to invade Ukraine, Biden threw away any trace elements of strategic ambiguity by declaring early and often NATO would not intervene and the U.S. would not unilaterally enter the fighting. It was as green a light as could be for Putin. ‘Round the other side of the world, Sino-Asia sleeps at peace knowing everything is on the table should the Mainland invade but nothing is at risk should it not. What better example of deterrence working?

    The concern now is moves in both hemispheres to formalize redlines. Much talk will be devoted post-invasion as to whether Ukraine should join NATO, feign at joining NATO, or promise never to join NATO. Joining or something akin will be the wrong answer. It was in fact the rigidity of NATO’s promise that saw it fail, again, in Ukraine as in Crimea. Putin understands this and uses it — judo master that he is — against his adversary. NATO prescribes war whether the broader circumstances (of say energy dependence on Russian gas) make that seem wise. It is an exploitable flaw. The good news is Europe is again at a stasis point for the time being, Ukraine seemingly headed toward a resolution that provides Russia its buffer zone no matter what it is all spun as in the western media.

    The risk lies in Asia, where bullish elements are tempted to disturb an equally functional power status quo, and jeez, it’s Joe “Regime Change” Biden and his gaffes again. At a CNN town hall in October 2021, the host asked Biden if the U.S. would defend Taiwan. He said “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” another gaffe-erino which the White House quickly walked back into the realm of strategic ambiguity. But post-Ukraine, some hawks want that clarity and are pushing for a formal, Article 5-like declaration. In their perfect world, that Asian Article 5 would include not only Taiwan and the U.S., but also Japan, Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and maybe others (the U.S. has various types of self-defense treaties already with many Asian nations.)

    The justifications for such moves often make no sense in the face of the current TRA strategy’s multi-decade success. Some say because Beijing ramped up its rhetoric and shipbuilding (a test of resolve!) we need to do something to match that. But wouldn’t a guarantee to go to war for Taiwan make those on Taiwan who want to declare independence that much more reckless? There are those in Congress who want a more formal agreement (if you think the Israel lobby is powerful, check how Taiwan’s punches above its weight.) The ever-pugilistic Council on Foreign Relations wants strategic unambiguity as a show of force.

    Joe Biden will come under some pressure to “do something” (the scariest words in Washington) following the clusterflutz in Ukraine. This would be a very, very risky move. Remember, for deterrence to be credible, it does not need to depend on a willingness to commit anything like suicide in the face of a challenge, but rather must carry the risk that the deterrer is likely to do something that is “fraught with the danger of war.” Strategic ambiguity is enough. Article 5 and anything like it to come in the Pacific purposefully ties its signatories’ hands. The Taiwan Relations Act purposefully leaves all options open to deal with the complex realities of the Sino-Pacific. History shows which one works and which one does not. A more aggressive posture does not resolve the root issues across the Taiwan Strait, it only risks exacerbating them.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Lessons Learned: Dead Bodies in Ukraine

    April 22, 2022 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Biden, Democracy, Economy, Other Ideas, Syria, Yemen

     

    It is hard escape the images from the Ukraine but easy not to think about them.

    The bodies themselves are the only truth; for there but for the grace of them goes us. Were they Russian separatists, Ukrainian heroes, people on the way home from work, people far from home or abandoned by even loved ones in their own backyards, strangers in the north to blue water, patriots or fish mongers in the south? How little it matters when they are placed next to each other on the ground but politics, politics always makes for stranger bedfellows now and forever.

    As we make some deal over their deaths, war crimes accusations levied by a nation (it is America) who quit the International Criminal Court in 2002 ahead of the Iraq War and as CYA for Israel being charged for war crimes in the ‘Strip, what say the shadows, the 460,000 dead in that Iraq, never freed, or those 1,353,000 in Vietnam (say that one again, Vietnam, because yes it echoes behind each muddy footprint, down the halls of State and Defense, Vietnam, where the most senior generals learned their craft.) There is truth to the phrase “never again” but it is this truth not that one: we will never (admit to) lose another war which is why more are gonna have to die, because Putin’s win could be seen as again our loss.

    But… but… these in Ukraine are not American deaths, not really dead because of America, so we can point and declare right from wrong, right? Same as we decry those who judge us we shall judge trespasses against them. I saw a little of war, my year in Iraq, a civilian witness, saw more than a lot, saw a lot less than some, but even a little is enough. Because after the first one you can remember bodies become repetitive until all that matters is how many of them their are. The GOAT is six million, anything else something… less, made to matter by evoking the six million, or the 500 from My Lai, or 35,000 from Dresden, or the 800,000 from Stalingrad. Stalingrad taught us to think of “civilians and soldiers” was a joke left from the 19th century when armies walked to a nearby field, war a ritual, that “he who sheds his blood today with me shall be my brother” bullshit that has killed people forever.

    Karl Doenitz, the head of Germany’s U-Boat fleet during World War II stood trial at Nuremberg for war crimes, specifically unrestricted warfare against civilian shipping. Doenitz, in his defense, raised the fact that the Allies practiced much the same style of was at sea, and even sought testimony from U.S. naval personnel. Doenitz raised broad, almost philosophical questions about commerce warfare, including belligerent conduct by armed merchant ships, contraband hidden aboard “civilian” ships, war at sea as a required evil for a nation under blockade, war zones, commerce control, and unneutral service.

    But it was the non-rescue policy for enemy survivors which brought Doenitz to Nuremberg. Doenitz in 1940 issued Standing Order 154 to his U-boats, “Do not pick up survivors and take them with you… The enemy began the war in order to destroy us, so nothing else matters.” and at his trial raised the question of why it was allowable to seek to kill people literally one moment, before their ship sank, but not one moment afterwards. He pointed out weapons were designed not to win wars per se but to destroy people efficiently, as we now know with modern cluster bombs and so-called hyperbaric vacuum bombs in Ukraine. Doenitz was found guilty but his testimony resonated with other combatants. Over 100 senior Allied officers sent letters conveying their disappointment over the verdict. They understood killing was killing and that rules were for the victors to use, later, as politics required, and never wanted to find themselves so entrapped..

    We look at those horrible photos again from Ukraine. Who are the dead? Some are collaborators shot by Ukrainians, some are innocents shot by Russians, some are civilian combatants who nonetheless took up arms for one side or another. Some may even be ethnically cleansed people, or just fake images, or old photos. None of that matters. The media is telling us to react. All that’s left is for someone to find a way to have our computers deliver a little food pellet along with the ultraviolence. It’s just about stim, little jolts to the brain, isn’t it? None of us have any idea who the dead bodies are in Ukraine, and who shot them, and why. We just enjoy the thrill, and the flexibility of creating our own righteous story. But we don’t grieve, we politicize.

    The truth is much more restrained than reality as we understand it at this point in the war. Human Rights Watch documented Russian military forces committing law-of-war violations against civilians in occupied areas of the Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Kyiv regions of Ukraine. These include one case of rape, and two cases of summary execution, one of six men, the other of one man. There were other non-specific instances of unlawful violence and threats against civilians. Soldiers were also implicated in looting civilian property, including food, clothing, and firewood.

    Yes, that’s the sum of it. One rape, seven executed. No death is to be celebrated or dismissed but a handful of war crimes does not equal a holocaust, a genocide, or what Zelensky is claiming today. Over-stating the actual situation will only serve to make the public numb. The Ukrainians are approaching the jump the shark moment, and since we’re talking about propaganda here not deaths, the phrase is appropriate. Oh my God, HRW says the Russians looted firewood! What horrors will follow?!?

    But in the end there is always the small story, and the big story, often so big it runs over the edges of our monitors so because of its size we don’t see it. We talk about peace, but the only place we all seem to live in some sort of harmony is in the land described by the Panama Papers, countries and statelets that pimp out their economies and legal systems to the global rich (oligarchs and entrepreneurs, it’s just the difference in word choice and how many feet of waterline their yachts have) so that sanctions become  a poor man’s punishment.

    The cover story never really changed. Our parents were told the raison d’etre since at least WWII was to destroy Communism. We were promised once we achieved nuclear parity with the Russians it would all be over, then told once we won the next proxy war (Cuba, Greece, Laos, Vietnam, Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Panama, Haiti, Iran, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Syria, Yemen…) things would be right. The bodies, you see, don’t matter. They never really matter in the biggest picture.

       

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  • Deterrence, China, and the U.S.

    April 10, 2022 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State, Military

    The U.S. should not use its military power to deter China from invading Taiwan. It is unnecessary, and anything more than what is already being done is more likely to help provoke a war than stop one. It might even be better to turn down U.S. enthusiasm a notch or two.

    The current status of strategic ambiguity serves two important American goals – it keeps the peace and allows for a productive trilateral++ relationship among China, Taiwan, U.S. and the rest of Asia. Those two goals work in lockstep, not in conflict of one another, a key point. Peace serves all masters here. What we have is useful stasis, not some sort of historical fantasy of unfulfilled frustration. And we’ll still keep the focus on U.S. strategic interests, not those of Taiwan or other allies. You can’t expect more than that.

    Unnecessary

    During the entire 73 year existence of Taiwan, the Mainland has not invaded. Despite changes in leadership as dramatic as Mao to Deng to Xi the Mainland has not invaded. Despite Taiwan changing from a military dictatorship to a democracy, the Mainland has not invaded. Despite global changes including the Korean and Vietnam wars, development of nuclear weapons by China, the fall of the Soviet Union (and Donald Trump) the Mainland has not invaded. US posture has varied from garrisoning the island to strategic ambiguity and the Mainland has not invaded.

    The Chinese military has gone from peasants with rifles to a blue water navy backed by ICBMs and the Mainland has not invaded. China has gone from the agrarian isolation of the Cultural Revolution to a fully-integrated if not essential part of the industrialized global economy, and the Mainland has not invaded. Putin got away with Ukraine and the Mainland has not invaded. That is not going to change in our lifetimes, so there is not much more to say. The ball keeps bouncing, history remains. I’ll be at the bar. Thank you.

    OK, OK, a little more detail. Taiwan has not invaded China, either. You laugh but that was indeed Chiang Kai Skek’s plan, with U.S. help of course, in the early years. Though we don’t think of it much, the current policy of strategic ambiguity keeps Taiwan in line as well. Nobody expects the ambiguity to stretch as far as Taiwan launching military force. Or proclaiming independence. You would hate to have some sort of strategic clarity embolden independence “trouble makers” on Taiwan, one of those unintended consequences.

    A couple of points to establish. I threw away my Mao (and Che) T-shirt sophomore year. I don’t have a grey pony tail. I know Beijing is not a democratic regime, much like America’s allies across the Middle East and Africa are not. I’ve worked in Taiwan when it was under military rule, and China under autocratic rule. The food was great, but I do not want to live that way. So none of this is about defending that.

    Focus is important; this is about preventing war. It is not about China being mean to democracy in Hong Kong; why act surprised, the government does not like democracy in Shanghai, never mind in Riyadh or other allied places. And often left out of the discussion is the United States worked closely with the Nationalists on Taiwan to make it a very undemocratic place until about 1989.

    For the lawyers here tonight, everything I say represents merely my own views and not those of my past or present employers. Nothing in my talk tonight is even remotely classified. If that disappoints, you might still be able to get your money back. A version of my talk is already posted on my website at wemeantwell.com with all the links to data cited, so you can fact check me in real time, or for those with babysitters on the clock at home, read ahead.

    Provocation: Deterrence is Dangerous

    Deterrence is a funny word. What looks like deterrence from one side — forward deploying an aircraft carrier — might look like provocation from the other. What looks like deterrence against American hegemony in Asia — overflights — might look like provocation from the other. The concept of deterrence itself is not without its uses, and in the end likely kept the Cold War a lot cooler, but military deterrence as argued for here holds the risk of accidents and misinterpretations.

    More importantly, there is little need for the military deterrence many advocate for, such as Professor Galston this evening. The Chinese on both sides of the strait understand well there is much to be gained from economic ties amid political ambiguity and much greater risk in anything like an invasion that would accomplish little besides tidying up the leftovers from the creation of the PRC in 1949.

    About that deterrence versus provocation thing. China has four overseas military bases, to include a small logistics operation in Djibouti, a listening post on Great Coco Island (not near the Bahamas, it’s off Myanmar), navy outpost in Gwadar (it’s in Pakistan) and of course a military post in Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan. I’m going to guess a lot of people who consider themselves informed on this topic could not have named more than one of those.

    In contrast, the U.S. maintains 750 bases across the globe, a few less now that the Afghan adventure is over. That includes formal facilities in eight Asian nations, with some 53,000 troops in Japan and 24,000 in South Korea alone. The U.S. maintained troops on Taiwan until 1979 and recently began sending Special Forces there again on training missions. That many of those American bases predate the founding of the People’s Republic, and all have survived the fall of the Soviet adversary they were built to, um, deter, tells the real story.

    Let’s look at the boilerplate articles about Chinese “incursions” into Taiwan’s air space. Chinese aircraft are not overflying Taiwan. They are flying within Taiwan’s self-declared Air Defense Identification Zone. Look at a map of that zone, and other zones declared by Japan and China. Taiwan’s zone, the one Beijing is flying in, actually is large enough to cover thousands of miles of the Chinese mainland itself; PLA planes are in violation when sitting on their own runways.

    Taiwan’s zone also overlaps Beijing’s Air Defense Zone which overlaps Japan’s and Korea’s. Japan’s Air Defense zone also overlap’s Taiwan’s to take in a small island which is disputed between Tokyo and Taipei, a diplomatic fist fight the U.S. ignores. Criss-crossing everyone’s zones are American aircraft conducting “freedom of navigation” exercises (known in Beijing as “incursions.”) Chinese air flights are provocative only to the uninformed, or those who want them to be seen as provocative. Left unsaid: as China was supposedly provoking a fight in the air this October, the U.S. was simultaneously conducting some of the largest multi-national naval exercises in the Pacific since WWII.

    At various points in history some American bases stored nuclear weapons, and may do so today. Forward-deployed U.S. warships are believed to also contain nuclear weapons; the Ohio-class submarines off China’s coasts, each with 20 Trident ballistic missiles, certainly do. No matter; nuclear-armed aircraft are available direct from the U.S. mainland within hours. Pretend you’re from Mars and just visiting earth and tell me who seems to be provoking. Deterrence as practiced by the U.S. is a dangerous thing.

    For deterrent threats to be credible, they ‘do not need to depend on a willingness to commit anything like suicide in the face of a challenge’ but rather must carry the risk that the deterrer ‘is likely to do something that is fraught with the danger of war’

    The key element of the strategic ambiguity of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act over Professor Galston’s “strategic clarity” is a conditional response, call if flexibility if you like. The more specific your response is ahead of time – say in writing like Article 5 – the more your hands are tied. Remember deterrence worked in Ukraine, for Russia; it stopped the U.S. from more actively intervening.

     

    MORE REASONS IT’LL NEVER HAPPEN

    What Do They Want?

    When I was a diplomat we were taught that trust was always a nice thing, but what was better was to understand the other side’s goals and intentions. If you knew those, or could make a decent guess, you could predict their actions and poke effectively at their asks a lot better than hoping they would just do what they promised. The number of affairs inside marriages where monogamy was the opening promise supports my argument.

    So what do China and Taiwan want? There may be someone who is listening into bedrooms, boardrooms, and tea shops and hearing the answer from the principle players, but absent that simply looking at the last 70 some years of history is pretty good.

    China and Taiwan do not want war. Absent some scraps back in the 1950s, nobody has invaded or attacked anyone. The US and China only sent shots at each other when the US approached China’s border through its ally North Korea in that war, and on a lesser scale when the US approached China’s border through its ally North Vietnam in that war. There’s kind of a pattern. Both of these events are celebrated in the People’s Army Museum in Beijing as examples of defending the homeland’s borders. The Museum, in addition, features an American U-2 spyplane shot down over the mainland. The Museum also has exhibits showing the U.S. purposely bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, killing three and destroying the diplomatic sanctuary. How many American embassies has China bombed?

    The fact that through all of the massive changes of the last 70 years — the end of Mao, those two wars with the US, the handover of Hong Kong, the entire Cold War itself, and the list is long, there has been no invasion. Scientists call that a steady state, and something bigger than Mao, the Cold War, etc. would have to appear and change it. I’m not sure what that could be. Does anyone seriously believe some rogue statement in the Taiwan legislature would qualify, or some five-way disputed rock outcropping in the South China Sea? And by the way, speaking of the historical record, there’s the same track record for Macau and Hong Kong, where China did not invade or attack over 200 some years of very non-democratic colonial rule even after they had the military means to make it a cakewalk.

    My own first brush with a “why now” event was in the 1980s, when I went to Taiwan as an American diplomat. Taiwan was crawling out from under four decades of authoritarian rule, and taking its first difficult democratic steps. After decades of speech suppression, a lot of people were testing their legs, saying all sorts of crazy stuff about independence. Among ourselves we called it “the D word,” as independence in Mandarin is romanized duli. One emerging political party was even called the Taiwan Independence party, and was likely to grab a few seats in the legislature. The U.S. mission was fearful this could serve as a trigger to Beijing. “Big China” had made clear a declaration of independence was a red line.

    Beijing’s reaction was soon apparent: Taiwan’s stores started to feature mainland goods; the end of the hated Kuomintang opened up a new market. Even before this thaw you could sort of fly from Taipei to China, something that many people on both sides of the strait were desperate to do to visit relatives. The catch was the flight had to touch down in then-British Hong Kong. In 2008 these flights were made direct, with no need for the Hong Kong stopover. Today six China-based airlines and five from Taiwan operate direct flights. The line of progress has been in one direction, far at odds with war.

     

    Follow the Money

    China and Taiwan do want economic benefits. Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. China applied in September to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. “One country, two systems” has not only kept the peace for decades, it has proven darn profitable for both sides. As Deng Xiao Ping said of this type of modus vivendi, “who cares what color a cat is as long as it catches mice.” China might one day seek to buy Taiwan, but until then what incentive would it have to drop bombs on one of its best customers? Heck, they even invited Taiwan to the Beijing Olympics.

    There’s also the U.S. to consider, as any cross-strait violence would affect US-China relations. Not counting Hunter Biden (I kid) the total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. When Covid shut down world logistics, everyone learned the American economy is voluntarily dependent on Chinese manufacturing and vice-versa. China is the second largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt. If something interfered with all that commerce, China would have to find a way to use unfinished iPhones as a food source. The Chinese are literally betting the house on America’s success and continued economic engagement.

     

    Ignore (Most of) the Rhetoric

    Oh, the rhetoric, all that stuff about reunification that tumbles out of Beijing. History is again our guide, as Chinese President Xi’s rhetoric about reunification is essentially the same as Mao’s. But if you want to cite Chinese propaganda as evidence of actual intent, it is best to pay attention to the details.

    It was the United States itself that most clearly asserted the shared tripartite goal was reunification, declaring as part of the diplomatic break with Taiwan “there is only one China and Taiwan is a part of it.” Chinese President Xi regularly reiterates reunification as a goal, but always stresses the process is historical (as in, it is inevitable and we just need to be patient, don’t wait up for it to happen) and must be peaceful. Sorry, if you’re going to quote Chinese propaganda statements as proof of intent, you can’t cherry pick out only the scary parts. It makes no sense to trust Xi on the plan but claim he’s lying about the (peaceful) execution in the same breath.

    Not by coincidence most of these reunification proclamations occur around important political holidays. One of Xi’s most recent invocations was in a speech marking the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai 1911 Revolution, aimed at the foreign Manchu Qing dynasty. The chosen occasion is important, because Xinhai, ideologically midwifed by Dr. Sun Yat Sen, is acknowledged by both the most hardcore Communists and the most fervent Nationalists as the common origin point for modern China. This is drilled into every schoolkid on both sides of the Strait and forms a common vocabulary among their diplomats. The point is to understand Xi’s remarks in the same context as the Chinese, not John Wayne, likely do.

