Commentary Magazine


Topic: China

Can a Deadbeat America Stay on Top?

In the 19th century, individual deadbeats could go to prison and countries that defaulted on their debt could be invaded. To choose only two examples of many, Britain invaded Egypt in 1882 and the U.S. invaded Haiti in 1915 because those countries were not meeting their obligations to international debt-holders.

Today we take a far more relaxed view about owing money. The law makes bankruptcy relatively easy and painless for individuals and corporations–at least less painful than the prospect of debtors’ prison. There is no ethic of living within your means; instead we are now encouraged to run up debt, whether via a home mortgage or a credit card bill, and spend, spend, spend. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—we don’t need to return to the Puritanical, anti-debt attitude of the 19th century. There is nothing wrong with a responsible amount of debt, whether for a family or a country.

But we are carrying our easy-going modern-day ethos a little too far when we run the risk of defaulting on the debt of the United States. Odds are we will see an 11th-hour reprieve from this calamity; at least the markets seem to think so, judging by the run-up of stocks in recent days. But, even if we avert the worst today, it is grossly irresponsible and harmful for lawmakers—meaning principally Tea Party hardliners in the House—to have allowed the deadline to come so close.

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In the 19th century, individual deadbeats could go to prison and countries that defaulted on their debt could be invaded. To choose only two examples of many, Britain invaded Egypt in 1882 and the U.S. invaded Haiti in 1915 because those countries were not meeting their obligations to international debt-holders.

Today we take a far more relaxed view about owing money. The law makes bankruptcy relatively easy and painless for individuals and corporations–at least less painful than the prospect of debtors’ prison. There is no ethic of living within your means; instead we are now encouraged to run up debt, whether via a home mortgage or a credit card bill, and spend, spend, spend. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—we don’t need to return to the Puritanical, anti-debt attitude of the 19th century. There is nothing wrong with a responsible amount of debt, whether for a family or a country.

But we are carrying our easy-going modern-day ethos a little too far when we run the risk of defaulting on the debt of the United States. Odds are we will see an 11th-hour reprieve from this calamity; at least the markets seem to think so, judging by the run-up of stocks in recent days. But, even if we avert the worst today, it is grossly irresponsible and harmful for lawmakers—meaning principally Tea Party hardliners in the House—to have allowed the deadline to come so close.

Thankfully the U.S. armed forces are still strong enough—for the time being anyway—to prevent the Chinese military from showing up on our shores to collect the trillions we owe them. (But for how much longer? Given the increases in Chinese military spending and our own across-the-board cuts as a result of the mindless sequestration process, the trends are not favorable when it comes to the shifting balance of power in the Pacific.) But the U.S. cannot rely on military strength alone. Much of our economic strength is underpinned by the fact that the dollar is the favorite reserve currency in the world and by the fact that the U.S. is the favorite destination for foreign investment.

That strong financial position will not be sacrificed overnight. But it will gradually erode if we have too many more perils-of-Pauline flirtations with a sovereign debt default. Already China’s Xinhua news agency is using this occasion to call for the world to “de-Americanize.” Such calls are likely to fall on deaf ears—for now. But we cannot afford to make the world think there is any doubt about America’s ability and willingness to repay its debts. That is a fundamental obligation of government, which, if called into question, will erode our national standing and hence our national security. There is no excuse for the willingness of some lawmakers to drive us so close to the cliff’s edge.

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The Missing Pivot

So much for the vaunted “Pacific pivot.” When Barack Obama came into office, he vowed to reverse the Bush administration’s focus on the Middle East by “rebalancing” toward East Asia and the looming menace of China. The argument of the incoming administration was that the previous administration had lost sight of the bigger strategic realities as a result of the post-9/11 aftermath.

It turns out it’s not so easy to disengage from the Middle East–or to double down on the Far East. Look at what happened this weekend, or rather what didn’t happen.

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So much for the vaunted “Pacific pivot.” When Barack Obama came into office, he vowed to reverse the Bush administration’s focus on the Middle East by “rebalancing” toward East Asia and the looming menace of China. The argument of the incoming administration was that the previous administration had lost sight of the bigger strategic realities as a result of the post-9/11 aftermath.

It turns out it’s not so easy to disengage from the Middle East–or to double down on the Far East. Look at what happened this weekend, or rather what didn’t happen.

