The New War Hawks

For our next Zoom call, we have a special guest, Nachman Shai, Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs. To accommodate his schedule, the call will be on Thursday (rather than the usual Friday) and 11 AM ET (rather than the usual Noon). It’s unusual for an Israeli cabinet minister to interact with an audience that includes not only critics of Israeli policy, but (in my case, at least) critics of Jewish statehood itself. So give him credit. It should be a fascinating exchange. As always, we’ll include your questions. If you subscribe, you’ll also get access to all of our previous conversations, with people like Rashid Khalidi, Noam Chomsky, Spencer Ackerman, and Francis Fukuyama.

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Since the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I’ve often wondered how much US foreign policymakers have learned from the disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq. This week offered fresh evidence that, when it comes to US policy toward China, the answer is: not nearly enough.

In the months before America overthrew Saddam Hussein’s government, America’s leaders recklessly downplayed the war’s potential costs. When Lawrence Lindsay, the director of George W. Bush’s National Economic Council, warned that rebuilding Iraq might cost as much as $200 billion, Bush’s Budget Director, Mitch Daniels, called the estimate “very, very high,” and Lindsay was soon fired. (In fact, his estimate was very, very low; according to a 2020 estimate by Brown University’s Cost of War project, the Iraq War cost the US $2 trillion.) When Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki suggested that occupying Iraq might require “several hundred thousand soldiers,” Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz called that figure “wildly off the mark.” (It was, but in the opposite direction. One million US soldiers would ultimately serve in Iraq).  

Prominent figures, including prominent Democrats, are doing the same thing today. They’re downplaying the potential costs of an even more dangerous war, this time over Taiwan.

Last week, Representative Elaine Luria, a rising Democratic star, penned a column in The Washington Post entitled “Congress Must Untie Biden’s Hands on Taiwan.” In it, she warned that, “The president has no legal authority to react in the time necessary to repel a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.” So Luria wants to proactively give Biden, and all future presidents, that authority now. She wants Congress to authorize war with China over Taiwan.

What might such a war entail? For one thing, the US would likely lose. As Fareed Zakaria has noted, “The Pentagon has reportedly enacted 18 war games against China over Taiwan, and China has prevailed in every one.” Even if the US doesn’t lose, Timothy Heath, a former China analyst at U.S. Pacific Command, estimates that, “The casualties that the Chinese could inflict on us could be staggering.” The US could lose as many troops in the first few days of a war over Taiwan as it lost in the entirety of the Afghan and Iraq Wars. There’s also a genuine risk of nuclear war. Two of the American diplomats who know China best, Ambassador Chas Freeman, who served as Richard Nixon’s interpreter when he visited Beijing in 1972, and J. Stapleton Roy, another fluent Chinese speaker who served as Ambassador in Beijing in the early 1990s, have both recently warned that a conflict over Taiwan could escalate into a nuclear exchange.

So giving Biden and the presidents who follow him (one of whom might be Donald Trump) pre-authorization for war—irrespective of the circumstances that provoke one—is a monumental gamble. How does Representative Luria grapple with the potential risks?

She doesn’t.

Her column includes no estimate of the number of Americans who might die in a war over Taiwan, no discussion of the possibility of an American defeat, and no acknowledgement of the danger of a nuclear exchange. To the contrary, she suggests that pre-authorizing war would “deter an all-out war,” “repel an invasion” or “de-escalate the situation.” Luria provides no evidence for these claims; she just asserts them. Presumably she believes that if Beijing knew an American president had pre-clearance for war, it would be less likely to launch one. Maybe. But China’s leaders sees Taiwan as a renegade province, not a foreign country. And they see reclaiming lost Chinese territory—after a century of humiliation of the hands of foreign powers—as central to their historical mission. Geography also offers them a formidable advantage. As I noted earlier this year in The New York Times, China operates 39 air bases with 500 miles of Taiwan. The US operates two.

Which is why, contrary to Luria’s cheery prediction, Paul Heer, who served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia from 2007 to 2015, has argued that “when push comes to shove, China will not be deterred.” The political scientist Graham Allison has observed that, “No Chinese national security official I have ever met, and no U.S. official who has examined the situation, doubts that China would choose war over losing territory it considers vital to its national interest.”

All of which makes it deeply reckless—George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld-level reckless—for Luria to call on Congress to pre-authorize war without even acknowledging what might happen if her effort at deterrence fails. But, unfortunately, such recklessness is in vogue. Last fall, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass co-authored an essay calling for the US to make “explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan.” Like Luria, Haass asserted that if the US offers this kind of “clear statement” and “takes steps to make this credible,” Xi Jinping “will think twice before forcing the Taiwan issue and bringing about a confrontation with the United States.” Maybe. But China is a rising power, gripped by nationalist fervor, which probably enjoys a military advantage in a conflict over Taiwan, and sees reunification as its manifest destiny. So maybe not.

Haass, like Luria, sees immense danger in an American failure to defend Taiwan. In his essay, he warns that, “If the United States fails to respond to such a Chinese use of force, regional U.S. allies, such as Japan and South Korea, will conclude that the United States cannot be relied upon and that it is pulling back from the region. These Asian allies would then either accommodate China, leading to the dissolution of U.S. alliances and the crumbling of the balance of power.”

These are legitimate fears. Haass also believes, rightly, that Taiwan is a liberal democratic success story whose fall to Chinese tyranny would constitute an immense moral tragedy.

But if the costs of not going to war for Taiwan are grave, so are the costs of going to war—costs that Haass, like Luria, ignores. For most Americans, in fact, the costs of war are far more tangible. It’s easier to grasp the danger of losing thousands of US troops, and risking nuclear war, than the dangers of upsetting the balance of power in East Asia. Which helps explain why, according to recent polling, only about half of the American public favors going to war if China invades. Ordinary Americans care substantially less about Taiwan than do ordinary Chinese. In 2017, the Committee of 100, a Chinese American group, asked people in both countries to name their “two greatest concerns about the U.S.-China relationship.” Among mainland Chinese, Taiwan came in first. Among Americans, it didn’t make the top seven.

Luria and Haass thus face a problem that echoes the one Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld faced in the run-up to war with Iraq. They’re willing to fight but it’s not clear that the American people agree. Bush and company responded by downplaying the risks in order to gin up support for war. Americans have been paying the price ever since. Now, on Taiwan, a new set of hawks are doing something similar. And the price may prove even higher.

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Other stuff:

I wrote a column last week in Jewish Currents (subscribe!) on how Naftali Bennett convinced the US media that he’s a moderate.

Last week I spoke at Tufts University about anti-Semitism and the Israel-Palestine debate.

On October 28 I’m debating New York Times columnist Bret Stephens at Temple Emanu-El in New York City on whether anti-Zionism constitutes anti-Semitism.

Speaking of debates, I’m grateful to the Hartman Institute’s Yehuda Kurtzer, who sent me this hard-to-find video of a 1988 debate in Riverdale between Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and Rabbi Meir Kahane. Given the event’s blatant anti-Palestinian racism, it should include a trigger warning. But it’s a fascinating (and profoundly disturbing) artifact of modern American Jewish history.

I learned a lot about Christianity from this conversation between Cornel West and Andrew Sullivan.

Koreans are outraged by a Japanese seafood curry that includes rice balls shaped like Korean islands that Japan claims as its own. If anyone has other examples of cuisine that has inflamed border disputes, please let me know. I’ll include them next week.

Hope to see you on Friday,

Peter