    In Sun’s spirit Xi reiterated a vow to peaceful reunification with Taiwan. He urged the Chinese people “stand on the right side of history and join hands to achieve China’s complete reunification,” invoking the way the people who would form the Communist and Nationalist parties worked together against a common enemies — the Manchus, then warlordism and feudalism, then the Japanese, and perhaps someday the Americans. Xi, talking to his own people and those on Taiwan, sketched a shared vision a long way from the PLA amphibious assault the West fears.

    Taiwan is a “wanderer” that will eventually come home and not a chess piece to be played with, the Chinese government’s top diplomat said recently.

    Philosophically Chinese leaders have for thousands of years believed in historical cycles. They waited close to 300 years to end the foreign Qing dynasty. They waited out Britain for hundreds of years for the peaceful return of Hong Kong. Such things come up in conversation with Chinese diplomats as casually as talk about the weather. Chinese diplomacy is patient, not short-term optimistic or spasmodically reactive. There is no fierce urgency to reunification. Sun Tzu: One waits to win.

    China matched this with a policy of “strategic patience” (antagonists argue China will not wait forever, but also understands the time between now and forever is long.)

     

    Some Housekeeping

    As for the funny arguments in favor of deterrence, one of the most hilarious is that the U.S. has to maintain its posture over Taiwan as a signal to the rest of the world about commitment or we’ll lose our global credibility. Of course the neo-neocons are saying the same thing about Crimea, um, sorry, Ukraine. I’m still waiting for those who make that argument to explain away our abandoning Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring.

    And yes, China is building its military. They now have one real aircraft carrier (same number as India; China also sort of float an old Soviet model) and three high-end Type 075 amphibious landing ships with Type 071s coming soon online. In comparison, the U.S. has 11 carriers and eight high-end amphibious landing ships. There’s a long way to go before we talk invasion or steeled threat, never mind parity.

    As for the idea China is building out its fleet and therefore must somehow ignore all the other points I made here tonight and thus must attack someone, I can only point to the Cold War where the Russians despite in about 1972 having at least parity with NATO and with the US tied down in Vietnam never attacked in Europe. Now if you wanna simply credit deterrence go ahead, but there’s also the idea that other things I’ve tried to touch on tonight plays a role in all of this. We act sometimes like our adversaries are all suicidal hegemonic Bond villains instead of calculating nation-states with complex goals. Any connections to Putin-mania and the Ukraine are purely coincidental.

    But don’t believe me, believe the Pentagon’s annual China Military Power report. It stated “China’s significant investment in its amphibious fleet does not necessarily portend an invasion of Taiwan. An attempt to invade Taiwan would likely strain China’s armed forces and invite international intervention. These stresses, combined with China’s combat force attrition and the complexity of urban warfare and counterinsurgency, even assuming a successful landing and breakout, make an amphibious invasion of Taiwan a significant political and military risk.”

    Never spoken of is what would happen to President Xi and the Chinese system if his invasion failed, with or without US involvement. Where are the Marines tonight? I know Professor Galston was in the Corps, thank you for your service. Aren’t massive amphibious landings considered the hardest of military moves to execute, especially for the untested PLA? And this isn’t Normandy, Chinese ships would be under Taiwan’s indigenous missile defenses almost as they left their harbors (known as area denial.) If Xi fails, he is done for and perhaps with him the current political system. Needless to say a Chinese military which felt it had been misused and blooded unnecessarily would not be a healthy thing for the Beijing government to have around. I think the word for coup in Mandarin is Jūnshì zhèngbiàn.

    Win or lose, an attack on Taiwan would likely see a frightened Japan and South Korea step over the nuclear threshold and China would thus face more powerful enemies. In addition, an attack on Taiwan would severely damage the economy there Xi would no doubt see as part of the prize. Lastly, an attack on Taiwan would see Chinese killing Chinese, people who speak the same language and share several thousand years of culture. Pre-Covid, travelers from China made 2.68 million visits a year to Taiwan, many of which were to visit relatives. Student exchanges between Taiwan and China began in 2011, with some 25,000 Mainland kids studying on Taiwan pre-Covid. Even a “successful” attack would be near-political suicide for Xi.

     

    Conclusion

    An invasion of Taiwan would leave the China politically isolated, economically damaged, and reputationally crippled. And ironically, a failed attack could lead to a Taiwanese declaration of independence China would be incapable of stopping.

    There is no rational, risk vs. gain, reason for hostilities and thus no need for deterrence. My fear is the United States has already decided a bench clearing, superpower showdown is needed, eagle vs. dragon, for control of the Pacific, or at least a new and profitable arms race. You can lie about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction long enough to get a war started, but an actual Chinese invasion is a bridge too far for straight-up fabrication. I worry deeply we are looking for a reason, given that China is unlikely to be a sport and invade Taiwan for us, using the cloak of deterrence to prepare for war. America’s current China policy is unnecessarily adversarial. It is impractical and dangerous.

    America is still a big, mean dog, but our ability to influence events around the world is limited to barking and biting and only works when barking and biting is the solution. When anything beyond threats is needed, say when dealing with near-peers like China, we have few if any tools but to reimagine legitimate competitors into enemies. It plays out as if U.S. foreign policy is run by WWII reenactors.

    And with that settled, the Professor will now go on to resolve the situation in Ukraine and fix the NY subway system. What, no more time? Sorry friends, next time.

     

    Bīng dòng sān chǐ, fēi yīrì zhī hán — It takes more than one cold day for a river to freeze a meter deep.

    Nándé hútu — Ignorance is bliss.

     

    BONUS I: Taiwan is not Ukraine

    I have a medal for winning the Cold War. It was for any member of the military, or federal civilian employee, who served during the Cold War. That included me, at the tail end, with the State Department. Ironically my so-called Cold War service was on Taiwan. I probably should return the thing; the Cold War is far from over.

    Part of the Cold War’s real conclusion is playing out in Ukraine in real time. Is Taiwan, another hanging chad from the Cold War, next? Is President Xi watching a weakened America giving in to the Russians and seeing his chance to seize Taiwan?

    Nope. Taiwan is not Ukraine is not Taiwan. The two places only exist next to each other in articles like this because both are the results of American policy. Each exists alongside its nemesis only because the rules the U.S. created (the “liberal world order” as long as the U.S. is in first place) are not subscribed to anymore by most of the world, if they ever really were. But that does not mean Taiwan is in imminent danger.

    While Putin‘s invasion timing may or may not have had something to do with Joe Biden (if Trump were really his puppet that would have seemed an easier time to do this) the reality is what is unfolding in the Ukraine reaches back much further than Biden or Trump, to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    It was then the policy of the United States to empower the former Soviet satellite states and grow American influence by expanding NATO eastward (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and Romania formally joined the alliance, East Germany as well by default) and to do this while taking the nuclear weapons away from those states so that none of them would become a threat or rival in Europe.

    We took their people, too. As a young State Department officer in London in the early 1990s I was told to issue visa after visa to former nuclear scientists from the Ukraine, as well as all sorts of rogues headed to the United States to get them out of the ‘Stans. We created a brain drain to ensure none of the newly independent states could rise above the nuclear threshold the United States established unilaterally for them. It was American policy to have weak but not too weak states between Russia and the “good” part of Europe, dependent on America for defense.

    Understanding why an adversary does something is not the same as supporting him. As the Soviet Union collapsed, borders were redrawn with more attention to the West’s needs than any natural flow of those borders (the same mistake was made earlier by the British post-WWI in the Middle East.) The reality of 2022 is Putin is seeking to redraw borders, something now doable because Russia has been allowed to re-grow its fangs. Ukraine as a possible NATO member is a threat to Putin and he is now taking care of that. Americans live in a country that has no border threats and fail to understand the mindset time after time. We believe instead when we invade countries (Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan) it’s part of international law.

    Geo-politically, it was easy. A pro-Russian faction exists inside Ukraine, and Ukraine exists outside the NATO umbrella. Putin’s 2014 proof-of-concept in Crimea assured him NATO would not intervene. About the only real obstacle was the likely pleas of President Xi to hold off and not spoil the Olympics.

    Taiwan is another Cold War relic. While the U.S. propped up Taiwan’s very undemocratic military government for decades as an ironic bulkhead against communism, the island grew into an economic powerhouse. In that lies the fundamental difference between the relationships of Russia and Ukraine, and China and Taiwan.

    China and Taiwan are economic partners. Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. China and Taiwan are ethnically the same people, enjoying an enormous bounty of cross strait commerce, culture, student exchanges, and other ties signifying a growing relationship not an adversarial one. What incentive would China have to drop bombs on one of its best customers?

    Any cross-strait violence would affect US-China relations; Ukraine has little effect on the already poor state of US-Russia relations. Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. China is the second largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt. If something interfered with all that commerce, China would have to find a way to use unfinished iPhones as food.

    One of the problems with the sanctions Biden is claiming he’s going to use to punish Russia is how unintegrated Russia is into the world economy after so many years of sanctions. What’s left that will sting? Biden promises “economic consequences like none [Putin]’s ever seen.” But the Panama Papers show much of the so-called oligarch money, including Putin’s, is not in the U.S. or its allies’ banking systems anyway. The oft-discussed SWIFT international banking system is run as a neutral entity out of Belgium, and Russia cannot be blocked from it by any U.S. “sanction.”

    Germany is temporarily halting certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but no one is talking about tearing it down. And if U.S. sanctions drive up gas prices without affecting the situation on the ground in Ukraine, who is sanctioning whom?

    China on the other hand is deeply vulnerable to sanctions and disruptions of commerce following an attack on Taiwan. The risk in calculable dollars is beyond any gain owning Taiwan would bring; imagine the impact of closing U.S. ports to Chinese cargo vessels.

    On the military side, Russia was able to literally drive into Ukraine, something the mighty Red Army has been perfecting since 1945. Taiwan famously is an island, and a Chinese amphibious invasion would scale beyond the Normandy landings. Taiwan fields Harpoon missiles with the range to put Chinese forces under fire almost as they leave port. Tactically there is no comparison between the flat plains of the Ukraine and the rocky coast of Taiwan. Nobody undertakes an invasion they are likely to lose.

    An invasion of Taiwan would leave China isolated and economically crippled. Not so for Russia and Ukraine where the benefits to Russia clearly outweighed the risk. Taiwan is not Ukraine is not Taiwan.

     

    BONUS II: Deterrence in Ukraine and Taiwan

    The answer is one failed in Ukraine, one has kept the peace. The question is, going forward, is the model the strategic clarity of NATO’s Article 5 or the strategic ambiguity of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

    The principle of collective defense is at the very heart of NATO, created by a 1949 Treaty. Its history is embedded in WWII, when the Nazis gained a massive advantage in the earliest days of the war by playing the various European nations against each other, picking off territory while London and Paris bickered over what to do. NATO was be the solution. Article 5 of the NATO treaty says “An armed attack against one or more of the [signers] shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them… will assist the Party or Parties so attacked.” The critical points are that the treaty is inclusionary — all NATO members, large or small — and exclusionary in that it only applies to NATO members. An attack on NATO member Poland triggers Article 5. An attack on Ukraine or Taiwan, not NATO members, does not.

    The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA; also the U.S.-PRC Joint Communique) grew out of Mainland China dictator Mao’s threat to “liberate” Taiwan and Nationalist dictator Chiang Kai-shek’s demand for U.S. support to reclaim the Mainland. With the Korean War sopping up American blood, Washington had no desire to join what would have been a land war to rival WWII. Instead, it established diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and signed a mutual defense treaty in 1954. That lasted until 1979, when the U.S. switched its diplomatic recognition from the people of Taiwan to the people of the Mainland (China; but note the diplomatic wording) and Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act. The TRA listed two obligations to Taiwan: to sell it arms and to maintain the U.S.’ capacity “to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” against Taiwan.

    The actual wording in the TRA is instructive: “Peace and stability in the area are matters of international concern… any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes is considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” This represents diplomatic brilliance, and came to be known as “strategic ambiguity,” a policy understood to mean the U.S. doesn’t have to defend Taiwan, but it can. The circumstances and means of defense are left unspoken. China matched this with a policy of “strategic patience” (antagonists argue China will not wait forever, but China also understands the time between now and forever is long.)
    The most important thing about the TRA is it works. The Mainland has not invaded Taiwan. Despite changes in leadership as dramatic as Mao (albeit in 1976) to Deng to Xi the Mainland has not invaded. Despite Taiwan changing from military dictatorship to democracy, the Mainland has not invaded. Despite global changes including the Korean and Vietnam wars where China and the U.S. fought each other directly, development of nuclear weapons by China, fall of the Soviet Union, the Mainland has not invaded. The Chinese military has gone from peasants with rifles to a blue water navy and the Mainland has not invaded. China has gone from agrarian isolation to an essential part of the industrialized global economy, and the Mainland has not invaded. Ukraine happened, and the Mainland has not invaded.

    The irony is deterrence worked in Ukraine, at least from Putin’s point of view. It prevented the U.S. from getting involved in the shooting war between Russia and Ukraine. The NATO treaty was written to compel its signatories to act once someone moved against them (the treaty was obviously written with the Soviet Union in mind though Article 5 has only been invoked once, following 9/11, and then mostly for show.) As Putin readied to invade Ukraine, Biden threw away any trace elements of strategic ambiguity by declaring early and often NATO would not intervene and the U.S. would not unilaterally enter the fighting. It was as green a light as could be for Putin. ‘Round the other side of the world, Sino-Asia sleeps at peace knowing everything is on the table should the Mainland invade but nothing is at risk should it not. What better example of deterrence working?

    The concern now is moves in both hemispheres to formalize redlines. Much talk will be devoted post-invasion as to whether Ukraine should join NATO, feign at joining NATO, or promise never to join NATO. Joining or something akin will be the wrong answer. It was in fact the rigidity of NATO’s promise that saw it fail, again, in Ukraine as in Crimea. Putin understands this and uses it — judo master that he is — against his adversary. NATO prescribes war whether the broader circumstances (of say energy dependence on Russian gas) make that seem wise. It is an exploitable flaw. The good news is Europe is again at a stasis point for the time being, Ukraine seemingly headed toward a resolution that provides Russia its buffer zone no matter what it is all spun as in the western media.

    The risk lies in Asia, where bullish elements are tempted to disturb an equally functional power status quo, and jeez, it’s Joe “Regime Change” Biden and his gaffes again. At a CNN town hall in October 2021, the host asked Biden if the U.S. would defend Taiwan. He said “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” another gaffe-erino which the White House quickly walked back into the realm of strategic ambiguity. But post-Ukraine, some hawks want that clarity and are pushing for a formal, Article 5-like declaration. In their perfect world, that Asian Article 5 would include not only Taiwan and the U.S., but also Japan, Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and maybe others (the U.S. has various types of self-defense treaties already with many Asian nations.)

    The justifications for such moves often make no sense in the face of the current TRA strategy’s multi-decade success. Some say because Beijing ramped up its rhetoric and shipbuilding (a test of resolve!) we need to do something to match that. But wouldn’t a guarantee to go to war for Taiwan make those on Taiwan who want to declare independence that much more reckless? There are those in Congress who want a more formal agreement (if you think the Israel lobby is powerful, check how Taiwan’s punches above its weight.) The ever-pugilistic Council on Foreign Relations wants strategic unambiguity as a show of force.

    Joe Biden will come under some pressure to “do something” (the scariest words in Washington) following the clusterflutz in Ukraine. This would be a very, very risky move. Remember, for deterrence to be credible, it does not need to depend on a willingness to commit anything like suicide in the face of a challenge, but rather must carry the risk that the deterrer is likely to do something that is “fraught with the danger of war.” Strategic ambiguity is enough. Article 5 and anything like it to come in the Pacific purposefully ties its signatories’ hands. The Taiwan Relations Act purposefully leaves all options open to deal with the complex realities of the Sino-Pacific. History shows which one works and which one does not. A more aggressive posture does not resolve the root issues across the Taiwan Strait, it only risks exacerbating them.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • What the Hell is Joe Biden Doing in Ukraine?

    April 8, 2022 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Biden, Military

    Does anyone know what the hell Joe Biden is doing in Ukraine? Americans must feel like a high school substitute teacher. America turns its back for five minutes after having won the Cold War, and Joe Biden has restarted it in the back row. No address to the nation, no white papers, just “Putin attacked Ukraine and it is an existential threat we must respond to.” Didn’t we used to vote on this kind of thing?

    Engagement is a given. But what is the end point for Joe, the moment we announce we won? In Ukraine, no one knows. By starting this intervention with the promise not to send NATO into actual combat, Biden sent a clear signal to Putin — if you are willing with your overwhelming military advantage over Ukraine to spend the blood and treasure, you win. Putin’s goal is the creation of some sort of buffer state between him and NATO, so Putin can win whether Kiev physically stands or tumbles. A “win” for the US side requires Putin to retreat in shame. Breaking things is always easier than getting someone to admit they were wrong.

    Biden has two weapons to deploy: guns and sanctions. Can either create a win?

    While Ukraine has antitank weapons and rifles, Putin has hypersonic missiles and lots of tanks. If a win for him includes a scenario where Kiev is reduced to looking like Detroit, how will any of the weapons the US sends matter? Infantry-based proxy ground warfare can delay a mechanized army but not defeat it, forestall a Ukrainian defeat but not prevent it, when its only goal is greater destruction. Notice when Zelensky showcases photos of kids with guns and old women making Molotovs and then the Russians target “civilians” an apartment complex at a time?

    Those are poor odds in a war of attrition. Ukraine boasts it destroyed 509 Russian tanks, almost all using shoulder fired missiles. Maybe; one of the techniques of modern propaganda is to throw out some outrageous number, challenge people to disprove it, and then shout “you can’t disprove it so I’m right.” So no proof. But history suggests 509 man-on-tank kills is ridiculous. During Gulf War 1.0, one of the largest tank battles of modern times at 73 Easting saw Coalition forces destroy only 160 Iraqi tanks, and that was using the M-1 tank with its sophisticated aiming tech and night vision. Even at the famed Battle of the Bulge only 700 tanks from both sides were destroyed.

    There are similar reasons to be skeptical of Ukrainian claims of 15,000 dead Russians in three weeks. That would be double the number killed on Iwo Jima in five weeks of fighting, or at Gettysburg on both sides in the whole battle. It is about four times the total US losses in Iraq over 17 years. Ukraine also claims to have killed five Russian generals, five more general officers that have been killed in all the wars the United States have fought since WW II. Same for the claims Russia is running out of food, gas, and tires. Same for the social media war; how many divisions does Facebook control?

     

    The theory of sanctions is that they will place such as squeeze on Russian oligarchs Putin will be forced to withdraw from Ukraine. Putin, otherwise portrayed as a dictator who answers to no one, will supposedly listen to these men complain someone seized their yacht and cause Putin to reverse a foreign policy that he otherwise believes benefits Russia in the long run. The US has been piling sanctions on these same oligarchs for decades, with a new, tougher, round each time Putin made his moves against Georgia, Grozny, and Crimea. None of those sanctions compelled a withdrawal and none have stopped Putin from making his subsequent move against Ukraine. Effective, no, but points for creativity: there’s a plan to strip Putin’s “Eva Braun” (you can’t make this up) of her old Olympic medals in hopes she’ll withhold nooky Lysistrata-like until Putin, sorry, withdraws.