On the one hand, Obama ordered commando raids in Libya and Somalia. This comes after weeks, even months, of near-total focus in Washington on Syria and Iran–not on China or North Korea. On the other hand, Obama decided to not to go on a planned swing through East Asia. This included skipping an Asia Pacific Economic Summit meeting in Indonesia. Secretary of State John Kerry went instead, but he simply doesn’t carry the same diplomatic megawattage as the president. Obama’s absence left China’s leader, Xi Jinping, as the top dog.

Obama’s absence had more than symbolic import. It probably slowed the process of completing negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade zone that includes most of the major countries of East Asia but excludes China. More broadly, Obama’s absence no doubt causes wavering nations such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and many others, which fear China but live in its shadow, to doubt how much they can rely on a putative alliance with the United States.

The president’s absence suggests that dysfunction and deficits at home are preventing American engagement in the broader world. That impression is not necessarily true; if Delta Force and SEAL Team Six could travel abroad this weekend, even as the government is partially shuttered, so too President Obama could have traveled. He just didn’t want to, because he figured it would be bad politics to leave the country during a major budget crisis. It would certainly hamper, in a cynical interpretation, his efforts to lay all the blame on the Republican side, or, to adopt a more charitable explanation, to negotiate a way to end the crisis.

That’s an understandable political calculation, and one that most presidents no doubt would have made. But it comes at a strategic cost in the very region of the world that Obama claimed he would pay more attention to.

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Turkey Endangers NATO

While the U.S. media focused for much of the past two weeks on President Obama’s “bromance” with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the government shutdown, Turkey has made some moves which should raise alarm bells at both the Pentagon and in Brussels.

Three months ago, I blogged here about how Turkey was considering a Chinese bid for an anti-aircraft system. Integrating a Chinese missile system into NATO’s early warning network would require giving the Chinese company access to top secret NATO software. Earlier this week, however, Turkey announced that it would award a $4 billion air defense contract to co-produce a long-range missile defense system with a Chinese firm sanctioned by the United States for its proliferation activities with Iran.

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While the U.S. media focused for much of the past two weeks on President Obama’s “bromance” with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the government shutdown, Turkey has made some moves which should raise alarm bells at both the Pentagon and in Brussels.

Three months ago, I blogged here about how Turkey was considering a Chinese bid for an anti-aircraft system. Integrating a Chinese missile system into NATO’s early warning network would require giving the Chinese company access to top secret NATO software. Earlier this week, however, Turkey announced that it would award a $4 billion air defense contract to co-produce a long-range missile defense system with a Chinese firm sanctioned by the United States for its proliferation activities with Iran.

This is not the first time that Turkey has undercut NATO security to the benefit of the Chinese. The Turkish Air Force has held war games with the Chinese Air Force without first alerting NATO. Turkey has also turned its back on the European Union and sought to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a club for anti-Western dictatorships.

With even the Turkish press questioning the wisdom of the deal, Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz has defended the purchase. “We had asked for joint production and a technology transfer,” Yılmaz said. “If other countries cannot guarantee us that, then we will turn to ones that can.”

How sad it is that, as Turkey pivots to China, and endangers U.S. security, the Obama administration not only proposes no consequence, but continues to share technology with an untrustworthy regime.

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Putting the ‘Mad’ in Maduro

It’s that time of year when the world’s tyrannies flock to the UN General Assembly meeting in New York with all the predictability of birds flying south for the winter. This year, however, their numbers were noticeably depleted.

True, the fork-tongued Iranian President, Hasan Rouhani, was on hand to deny the Holocaust in one breath, while calling for “time-bound, results-oriented” talks on his country’s nuclear program in another. And the aging Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe gave a vintage performance denouncing the “illegal and filthy sanctions” imposed on his brutal regime. But the Sudanese leader, Omar al Bashir, stayed away, fearful perhaps that he would be arrested on war-crimes charges upon landing in New York. And so did Venezuela’s President, Nicolas Maduro, for reasons that will compel us to question whether he has lost his mind.

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It’s that time of year when the world’s tyrannies flock to the UN General Assembly meeting in New York with all the predictability of birds flying south for the winter. This year, however, their numbers were noticeably depleted.

