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Would You Go to War So Nancy Pelosi Can Visit Taiwan?
In his 2004 film, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Michael Moore toured the Capitol asking members of Congress to enlist their children to fight in Iraq. It was a stunt, and critics accused Moore of editing members’ responses to make them look bad. Still, the scene rattled me, perhaps because I had a close relative then serving in that war. She was risking her life in a conflict I had wrongly supported yet wasn’t fighting in myself. I shuddered when I considered what I might say if Moore questioned me.
I don’t know what Michael Moore is doing now. But I’d be pleased if he returned to Congress and asked the politicians who want Nancy Pelosi to visit Taiwan a version of that same question. If her visit sparks a Chinese military response, and brings Washington and Beijing to the brink of war, will they enlist their kids to fight? It’s the kind of question foreign policy commentators rarely ask. It’s too impolite. And when it comes to the China debate in Washington, it’s this politeness—the failure to talk in blunt, human terms about the consequences of war—that terrifies me.
But first a word about this week’s Zoom call, which will be at our normal time, Friday at Noon ET. Our guest will be Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a professor at Princeton and former president of the Center for Policy Research in Delhi, India. Pratap is a brilliant and courageous critique of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s effort to transform India from a secular into a Hindu chauvinist state. In a column earlier this year, he wrote that, “The new Hinduism is about widespread acceptance of vile prejudice, alignment of state with majoritarian power, contempt for rights, glorification of violence.” Pratap’s writing reminds me of the work of one of my heroes, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who warned presciently about the effect of ultra-nationalism not only on Israel, but on Judaism. I’m honored that Pratap is joining us this Friday. As always, paid subscribers will receive the link this Wednesday and the video the following week.
Back to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Last weekend, the Speaker and several other members of the House of Representatives left for a tour of Asia. Originally, the trip appeared to involve a visit to Taiwan. Now it’s not clear.
What is clear is that some China experts, and some in the US military, are deeply afraid of what Beijing might do if Pelosi does visit Taipei. Hers would the highest-ranking visit by a member of Congress since House Speaker Newt Gingrich travelled to Taiwan in 1997. And although the Chinese government routinely objects when the US supports the island, its protests this time have been much louder. A commentator in China’s state-run newspaper, Global Times, has suggested China might prevent Pelosi’s plane from landing. In The New York Times, Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund, and the American Enterprise Institute’s Zack Cooper, warned that with Pelosi’s trip “we are sleepwalking into a crisis.” Experts worry that Chinese President Xi Jinping feels a particular need to project strength in the run-up to the communist party congress this fall where he’s expected to receive a third term as party leader. Even Joe Biden has acknowledged that “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now” for Pelosi to visit Taipei.
So why isn’t Biden stopping Pelosi from going? Partly it’s because as a leader of the legislative branch, Pelosi is independent. Legally, Biden can’t tell her what to do. But, in reality, he has enormous influence over her decision. It’s just harder for him to exercise that influence because, in today’s Washington, Democrats are terrified of being labelled soft on China. For casting doubt on Pelosi’s trip, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already alleged that Biden is following in the footsteps of other Americans who have “kowtowed”—interesting verb choice—to the Chinese communist party.” Pompeo added that, if Pelosi doesn’t visit Taiwan, it “would send a really bad message to our friends in the region – the Australians, the South Koreans, the Japanese.”
There you have it, the eternal and almost-always-stupid argument about American credibility. Pompeo isn’t arguing that Pelosi’s visit delivers anything of substance to Taiwan. No House Speaker has visited the island for 25 years, and it hasn’t suffered as a result. To the contrary, it has flourished because, for decades, US presidents followed a policy of keeping America’s relationship with Taiwan unofficial, and thus avoided playing into Chinese fears that the island is becoming independent, which would make China more likely to invade. The problem is that Donald Trump, and now Joe Biden, have been steadily undoing that longstanding policy. In 2020, Democrats removed the phrase “one China” from their platform. In January 2021, Biden became the first US president since 1978 to host Taiwan’s envoy at his inauguration. Then, last April, his administration declared it was relaxing decades-old limitations on official US interactions with the Taiwanese government. In theory, Washington remains purposely ambiguous about whether the US would defend Taiwan from Chinese attack. But Biden has now said three times that the US would do just that—before his advisors retracted his words. He’s also said that Taiwan is “independent”—although supposedly that’s not US policy either.
All of which helps explain why Beijing is so antsy about Pelosi’s trip. Chinese leaders apparently see it as the latest evidence that the US has discarded the agreements the two governments made when the US and China established diplomatic relations close to a half-century ago. “The accumulation of these perceived changes in the U.S. position,” argue Glaser and Cooper, has led officials in Beijing “to argue that China needs to take steps to make its red lines credible.” So if Pelosi goes ahead with her visit because she fears the US would look weak by backing down, China may decide that it can’t back down for the same reason. Which could spark a military incident, which would bring the two nations close to war.
Had Pelosi not said she was going to Taiwan in the first place, no one would be suggesting she needed to go in order bolster American credibility in Asia. The argument that she can’t back down now resembles the argument that the US couldn’t leave Vietnam because the war had become a test of US resolve. Hawks should emblazon this mantra on their think tank doors: Once in a hole, keep digging!
A particularly striking example of this illogic comes from Henry Olson in the Washington Post. “Nations such as Japan,” he argues, “would surely view Pelosi canceling her visit as a sign that the United States is unwilling to test China’s resolve.” How Olson knows this is unclear—he offers no evidence for the claim. Maybe Japan’s military thinks Pelosi’s visit is as foolish as America’s does. But let’s assume Olson is right and there would be some reputational cost to the US if Pelosi scraps her trip. How does that compare to the risk of military conflict? Olson admits that “our generals don’t want to risk a confrontation with China while we are engaged in supplying weapons to Ukraine” because “The U.S. military certainly is not prepared to fight two major wars simultaneously.” He acknowledges, in other words, both that the US military thinks Pelosi’s visit would make war more likely and that it’s a war the US is not prepared to fight. And yet he wants Pelosi to visit Taiwan anyway. Because US credibility matters more.
This is why we need Michael Moore. We need someone to cut through abstractions like credibility and ask some blunt questions. How many Americans would die in a war over Taiwan? According to Timothy Heath, a former China analyst at U.S. Pacific Command who now works as a defense researcher at RAND, the US casualties would likely be “staggering.” Could the US win? As Olson acknowledges, probably not. In war games, the US loses almost every time. Could a war over Taiwan blow up the entire world? Yes. There are few Americans who know China better than J. Stapleton Roy and Chas Freeman. Roy grew up there and later returned as US ambassador. Freeman served as interpreter when Richard Nixon visited China in 1972. Both have recently warned that a conflict over Taiwan could escalate into nuclear war.
How many lives are worth risking so Nancy Pelosi can visit Taiwan? It’s an impolite question—one that in the coming days the US media should ask again and again.
Last week, I linked to a review of a new book about Matzpen, the Israeli dissident group. Professor Assaf Kfoury, who subscribes to this newsletter, told me he prefers this review instead. So I’m attaching it here.
A striking ad attacking the new anti-abortion restrictions in Texas.
Growing up as a Celtics fan in Boston, Bill Russell was one of my heroes. This is what it was like to be a Black professional athlete in my hometown in the 1950s and 1960s.
See you Friday,