    Another problem with sanctions is they are nowhere near strong enough to actually hurt. Goofy yacht warfare aside, Biden’s ban on Russian petroproducts accounts for only some one percent of Russia’s output. NATO allies are not able to participate fully without crippling their own economies. But loopholes amid half-measures are only part of the problem. Having grown used to slapping sanctions casually against lesser countries like Cuba and North Korea, Biden has limited understanding of their effects against a globally-connected economy. Such sanctions have the potential to cause grave fallout because unlike say Cuba, Russia can fight back.

    Though the goal of sanctions is to punish very specific Russians, known by name, in a position to influence Putin, concern on world markets drove up prices of crude oil, natural gas, wheat, copper, nickel, aluminum, fertilizers, and gold. A grain and metals shortage now looms, even in early days of this spillover effect. While the cost to oligarchs is unknown, the affect on economies the US should be courting, not hurting, is clear. Central Asia’s economies are now caught up in the sanctions shock. These former Soviet states are strongly connected to the Russian economy through trade and outward labor migration. They will be as likely to blame the US as Russia for their problems, converting potential US allies into adversaries. We have also yet to see what counter-moves Russia will make toward the West, to include nationalization of Western capital. Russian fertilizer export restrictions are putting pressure on global food production. Russia could also restrict exports of nickel, palladium, and industrial sapphires, the building blocks for batteries, catalytic converters, and microchips. Unlike supposedly targeted sanctions, these would spank global markets broadly.

    Biden is in the process of discovering sanctions are a blunt instrument. It will be a diplomatic challenge he is not likely up to to keep economic fallout from spilling over into political dissention across a Europe already not sure where it stands on “tough” sanctions.

    Bad as all that sounds, some of the worst blowback from Biden’s Ukraine policy is happening with China. During the only Cold War years Biden remembers, China was mostly a sideshow and certainly not vying to be the world’s largest economy. Without seemingly understanding the world is no longer bipolar, the West versus the Soviet bloc, Joe Biden actually may do even more harm than he understands right now.

    Russia is a big country that has committed only a small portion of its military to Ukraine. It absolutely does not need Chinese help to prosecute the war, as Biden claims. Biden is unnecessarily antagonizing China, who should be more or less neutral in this but instead now is being positioned by Biden as an enemy of the United States and an ally of Russia. China buys oil from Russia but that does not translate into some sort of across-the-board support for Russian foreign policy a la 1975. Biden, by threatening China with sanctions of its own, by likening Ukraine to Taiwan, and by essentially demanding of Beijing that they are with us or against us threatens to turn China just the wrong way. Economic spillover from Russia is one thing; disturbing one of the world’s largest trading relationships is another.

    As the Wall Street Journal points out, China’s basic approach of not endorsing Moscow’s aggression but resisting Western efforts to punish Russia has garnered global support. The South African president blames the war on NATO. Brazil’s president refused to condemn Russia. India and Vietnam, essential partners for any China strategy, are closer to China than the US in their approach to the war. Biden seems oblivious to the opportunities this gap creates for China.

    In my own years as a diplomat I heard often from smaller countries’ representatives about the “America Tax,” the idea America’s foreign policy dalliances end up costing everyone something. Whether it is a small military contribution to the Iraq War effort, or a disruption in shipping, nobody gets away free when America is on a crusade. This cost is built in to those smaller nations’ foreign policy. But when the Big Dog starts in on sanctions which will impact globally against a target like Russia, the calculus changes from a knowing sigh (“The Americans are at it again…”) to real fear. Many nations the US needs as part of its alliances don’t trust its ability to manage economic consequences to protect them, even if America is even aware of those consequences. US moves against Russia’s central bank become a weapon they fear could one day be directed against them as America seeks to weaponize the global economic system. Russia can weather a nasty storm; a smaller economy cannot. Chinese propaganda about the need for alternative economic arrangements that limit Western power are significantly more influential now than a month ago.

    So in the end were left with the question of what fundamental US interest is being served by Biden‘s intervention in Ukraine at what cost. There’s always the sort of silliness that fuels Washington, things like “send a message” or “stand up for what’s right,” ambiguous goals that tend to get people killed without accomplishing anything — strategic hubris. Biden has fallen deep into the Cold War trap, and cannot accept there is little that can be done, and back away from the Ukraine to spare further bloodshed. Every world problem is not America’s to resolve and every world problem cannot be resolved by America.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Biden Wants All the Points Due a Wartime President without Actually Going to War

    April 4, 2022 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Military

    The view that war is politics by other means, the realist idea nations pursue strategic goals with some sort of calculation behind them, is not for us. Americans must reduce everything to good versus evil, democracy versus autocracy, light versus dark. Leaders throughout history have sold wars with this b.s.; America’s problem is we seem to actually believe it’s true. Let’s see how it plays out in the real world.

    Imagine facing an enemy who refuses to surrender despite overwhelming odds, leaving the other side the choice between a protracted urban war or an air attack to resolve the situation. In the case of Putin and Kiev, our nightly news is flooded with images of the targeting of civilians and screams from Washington of war crimes. The American answer in an earlier war, however, was the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two targets at the end of a long and ugly war where women and children were casually incinerated to save we were told additional casualties on the ground. It was OK because America is basically good. If you twist that logic hard enough it comes out we did the Japs a favor by nuking their cities. The cries of “but it’s different!” because of whatever, Pearl Harbor, are left unanswered by the blackened ghosts of the Japanese who died not knowing what a favor the US did them.

    And that action in 1945 (amplified by the destruction by policy of whole villages in Korea and Vietnam, never mind the scorched earth of Fallujah) leaves the United States in a unique position it pretends not to know about. As Putin and others may talk about nuclear threats, history records that we alone actually used nuclear weapons, against civilian targets. Little bitches like Putin or Kim may issue threats but only the United States has carried through with it. It’s a helluva basis for morality.

     

    America’s simplistic morality means it cannot ascribe a legitimate strategic goal to an adversary; he must instead be crazy, insane, new Hitler, bonkers, thug, bully, war criminal, driven to restore Imperial Russia, a danger to his own people, bent on world domination, Saddam, Assad, Qaddafi, anything out of the Bond villian community. Local or regional problems thus self-inflate into existential threats to democracy. We can’t just beat Putin in Ukraine, we have to destroy his economy, regime change him, murder him outright to even the moral score since he dared challenge our world view. This causes us to make serious mistakes.

    In Putin’s case, few allow that maybe he really is scared of NATO forces walking right to his border and seeks a buffer zone in the Ukraine. That is certainly what he has said (we don’t believe him.) At the end of the Cold War the west denuclearized new nation states like Ukraine, redrew their borders in line with western aims, and added Poland and the Balkan states to NATO. Most of all, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the west did not dismantle NATO. The alliance, formed for the collective defense of western Europe against the Soviets, was left not only to stand after the Soviet Union was gone, but thrust eastward, claiming territory that would have been among NATO’s first targets had the Cold War gone hot.

    Imagine the reaction inside Moscow to its worst fears being shoved at it at its weakest moment, and if you can, you may understand Putin’s not-crazy goals. As the west turned up the heat instead of bringing Russia in from the cold, NATO went from a defensive alliance to a political cudgel. From Putin’s point of view, he faces an adversary which actually believes it has the moral responsibility to dictate global political arrangements, even in regions that are more important to him than they are to the Washington.

    Putin tried to make his needs known, that Ukraine should stay neutral. His proffer was met by a coup (likely abetted by the US) which brought pro-US nationalists to power. The response was, almost had to have been, Putin’s invasion of Crimea. These are not wars of choice in the way say Putin invading Iraq might be, but wars of strategic necessity to him. Had the US had the philosophical ability to understand this, it might have found a reasonable negotiating strategy instead of poking the bear in one of his most sensitive areas until he reacted.

    That is the background, but why attack Ukraine now? In its arrogance America has decided it all has to do with America, actually the least important factor here. So we hear about Trump and Putin’s bromance, wonder if Biden is weak, speculate the horrible ending in Afghanistan is at fault. But if you think like Putin, your focus is elsewhere. He looks at the warpigs in charge today, the same Obama team from the 2014 overthrow, Blinken, Sullivan, Nuland, and Susan Rice. And it was then-VP Biden who personally ran Obama’s Ukraine policy. He knows CIA paramilitaries are on the ground in Ukraine. Then in November 2021 the US and Ukraine signed the Charter on Strategic Partnership, asserting Kiev’s right to NATO membership. The Charter was a policy statement by the Biden administration, and an intolerable prospect for Russia. By imagining Putin as nothing but a megalomaniac, America unknowingly drew a red line for him. It is easy to imagine a future historian uncovering documents showing the planning for the current invasion began at that same time.

    Convinced NATO will never reject Ukraine, Putin took his own steps to block it. By invading, he created a “frozen conflict” knowing NATO cannot realistically admit countries that don’t control their borders (how to apply Article Five when a country is already at war as it joins NATO?) Such frozen conflicts already cripple Georgia, Crimea, and Moldova, as well as the semi-independent areas of Donbas and Luhansk. Add now Ukraine to that list. If you understand this, you also know what happens next in Ukraine: not much apart from better defining borders and the new lines of control. No need to drive much further west, Putin has already got most of what he wanted. And no need to worry about nukes, they are not needed for Putin’s strategic purpose.

    This is why sanctions won’t accomplish much besides raising the price of gas for Americans. Putin is chasing a goal which has eluded Russia for three decades. Sanctions will not cause him to give that up, any more than previous sanctions caused him to hesitate striking. Russia and America are talking past one another, identifying different motivations and different end games.

    The sad news is Ukraine does not realize it is a pawn in a larger struggle. The Ukrainians bought the big lie in the 90s that if they denuclearized America would protect them. They now join the long list of countries goaded by the US into fighting to the last man in support of American foreign policy goals (ask the Iraqi Kurds, and later the Sunnis, how that worked out.) Ukrainians are very brave, but it was Americans that put them in harm’s way by using their country as a crush zone, with little consideration for the people now paying the price.

    Biden wants all the points due a wartime president without actually going to war; he is practicing political opportunism not statecraft. That will collapse mightily on old Joe if Putin declares victory first. So soon enough Zelensky will get the call from the White House letting him know time is up, he’ll have to take a deal with Russia to reset the status quo for a faux “win.” Biden needs the war to end before it starts to look like he lost. Zelensky can reject this and go down hard, like Diem in Vietnam in the 1960s who didn’t realize his time in America’s lap was up, or he can leave Ukraine a “hero,” beaten but never broken, book and biopic movie deal, presidential medal ceremony in the White House, yada yada.

    Biden at some point (it took decades in Afghanistan) will realize he misunderstood his adversary and seek to cut and run. It seems we are close. Zelensky’s propaganda campaign, the atrocity of the day/hero of the day scheme, has failed to bring NATO into the war. Americans get bored easily. He’s just about jumped the shark. If Russians bombing a children’s hospital isn’t enough, there is no enough.

    International affairs researcher Matthew Waldman wrote, “‘strategic empathy’ isn’t about agreeing with an adversary’s position. It is about understanding it so you can fashion an appropriate response.” That is the key to some sort of resolution in Ukraine, and the key to a more effective foreign policy for the US going forward. This is all uncomfortable for most Americans, raised on a steady diet of if we do it is right and moral, if they do it it is evil. But given the dubious success record of this policy across US-supported dictatorships of the Middle East, and Central and South America, and failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and likely soon, Ukraine, maybe a new way forward is worth a look.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Taiwan is Not Ukraine is Not Taiwan

    March 5, 2022 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Biden, Democracy, Military

    I have a medal for winning the Cold War. It was issuable to any member of the military, or civilian employee of the federal government, who served during the Cold War. That included me, at the tail end, with the State Department. Ironically my so-called Cold War service was on Taiwan. I probably should return the thing; the Cold War is far from over.

    Part of the Cold War’s real conclusion is playing out in Ukraine in real time. Is Taiwan, another hanging chad from the Cold War, next? Is President Xi watching a weakened America giving in to the Russians and seeing his chance to seize Taiwan?

    Nope. Taiwan is not Ukraine is not Taiwan. The two states only exist next to each other in articles like this because both are the results of American policy. Each exists alongside its nemesis only because the rules the U.S. created after WWII are not subscribed to anymore by most of the world, if they ever really were. But that does not mean Taiwan is in imminent danger.

    While Putin‘s instant invasion timing may or may not have had something to do with Joe Biden (if Trump were really his puppet that would have seemed an easier time to do this) the reality is what is unfolding in the Ukraine reaches back much further than Biden or Trump, to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was then the policy of the United States to empower the former Soviet satellite states and grow American influence by expanding NATO eastward (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and Romania formally joined the alliance, East Germany as well by default) and to do this while taking the nuclear weapons away from those states so that none of them would become a threat or rival in Europe. We took their people, too. As a young State Department officer in London in the early 1990s I was told to issue visa after visa to former nuclear scientists from the Ukraine, as well as all sorts of rogues headed to the United States to get them out of the ‘Stans. We created a brain drain to ensure none of the new nation states could rise above the nuclear threshold the United States established unilaterally for them. It was American policy to have weak but not too weak border states between Russia and the “good” part of Europe.

    Understanding why an adversary does something is not the same as supporting him. As the Soviet Union collapsed, borders were redrawn with more attention to the West’s needs than any natural flow of those borders (the same mistake was made earlier by the British post-WWI in the Middle East.) Historically at some point in time all those borders were just glaciers, so it is always possible to argue some slip of history means somewhere used to be owned by someone going all the way back to mastodons. The reality of 2022 is Putin is seeking to redraw borders created by his adversaries, something now possible as Russia has been allowed by the West to re-grow its fangs. Ukraine as a possible NATO member was a threat to Putin and he this week is taking care of that. Americans live in a country that essentially has no border threats and fail to understand this time after time. We believe when we invade countries (Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan) it’s part of international law.

    Geopolitically, it was easy. A pro-Russian faction exists inside Ukraine, and Ukraine exists outside the NATO umbrella. Putin’s proof-of-concept, his 2014 takeover of Crimea, assured him NATO would not militarily intervene. About the only real obstacle he faced was the likely pleas of President Xi to hold off a couple of weeks and not spoil the Olympics.

    Taiwan is another Cold War relic. The U.S. propped up Taiwan’s very undemocratic military government for decades as an ironic bulkhead against communism. Taiwan grew into an economic powerhouse and in that lies the fundamental difference between the relationships of Russia and Ukraine, and China and Taiwan.

    China and Taiwan are economic partners. Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. China and Taiwan are ethnically the same people, enjoying an enormous amount of cross strait commerce, culture, student exchanges, visits among relatives, and other ties that indicate a growing, positive relationship not an adversarial one. What incentive would China have to drop bombs on one of its best customers?

    There’s also the U.S. to consider, as any cross-strait violence would affect US-China relations; Ukraine has little effect on the already poor state of US-Russia relations. The total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. China is the second largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt. If something interfered with all that commerce, China would have to find a way to use unfinished iPhones as food.

    One of the problems with the sanctions Biden is claiming he’s going to use to punish Russia is how unintegrated Russia is in the world economy after so many years of sanctions. Really, what’s left that will sting? Biden promises “economic consequences like none [Putin]’s ever seen.” But the Panama Papers already showed much of the so-called oligarch money, including Putin’s, is not in the U.S. or its allies’ banking systems anyway. Germany is temporarily halting certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but no one is talking about tearing it down. if U.S. sanction drive up gas prices without affecting the situation on the ground in Ukraine, who is sanctioning whom?

    China on the other hand is deeply integrated into the global economy and vulnerable to sanctions and disruptions of commerce following an attack on Taiwan. The risk in calculatable dollars is beyond any gain owning Taiwan would bring; imagine the impact of closing U.S. ports to Chinese cargo vessels.

    On the military side, Russia was able to literally drive into Ukraine, something the mighty Red Army has been perfecting since 1945. Taiwan famously is an island, and a Chinese amphibious invasion would represent something larger than the Normandy D-Day landings. Whereas the Ukrainians have limited ability to respond to a blitzkrieg land invasion, Taiwan fields Harpoon missiles with the range to put Chinese forces under fire almost as they leave port. Militarily there is no comparison between the flat plains of the Ukraine and the rocky coast of Taiwan. Nobody undertakes an invasion they are very likely to lose.

    An invasion of Taiwan would leave China politically isolated, economically damaged, and reputationally crippled. Not so for Russia and Ukraine where the benefits to Russia outweigh the risk. Taiwan is not Ukraine is not Taiwan.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Questions for the January 6 Committee

    January 29, 2022 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy

     

    Important questions about what happened on January 6 are left unanswered if they would disturb the Democratic narrative. These potential game-changers are ignored for the most part, or wish-washed away by claiming they are “conspiracy theories” somehow not worth looking into.

    This is quite funny, given that the Democrat flailing is built entirely around a narrative of conspiracy, i.e., Trump or one his Dementors working in conjunction with someone else in a criminal act. In a divided America, not answering important questions simply gives them more credibility among their believers. It seems better for a Democracy in Danger [(C) WaPo] to get more information out there to put such conspiracy theories to rest by proving them wrong. Why just assign Seth Meyers to mock troublesome ideas when they could be factually disposed of? Whatcha ‘fraid of? Can’t handle the truth, bro?

    So, to the January 6 Committee, please answer the following for us: how many undercover personnel or informants were in the crowd January 6? What part, if any, did they play in planning the entry into the Capitol before or on January 6, or in encouraging the crowd to do so? Did any stray from being accessories after the fact into Agent Provocateurs? As sure as the Warren Commission before them, the people claiming there is no evidence are the same one blocking any investigation which would reveal that evidence.

     

    The Committee has adopted the stance something caused the crowd to bust into the Capitol. They have not spent much time allowing for anything along the lines of group think on the crowd’s part, like when fans swarm the field and tear down the goalposts. Having eliminated spontaneous causes, the only real cause the Committee is considering is Trump. Trump via preplanning the attack as part of some elaborate coup attempt, Trump via his purposeful incitement of the crowd on hand, or Trump through some third parties, doesn’t matter who, so Roger Stone, Rudy Giuliani, QAnon, a cabal at the Willard Hotel war room, because that’s called a conspiracy. The Committee does not seem to have any Subject B, just Trump.

    So let’s propose a Subject B, in this case, the FBI. It is a simply question from the Committee: Mr. Attorney General, how many undercover people did you have on the ground January 6? How many of them traveled to DC with groups they had previously infiltrated elsewhere? What was their purpose on January 6? What were their rules of engagement? In other words, what were they allowed to say or do? Could they scream “Yeah, let’s go!” and lead people forward? Could they suggest a peaceful group attack Pelosi’s office? Could they give statements to the media misrepresenting the aims and mood of the crowd without revealing their identity? Were any working as “sources” for the media, planting rumors?

    You would think at least the number of officers on the ground would be an easy one, yet when Rep. Thomas Massie asked AG Merrick Garland if any Federal agents or assets entered the Capitol or incited others to riot, Garland refused to answer. Massie played a video of a man January 5 saying “we” have to go into the Capitol, and asked Garland if that man was a Fed. No comment, said Garland.

    The man in the video has been identified as Ray Epps, who is also seen on video organizing the first group to breach the Capitol, and that just one minute after a pipe bomb had been found, as if the acts were themselves a conspiracy. This all appears to have happened even before Trump even finished his “incitement” speech. Epps was also President of Arizona Oath keepers and a former Marine. Epps has refused to answer journalists’ questions about whether or not he is a Federal agent or informant. Epps is still a free man. Why?

    After Garland’s non-answer about undercover operatives failed to satisfy even the squishy MSM, the January 6 Committee decided to issue a tweeted statement claimed they “spoke” to Epps, who by golly said he was not an agent and the matter was dropped as cleanly as the Umbrella Man was in the JFK assassination. The always-helpful NYT said “while it remains unclear why Mr. Epps was encouraging people to go into the building, a person cannot be charged with incitement unless his statements present an imminent threat of unlawful action.” That too is funny, because a week later Oath Keeper Stewart Rhodes, who also did not enter the Capitol, was indicted on the legal pastiche of “seditious conspiracy.” Without double standards there would be no standards at all.