True, the fork-tongued Iranian President, Hasan Rouhani, was on hand to deny the Holocaust in one breath, while calling for “time-bound, results-oriented” talks on his country’s nuclear program in another. And the aging Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe gave a vintage performance denouncing the “illegal and filthy sanctions” imposed on his brutal regime. But the Sudanese leader, Omar al Bashir, stayed away, fearful perhaps that he would be arrested on war-crimes charges upon landing in New York. And so did Venezuela’s President, Nicolas Maduro, for reasons that will compel us to question whether he has lost his mind.

As I noted here recently, in the five months since Maduro won the presidency in an election widely regarded as fraudulent, barely a day goes by without him excitedly unveiling some new American plot to unseat him, or assassinate him, or destroy Venezuela’s groaning economy. Despite all these lurking dangers, Maduro nonetheless decided that he would attend and speak at this week’s 68th session of the General Assembly.

Winging his way to New York from a state visit to China, Maduro got as far as Vancouver. Rather than continuing eastwards, he elected to return to Caracas, where he visited a television studio to explain to a national audience why he was home early

One of the alleged plots could have caused violence in New York and the other could have affected his physical safety, Maduro said in a national address carried on television and radio yesterday. 

“The clan, the mafia of Otto Reich and Roger Noriega once again had planned a crazy, terrible provocation that can’t be described in any other way,” Maduro said, referring to two former U.S. officials he frequently accuses of plots against Venezuela.

Reich, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the George W. Bush administration, was accused by Maduro in March this year of planning the assassination of Henrique Capriles, Maduro’s opponent in the presidential election, as part of a plan to engineer a coup against the ruling chavistas. Reich’s rebuttal at the time is worth citing, simply because it is equally applicable now:

Though Maduro’s strategy is not original, it is not as dull-witted as it appears.  With the election in Venezuela scheduled for April 14, less than a month away, every day that the media focus on non–existent conspiracies is one day less that Venezuelans hear there may be a peaceful, honest, and democratic alternative to the Maduro regime.

Every day Venezuelans talk about foreign devils, they don’t discuss shortages of water and electricity, of cornmeal and cooking oil, of soap and diapers, of antibiotics and insulin.  It is one day less to wonder how Caracas became the third most violent city in the world and about the 150,000 Venezuelan victims of homicide in the 14 years of 21st Century Socialism.

Yesterday, Roger Noriega made much the same point as his ostensible partner in crime. “I think Maduro is under more pressure than I am, and his comments reflect that,” Noriega told the Miami Herald. “He needs a boogeyman.”

In Venezuela itself, there is increasing concern that Maduro’s confrontational stance towards the U.S., which imports around 900,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil on a daily basis, will carry negative economic consequences. In response, the Venezuelan regime is now orienting its foreign policy towards countries that are ideological bedfellows, but that won’t bleed the country dry at the same time—as does Cuba, for years the closest ally of the late Hugo Chavez, and the beneficiary of $7 billion worth of subsidized oil annually. 

Enter China. Maduro’s trip to Beijing quickly followed the announcement of a $14 billion deal with the China National Petroleum Corporation for a project to develop the Junín 10 block in Venezuela’s Orinoco region, an area that holds one of the largest oil reserves in the world. China currently imports 600,000 barrels of oil per day from Venezuela, a figure that Maduro wants to boost to the point where the Chinese, and not the Americans, are the biggest consumers of Venezuela’s main export. After all, breaking the economic dependency on the United States has been a central obsession of ruling Socialists since they came to power in 1999.

The Chinese also perceive important benefits. Suspicious of the Obama administration’s much-vaunted “pivot” to East Asia, Beijing is happy to seize on opportunities in America’s backyard. As the Mexican economist Enrique Dussel Peters noted in a recent paper on Chinese overseas investment, between 2000 and 2011, Latin America and the Caribbean became the second largest recipient of Chinese investment after Hong Kong. Dussel writes that 87 percent of this investment, directed mainly at raw materials, came from state-owned companies that are beholden to the Communist Party and its satellite institutions. In other words, the political imperatives here are as important, if not more so, than any fiscal considerations.

The Obama administration won’t be able to stop Maduro’s fulminations about assassinations and coups. Nor should it want to—the more frequent these accusations, the less that Venezuelans trust him. The real strategic challenge here is the relationship with China, and the lifeline that Beijing is dangling to the proponents of “21st Century Socialism” on the American continent. 