     

    The Epps case raises two key questions. Since Epps was talking about storming the Capitol the night before, that would seem to be exculpatory evidence that Trump’s speech had little to do with it. The plan was already in motion. And of course if Epps was working in any way with law enforcement, that would suggest it was he who played at least a role in getting the crowd to attack. You can’t just call it paranoia and conspiracy theory to simply ask why after some 700 prosecutions of others involved with January 6, Epps has not been prosecuted. Or why Epps’ photo was at one point included on the FBI Capitol Violence most wanted website and then removed without explanation in July from the website.

    It is as simple as this. Under oath and before the Committee, ask FBI Director Wray, AG Garland, and Ray Epps to answer yes or no: did Ray Epps work for or with the Federal government in any way? Yes or no moves the narrative productively forward and could even add to the credibility of the Committee among skeptics. Why won’t they do this?

    If Epps was working for the Feds on January 6, we already know he was not alone. A Proud Boys member turned by the FBI was texting his handler from the middle of the crowd (the Times also claims the FBI had a second informant in the crowd; other sources suggest a group of protestors wearing blaze orange caps were purposely exempted from prosecution as they were informants of some sort.) The story has not received much play in the MSM, because the informant was adamant the Capitol attack was not planned in advance. In fact, none of the 737 people charged so far with January 6 related crimes claimed the attack was preplanned, that Trump incited them, or anything to suggest anything but that what happened happened because of events on the ground in the crowd. Quite the contrary; several have stood up in court and admitted they felt betrayed by Trump and were deluded by his efforts to portray the election as rigged.

    Undercover officers can legally commit crimes, including perjury. Same for paid sources, informants, and snitches. This practice of authorized criminality is secret, unaccountable, and in conflict with some of the basic premises of democratic policing. It exists independently of whether or not the person of concern can be listed as an unindicted co-conspirator. That is relatively meaningless anyway as the easiest thing is simply to not list the undercover on any charging documents at all.

    There are other simple questions whose answers could send the investigation down complex paths. While the Justice Department has called the inquiry one of the largest in its history, why has no information come to light on the pipe bomber, who planted two unsuccessful bombs and set off an aura of panic? Official Washington is one of the most heavily surveilled spots on earth; why hasn’t the Justice Department allowed for the public release of more than a few minutes of the 14,000 hours of security camera footage? The nearly endless social media video online only shows the riot well in process. The surveillance video would show what happened just before the breach.

    Knowing the FBI had informants in the crowd and among the organizations behind the initial rally, we need to know what did they know and when did they know it, specicially in answer to the quesion of what role if any Trump played in the unfolding events. Why has the report on the cop who gunned down protestor Ashli Babbit not been released? Why and on who’s order did the Capitol Police allow hundreds of people to simply walk into the building on the afternoon of January 6? Over 300 protesters entered the building without resistance from Capitol Police. And who was the man in a bicycle helmet whom video shows initiating the window-smashing that ended in the shooting of Ashli Babbitt and why was he welcomed behind police lines once things got out of hand?

     

    We would not need to ask all these questions if the FBI and others did not have such a clear and present history of infiltrating protests and provoking violence; here’s a brief history going back to the Vietnam War era. Hand-in-hand is the FBI’s history of “creating” crimes using planted agents. The Terrorism Era was littered with “plots” that once laid bare, were built around an FBI person recruiting fellow “terrorists,” supplying them with money and (fake) weapons, and then busting them for believing him. Read more here and here.

    A more recent example involved a supposed plot, seen by many as a precursor to the January 6 assault, to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. At least 12 FBI confidential informants were involved. However, an investigation also reveals some of those informants, acting under the direction of the FBI, played a far larger role than just snitching. They had a hand in nearly every aspect of the alleged plot, starting with its inception. The extent of their involvement raises questions as to whether there would have even been a conspiracy without them. For all the noise made asking how high the January 6 investigation might eventually go, no one seems to be looking lower, to people who were working that day amongst the protestors just as they had in Michigan.

    This is not say claim Ray Epps is this year’s version of the Grassy Knoll, or that the FBI laid out a full-on Mr. X-style operation to destroy Donald Trump. It is to say the narrative needs to be expanded beyond “Trump did it and democracy is finished” to answer some simple questions. Because if one FBI person assisted, instigated, aided, or abetted in any way what happened on January 6, either by orders or in the heat of the moment, that changes everything. And with the January 6 narrative changed, the election of 2024 changes. It really does matter that the investigation look deeper than Trump as the lone gunman, even if to disprove any Federal involvement.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • What will be the Casus Belli for War with China?

    December 15, 2021 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Military

    In one of the great scenes in the movie Citizen Kane, newspaper publisher Charles Kane, in desperate need of headlines to boost circulation, decides a patriotic war would be just the thing. When his reporters fail to find evidence of imminent hostilities, Kane famously bellows “I’ll supply the war, you supply the pictures!”

    Kane is directly modeled after the real-life William Randolph Hearst, who generously fanned the flames of the Spanish-American war, making the sinking of the Maine, a U.S. warship, by the Spanish, into a casus belli. It was all a lie; the Maine exploded internally, on it’s own. No matter, a war was needed and so that decision made, a cause was created.

    The real reasons for the war included a U.S. desire to take control of Cuba and to become a Pacific power by seizing the Spanish colony in the Philippines. Theodore Roosevelt, who was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy at this time, advocated for the war as a rally-round-the-flag event to heal the lingering wounds of the American Civil War and as an excuse to increase the U.S. Navy’s budget. After all, they sank our ship! The press would wait until WMDs were not created to ever be that compliant again.

    Very much the same story in Vietnam. The U.S., imagining a global communist conspiracy rising from the ashes of WWII, began its war in Vietnam by proxy in 1945, soon funding the French struggle for years. By 1950 the first American military personnel were stationed in Saigon. When America advisors, and casualties, began to come to the public’s attention, and successes by the other side began to pile up, the real American war got underway.

    But with a more overt war, a more overt reason had to be found. That took the form of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, a claim two American warships came under unprovoked attack by North Vietnam. What really happened was far from that, but does not matter. Congress passed an enabling resolution and the war escalated as needed. They hurt our ships!

    In the late 1990s, The Project for the New American Century think tank developed its “compelling vision for American foreign policy” based on a “benevolent global hegemony.” They had nothing less in mind than a global war of conquest, occupation, and regime change, focused on the Middle East. The war was set, but the problem lay in convincing the American people to support it. “The process of transformation,” the neocons wrote, “even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.”

    The new Pearl Harbor fell into their laps on 9/11. Even then, though, another made-up reason was needed to justify the invasion of Iraq, the jewel in the neocon planning. The Bush administration made a few attempts to link Saddam to 9/11 directly, then to terrorism generically, but none of it stuck with the public, correctly confused about why an attack largely planned, funded, and executed by Saudis required a war in Iraq.

    In the end the decision to stress the threat posed by Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction above all others was taken for “bureaucratic” reasons, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said. “It was the one reason everyone could agree on.” It really did not matter that it wasn’t true.

    This was followed by years of conflict under four presidents. Along the way mini-versions of the same game, war decided on first, reasons ginned up later, were run to justify invasions in Libya, Yemen, and Syria. It does not matter what is true because the incidents, real or imaginary, are just like buses; miss one and another will along soon enough.

    These wars, from the Maine to Iraq, had no Pearl Harbor. America was not attacked, it wanted to initiate the war itself, and created a false pretext for doing so. Unlike with the WMDs, there was no question the Japanese bombed Pearl and that this was an actual, unambiguous act of aggression. It did not require a lie or an explanation or some 1940s version of Colin Powell at the UN.

    Which brings us to China, which appears to be the next war now searching for a reason.

    “The Fight for Taiwan Could Come Soon,” warns the Wall Street Journal, alongside nearly every other publication of note. President Biden has begun the propaganda spadework, declaring “On my watch China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Is war imminent? Will it begin in Taiwan?

    The reasons China has no reason to invade Taiwan are lengthy and cover the economic, military, and political spheres. There is no rational, risk vs. gain, reason for hostilities. But that is not what the historical playbook says matters. It may be the United States has already decided a bench clearing, superpower showdown is needed, eagle vs. dragon, for control of the Pacific. We just need to find a reason, given that China is unlikely to be a sport and invade Taiwan for us. You can lie about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction long enough to get a war started, but an actual Chinese invasion is a bridge too far for straight-up fabrication.

    Now it is possible the war fever over China is just a con inside a con. It is possible the military industrial complex knows it will never fight an actual war, but is simply using the threat as a way to run up its budget. They remember how the lies about the “missile gap” with the Soviet Union exploded the military industrial complex budget following WWII. A Chinese threat requires endless spending on the good stuff, big carriers and space forces, not muddy ground troops squandered losing to goat farmers in Afghanistan.

    And then boom! as certain as the sun rising in the east is red, last week Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said the U.S. was in an “arms race” with China over the development of hypersonic weapons that can evade missile defenses. His boss Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin lambasted China over its pursuit of hypersonic weapons, saying the activity “increases tensions in the region.” America faces a hypersonic weapons gap.

    An arms race would be the best case scenario to come out of all the saber rattling over China. If that’s all this is, it is well underway. But what if the U.S. has its mind set on a real war and needs a palatable reason?

    So, a challenge to all readers. On a post card addressed to the White House, what would be the declared justification for the U.S. going to war with China?

    You can have fun with this (Beijing kidnaps Taylor Swift and a rescue mission escalates into full-on war. Or China is caught releasing a virus that disables global trade) or geopolitical serious stuff about struggles for rare earth minerals. No cheating with statements pretending to reasons, things like China is an “imminent threat” or declarations like “clear and present danger.” Pretend you’re a modern day Paul Wolfowitz, handed the fait accompli of war and tasked with ginning up a reason Americans will buy. But no “they sunk our ship” scenarios. Been there, done that.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Want War with China? You Can Help!

    December 8, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Biden, Iraq, Military, Trump


    In one of the great scenes in the movie Citizen Kane, newspaper publisher Charles Kane, in desperate need of headlines to boost circulation, decides a patriotic war would be just the thing. When his reporters fail to find evidence of imminent hostilities, Kane famously bellows “I’ll supply the war, you supply the pictures!”

    Kane is directly modeled after the real-life William Randolph Hearst, who generously fanned the flames of the Spanish-American war, making the sinking of the Maine, a U.S. warship, by the Spanish, into a casus belli. It was all a lie; the Maine exploded internally, on it’s own. No matter, a war was needed and so that decision made, a cause was created. The real reasons for the war included a U.S. desire to take control of Cuba and to become a Pacific power by seizing the Spanish colony in the Philippines. Theodore Roosevelt, who was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy at this time, advocated for the war as a rally-round-the-flag event to heal the lingering wounds of the American Civil War and as an excuse to increase the U.S. Navy’s budget. After all, they sank our ship! The press would wait until WMDs were created to ever be that compliant again.

    Very much the same story in Vietnam. The U.S., imagining a global communist conspiracy rising from the ashes of WWII, began its war in Vietnam by proxy in 1945, soon funding the French struggle for years. By 1950 the first American military personnel were stationed in Saigon. When America advisors, and casualties, began to come to the public’s attention, and successes by the other side began to pile up, the real American war got underway. But with a more overt war, a more overt reason had to be found. That took the form of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, a claim two American warships came under unprovoked attack by the North. What really happened was far from that, but does not matter. Congress passed an enabling resolution and the war escalated as needed. They hurt our ships!

    There are even historic breadcrumbs suggesting the U.S. purposely ignored warnings about an impending attack on Pearl Harbor, knowing it was soon enough going to war with Japan. Allowing the attack to happen was a good excuse to escalate America’s growing role supplying war material to Britain to outright combat, given the public’s reluctance to go to war absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event. They sank our ships!

    In the late 1990s, The Project for the New American Century think tank developed its “compelling vision for American foreign policy” based on a “benevolent global hegemony.” They had nothing less in mind than a global war of conquest, occupation, and regime change, focused on the Middle East. The war was set, but the problem lay in convincing the American people to support it. “The process of transformation,” the neocons wrote, “even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.” Somebody better sink some damn ships!

    The new Pearl Harbor fell into their laps from the sky on 9/11. Even then, though, another made-up reason was needed to justify the invasion of Iraq, the jewel in the neocon planning. The Bush administration made a few attempts to link Saddam to 9/11 directly, then to terrorism generically, even threw in some tall tales about his cruelty to his own people and gassing the Kurds, but none of it stuck with the public, correctly confused about why an attack largely planned, funded, and executed by Saudis required a war in Iraq. In the end the decision to stress the threat posed by Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction above all others was taken for “bureaucratic” reasons to justify the war, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said. “It was the one reason everyone could agree on.” It really did not matter that it wasn’t true.

    This was followed by two decades of conflict under four presidents. Along the way mini-versions of the same scam — war decided on first, reasons ginned up later — were run to justify invasions in Libya, Yemen, and Syria, mostly a creation of a mini-Pearl Harbor events in the guise of “he’s gassing his own people.” Genocide is especially handy as the rhetoric can be recycled — never again, America has to believe in something, we can’t stand silently by. It does not matter what is true because the incidents, real or imaginary, are just like buses; miss one and another will along soon enough.

    Which brings us to China, which appears to be the next war now searching for a reason.

    “The Fight for Taiwan Could Come Soon,” warns the Wall Street Journal, alongside nearly every other publication of note. President Biden has begun the propaganda spadework, declaring “On my watch China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Is war imminent? One report shows China just surpassed the U.S. in global wealth, one of Biden’s three tripwires.

    The reasons China has no reason to invade Taiwan are lengthy and cover economic, military, and political fields. There is no rational, risk vs. gain, reason for hostilities. But that is not what the historical playbook says matters. It may be the United States has already decided a good, old fashioned, bench clearing, global superpower showdown is needed, muscle tussling eagle vs. dragon for control of the Pacific. We just need to find a reason, given that China is unlikely to be a sport and invade Taiwan for us. You can lie about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction long enough to get a war started, but an actual Chinese invasion is a bridge too far for straight-up fabrication.

    Now it is possible the war fever over China is just a con inside a con. It is possible the Deep State really knows it will never fight an actual war, but is simply using the threat as a way to run up the defense budget. They remember how the lies about the “missile gap” and all the other “gaps” with Russia exploded the military industrial complex budget following WWII. A Chinese threat requires endless spending on the good stuff, big carriers and space forces, not the muddy ground troops we squandered losing to goat farmers in Afghanistan.

    That would be the best case scenario and if that’s all this is, it is well underway. But what if the U.S. has its mind set on a real war, as in Vietnam and after 9/11, and needs a palatable reason to be found?

    So, a challenge to all readers. On a post card addressed to the White House, what would be the declared justification for the U.S. going to war with China? You can have fun with this (Beijing kidnaps Taylor Swift and a rescue mission escalates into full-on war. Or China is caught releasing a virus that disables global trade) or geopolitical serious stuff about struggles for rare earth minerals or disputed islands. No cheating with statements pretending to reasons, things like China is an “imminent threat” or declarations like “clear and present danger.” Pretend you’re a modern day Paul Wolfowitz, handed the fait accompli of war and tasked with ginning up a reason Americans will buy. But no “they sunk our ship” scenarios. Been there, done that.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Three Questions to Ask About America Not Fighting a War with China

    December 1, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Military

    Before you read another story claiming war among China, Taiwan and the U.S. is getting closer, or relations are entering dangerous territory, or long-standing issues may soon be settled by any means necessary, ask yourself these three questions.

     

    Why Would China Attack Taiwan?

    Over the last decade Taiwan invested $188.5 billion in China, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. Pre-Covid, travelers from China made 2.68 million visits to Taiwan. China applied in September to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. “One country, two systems” has not only kept the peace for decades, it has proven damn profitable. Why bomb one of your best customers?

    Apart from the potential the nuclear destruction of the Chinese state (the U.S. has 10 nukes for every Chinese one) why would China consider a war that would provoke the U.S.? Total Chinese investment in the U.S. is $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. The Chinese are literally betting the house on America’s success.

    A failed invasion of Taiwan would topple Xi if not the whole power structure. An invasion is impractical. Chinese amphibious forces would be under fire from Taiwan’s F-16s armed with Harpoon anti-ship missiles practically as they left harbor. Taiwan will soon field a land-based anti-ship missile with 200 mile range. Estimates are China would need to land a million soldiers on day one (on D-Day the Allies put ashore 156,000) against Taiwan’s fortified rocky west coast, navigating among tiny islets themselves laden with anti-ship weapons. China’s primary amphibious assault ship, the Type 075, carries about only 1,000 men, and China currently has only three such ships. Its conscript troops are unblooded in combat. Meanwhile American and British forces patrol the waters. Aircraft from Guam, Okinawa, and Korea could shut down the skies, and decimate Chinese aircraft on the ground. This is not Normandy. It is also not another of the counterinsurgency struggles which defeated America. It is the Big Power conflict played out in the Strait instead of the Fulda Gap, the war U.S. has been preparing to fight against someone since the 1960s.

    No risk vs. gain calculation would end up concluding the best option was war. And discard the irrational actor scenario; Chinese leaders have always believed in historical cycles. They waited close to 300 years to end the foreign Qing dynasty. They waited out Britain for hundreds of years for the peaceful return of Hong Kong, same with Portugal and Macau. Chinese diplomacy is patient, not reactive. There is no fierce urgency to reunification. One waits to win.

     

    Why now?

    In fiction one of the important tools is the Change Event, the thing that answers the question of why now? Why did the mild-mannered accountant suddenly become a vigilante? Oh, his daughter was kidnapped. So where is the “why now” part of China-Taiwan?

    One of the most compelling arguments China plans no war is they haven’t yet fought any wars. No shots have been fired over the disputed islands, which have disputed for decades. Taiwan broke away in 1949 and the last shot fired was in the 1950s. Chinese troops entered Vietnam only after the U.S. began its own campaign of regime change there, and briefly in 1979 during a border scuffle. China joined the Korean War only after the U.S. threatened to cross into Chinese territory. Xi’s reunification rhetoric is essentially the same as Mao’s.

    China is an autocracy (unchanged since 1949), and has not promoted things like free speech in Hong Kong or Tibet, never mind in Beijing or Shanghai. We don’t have to like that, but it is nothing new and has nothing to do with invading Taiwan. China did little when some of the leaders of the Tienanmen protests turned up in Taiwan, another worried over “why now” event.

    My own first brush with a “why now” event was in the 1980s, when I went to Taiwan as an American diplomat. Taiwan was crawling out from under four decades of authoritarian rule, and taking its first difficult democratic steps. After decades of speech suppression, a lot of people were testing their legs, saying all sorts of crazy stuff about independence. Among ourselves we called it “the D word,” as independence in Mandarin is romanized duli. One emerging political party was even called the Taiwan Independence party, and was likely to grab a few seats in the legislature. The U.S. mission was fearful this could serve as a trigger to Beijing. “Big China” had made clear a declaration of independence was a red line.

    Beijing’s reaction was soon apparent: Taiwan’s stores started to feature mainland goods; the end of the hated Kuomintang opened up a new market. Even before this thaw you could sort of fly from Taipei to China, something that many people on both sides of the strait were desperate to do to visit relatives. The catch was the flight had to touch down in then-British Hong Kong. In 2008 these flights were made direct, with no need for the Hong Kong stopover. Today six China-based airlines and five from Taiwan operate direct flights. The line of progress has been in one direction, far at odds with war.