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Is the Pentagon Prepared for East Med Gas?

More good news out of the Eastern Mediterranean, as even more gas has been discovered in the Levant Basin between Israel and Cyprus. The last decade has seen new gas and oil fields discovered around the world, but the Levant Basin is special: It is close enough to major markets in Europe to make it easy both to produce and distribute. Eastern Mediterranean gas can bypass Russia, Iran, and Turkey—all sources of regional instability—and also need not transit choke points such as the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab al-Mandab, or the Suez Canal to get to market.

As Eastern Mediterranean gas development continues, and the region becomes increasing strategically important, it behooves the United States to plan ahead to ensure the safety not only of American personnel working in the region, but also of the energy infrastructure. To do so would not simply be to spend American resources to defend the flow of oil and gas to China, as the United States effectively does in the Persian Gulf, but rather to protect an energy corridor which undercuts and diminishes the leverage and income of American adversaries.

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More good news out of the Eastern Mediterranean, as even more gas has been discovered in the Levant Basin between Israel and Cyprus. The last decade has seen new gas and oil fields discovered around the world, but the Levant Basin is special: It is close enough to major markets in Europe to make it easy both to produce and distribute. Eastern Mediterranean gas can bypass Russia, Iran, and Turkey—all sources of regional instability—and also need not transit choke points such as the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab al-Mandab, or the Suez Canal to get to market.

As Eastern Mediterranean gas development continues, and the region becomes increasing strategically important, it behooves the United States to plan ahead to ensure the safety not only of American personnel working in the region, but also of the energy infrastructure. To do so would not simply be to spend American resources to defend the flow of oil and gas to China, as the United States effectively does in the Persian Gulf, but rather to protect an energy corridor which undercuts and diminishes the leverage and income of American adversaries.

German scholar Niklas Anzinger highlights growing threats to the region in an essay he wrote for the American Enterprise Institute:

  • First there’s Turkey: “After Noble Energy Inc. began drilling for oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean in September 2011, Turkey’s European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış threatened to use military force against Cyprus. ‘This is what we have the navy for,’ he declared, adding, ‘We have trained our marines for this; we have equipped the navy for this. All options are on the table; anything can be done.’”
  • Then there’s Russia: “In 1967, Moscow formed the 5th Operational Squadron in the Mediterranean to counterbalance the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the US Sixth Fleet. The 5th Operational Squadron remained in the region until 1992, when it withdrew after the Soviet Union’s fall. In May 2013, against the backdrop of the Syrian civil war, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a new Russian taskforce comprised of 16 warships and support vessels to the Eastern Mediterranean.”
  • Next there’s Lebanon: “While Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations, certified Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the countries’ maritime boundary and 330 square miles of territorial waters remain in dispute… Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament and a close ally to Hezbollah, said in September 2012 that ‘we will not compromise on any amount of water from our maritime borders and oil, not even a single cup.’”
  • Hezbollah, of course, remains a particular problem: “During its 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah crippled the Israeli warship INS Hanit, which was cruising eight to nine miles offshore, with an Iranian version of the Chinese C-802 missile… Hezbollah may also maintain an amphibious sabotage and coastal infiltration unit. Recruits may receive training in an IRGC underwater combat school in Bandar Abbas and in a camp near the Assi River in the northern Bekaa Valley.”

There’s much, much more, and the whole essay is worth reading. Too often, American military planners focus on the last conflict. There is no shortage of discussion about what resources are needed to counter Iranian ambitions, but too little strategic planning about what resources the United States might need to protect interests in the Eastern Mediterranean in the years to come.

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What China Fears

The battle between “idealism” and “Realpolitik” in the making of foreign policy is vividly on display now with regard to Egypt: “Idealists” (aka “neocons”) generally favor cutting off aid to the military regime which is slaughtering its own people in the streets; “Realpolitikers” generally advocate holding our noses and backing the generals as a better alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood. My purpose here is not to engage in the debate about Egypt per se (I will do that separately), but simply to point out that, although the U.S. cannot afford to stick to its ideals in each and every foreign-policy crisis (compromises do sometimes have to be made in the real world), when we deviate too far from our principles we lose what is arguably the most powerful weapon in our arsenal.