     

    Why Would Anyone Think the U.S. Would Not Defend Taiwan?

    Post-Afghanistan, some speculate the U.S. would not defend Taiwan. It makes no sense; if the U.S. stood on the sidelines as China attacked, that would end the post-WWII U.S. alliance system in Asia, and would temp war on the Korean peninsula. It would likely spur Japan and Korea to go nuclear. The global economy would fall into chaos and the dollar would collapse. Who knows what would happen to global supply lines.

    The Taiwan Relations Act (Biden as a young senator voted for it) says Washington will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States” and the U.S. will “maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” The language was purposefully written by the parties concerned in 1979 to incorporate flexibility without being provocative, and cannot be read today as a signal of weakness. Diplomats on all three sides understand this.

    I have been in rooms with both Chinese and Taiwan representatives, and PLA and U.S. military personnel. Though sabers get rattled, particularly in front of the cameras, every action by every player assumes the U.S. will defend Taiwan. There is simply no ambiguity. When Joe Biden broke code and blurted out the U.S. will indeed defend Taiwan it was one of the few honest statements by any politician in Washington.

    The U.S. has troops on Taiwan. The U.S. sells Taiwan some of our most modern weapons. Even as Xi spoke of reunification during the October political holidays the HMS Queen Elizabeth, USS Carl Vinson, USS Ronald Reagan, and Japan’s Ise conducted joint operations in the China Sea. The U.S. is selling nuclear submarines to Australia to boast patrols in the South China Sea. The U.S. frequently conducts “freedom of navigation” exercises in the area. The U.S. recently brought India into the Quad Pact against China, and convinced Japan to abandon its neutral stance on Taiwan. Congress will take up the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, which would authorize Biden to initiate war on China.

    China has no reason to and many reasons not to attack Taiwan. For 70 some years their relationship has become more open and more interactive. Strategic ambiguity — some call it deterrence — has worked. Nothing about any of that has changed.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Hiroshima, Syria, Wherever, What’s Different?

    November 23, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Syria

    America doesn’t want to know what happens in its wars. It wants to believe each war starts in righteousness, usually something as lofty a goal as freeing people from oppression or bringing them democracy. It then wants to believe our side is clean, as any force of righteousness must be. And then at some point it wants to forget about it all absent a few Business Class upgrades for soldiers flying home next week over Thanksgiving. But what happens when the truth, the overriding truth bigger than a single atrocity, peaks out from under the heavy cover of lies?

    You may remember America went to war in Syria in 2015 under Barack Obama. What was going to happen next there was a major campaign issue in 2016. The catch-phrase was whether either candidate supported “boots on the ground.” Trump, who did not overtly support that, did it anyway, and under now a third president some 900 Americans are still on the ground in Syria on a mission looking for a strategy. It would be surprising if one out of 100 Americans knew today we were still at war in Syria. Don’t ask Senator Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate in 2016. During a recent Senate hearing on Afghanistan, he declared, “I am relieved that for the first time in 20 years, children being born in this country today are not being born into a nation at war.” It is doubtful Kaine or more than one out of ten thousand when told of the ongoing fight in Syria could explain why.

    So it is surprising to see the New York Times front page an investigation into a more than two year old U.S. air attack in Baghuz, Syria which killed some 80 women and children. Though the entire strike was preserved on drone video, a precise death count is unlikely because the three weapons dropped, totaling over 2,500 pounds of explosives, would have reduced most of the dead to a fine, pink mist. Hard to count that. The amount of explosives used against these undefended human targets in the open was roughly the equivalent of that carried by a B-25 into actual combat during WWII.

    The rest of the Times’ story is much the same story. The 2019 Baghuz strike was one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the war, but was never been publicly acknowledged by the U.S. A military legal officer flagged the strike as a possible war crime that required an investigation. But at nearly every step, the military moved to conceal what happened. The death toll was downplayed. Reports were delayed, sanitized, and of course classified. Coalition forces quickly bulldozed the blast site to destroy any possible evidence. A whistleblower in contact with Congress lost his job. The New York Times pieced together what happened, detailed the coverup, and published the story last week. After the Times made its findings known to CENTCOM, a military spokesperson stated “We abhor the loss of innocent life” but stood by the airstrike as justified under whatever rules they were following. It is very unlikely anything more will come of all this.

    There is of course so much to be outraged over here but one realization is that good people were trying to report something very wrong through the chain of command and at every turn were blunted and thwarted. There seems to be no such thing as oversight or accountability. And yep, the whistleblower got burned.

    But the real outrage is the one not acknowledged by the Times. They treat this as if it is all new, headline stuff, the shock of civilian deaths, the coverup, the whistleblower himself the new target. But we refuse in our new righteousness over the cindered bodies of women and children to acknowledge it is closer to the norm than the exception. After nearly 1,000 air strikes in Syria and Iraq in 2019, using 4,729 bombs and missiles, the official military tally of civilian dead for the year was only 22. As a State Department civilian embedded with the military during Iraq War 2.0 I saw many remains of buildings hit by airstrikes. It was very difficult to maintain the illusion that that building, the one with four floors and multiple apartments, had held only insurgents when it was obliterated some night.We choose to only use the word atrocity when we can pin it on a rogue platoon or a sadistic SEAL. But when it all scales up to the use of modern weapons against civilian clusters it turns into some sort of quasi-legal event to be debated and tsk’ed over in the passive voice. Were mistakes made? Can we find a way to reduce it all to some avoidable/unavoidable error, maybe by one pilot or one Special Forces operator who can be punished at little overall cost to the larger organization that put him in the position to screw up?

    We allow the United States to portray its wars as precise and humane because in order to sustain war on an Orwellian scale it is necessary to believe that. We need to believe every report of civilian casualties is investigated and the findings reported publicly, a model of accountability. We believe these things so dearly that we are shocked to read what happened with one airstrike in Syria and rush focus on the coverup not the killing.

    The preferred narrative sounds like a Netflix series log line “One man/A handful of brave reporters knew what was right and risked it all to expose the crime witnessed!” We want to miss the coverup of the coverup, the one that hides what happened in Syria was because we were at war in Syria against a dubious enemy under dubious rules of engagement for a dubious purpose and, to hell with it, people are just gonna die under those circumstances. Same as in Vietnam, same as in Fallujah, same as across dozens of Afghan wedding parties. It is a conversation about the difference between combat and killing. It is the conversation America has avoided since the day it proclaimed itself world policeman and unilaterally declared our right to be right simply because it is us doing it, whatever it might be. Thus in 2021 we still pretend Hiroshima was the exception and not the rule.

     

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • America Won’t Be Fighting a War with China over Taiwan (So Why the Fuss?)

    October 30, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Biden, Democracy, Embassy/State


    The United States and China will not go to war in our time over Taiwan. China is not engaging in provocative actions leading toward an invasion. So why the fuss?

    I’d prefer to let the argument speak for itself, but my background is relevant. I threw away my Mao (and Che) T-shirt sophomore year. I don’t have a grey pony tail. I know Beijing is not a democratic regime, much like America’s allies across the Middle East and Africa are not. I’ve been in Taiwan when it was under military rule, and China under autocratic rule. The food was great, but I do not want to live that way. So none of this is about defending that. As a U.S. diplomat, I served in Taiwan, Beijing, and Hong Kong, as well as Korea and Japan, and speak a bit of all their languages. Many of my former colleagues, who managed their careers better, now hold senior positions in State’s China and East Asian bureaucracies. I certainly don’t speak for them, but I speak to them.

    Focus is also important; this is about war. It is not about China being unfriendly to democracy in Hong Kong; why act surprised, the government does not like democracy in Shanghai or Guangzhou either. But when we talk about democracy in the area, let’s not forget Hong Kong was taken from Imperial China by force by the British, who exploited it as a colony for most of its history. It was peacefully returned to China in 1997, not taken by China militarily any time along the way. Taiwan was an unimportant and undemocratic place inhabited mostly by indigenous people until 1949, when the Nationalists displaced the locals to create the enclave of the Republic of China. It existed under strict military rule, with U.S. support for the thugs in power, until around 1988. So democracy in China writ large is a fairly new thing. Many might wish to see America as concerned about democracy in Saudi Arabia as it is in Hong Kong.

    China has always been America’s as-needed partner, friend today, adversary tomorrow. An ally during WWII, the U.S. backed away in 1949 after Mao took power, considering China one more link in world Communism’s march to global supremacy. Then in the midst of the Cold War Nixon “opened” China and the place was remade into a friendly bulwark against the Soviets. In 1979 the U.S. diplomatically recognized Beijing and unrecognized Taipei. The U.S. and China then grew into significant trading partners until sometime during the Obama years when China, without a clear precipitating event, morphed again into an adversary (the U.S. called it a pivot toward Asia.) Trump, and now Biden, have since upgraded China into a direct threat. In one of his few unambiguous foreign policy speeches, Biden said “On my watch China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Biden went on to claim we were at an inflection point to determine “whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century.” Along the way China has always stayed pretty much the same. It’s our fear of the same China which changes.

    Those U.S. fears are mostly bunk. Take for example the boilerplate articles about Chinese “incursions” into Taiwan’s air space. Chinese aircraft are not overflying Taiwan. They are flying within Taiwan’s self-declared Air Defense Identification Zone. Look at a map of that zone, and other zones declared by Japan and China. Taiwan’s zone, the one Beijing is flying in, actually is large enough to cover thousands of miles of the Chinese mainland itself; PLA planes are in violation when sitting on their own runways. Taiwan’s zone also overlaps Beijing’s Air Defense Zone which overlaps Japan’s and Korea’s. Japan’s Air Defense zone also overlap’s Taiwan’s to take in a small island which is disputed between Tokyo and Taipei, a diplomatic fist fight the U.S. ignores. Criss-crossing everyone’s zones are American aircraft conducting “freedom of navigation” exercises (known in Beijing as “incursions.”) Chinese air flights are provocative only to the uninformed, or those who want them to be seen as provocative. Left unsaid: as China was supposedly provoking a fight in the air this October, the U.S. was simultaneously conducting some of the largest multi-national naval exercises in the Pacific since WWII.

    As for that invasion of Taiwan Beijing is accused of planning, no one has ever explained why they would undertake such a enormous risk in the face of little gain. Instead, the articles claiming Beijing is readying for war are like those science fiction movies which begin with the premise most people have disappeared from earth, or some apocalyptical event took place, and then the story of the survivors begins. All the complicated stuff is left unexplained.

    No one seems to examine the reasons China has no reason to invade Taiwan. China and Taiwan do loft rhetorical bombs at each other, particularly around CCP events and political holidays, while maintaining a robust economic relationship. Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. Pre-Covid, travelers from China made 2.68 million visits to Taiwan. China applied in September to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. “One country, two systems” has not only kept the peace for decades, it has proven darn profitable for both sides. As Deng Xiao Ping said of this type of modus vivendi, “who cares what color a cat is as long as it catches mice.” China might one day seek to buy Taiwan, but until then what incentive would it have to drop bombs on one of its best customers?

    A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would also require China to fight the United States. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which established the framework behind the U.S. relationships with Beijing and Taipei makes clear Washington will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States” and that the U.S. will “maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” The language, unchanged since the roller disco era, is purposefully one of strategic ambiguity. It was crafted by the parties concerned specifically to incorporate flexibility, not signal weakness. Diplomats on all three sides understand this. Anyone saying the U.S. needs to rattle sabers at China to demonstrate commitment to Taiwan would better spend his time trying to explain away our abandoning Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring.

    Apart from the potential the nuclear destruction of the Chinese state (the U.S. has 10 nukes for every one China does) why would China even considering risking war with the U.S.? Total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. When Covid shut down world logistics, everyone learned the American economy is voluntarily dependent on Chinese manufacturing and vice-versa. The Chinese are literally betting the house on America’s success.

    Because there is no plausible scenario in which China would want to invade Taiwan, we need not dwell on the military impracticality of the thing. A failed invasion of Taiwan would topple Xi. Chinese amphibious forces would be under fire from Taiwan’s F-16s armed with Harpoon anti-ship missiles practically as they left harbor and tried to cross the Taiwan Strait (Harpoons have a range of 67 miles; at its narrowest the Strait is only 80 miles wide. Taiwan will soon field a land-based anti-ship missile with a range of over 200 miles.) How many could even reach the beaches? Estimates are China would need to land one to two million soldiers on day one (on D-Day the Allies put ashore 156,000) against Taiwan’s fortified rocky west coast, navigating among tiny islets themselves laden with anti-ship weapons. China’s primary amphibious assault ship, the Type 075, carries about 1,000 men, meaning something like a 1000-2000 sorties. China currently has only three such ships. Its troops are unblooded in combat. Meanwhile American and British carriers and submarines patrol the waters. American aircraft from Guam, Okinawa, and Korea would shut down the skies, and decimate Chinese aircraft on the ground via stealth, drones, and stand-off missiles. This is not Normandy. It is also not the counterinsurgency struggles which defeated America. It is the Big Power conflict played out in the Strait instead of the Fulda Gap, the war U.S. has been preparing to fight against someone since the 1960s.

    But one of the most compelling arguments China plans no war is they haven’t yet fought any wars. No shots have been fired over the disputed islands, which have rabidly disputed for decades. Taiwan broke away in 1949 and after a handful of artillery exchanges in the 1950s, no shots have been fired. China never moved militarily against British Hong Kong from 1841 forward, or Portuguese Macau from 1557. Chinese President Xi’s rhetoric about reunification is essentially the same as Mao’s. Nothing really seems to have changed to the point where a stable situation has suddenly become unstable enough to lead to war, yet the Financial Times warns “The moment of truth over Taiwan is getting closer” and the NYT headlines “U.S. and China Enter Dangerous Territory Over Taiwan.” The WSJ decided on its own China is ready to “reunify their country through any means necessary.”

    The war fever splash in U.S. media comes with curious timing. The U.S. is provoking a new Cold War to ensure an enemy to struggle against, guarantee robust defense spending for decades, and to make sure there is no repeat of the “peace dividend” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s the same playbook run from 1945 to 1989 against the USSR. Expensive arms development needs a target: the Soviet Union served well in that role until around 1989, when in the midst of declaring themselves the world’s last superpower, Americans also demanded less spending on the military. A new enemy was quickly found in various flavors in the Middle East, first in Saddam Hussein and then, after 9/11, in basically most Arabs. The terrorist boogeyman was shushed off stage this summer as America retreated from Afghanistan. We’re unlikely to return to the Middle East in force, especially with oil no longer the principle driver of American foreign policy.

    And so to China. Chinese plans to invade Taiwan may be the new WMDs, a justification much talked about but never to materialize. Chinese weapons advances are the new missile gap, and Asia the new frontier in the faux struggle between the forces of good and another damn group of foreigners bent on world domination. Indeed, if anyone seriously believed war was likely, even imminent, where are the calls for diplomacy, a regional summit, some kind of UN help, to resolve tensions? The U.S. doesn’t even have an ambassador in Beijing nine months into the Biden administration.

     

     

    However impractical an invasion might be, how unnecessary, or how risky, hasn’t China declared repeatedly it will reunite with Taiwan? Yes. But if you want to cite Chinese propaganda as evidence of actual intent, it is best to pay attention to the details.

    It was the United States itself that most clearly asserted the shared tripartite goal was reunification, declaring as part of the diplomatic break with Taiwan “there is only one China and Taiwan is a part of it.” Chinese President Xi regularly reiterates reunification as a goal, but always stresses the process is historical (as in, it is inevitable and we just need to be patient, don’t wait up for it to happen) and must be peaceful. Sorry, if you’re going to quote Chinese propaganda statements as proof of intent, you can’t cherry pick out only the scary parts. It makes no sense to trust Xi on the plan but claim he’s lying about the (peaceful) execution in the same breath.

    Not by coincidence most of these reunification proclamations occur around important political holidays. One of Xi’s most recent invocations was in a speech marking the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai 1911 Revolution, aimed at the foreign Manchu Qing dynasty. The chosen occasion is important, because Xinhai, ideologically midwifed by Dr. Sun Yat Sen, is acknowledged by both the most hardcore Communists and the most fervent Nationalists as the common origin point for modern China. This is drilled into every schoolkid on both sides of the Strait and forms a common vocabulary among their diplomats. The point is to understand Xi’s remarks in the same context as the Chinese, not John Wayne, likely do.

    In Sun’s spirit Xi reiterated a vow to peaceful reunification with Taiwan. He urged the Chinese people “stand on the right side of history and join hands to achieve China’s complete reunification,” invoking the way the people who would form the Communist and Nationalist parties worked together against a common enemies — the Manchus, then warlordism and feudalism, then the Japanese, and perhaps someday the Americans. Xi, talking to his own people and those on Taiwan, sketched a shared vision a long way from the PLA amphibious assault the West fears. Xi was also aware that the day before his speech HMS Queen Elizabeth, USS Carl Vinson, USS Ronald Reagan, and Japan’s Ise conducted joint carrier operations in the China Sea featuring the soon-to-be-nuclear-capable F-35 aircraft.

    Far from anything new or provocative, Xi’s rhetoric was consistent with 70 some years of speeches maintaining Beijing has no quarrel with the people on Taiwan, who are today mostly Mandarin-speaking ethnically Han Chinese same as in Beijing. Instead, the theme has always been a few bad apples in Taiwan’s government are preventing all Chinese from seeing they need to work together. To invade Taiwan, China would commit itself to killing Chinese, something that would cause Xi to lose legitimacy in the eyes of his own people; the Mandate of Heaven still applies. Meanwhile, on Taiwan, the current president more or less acknowledges the official line of a reunited China someday but quickly says there are more important things on her mind, like making money. Many in the West failed to notice it was Dr. Sun’s portrait which hung behind both leaders as they spoke. The idea that all these factors boil down to “China is gonna invade Taiwan” is beyond silly. America’s obsession with Taiwan independence is more Washington’s problem than Taipei’s.

    Philosophically Chinese leaders have for thousands of years believed in historical cycles. They waited close to 300 years to end the foreign Qing dynasty. They waited out Britain for hundreds of years for the peaceful return of Hong Kong. Such things come up in conversation with Chinese diplomats as casually as talk about the weather. Chinese diplomacy is patient, not short-term optimistic or spasmatically reactive. There is no fierce urgency to reunification. Sun Tzu: One waits to win.

     

    In contrast stands America’s foreign policy. A comparison of countries where the U.S., and China have military intervened post-WWII is telling. Chinese troops entered Vietnam only after the U.S. began its own campaign of regime change there. China entered the Korean War only after the U.S. Army threatened to cross into Chinese territory. Both of these events are celebrated in the People’s Army Museum in Beijing as examples of defending the homeland’s borders. The Museum, in addition, features an American U-2 spyplane shot down over the mainland. The Museum also has exhibits showing the U.S. purposely bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, killing three and destroying the diplomatic sanctuary. The U.S. claimed it was an accident, but history makes clear it was retaliation against an undefended target accused of spying in former Yugoslavia. How many American embassies has China bombed?

    China got its first blue water aircraft carrier last year; the U.S. has maintained multiple carrier groups in the Pacific since WWII, recently facilitated the permanent deployment of two British carrier groups in the area (their first big show of naval force in the area since losing Singapore to the Japanese) and will sell nuclear submarines to Australia with the understanding they will patrol the South China Sea. The U.S. recently brought India into the Quad Pact agreement against China, and convinced Japan to abandon its official neutral stance on Taiwan to support the U.S. Japan has quickly grown into a multiple carrier blue water naval force under American encouragement and with American technology; an unprecedented pledge by Japan’s ruling party seeks to double defense spending and underscores the nation’s haste to acquire missiles, stealth fighters, drones and other weapons that can target China.