Evidence of this proposition comes, in a back-handed tribute, from none other than the reigning Communist emperor of China, Xi Jinping. His minions have just issued a memo, known in proper Orwellian fashion as Document No. 9, that warns Communist apparatchiks about the biggest threat to their rule. No, it does not come from the US 7th Fleet, from the American nuclear arsenal, or any other manifestation of American hard power in which Realpolitikers typically repose all of their faith.

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The battle between “idealism” and “Realpolitik” in the making of foreign policy is vividly on display now with regard to Egypt: “Idealists” (aka “neocons”) generally favor cutting off aid to the military regime which is slaughtering its own people in the streets; “Realpolitikers” generally advocate holding our noses and backing the generals as a better alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood. My purpose here is not to engage in the debate about Egypt per se (I will do that separately), but simply to point out that, although the U.S. cannot afford to stick to its ideals in each and every foreign-policy crisis (compromises do sometimes have to be made in the real world), when we deviate too far from our principles we lose what is arguably the most powerful weapon in our arsenal.

Evidence of this proposition comes, in a back-handed tribute, from none other than the reigning Communist emperor of China, Xi Jinping. His minions have just issued a memo, known in proper Orwellian fashion as Document No. 9, that warns Communist apparatchiks about the biggest threat to their rule. No, it does not come from the US 7th Fleet, from the American nuclear arsenal, or any other manifestation of American hard power in which Realpolitikers typically repose all of their faith.

Rather the peril that Xi warns about comes from seven subversive ideas starting with “Western constitutional democracy.” The others on the list include “promoting ‘universal values’ of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, ardently pro-market ‘neo-liberalism,’ and ‘nihilist’ criticisms of the party’s traumatic past.”

The New York Times reporter Chris Buckley, who obtained a copy of the document, writes that it warns cadres, “Western forces hostile to China and dissidents within the country are still constantly infiltrating the ideological sphere.” One Communist propagandist, implementing the document’s advice, told mining officials that “promotion of Western constitutional democracy is an attempt to negate the party’s leadership.”

The Communists are right—the Western ideals embodied, above all, in the Declaration of Independence are a big threat to the rule of anti-American dictators, whether in China or in other countries. Which is the best argument I have ever heard for why the U.S. should be doing more to promote those very ideals. Promoting democracy can be messy in the short-run and isn’t always possible in every circumstance but, in general, it is the best long-term bet for promoting American interests. In the case of China in particular, the U.S. should not be focusing simply on narrow economic or security concerns; instead it should be doing more to spread behind the Bamboo Curtain the subversive ideas which the Communist bosses fear so much.

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RE: China’s National Identity

I certainly agree with Max that China needs to change its historical focus away from its century of humiliation that began with the end of the First Opium War in 1842. Great Powers need to focus on their greatness, not their failures. Britons prefer thinking about the Agincourt, Nelson, and their “finest hour” to thinking about the First Afghan War and Suez.

But, in fairness to the Chinese, we need to remember the reason their humiliation was so very great and why it is so very hard for them to move on from it. For two thousand years China had been the Middle Kingdom, the Celestial Empire. The emperor was the Son of Heaven. And this was not merely empty braggadocio or hype (such as calling the American baseball championship the World Series). For those two millennia, China had indeed been the center of the world it knew: the richest, most cultured, most inventive, most economically and industrially advanced country on earth. China’s position was a bit like that of the United States in the immediate aftermath of World War II, only there was no Soviet Union and its total dominance lasted for 2,000 years.

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I certainly agree with Max that China needs to change its historical focus away from its century of humiliation that began with the end of the First Opium War in 1842. Great Powers need to focus on their greatness, not their failures. Britons prefer thinking about the Agincourt, Nelson, and their “finest hour” to thinking about the First Afghan War and Suez.

But, in fairness to the Chinese, we need to remember the reason their humiliation was so very great and why it is so very hard for them to move on from it. For two thousand years China had been the Middle Kingdom, the Celestial Empire. The emperor was the Son of Heaven. And this was not merely empty braggadocio or hype (such as calling the American baseball championship the World Series). For those two millennia, China had indeed been the center of the world it knew: the richest, most cultured, most inventive, most economically and industrially advanced country on earth. China’s position was a bit like that of the United States in the immediate aftermath of World War II, only there was no Soviet Union and its total dominance lasted for 2,000 years.

To be sure, China sometimes fell to non-Chinese invaders, such as the Mongols in the 13th century and the Manchus in the 17th. But within a generation, these foreign conquerors had become more Chinese than the Chinese. Even when westerners began to appear in Chinese waters in numbers, in the 16th century, they had little to offer in the way of trade goods in exchange for silks, porcelains, tea, and luxury goods.

In 1700, China had about 25 percent of world GDP. But China’s population doubled in the 18th century and doubled again in the 19th. With little new land available for agriculture, food prices rose and unrest spread. But the Chinese government, self-perpetuating, inward looking, and complaisant, resisted change. The view from the mountaintop, after all, is always a satisfactory one.

In the West, mostly unknown to China, the Industrial Revolution sent the economy into overdrive and gave the West military power and technology the Chinese could not hope to match. Suddenly, the Chinese government found itself utterly at the mercy of uncouth barbarians who had not the slightest interest in adopting Chinese ways.

The shock was overwhelming.

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China’s National Identity

China scholars Orville Schell and John Delury are, of course, right that China needs a new national history which is not built around victimhood. For too long, as they note in the Wall Street Journal, Chinese students and ordinary citizens have been taught that their modern history began in 1843 with China’s humiliating capitulation to Great Britain in the First Opium War. This was followed by the creation of quasi-colonial “concessions” by the European powers and later Japan–a trend accelerated by China’s costly losses in future wars against the West (the Second Opium War, the Boxer Rebellion) and Japan (1894-1895, 1933-1945). Schell and Delury write that:

it is time for China and the more vociferous propagandists in Beijing to move beyond declarations about China’s “one hundred years of national humiliation.” That period has come to an end. The world has changed, China and the West have changed, and a new narrative is necessary for China to achieve its declared aim of equality and a “new type of great power relationship.”

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China scholars Orville Schell and John Delury are, of course, right that China needs a new national history which is not built around victimhood. For too long, as they note in the Wall Street Journal, Chinese students and ordinary citizens have been taught that their modern history began in 1843 with China’s humiliating capitulation to Great Britain in the First Opium War. This was followed by the creation of quasi-colonial “concessions” by the European powers and later Japan–a trend accelerated by China’s costly losses in future wars against the West (the Second Opium War, the Boxer Rebellion) and Japan (1894-1895, 1933-1945). Schell and Delury write that:

it is time for China and the more vociferous propagandists in Beijing to move beyond declarations about China’s “one hundred years of national humiliation.” That period has come to an end. The world has changed, China and the West have changed, and a new narrative is necessary for China to achieve its declared aim of equality and a “new type of great power relationship.”

Unfortunately, the chances of the current government in Beijing taking their advice are slim indeed, for the very simple reason that a major part of the rationale for the Communist Party’s monopoly on power is to excise China’s supposed history of humiliations. This was the same rationale, incidentally, as the Nationalist regime that the Communists overthrew. Both ideologies grew out of the attempts by early 20th-century leaders such as Sun Yat-sen to create a modern Chinese renaissance–both Chiang Kai-shek and his rival, Mao Zedong, were profoundly influenced by Sun Yat-sen.

Ironically, Mao’s heirs have completed Sun’s mission: Today China has not only the world’s largest population but also the second-largest economy, and within a few years it will surpass the U.S. economy in total size, if not in per capita wealth. China also has the second-largest military budget on the planet, and is growing increasingly powerful in East Asia and influential as far away as Latin America and Africa. By any standard, China has done spectacularly well since it began to shed its Maoist economy straitjacket in 1979. But its leaders cannot shed their ideological commitment to China as victim–an embattled state picked upon by powerful neighbors such as Japan and the United States–without calling into question their own fitness to rule without benefit of elections.

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The Blind Dissident and the American Left

Chinese dissident and human rights activist Chen Guangcheng got a taste of American partisan politics almost immediately after appealing to the U.S. for asylum last year. In 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a high-profile visit to Beijing. She was representing the administration of Barack Obama, who was locked in a general-election campaign against Mitt Romney, who was taking a more hawkish line on Chinese trade and currency shenanigans to try to exploit what he felt was a foreign-policy weakness of the president’s.