    For the first time in decades U.S. forces are officially stationed on Taiwan. The White House recently announced the existing U.S.-Japan security treaty now extends to some additional disputed islands, and the Philippine security treaty covers Manila’s claims to Chinese-occupied islets. The U.S. maintains military bases in a ring around China’s eastern coast. Economically, Barack Obama via the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) tried to isolate China from the Asian trade sphere. Trump imposed and Biden maintains punitive tariffs on goods out of China. This autumn Congress will take up the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, which would authorize Biden to initiate (nuclear) war on China without any input from America’s elected representatives.

    So who in fact is acting provocatively in the Pacific? Which side is saber rattling, and which simply responding the way a dog barks to warn off an aggressor?

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Requiem: Is This the Last 9/11 Article?

    October 2, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya, Military, Syria, Yemen

    Wait, stop. I know it’s almost October, but I’m not done with 9/11. I know we just had the 20th anniversary, promised for a day to never forget whatever, and then an old-looking Bruce Springsteen rose to sing about everyone dying around him (read the room, Bruce.) Missing was a hard look at what happened over the last 20 years. Before we move on, can we address that? Because after the symbolic Big 2-0, and with Afghanistan sputtering out of our consciousness, this might be the last 9/11 article.
    Part of the reason for the lack of introspection is the MSM went back to the same people who screwed everything up for “takes” two decades later. It’s kind of like inviting students to grade themselves. It was familiar, like the parade of generals following the Vietnam war who blamed the politicians and vice-versa. I’d like a browser widget that blocks 9/11 commentary from any of the people who were wrong about WMDs, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the like. The last thing anyone’s life needs right now is to hear David Petraeus’ or Condi Rice’s take on anything.
    Yet as if to create the anti-widget of my dreams, the Washington Post created a review of the sprawling literature to emerge from 9/11 over the past two decades — what they generously called works of investigation, memoir, and narrative by journalists and former officials. The books included were written by people taking post-mortem credit for issuing warnings they themselves never acted on, agencies blaming other agencies as if all that happened was the FBI lost a pickup softball game to the CIA, and of course journalists who helped sell the whole WMD line profiting off their mini-embeds to write a new “classic” war book about What It’s Really Like Out There, Man.
    WaPo left my Iraq book off the list, an accidental omission I’m sure. I joke but I don’t. I wrote ten years ago, as it was happening, how nation building was going to fail in Iraq. It would have made good reading a decade ago for anyone headed into the same situation in Afghanistan. So while WaPo’s article does a good job with the “celebrity” books of the era, it ignores the people who saw through it all at nearly every step. I guess many of them did not write books, or at least not “Washington Post” books. So the list includes Petraeus’ U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, the Bible behind the Surge which outlined how nation building was gonna work (update: he was wrong.) But nothing from the weapons inspectors who told the world quite clearly Saddam had no WMDs and the whole premise of the Iraq War was a lie. Nothing explaining how the Afghan War was reinvented to cover-up not finding bin Laden. Nothing about drone killing American citizens, bombing wedding parties, torture, collateral damage, or any of the things that actually caused us to lose multiple wars of terror. Ironically, the last official drone strike of the war killed innocent civilians the Pentagon pretended were terrorists.
    I’ve read almost all the books on WaPo’s list. They would make for a decent but obviously incomplete undergrad survey class syllabus, something like “Opportunities and Losses: America in the Middle East post-9/11,” lots of facts amassed without the necessary critical thinking applied. So here’s what’s missing, the conclusions we do not want to see in black and white 20 years later. Think of what follows as a B+ final exam submission for that imaginary survey class.
    — Nobody trusts the government about anything. Partisans support their guy but with a wry “Hey, they all lie.” Any rebuilding of trust post-Watergate died with the WMDs, etc. and is unlikely to be restored in our age of social media/manipulation.
    — They didn’t make mistakes. They lied. They lied about how 9/11 happened, they lied about WMDs, they lied about intentions, they lied about goals, they lied about Pakistan’s role, they lied about the strength of the puppet governments in Baghdad and Kabul, they lied about the vitality of ISIS, al Qaeda, and the Taliban, they lied about our progress, they lied about it all. They lied to make Pat Tilman’s death seem like Captain Miller’s. No one was ever punished.
    — On a simple material level, my God what did we waste in lives and money in all the wars, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the havoc of refugees let loose? And yet we demand the point of 9/11 be our victimization alone. We even appropriated the term Ground Zero, which once referred universally to Hiroshima.
    — American foreign policy credibility and our post-WWII imperialist strategy has finally been shown to be a farce. A lesson that should have been clear post-Vietnam needed to be relearned. That means we the public are stupid and gullible. We the nation are still a big, mean dog, but our ability to influence events around the world is limited to barking and biting and only works when barking and biting is the solution. When anything beyond threats is needed, say when dealing with peers, near-peers or non-allied countries with shared interests, we have few if any tools. That’s why we have no idea whatsoever how to work with Iran or China, and why our strategy with North Korea is hope fat boy slim dies before he (likely accidentally, think Chernobyl) blows up half of Asia.
    — They don’t hate our freedoms. They don’t want to be like us. We based policy on finding a handful of Afghan women who wanted to wear mini-skirts when the bulk of them simply wanted to be left alone. The lesson was always obvious; they didn’t want to be British, either.
    — Americans pretend our little journey to the dark side of torture was over years ago, our bad! but lots of others remember and Gitmo is still open. We will never unstain our reputation globally. Like that one-time little sexy business trip affair, it just becomes a thing polite people don’t talk about.
    — We emerged from 9/11 a “paranoid, xenophobic and martial society.” We’ve let the easy certainty of “you’re either with us or against us” morph into students being taught not to think but “being trained to mimic the moral certainty of ideologues.”
    — America became a massive surveillance state. The government (and many large corporations) monitor your communications and interactions. You cannot opt out. We willingly purchase electronics to aid the government in monitoring us. Here’s one in pink!
    — We willingly gave up our privacy out of fear. That fear now exists in the body politic to be summoned like a demon and manipulated by whomever wishes it for whatever purpose, say to imagine Trump is a Russian spy, or your neighbors as Nazis because they oppose what you support, or Covid survival demands further loss of freedom.
    — The media, which served in times past as a counterpoint, instead fully adopted the role of promoting Bush’s wars and WMDs, Trump the spy, etc. They allowed Obama to wave away questions about torture, drone assassinations, and new wars because he was their chosen one. No one sees the media as anything but partisans now, albeit our partisans and their partisans depending on which channel is on. The result is we are ever more uninformed and simultaneously more opinionated. What part of a doctor’s day is spent dealing with knuckleheads who value their degree from the University of Google more than what he has learned in a lifetime of practice?
    There, that’s it. I predict the 9/11 commemorations will become lower and lower key in the years to come, much like America lost interest in the space program in the later years and rocket launches were no longer even televised. But each year the anniversary rolls around and we’re admonished to never forget, remember how much we already seem to have very purposely forgotten.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • In Search of Biden’s Foreign Policy

    September 29, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Biden, Embassy/State, Iran, Iraq


     

    Since Biden was elected in part as the answer to Trump’s perceived foreign policy blunders, it seems reasonable nine months in to go searching for the Biden Doctrine, to assess his initial foreign policy moves, to see what paths he has sketched out for the next three years.

    (Sound of tumbleweeds.)

    So what of the Biden foreign policy? Biden took office with no immediate crisis at hand. Yet all he has done is blunder poorly through a handful of incidents.

    Afghanistan of course has been Biden’s only significant foreign policy action. Ending the Afghan War almost happened under Trump, the last steps derailed by false reporting the Russians were paying bounties to the Taliban for dead Americans (which made no sense; why would the Taliban do anything that might slow the inevitable American withdrawal? They had already won) and a ridiculous media tsunami claiming Trump disrespected the troops. Biden won the election in November and took office in January. There was ample time for replanning and renegotiating anything left behind by Trump, especially since most of the Biden team had muddled in Afghanistan for years previously during the Obama era and knew well the mess they’d help create. The rush for the last plane out of Kabul was a fully expected unexpected event. The Biden administration did not quietly start the evacuation in February, nor did it negotiate ahead of time the third country landing rights it knew would be needed. The lessons learned in Iraq and Vietnam evacuating locals who worked with us were clear, though Biden did not kick start processing of the SIV visas until literally the last flights were scheduled out of Afghanistan.

    Biden instead chose to place his first foreign policy act’s fate in the hands of negotiations with the Taliban, depending on them to uphold agreements, provide security, vet Americans enroute to the airport, and generally play nice with whatever America needed to do to save face as the door hit us in the ass on the way out. The National Security Council spokeswoman even called the Taliban “businesslike and professional.” If this was naïve, then a new word meaning “more than naïve” needs to be created. Even assuming good intentions (!) the Taliban are loosely organized, with plenty of local warlords, ISIS spinoffs, and rogue elements to ensure things would go wrong, for example, the terror bombing which killed 13 Americans and basically ended the evacuation. Biden’s follow-up? Lie about the success of a revenge drone strike to make sure America’s final official act in the war was to kill civilians. This all added up to the most amateurish foreign policy execution seen in a long time. Mistakes? How  about assuming your enemies share your goals, negotiating after you have lost and hold no cards, failing to plan for anticipatable events, and fibbing about it all and blaming your predecessor. For a foreign diplomat sitting in London, Tokyo, Beijing, or Paris, the question had to have been “who if anyone is in charge in Washington?”

     

    Biden’s other foreign policy gesture, the nuclear submarine agreement with Australia which alienated the French, again begs the question of who is in charge.

    Perhaps the most significant foreign policy problem America faces is no one is in charge . If one understands diplomacy as “America’s interactions with foreigners” then the extended answer is more like there are too many people in charge of parts of the whole. You get celebrity policy, like Trump with Kim, John Kerry jetting around the world solving climate change, or the endless strings of special envoys (Biden has 14, which overlay the existing diplomatic structure with a new layer of bureaucracy. Tillerson had done away with 35 special envoys, Pompeo added back 5.) It seems if the issue is important enough, it is too important for regular diplomats. Next level down are the host of other organizations playing at policy. For the large and growing swatch of the world controlled by warlords, militias, and criminals organizations, policy is made by the intelligence agencies, for example. They have people on ground too muddy for diplomats and too complicated for the White House to focus on. They make policy with payoffs and bribes, if not with targeted kills.

    But the biggest player in today’s foreign affairs is the military. Biden just learned how that works. In many parts of the world (particularly Asia and Africa) the combatant commanders are putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian, and commercial affairs. One reason is range: unlike ambassadors, whose responsibilities, budget, and influence are confined to single countries, combatant commanders’ reach is continental. Unlike the White House, whose focus is ever-shifting, the military has the interest and manpower to stick around everywhere. Generals outlast administrations. When America’s primary policy tool is so obviously the military, there is less need, use, and value to diplomats or even presidents. As a foreign leader, who would you turn to if you wanted Washington’s ear—or to pry open its purse?

    Any criticism of the deal with Australia begins with the question of what idiot could so completely screw up a deal involving a NATO-ally and a partner like Australia? On the face that’s the kind of lunk-headed stuff Trump was often accused of. You’ve left with the bad jokes about not being able to find a girlfriend in a bawdy house.

    What actually happened was Australia ditched a $66 billion contract for French diesel-electric submarines to instead buy U.S. nuclear-powered submarines under a new alliance which will also see Australia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom share advanced technologies with one another. The genesis of all this of course is the U.S. military’s muscular diplomacy, ramping up for a war with China they hope will power their budgets for decades. A side deal with Britain to station its newest aircraft carriers in Asia was certainly part of the package. This brings now both the British and the Australians into the South China Sea in force, with an arms salesman in the Pentagon finding a way to sideline the French at the same time. Calling America’s (by default, Biden’s) actions Trumpian, France withdrew its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. France had never before withdrawn its ambassador to the U.S., dating back to the initial alliance in 1778, two years after the U.S. Declaration of Independence. France assumes the EU presidency next year and promises revenge, never mind the likelihood that Biden will never recruit them into any coalition against Chinese power. So much for Candidate Biden’s promises to repair the U.S.’s alliances post-Trump. He has of course been radio silent on the Aussie deal, and likely learned about it mostly from the media. Arms sales, titularly approved by State, are one of the military’s primary foreign policy carrots.

     

    Joe Biden certainly has his hands full of domestic problems — Covid the virus which has killed thousands of Americans, Covid the public policy disaster which is killing the rest of us, unemployment, inflation, immigration, abortion rights — it’s a long list. So it’s easy to forget Biden was elected in part for his foreign policy expertise. During the campaign Trump was presented as a foreign policy disaster, skirting just short of tragedy thanks to pseudo-coups by patriots like Alexander Vindman and Mark Milley. There were his homoerotic ties to Putin, fights with the French and British, near sell out to North Korea, the brink of war with Iran, and his failure to blunt the rise of China. At least that’s what we were told, because of course none of those things actually happened.

    But first the strawmen. Every president except George Washington inherited his predecessor’s wins and losses and works in progress, and has had at some point needed to take ownership. “But Trump!” worked as a campaign strategy well enough for Biden, but nine months is long enough to have worn it out as a foreign policy (and of course as a domestic excuse.) Trump did not decimate the State Department. Over the decades the most damage done to State has been by various Congresses slashing the budget for diplomacy. The answer to that is for the new president to get some more money into the game, and no signs Biden is working on that.

    One final point about all that rhetoric about Trump gutting the State Department. Decades before Trump, the State Department slide into being an agency without primary agency. Under Cold War administrations it focused on arms control. During the Bush and early Obama years, it was sent off to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton switched the organization to “soft power” programs. John Kerry started on Syria as a signature aim but ended up focused singularly on the Iran nuclear deal. Tillerson never articulated any goals at all beyond some verbiage about structural reform that never saw daylight. State played a concierge role while Trump tried personal diplomacy with North Korea. Pompeo had little to say other than to support his boss ending the Obama nuclear deal with Iran. And of course no one complained much when State was hiring below attrition during the Obama years. As Trump took office, two thirds of new hires at State came from “fellowship” programs created not to bolster core diplomatic skills sets but in response to various diversity lawsuits. Or take a longer view. In 1950, State had 7,710 diplomats. The pre-Trump total was just 8,052, as State has failed to grow alongside the modern world. So enough with the excuses.

     

    Nine months in Biden has shown no grace or skill at foreign policy. He has handed execution over to naïve and incompetent people, and watched his military sketch out America’s broader strategy toward China. Biden has otherwise done little of what he promised; there are no signs of him paying any attention to nuclear threats Iran and North Korea. No options have come forth for follow-on in Afghanistan. No significant engagement with NATO or Russia. None at all with China (Trump’s tariffs remain in place.) Not a peep on policy toward Africa or South America. Biden can’t even claim he’s providing stability by staying the course because that means overtly supporting Trump’s policies. Foreign Policy, a reliable Democratic acolyte, struggles to define Biden as a foreign policy success, resorting to listing his accomplishment as “rejoining multilateral organizations, reinvigorating alliances [and] donating vaccines.” Obama got a Noble Peace Prize for doing even less of course, but that must be little solace for poor Joe.

      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • The Worst Day of the Afghan War

    September 11, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Biden, Iraq, Military


    The Kabul airport suicide bombing was the largest single-day loss of life for Americans in the Afghan War since 2011. It was a terrible day, but begs the question: what was the worst day of the Afghan war?

    It is hard not to consider the Kabul airport suicide bombing the worst day; 13 Americans and maybe a hundred Afghans dead. How old were the Americans? How many hadn’t even gotten out of diapers when the war started 20 years ago? Did any have parents who also served in Afghanistan? Who were the Afghans?

    All of the dead were so close to safety after who knows what journey to that moment together, a hundred yards across the tarmac and into an airplane out. Good people only die at the last minute in bad movies and sometimes real life. But was it the worst day?

    Shall we count the dead? The worst day for American casualties in Afghanistan was August 6, 2011, when a CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down over eastern Afghanistan. Thirty Americans, including 22 SEALs, died.

    There were a lot of other worst days.  On June 28, 2005, 19 Special Operations troops were killed during Operation Red Wings. Three service members died in an ambush and 16 others lost their lives when their helicopter went down in an effort to help.

    — On July 13, 2008 nine Americans and 27 others were wounded in an attack on an American observation post in the Battle of Wanat.

    — On October 3, 2009 eight Americans and four Afghans were killed at Combat Outpost Keating when 200 Taliban fighters attacked the base in eastern Afghanistan.

    — On December 30, 2009 a Jordanian double-agent lured seven CIA operatives to their deaths in a suicide attack at Forward Operating Base Chapman.

    — On September 21, 2010 a Black Hawk helicopter went down in Qalat, killing five soldiers of the 101st Airborne, three Navy SEALs, and one support technician.

    — On April 27, 2011 eight U.S. airmen and one contractor were killed at the Kabul airport. A U.S.-trained ally Afghan Air Corps pilot became angry during an argument and began shooting.

    — The worst day might have been one out of the other hundreds of green-on-blue killings, incidents when an Afghan soldier purposely killed an American ally, the worst kind of proof we had lost and refused to believe that until belief was forced upon us.

    — Or maybe the symbolically worst day was February 8, 2020 when two American soldiers were killed fighting in eastern Afghanistan, the last “combat” deaths. In between those deaths and the deaths by the suicide bomber at Kabul airport, five other Americans died in “non-hostiles,” suicides and accidents. Those were bad days, too.

    — The worst day might have been have been the death of Pat Tilman, the NFL star/poster boy who ceremoniously joined the Army post-9/11 only to die in a volley of friendly fire and Pentagon lies.

     

    — Or maybe it was after a Taliban IED tore apart State Department officer Anne Smedinghoff while on a propaganda mission. Would either have been proud to give their lives those ways, knowing what we know now?

    Maybe the worst day was when some soldier back home, thinking his war was over, realized he had been conned, it was all a lie, that he never fought to defend America or help the Afghans, and neither did his buddy who died among the poppies outside a village without a name. Maybe it was when he realized his dad had told him the same thing about Vietnam. Or maybe it was when he heard President Biden, mentally stuck in 2006, claim those killed at the Kabul airport were actually “lives given in the service of liberty.”

    Or the worst day might be tonight, when some American veteran tells his wife after a couple too many he is going out to clean his gun in the garage. An average of 20 vets take their own lives each day. On August 16, the day after Kabul fell, the Veterans Administration Crisis Line saw a 12 percent increase in calls.

    Of course the Afghans had some worst days too, though no one really keeps track of those. The Kabul airport suicide attack must rank high. Or it could have been when the U.S. bombed an Afghan hospital. Or maybe when a U.S. drone, our national bird, attacked a wedding party. The Haska Meyna wedding party airstrike killed 47. Another airstrike against a wedding party killed 40 civilians. The Wech Baghtu wedding party attack took 37 lives. An airstrike on the village of Azizabad killed as many as 92 civilians. A U.S. drone strike that destroyed 32 pine nut farmers.

    Because the big days for Afghans were often covered up instead of mourned, no one knows which was the worst day. We hide behind an Orwellian term too macabre for Orwell, collateral damage, to mean violence sudden, sharp, complete, unnecessary, and anonymous. For most Afghans, it defined our war against them.

    Or perhaps judging the worst day for the Afghan side via a simple body count is wrong, there were just so many. But if pain is the metric, then the worst day for Afghans clearly took place inside one of the black sites, where the United States as a national policy tortured people to death.

    We only know one name out of many. Gul Rahman died almost naked, wearing only socks and a diaper, shackled to the floor, in a CIA black site, for freedom, although no one can really explain the connection anymore. He’d been subjected to 48 hours of sleep deprivation, rough treatment, and cold showers, interrogated 18 hours a day. There were 20 other cells nearby for other Afghans. A CIA board recommended disciplinary action for the man held responsible for the death but was overruled.

    Those worst days highlight, if that word is even morally permissible here, the long series of atrocities committed in Afghanistan (and Iraq, and Vietnam, and…) instances where our killing of civilians, whether accidental or purposeful or something smeared in-between, ruined any chance the U.S. could capture those hearts and minds and build a stable society in our image. We could hold ground with tanks but only achieve our broader national security goals via memory. That’s why we lost.

     

    Because it is so very hard to understand 20 years of tragedy, we focus on something small and symbolically fetishize that, turn it into a token, a symbol of the greater failure that is easier to grasp, easier to acknowledge. Few Americans know much about the horrors inflicted across the decades of war in Vietnam but if they know anything they know My Lai. As documented in Nick Turse’s diligent Kill Anything That Moves, My Lai was indeed a real horror show, but simply best-known because it was the one where lots of photos were taken, not the worst. And that’s before we zoom out to see Vietnam’s CIA assassination program, Phoenix, was just a low-tech version of today’s drone killings.

    So it may be with the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport. Maybe they deserve their place in the coda of the war, a way to summarize things. The pieces are all there: tactical fumbling by Washington, Americans out of place, civilians just trying to escape taking the worst of the violence, an enemy no one saw or knows well disrupting carefully planned out global policy goals, sigh, again.

    There’s also the hero element, the Americans were innocents, killed while trying to help the Afghans (albeit help the Afghans out of a mess created earlier by other Americans.) And of course, following the bombing, a revenge airstrike against ISIS-K leaders, or a random goat farmer or an empty field (we’ll never know and it doesn’t really matter) followed by another which killed ten civilians using a “ginsu knives” bomb which shreds human flesh via six large blades. They may claim a bit of history by being the last Afghan civilians killed by the United States. Have we finally stopped holding that devil’s hand?

     

    The Kabul airport suicide bombing may be so jarring, so perfectly timed to illuminate 20 years of failure, that it will even be investigated. A blue ribbon committee might tear into what happened, the intelligence failure, some bad decision by a first lieutenant on where to deploy his men. Unlikely, but maybe even a low-level scapegoat will be named and punished. The committee certainly won’t look too far into reports the U.S. knew the attack was coming and let the troops die to appease Britain’s needs.

     

    We miss the point again. The issue is to ask: why have we not assigned blame and demanded punishment for the leaders who put those 20-year-old soldiers into the impossible situations they faced? Before we throw away the life of another kid or another dozen Afghans, why don’t we demand justice for those in the highest seats of power for creating wars that create such fertile ground for atrocity?

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Special Immigrant Visas (SIV): A Brief, Sad History

    September 4, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Biden, Iraq, Military

    The story of Afghans fleeing their country seeking Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) is the story of the war.

    In the hubris of conquest 20 years ago, no one could conceive the U.S. would need to evacuate locals who worked with us. Instead, they would form the vanguard of a New Afghanistan. Admitting some sort of escape program was needed was admitting our war was failing, and so progress implementing the SIV program was purposefully very slow. When it became obvious even in Washington that we were losing, an existing State Department perk for local employees was hastily remade into a covert refugee program.

    Even then, with no one wanting to really acknowledge the historical scale our failures, the SIV program was never properly staffed to succeed. Instead it was just tarted up to appear to be doing something good while never having any plan in place to do good, like the war itself. Admitting we had a refugee program for countries we had liberated was a tough swallow. Now, at the end, the Afghans who trusted the SIV program — trusted us — will randomly be rushed through the pipeline to make a few happy headlines, or left behind to their fate on the ground. No one now in the government actually cares what happens to them, as long as they go away somehow. At best the SIV program will be used to create a few human interest stories help cover up some of the good we otherwise failed to do.

     

    The current SIV story starts with the end of the Vietnam war, the desperate locals who worked for us at risk as collaborators, clambering aboard the last helicopters off the roof of the Embassy, followed by thousands of boat people. A sloppy coda to an expected unexpected ending. This is what the SIV program was supposed to be about, you know, never again.

    During the first few years of the Iraq and Afghan wars (“the Wars”), the official vision in Washington was that the Wars would transform the countries into happy meals of robust prosperity and nascent democracy. Congress, imaging early local hires as our American Gurkhas, loyal brown people serving us, wanted to thank those who provided such service. They created a visa program modeled after the existing Special Immigrant Visa (SIV). The State Department employed the SIV program abroad for many years. Local employees, say a Japanese passport clerk working in Embassy Tokyo, after 15 years of service could be rewarded an SIV to the Homeland. Such a prize would encourage workers to stay around for a full career, and course they wanted to be like us anyway.

    Congress had the same vision for the Wars. In 2006 they authorized 50 Special Immigrant Visas annually to Iraqi and Afghans working for the U.S. military. The cap was set at 50 because the visa was intended only for the very best, and besides, the locals would mostly want to live in their newly democratized countries anyway.

    What seemed like a good idea in the hazy early days of the Wars turned out to not make any sense given events on the ground. Military leaders saw their local helpers murdered by growing insurgencies Washington pretended did not exist. The limit of 50 a year was a joke as soldiers helped their locals apply by the hundreds. Political winds in Washington went round and round over the issue. An amendment to Section 1059 expanded the total number of visas to 500 per year in Iraq only for two years. But to help keep the pile of applications in some form of check, lower ranking soldiers could not supply the necessary Letter of Recommendation. That still had to be addressed to the Ambassador (Chief of Mission) and signed by a General, Admiral or similar big shot. The military chain of command would be used to slow down applications until we won the Wars.

    Despite a brave face, the SIV program quickly devolved into a pseudo-refugee route to save the lives of locals who helped us conquer. Section 1244 of the Defense Authorization Act for FY 2008 upped the number of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to 5,000 annually through FY 2012 for Iraqis (but not Afghans, we thought we were still winning there.) The changes reduced the necessary service time to only a year, but added the criteria “must have experienced or are experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment.”

    Importantly, the critical Letter of Recommendation no longer had to come from an inaccessible big shot per se. Officially the Letter still had to be co-signed by brass but in fact could be written by a lower level supervisor, such as the U.S. citizen who directly supervised the local. The Letter needed only to include a brief description of “faithful service” to the U.S. Government, nothing more. As conditions on the ground deteriorated, the standard of proof required to demonstrate the “ongoing serious threat” was reduced to a self-statement by the local. Visas out of the 5,000 allotted not used in one year could be rolled over into the next year. Documents could be submitted by email, ending the almost impossible task of accessing the fortress Embassies.

    Though officially absolutely not a refugee program, SIVs were made eligible for the same resettlement assistance programs as regular refugees. SIV. The State Department would even loan them, interest free, the travel cost to the U.S. “Feel good” companies like Amazon and Uber offered special hiring consideration. You can read the full details of how to apply online. It all sounded good. But by the time one war ended, despite over 100,000 Iraqis being generally eligible for SIVs, the State Department only issued around 2,000 principal visas.

     

    Like the Wars themselves, what seemed a good idea on paper was lost in the desert. In reality simple steps devolved into dead-ends, like whether the letter needed to be on DOD letterhead, a minor thing that became a game-ender if the American supervisor had left the service and was living stateside. The ever-prissy State Department also warns “all letters of recommendation should be proofread closely. Letters of recommendation with significant spelling and grammar errors may delay processing.”

    But the biggest hurdle was always the security advisory opinion, SAO, a background clearance check showing the applicant was not a bad guy. The problem, exacerbated in the Wars’ countries where names and dates of birth can be flexible, is the loyal translator hired in haste in 2010 and known to Sergeant Snuffy as “Suzy” might also have been trying to save her family in 2020 by passing information to the Taliban, if not the Chinese, Afghanistan was always the Great Game after all. The SAO was a whole-of-government file check and took time; average processing was over three years. (Aside: I had a State Department colleague whose job it was to work these. Because the CIA would not release its most secret files, once a week he had to drive over to Langley and take handwritten notes inside a vault. If his boss had a concern, he had to go back a week later to resolve it. He did not close many cases.)

    Despite over 26,000 SIV visas available for Afghans (the Iraqi program sunsetted in 2014) at no point in the two decade war were more than 4,000 principals ever issued in a year (inflated numbers from State include tag-along spouses and children for each principal applicant.) The estimate is some 20,000 active Afghan SIV applications are still somewhere in the pipeline. Congress even created a whole new application category, Priority 2, simply for those who could not quite meet the statutory requirements of the SIV program. As recently as July 30, 2021 Congress authorized 8,000 additional SIVs for Afghans, so supply is not the issue, processing is and always has been. One NGO which helps Afghans in the SIV process bemoans their efforts to speed up things have stumbled across three administrations, seven Congresses, seven Secretaries of Defense, and five Secretaries of State.

    None of this is new. State had agreed in 2018 to clear the backlog of SIV applications as part of a class action lawsuit but never did. A 2020 State Department Inspector General report found the SIV program’s understaffing made it unable to meet a congressionally mandated nine-month response time. SIV staffing levels hadn’t changed since 2016, despite a 50 percent increase in applicants. There was only one analyst dedicated to SAO security checks. The program was supposed to be overseen by a senior official but the position was left unfilled for three years. State never built a centralized database to verify applicants’ USG employment and instead relied on multiple computer systems which could not connect to each other, leading to workers manually typing in information. A little late, but in February President Biden issued an executive order demanding another review of delays. Meanwhile, in the first three months of 2021 the State Department issued only 137 SIVs.

    There is now pressure on Biden to “do something” about the SIVs in Afghanistan. What happens to the ones left behind is up to the Taliban. For those evacuated, to where and what purpose? Will they still be wading through the bureaucracy years from now, out of sight in refugee camps? Or will the SIV rules be thrown out and everyone rapidly approved to avoid another Biden disaster?

    That’s the beast of the Afghan War, SIV version, all too little, too late, all uncertain, all based on thrown together plans, stymied by hubris, failure to admit we screwed up, and a failure to coordinate a whole-of-government approach. So people suffer and people die in chaos in some far away place. Again.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Who’s to Blame for Losing Afghanistan?

    August 28, 2021 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Afghanistan, Biden, Embassy/State, Military, Trump


     

    Who should we blame for losing Afghanistan? Why blame anyone?

    Did anyone expect the U.S. war in Afghanistan to end cleanly? If so, you bought the lies all along and the cold water now is hitting sharp. While the actual ending is particularly harsh and clearly spliced together from old clips of Saigon 1975, those are simply details.

    Why blame Biden? He played his part as a Senator and VP keeping the war going, but his role today is just being the last guy in a long line of people to blame, a pawn in the game. That Biden is willing to be the “president who lost Afghanistan” is all the proof you need he does not intend to run again for anything. Kind of an ironic version of a young John Kerry’s take on Vietnam “how do you ask the last man to die for a mistake?” Turns out, it’s easy: call Joe.

    Blame Trump for the deal? One of the saddest things about the brutal ending of the U.S.-Afghan war is we would have gotten the same deal — just leave it to the Taliban and go home — at basically any point during the last 20 years. That makes every death and every dollar a waste. Afghanistan is simply reverting, quickly, to more or less status quo 9/10/01 and everything between then and now, including lost opportunities, will have been wasted.

    Blame the NeoCons? No one in Washington who supported this war was ever called out, with the possible exception of Donald Rumsfeld who, if there is a hell, now cleans truck stop toilets there. Dick Cheney walks free. The generals and diplomats who ran the war have nice think tank or university jobs, if they are not still in government making equally bad decisions. No one has been legally, financially, or professionally disadvantaged by the blood on their hands. Some of the era’s senior leaders — Blinken, Rice, Power, Nuland — are now working in better jobs for Biden. I’d like to hope they have trouble sleeping at night, but I doubt it.

    George Bush is a cuddly grandpa today, not the man who drove the United States into building a global prison archipelago to torture people. Barack Obama, who kept much of that system in place and added the drone killing of American citizens to his resume, remains a Democratic rock god. Neither man nor any of his significant underlings has expressed any regret or remorse.

    For example, I just listened to Ryan Crocker, our former ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, on CNN. Making myself listen to him was about as fun as sticking my tongue in a wood chipper. Same for former general David Petraeus and the usual gang of idiots. None of them, the ones who made the decisions, accept any blame. Instead. they seem settled on blaming Trump because, well, everything bad is Trump’s fault even if he came into all this in the middle of the movie.

    In the end the only people punished were the whistleblowers.

    No one in the who is to blame community seems willing to take the story back to its beginning, at least the beginning for America’s latest round in the Graveyard of Empires (talk about missing an early clue.) This is what makes Blame Trump and Blame Biden so absurd. America’s modern involvement in this war began in 1979 when Jimmy Carter, overreacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to prop up what was already a pro-Soviet puppet government, began arming and organizing Islamic warriors we now collectively know as “The Taliban.”

    People who want to only see trees they can chop down and purposely want to miss the vastness of the forest ahead at this point try to sideline things by claiming there never was a single entity called “The Taliban” and the young Saudis who flocked to jihad to kill Russians technically weren’t funded by the U.S. (it was indirectly through Pakistan) or that the turning point was the 1991 Gulf War, etc. Quibbles and distractions.

    If Carter’s baby steps to pay for Islamic warriors to fight the Red Army was playing with matches, Ronald Reagan poured gas, then jet fuel, on the fire. Under the Reagan administration the U.S. funded the warriors (called mujaheddin if not freedom fighters back then), armed them, invited their ilk to the White House, helped lead them, worked with the Saudis to send in even more money, and fanned the flames of jihad to ensure a steady stream of new recruits.

    When we “won” it was hailed as the beginning of the real end of the Evil Empire. The U.S. defeated the mighty Red Army by sending over some covert operators to fight alongside stooge Islam warriors for whom a washing machine was high technology. Pundits saw it as a new low-cost model for executing American imperial will.

    We paid little attention to events as we broke up the band and cut off the warriors post-Soviet withdrawal (soon enough some bozo at the State Department declared “the end of history.” He teaches at Stanford now) until the blowback from this all nipped us in the largely unsuccessful World Trade Center bombing of 1993, followed by the very successful World Trade Center bombing on September 11, 2001. Seems like there was still some history left to go.

    How did U.S. intelligence know who the 9/11 culprits were so quickly? Several of them had been on our payroll, or received financing via proxies in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, or were inspired by what had happened in Afghanistan, the defeat of the infidels (again; check Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Mughal Empire, various Persian Empires, the Sikhs, the British, et al.)

    If post-9/11 the U.S. had limited itself to a vengeful hissy fit in Afghanistan, ending with Bush’s 2003 declaration of “Mission Accomplished,” things would have been different. If the U.S. had used the assassination of Osama bin Laden, living “undiscovered” in the shadow of Pakistan’s military academy, as an excuse of sorts to call it a day in Afghanistan, things would have been different.

    Instead Afghanistan became a petri dish to try out the worst NeoCon wet dream, nation-building across the Middle East. Our best and brightest would not just bomb Afghanistan into the stone age, they would then phoenix-it from the rubble as a functioning democracy. There was something for everyone: a military task to displace post-Cold War budget cuts, a pork-laden reconstruction program for contractors and diplomats, even a plan to empower Afghan women to placate the left.

    Though many claim Bush pulling resources away from Afghanistan for Iraq doomed the big plans, it was never just a matter of not enough resources. Afghanistan was never a country in any modern sense to begin with, just an association of tribal entities who hated each other almost as much as they hated the west. The underpinnings of the society were a virulent strain of Islam, about as far away from any western political and social ideas as possible. Absent a few turbaned Uncle Toms, nobody in Afghanistan was asking to be freed by the United States anyway.

    Pakistan, America’s “ally” in all this, was a principal funder and friend of the Taliban, always more focused on the perceived threat from India, seeing a failed state in Afghanistan as a buffer zone. Afghanistan was a narco-state with its only real export heroin. Not only did this mean the U.S. wanted to build a modern economy on a base of crime, the U.S. in different periods actually encouraged/ignored the drug trade into American cities in favor of the cash flow.

    The Afghan puppet government and military the U.S. formed were uniformly corrupt, and encouraged by the endless inflow of American money to get more corrupt all the time. They had no support from the people and could care less. The Afghans in general and the Afghan military in particular did not fail to hold up their end of the fighting; they never signed up for the fight in the first place. No Afghan wanted to be the last man to die in service to American foreign policy.

    There was no way to win. The “turning point” was starting the war at all. Afghanistan had to fail. There was no other path for it, other than being propped up at ever-higher costs. That was American policy for two decades: prop up things and hope something might change. It was like sending more money to a Nigerian cyber-scammer hoping to recoup your original loss.

    Everything significant our government, the military, and the MSM told us about Afghanistan was a lie. They filled and refilled the bag with bullhockey and Americans bought it every time expecting candy canes. Keep that in mind when you decide who to listen to next time, because of course there will be a next time. Who has not by now realized that? We just passively watched 20 years of Vietnam all over again, including the sad ending. So really, who’s to blame?

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • What the Pentagon Papers 50th Anniversary Means

    June 26, 2021 // 0 Comments

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    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America

     

    It was a humid June on the east coast 50 years ago when the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers. The anniversary is worth marking, for reasons sweeping and grand, and for reasons deeply personal.

    In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret U.S. government history of the Vietnam War, to the Times. No one had ever published such classified documents before, and reporters feared prosecution under the Espionage Act. A federal court ordered the Times to cease publication after an initial flurry of excerpts were printed, the first time in U.S. history a federal judge had invoked prior restraint and shattered the 1A.

    In a legal battle too important to have been written first as a novel, the NYT fought back. The Supreme Court on June 30, 1971 handed down a victory for the First Amendment in New York Times Company v. United Statesand the Times won the Pulitzer Prize. The Papers helped convince Americans the Vietnam War was wrong, their government could not be trusted, and The People informed by a free press could still have a say in things. This 20 year anniversary rightfully marks all that.

    Today, journalists expect a Pulitzer for a snarky tweet that mocks Trump. In our current shameful state where the MSM serves as an organ of the Deep State, the anniversary of the Papers also serves as a reminder to millennials OnlyFansing as journalists that there were once people in their jobs who valued truth and righteousness. Perhaps this may inspire some MSM propagandist to realize he might still run with lions instead of slinking home to feed his cats.

    The 50th anniversary of the Papers is also a chance to remember how fragile the victory in 1971 was. The Supreme Court left the door open for prosecution of journalists who publish classified documents by focusing narrowly on prohibiting the government from prior restraint. Politics and public opinion, not law, have kept the feds exercising discretion in not prosecuting the press, a delicate dance around an 800-pound gorilla loose in the halls of democracy. The government, particularly under Obama, has meanwhile aggressively used the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers who leak to those same journalists.

    There is also a very personal side to this anniversary. When my book, We Meant Well, turned me into a State Department whistleblower and set off a wall of the bad brown falling on me, Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg sent me two of his books, unannounced, in the mail.

    He wrote a personal message inside each one, explaining to me what I was doing was hard, scary, and above all, a duty. It changed me and my understanding of what was happening to me. I wasn’t arguing procedure with the State Department and grubbing for my pension, I was defending the First Amendment itself. I wrote Dan a thank you note. Here’s some of it.

    Thank you for sending me copies of your books, and thank you even more for writing “with admiration for your truth telling” inside the cover flap of one. I am humbled, because I waited my whole life to realize today I had already met you.

    In 1971 I was 10 years old, living in Ohio. The Vietnam War was a part of our town’s life, same as the Fruehauf tractor-trailer plant with its 100 percent union workforce, the A&P and the Pledge of Allegiance. Nobody in my house went to war, but neighbors had gold stars in their windows and I remember one teacher at school, the one with the longer hair and the mustache, talking about Vietnam.

    It meant little to me, involved with oncoming puberty, but I remember my mom bringing home from the supermarket a newsprint quickie paperback edition of the Pentagon Papers. There of course was no Internet and you could not buy the Times where I lived. Mom knew of politics and Vietnam maybe even less than I did, but the Papers were all over the news and it seemed the thing to do to spend the $1.95. When I tried to make sense of the names and foreign places it made no impact on me.

    I didn’t understand then what you had done. While I was trying to learn multiplication, you were making photocopies of classified documents. As you read them, you understood the government had knowledge early on the war could not be won, and that continuing would lead to many times more casualties than was ever admitted publicly.

    A lot of people inside the government had read those same Papers and understood their content, but only you decided that instead of simply going along with the lies, or privately using your new knowledge to fuel self-eating cynicism, you would try to persuade U.S. Senators Fulbright and McGovern to release the papers on the Senate floor.

    When they did not have the courage, even as they knew the lies continued to kill Americans they represented, you brought the Papers to the New York Times. The Times then echoed the courage of great journalists and published the Papers, fought off the Nixon administration by calling to the First Amendment, and brought the truth about lies to America. That’s when my mom bought a copy of the Papers at the A&P.

    You were considered an enemy of the United States because when you encountered something inside of government so egregious, so fundamentally wrong, you risked your own fortune, freedom, and honor to make it public. You almost went to jail, fighting off charges under the same draconian Espionage Act the government still uses today to silence others who stand in your shadow.

    In 2009 I volunteered to serve in Iraq for my employer of some 23 years, the Department of State. While I was there I saw such waste in our reconstruction program, such lies put out by two administrations about what we were (not) doing in Iraq, that it seemed to me that the only thing I could do — had to do — was tell people about what I saw. In my years of government service, I experienced my share of dissonance when it came to what was said in public and what the government did behind the public’s back. In most cases, the gap was filled only with scared little men and women, and what was left unsaid hid their flaws.

    What I saw in Iraq was different. There, the space between what we were doing (the waste), and what we were saying (the chant of success) was filled with numb soldiers and devastated Iraqis, not nerveless bureaucrats. It wasn’t Vietnam in scale or impact, but it was again young Americans risking their lives, believing for something greater than themselves, when instead it was just another lie. Another war started and run on lies, while again our government worked to keep the truth from the people.

    I am unsure what I accomplished with my own book, absent getting retired-by-force from the State Department for telling a truth that embarrassed them. So be it; most people at State will never understand the choice of conscience over career, the root of most of State’s problems.

    But Dan, what you accomplished was this. When I faced a crisis of conscience, to tell what I knew because it needed to be told, coming to realize I was risking at the least my job if not jail, I remembered that newsprint copy of the Papers from 1971 which you risked the same and more to release. I took my decision in the face of the Obama administration having already charged more people under the Espionage Act for alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined, but more importantly, I took my decision in the face of your example.

    Later, whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden would do the same. I know you have encouraged them, too, through your example and with personal messages.

    So thank you for the books you sent Dan. Thank you for your courage so that when I needed it, I had an example to assess myself against other than the limp men and women working now for a Department of State too scared of the truth to rise to claim even a whisper of the word courage for themselves.

    Fast-forward to 2021. In these last few years the term “whistleblower” has been co-opted such that a Deep State operative was able to abuse the term to backdoor impeachment against a sitting president. The use of anonymous sources has devolved from brave individuals speaking out against a government gone wrong into a way for journalists to manufacture “proof” of anything they want, from claims the president was a Russian spy to the use of the military to create a photo op in Lafayette Park.

    On this anniversary we look at individuals like Ellsberg and reporters like those at the Times and know it is possible for individuals with courage to make a difference. That is something worth remembering, and celebrating.

      

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • CIA (Dis)Information Operations Come Home to the US

    May 29, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, NSA

     

    Reporters joke the easiest job in Washington is CIA spokesman. You need only listen carefully to questions and say “No comment’ before heading to Happy Hour. The joke, however, is on us. The reporters pretend to see only one side of the CIA, the passive hiding of information about itself. They meanwhile choose to profit from the other side of the equation, active information operations designed to influence events in America. It is 2021 and the CIA is running an op against the American people.

    Leon Panetta, the Director CIA from 2009 to 2011 explained bluntly his CIA did influence foreign media outlets ahead of elections in order to “change attitudes within the country.” The method, Panetta said, was to “acquire media within a country or within a region that could very well be used for being able to deliver a specific message or work to influence those that may own elements of the media to be able to cooperate, work with you in delivering that message.”

    The CIA has been running such information ops to influence foreign elections since the end of WWII. Richard Bissell, who ran the agency’s operations during the Cold War, wrote of “exercising control over a newspaper or broadcasting station, or of securing the desired outcome in an election.” A report on the CIA in Chile boasts the Agency portrayed its favored candidate in one election as a “wise, sincere and high-minded statesman” while painting his leftist opponent as a “calculating schemer.” At one point in the 1980s foreign media insertions ran 80 a day.

    The goal is to control information as a tool of influence. Sometimes the control is very direct, simply paying a reporter to run a story, or, as was done in Iraq, simply operating the media outlet yourself (known as the Orwellian Indigenous Media Project.) The problem is such direct action is easily exposed, destroying credibility.

    A more effective strategy is to become a source for legitimate media such that your (dis)information inherits their credibility. The most effective is an operation so complex one CIA plant is the initial information source while a second CIA plant acts seemingly independently as a confirming source. At that point you can push information to the mainstream media, who can then “independently” confirm it, sometimes unknowingly, through your secondary agents. You can basically write tomorrow’s headlines.

    Other techniques include exclusive true information mixed with disinformation to establish credibility, using official sources like Embassy spokesmen to appear to inadvertently confirm sub details, and covert funding of research and side gigs to promote academics and experts who discredit counter-narratives. The academics may never know where their money comes from, adding to their credibility.

    From the end of WWII to the Church Committee in 1976, this was all just a conspiracy theory. Of course the US would not use the CIA to influence elections, especially in fellow democracies. Except it did. By its nature reporting on intelligence always requires one to work with limited information. Always give time a chance to explain.

    Through Operation Mockingbird the CIA ran over 400 American journalists as direct assets. Almost none have ever discussed their work publically. CIA documents show journalists were engaged to perform tasks for the CIA with the consent of the managements of America’s leading news organizations. The New York Times alone willingly provided cover for about ten CIA officers over decades and kept quiet about it. Such long term relationships are a powerful tool, so feeding a true big story to a young reporter to get him promoted is part of the game. Don’t forget the anonymous source who drove the Watergate story was an FBI official who through his actions made the careers of  cub reporters Woodward and Bernstein. Bernstein went on to champion the Russiagate story. Woodward became a Washington hagiographer. Ken Dilanian, formerly with the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, and now working for NBC, maintains a “collaborative relationship” with the CIA.

     

    That’s the tradecraft and the history. The problem for America is once again the tools of war abroad have come home. The intelligence community is currently operating against the American people using established media.

    Some of it can’t be more obvious. The CIA always planted stories in foreign media for American outlets to pick up. The Agency works directly with Hollywood to control movies about itself. Turn on any of the advocacy media outlets and you see panels of former CIA officials. Journalist Matt Taibbi even created a list (and since ex-‘s need agency clearance to speak, all are of the officially approved class.) None is more egregious than John Brennan, former Director CIA, who for years touted Russiagate when he knew from information gathered while he was still in office it was all a lie.  The uber-lie that Trump was dirty with Russia was leaked to the press most likely by Brennan in January 2017 as the kick off event to the info op still running today.

    Brennan’s role is more than speculation. John Durham, the US attorney leading the ongoing “how it happened” Russiagate investigation into the intelligence community, has requested Brennan’s emails and call logs from CIA. Durham is also examining whether Brennan changed his story between his public comments (not under oath, say anything) and his May 2017 testimony to Congress (under oath, watch out for perjury) about the dossier. Reporter Aaron Mate is less delicate, laying out the evidence Brennan was “a central architect and promoter of the conspiracy theory from its inception.” Even blunter is Senator Rand Paul, who directly accuses Brennan of trying “to bring down a sitting president.”

     

    It was all based on nothing but disinformation and the American press swallowed every bit of it, turning the op into a three year tantrum falsely convincing a vast number of citizens their nation was run by a Russian asset. Robert Mueller, whose investigation was supposed to propel all this nothing into impeachment hearings, ended up exercising one of the last bits of political courage Americans will ever see in walking right to the edge of essentially a coup and refusing to step off into the abyss.

     

    The CIA is a learning institution, and recovered well from Russiagate. Details can be investigated. That’s where the old story fell apart. The dossier wasn’t true. But the a-ha discovery was since you’ll never formally prosecute anyone, why bother with evidence. Just throw out accusations and let the media fill it all in for you. The new paradigm included let the nature of the source — the brave lads of the intelligence agencies — legitimize the accusations this time, not facts. Go overt and use the new, unexpected prestige of the CIA as progressive heros to substantiate things.

    So in December 2017 CNN reported Donald Trump, Jr. had advance access to the WikiLeaks archive. Within an hour, NBC’s Ken Dilanian and CBS both claimed independent confirmation. It was a complete lie, based on fabricated documents. How do you confirm a lie? Ask another liar.

    In February 2020, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) briefed the House Intelligence Committee the Russians were election meddling again to favor Trump. A few weeks earlier, the ODNI briefed Bernie Sanders the Russians were also meddling in the Democratic primaries in his favor. Both briefings were leaked, the former to the New York Times to smear Trump for replacing his DNI, the latter to the Washington Post ahead of the Nevada caucuses to damage Sanders.

    In June 2020 The New York Times stated CIA officials concluded the Russians “secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops.”  The story ran near another claiming Trump had spoken disrespectfully about fallen soldiers. Neither story was true. But they broke around the same time Trump announced his plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, aimed at discouraging pro-military voters.

    Earlier this month The Washington Post, citing anonymous sources, claimed the FBI gave a defensive briefing to Rudy Giuliani in 2019, before he traveled to Ukraine. Giuliani supposedly ignored the warning. The story was “independently confirmed” by both NBC and The New York Times. It was totally false.

     

    The American system always envisioned an adversarial role for the media. One of the earliest challenges to freedom of the press was the Colonial-era Peter Zenger case, which established the right of the press to criticize politicians free from libel charges. At times when things really mattered and even as other journalists hid under their beds, men like Edward R. Murrow worked their craft to preserve democracy. Same for Walter Cronkite finally reaching his opposition to the Vietnam War, and the New York Times reporters weighing imprisonment to publish the Pentagon Papers.

    In each of those instances the handful of reporters who risked everything to tell the truth were held up as heroes. Seeing the Times fighting for its life, the Washington Post co-published the Pentagon Papers to force the government to make its case not just against a rival newspaper, but the 1A itself.

    Not today. Journalism is today devoted to eliminating practitioners unwilling to play the game. Few have been targeted more than Glenn Greenwald (with Matt Taibbi as runner up.) Greenwald exploded into a journalistic superhero for his reporting on Edward Snowden’s NSA archive, founding The Intercept to serve as a platform for that work (Greenwald’s downfall parallels Julian Assange, who went from liberal hero for exposing the foundational lies of the Iraq War to zero when his Wikileaks was demonized for supposedly helping Donald Trump.)

    Greenwald’s criticism of the media for accepting Deep State lies as truth, particularly concerning Russiagate, turned him into a villian for progressives. MSNBC banned him, and other media outlets ran stories critical of him. Then something very, very odd happened to make it appear The Intercept outed one of its own whistleblower sources. Evidence suggests the source was a patsy, set up by the intel community, and exposed via Matt Cole, one of The Intercept journalists on this story. Cole was also involved in the outing of source CIA officer John Kiriakou in connection with torture claims. Either way new whistleblowers will think twice before turning to The Intercept. Greenwald recently quit the site after it refused to publish his article on Hunter Biden’s ties to China unless he deleted portions critical of Joe Biden.

    Greenwald seems to have figured out the intel community’s game, writing “the most significant Trump-era alliance is between corporate outlets and security state agencies, whose evidence-free claims they unquestioningly disseminate… Every journalist, even the most honest and careful, will get things wrong sometimes, and trustworthy journalists issue prompt corrections when they do. That behavior should be trust-building. But when media outlets continue to use the same reckless and deceitful tactics — such as claiming to have ‘independently confirmed‘ one another’s false stories when they have merely served as stenographers for the same anonymous security state agents while ‘confirming’ nothing — that strongly suggests a complete indifference to the truth and, even more so, a willingness to serve as disinformation agents.”

    Democracy has no meaning if people simply vote uninformed, as they are propagandized. It will be sport for future historians to mark the thing that most pushed America into decline. Seeing decades of success abroad in using info ops, the CIA and others turned those weapons inward. So seeing her Deep State meddle in presidential politics, simultaneously destroying (albeit mostly with their cooperation) the adversarial media, while crushing faith in both our leaders and in the process of electing them, will certainly be a top qualifier.

     

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Afghanistan Mon Amour

    May 1, 2021 // 0 Comments

    Tags: , , , , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Biden, Embassy/State, Iraq, Trump

    President Biden announced he will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by September 11. That will end 20 years of a war which killed some 2,300 Americans, an unknown number of Afghans, and cost trillions of dollars to accomplish nothing.

    Biden speaks more plainly about failure than any previous president. “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result. I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.” We’ll take Biden at his word for now. Best to focus on the good.

    So leave aside how Biden piggy-backed off Trump’s decision, roundly criticized, to negotiate with the Taliban, and how Trump’s own plans to withdraw troops were sabotaged by the Deep State, including the false claims Russians were paying bounties for dead Americans. This could have been over two years ago, same as it could have been over 10 years ago. But neither Bush nor Obama had the courage to do it, Hillary certainly would not have, Trump was stopped, and so the dirty work fell to Joe.

    Let’s also leave aside the inevitable as America runs for the exit (and this alone suggests Biden plans on being a one-term president, setting himself like this.) The puppet regime in Kabul will dissolve like paper in the rain. The only question is how ugly the Taliban takeover will be; will they just close schools or will they behead teachers on TV?

    We should leave aside the Bush decision to invade Afghanistan at all. Sure the 9/11 hijackers were mostly Saudi, but Afghanistan was such an easy target and Al Qaeda did have some training camps there. Of course the 9/11 hijackers trained in American flight schools but even Dick Cheney wouldn’t bomb those (Biden’s choice of 9/11/2021 as the withdrawal date is meant to support that original sin of a lie.) Revenge morphed into nation building, “democracy in a box” it was called, and so by late 2001 the framework of the 20 year war was set. At the next off ramp, Obama let David Petraeus, then waiting for someone to cast Tom Hanks in his biopic, talk him into a surge of 30,000 troops soon after he took home his Nobel Peace Prize, the most ironic reward since Henry Kissinger got his. The rest is history.

     

    The modern American way of war is well-defined. Go in without an endgame, quit when the political cost hits critical, and leave the people supposedly democratized or otherwise liberated to their fate (Newspeak: “author of their own future”) while we honor our wounded troops with a free breakfast at Denny’s. Biden’s good friend, John Kerry, is an easy target because of his famous statement in 1971 about Vietnam: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Turns out it’s pretty easy.

    (The last American solider to die in Afghanistan, as of today, is Javier Gutierrez. He was shot to death by an Afghan soldier after a disagreement.)

    Next unleash the pundits to write about lessons learned. Their usual pattern is we had good intentions but the Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnamese, Pakistanis, et al, just didn’t do their share and we should never repeat this kind of thing. Nobody talks much about inertia, bureaucratic cowardliness, endless war as a questionable prophylaxis against terrorism, the ugliness of staying in because you don’t know why you started and are afraid of what happens if you end it. The only people now whining about unfinished business are feminists who seem to believe Marines should die so girls don’t have to wear burkas.

     

    The key theme in all these lessons learned is how could we have ever known it would turn out this way?

    Even before it started the war had to fail. Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, had beaten Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Mughal Empire, various Persian Empires, the Sikhs, the British, and the mighty Red Army. What betting man would think the U.S. would end up any different? 

    Many knew the war would fail when it was back-burnered for an equally doomed jihad in Iraq in 2003. Or maybe it was when Bin Laden escaped Afghanistan, and again when he was killed 10 years after the initial U.S. invasion and yet the troops stayed on. Perhaps it was when SNL 20 years back did a skit about a suburban cocktail party that comes to a halt to celebrate the U.S. capture of Kandahar though no one knows exactly why it mattered, just that we won!

    Others foresaw the eventual failure upon the death of Pat Tilman, the NFL star who joined the Army post-9/11 only to die in a volley of friendly fire and Pentagon lies. Maybe it was after a Taliban IED tore apart State Department officer Anne Smedinghoff (say her name) while on a propaganda mission. Maybe it was in 2009 when former Marine Matthew Hoh resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan with the State Department over the war’s escalation. It could have been all those “feel good” media pieces about sons deploying to the same Afghan battlefields their fathers had served on.

    Or maybe when The Washington Post, long an advocate for all the wars everywhere, took a bruised penance publishing the Afghanistan Papers showing the government lied at every step. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” wrote Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations. “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” It’s a sordid trip down a street without joy, with little grace and less honor, last chapter just as bad as the first. FYI, America will mark the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers this year.

    The final knowing point for me personally was in 2012. That was when, after having written a whistleblowing book on the failure of Iraq reconstruction and nation building, focusing on the carpetbaggers the U.S. hired to do most of the ground work, I began receiving requests for recommendations. The U.S. was hiring the same monkeys to work on the Afghan program.

    I responded to each inquiry with a short note and a draft copy of my book, only to find later in every case the person who had helped sink the U.S. effort in Iraq was rehired in Afghanistan. Ironically, the initial title for my book wasn’t the unwieldy We Meant Well: How I Lost the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People but Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq. The publisher changed it, thinking the war in Afghanistan might be over before we hit the shelves almost a decade ago.

    Those with any sense of history saw Afghanistan (and Iraq for that matter) and heard echoes of Vietnam-Vietnam-Vietnam. Others looked back to a war where far more Americans were killed, some 35,000, where we stayed for 70 years without a peace treaty, with the North Korea we “beat” now a nuclear power. Yet politicians dared stand up in 2001 to say “we’ll get it right this time, trust us.” Who could have imagined nearly all Americans did answer “OK.” And then said OK again and again for 20 years even as their own sons and daughters came home dead, maimed or psychologically destroyed.

    Lessons learned? None at all. We’ll do it again just as Vietnam followed Korea, and Afghanistan followed Vietnam. Fathers whose hands shake with PTSD sent their sons off to the same fate. If that, that, can’t stop these pointless wars, nothing ever will. So, nothing ever will.

     

    We will do this again because failure has no such consequences for the decision makers. Bush is reborn as a cuddly old goof, Obama remembered as the bestest president ever. Trump is criticized both as a war monger and for talking about pulling back U.S. troops in the Middle East. The era’s senior leaders — Blinken, Rice, Power, Nuland — are now working in better jobs for Biden. I’d like to hope they have trouble sleeping at night, but I doubt it.

    In the classic 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour a Japanese man says to his French lover “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.” His frustration is in the two being bystanders on opposite sides of a war where all sides were inherently evil. There is always in the background talk about justice. What justice will be available to the Americans who went to their God like soldiers in Afghanistan, the uncountable Afghans who died at our hands, the promises to the living of a better future all now reviled lies?

    There are still those nights it takes a fair amount of whisky to abort thoughts about why no one gets impeached for wasting lives. But for tonight at least I’ll fill a glass half empty so I can raise it to Joe, for finally, imperfectly, awfully, clumsily ending this mess, better late than forever.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.