That meant that Clinton’s trip would be under the microscope and every word overanalyzed. On top of that, Clinton is mulling a presidential bid in 2016 and her Chinese counterparts were quite aware that they were dealing with Obama’s possible successor. The optics and the politics had to be just right for a whole host of domestic reasons, to say nothing of the pressure from the Chinese side, which was preparing for a leadership shuffle of its own. And that’s when Chen threw everybody’s plans off.

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Chinese dissident and human rights activist Chen Guangcheng got a taste of American partisan politics almost immediately after appealing to the U.S. for asylum last year. In 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a high-profile visit to Beijing. She was representing the administration of Barack Obama, who was locked in a general-election campaign against Mitt Romney, who was taking a more hawkish line on Chinese trade and currency shenanigans to try to exploit what he felt was a foreign-policy weakness of the president’s.

That meant that Clinton’s trip would be under the microscope and every word overanalyzed. On top of that, Clinton is mulling a presidential bid in 2016 and her Chinese counterparts were quite aware that they were dealing with Obama’s possible successor. The optics and the politics had to be just right for a whole host of domestic reasons, to say nothing of the pressure from the Chinese side, which was preparing for a leadership shuffle of its own. And that’s when Chen threw everybody’s plans off.

A public spat over human rights may have been the last thing Clinton and her Chinese counterparts needed at the moment, but the hearty attention being paid to her visit made it precisely the right time for Chen, known as the “blind dissident,” to make his move. Not only did his surprise visit to the American embassy add a layer of tension to Clinton’s visit, but he was also famous for warning of the dark side of China’s one-child policy and calling attention to the Chinese government’s forced abortions.

As soon as it became clear that Clinton’s attempts to get the Chinese government to let her grant Chen American asylum were off to a rough start, Romney criticized the administration’s handling of the issue and Republicans in Congress called a hearing to highlight Chen’s case. Romney was criticized for jumping into the case and the press used the incident to highlight division within Romney’s campaign. The congressional hearing, led by the staunchly pro-life Republican Chris Smith, featured a phone call to Chen directly. Chen was officially a partisan issue.

Smith’s hearing was derided by media voices as well, but it later emerged that the hearing is almost surely what secured Chen’s freedom after Clinton’s efforts went nowhere. Considering that back story, today’s New York Times feature claiming Chen’s first year in the U.S., at a brief fellowship with New York University, was beset by controversy and his work somewhat discredited by his association with conservative activists falls flat. The Times reports:

Chen, 41, has found himself enmeshed in controversy. Backed by a coterie of conservative figures, Mr. Chen has publicly accused N.Y.U. of bowing to Chinese government pressure and prematurely ending his fellowship this summer. The university says the fellowship was intended to be for only one year. Some of those around Mr. Chen also accuse the university of trying to shield him from conservative activists.

The sparring has grown fierce, with N.Y.U. officials accusing one of those conservative activists, Bob Fu, the president of a Texas-based Christian group that seeks to pressure China over its religious restrictions, of trying to track Mr. Chen surreptitiously through a cellphone and a tablet computer that Mr. Fu’s organization donated to him.

The controversy kicked up by Mr. Chen’s accusations against N.Y.U. has dismayed some of his supporters so much that a wealthy donor who had pledged to finance a three-year visiting scholar position for him at Fordham University recently withdrew the offer. That means Mr. Chen, who declined to be interviewed for this article and who returns to New York from a visit to Taiwan on Thursday, has to line up another source of financing. If that does not pan out, he will be left with a single job offer: from the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative research organization in New Jersey that is perhaps best known for its opposition to same-sex marriage and stem cell research.

With regard to the NYU controversy, it’s doubtful either side has a monopoly on the truth. The university seems to have wanted to have its cake and eat it too, by welcoming an international celebrity (and doing its part to help end a diplomatic standoff by offering Chen a fellowship) but hoping to keep the feisty dissident quiet enough not to antagonize the Chinese government, since NYU is opening a campus in Shanghai. There is also the matter of the three NYU researchers, all Chinese citizens, who have been charged with accepting bribes from Chinese entities to pass on the information about their work, which was sponsored by a U.S. federal grant from the NIH. Chen’s departure from NYU was unceremonious to say the least.

At the same time, it’s difficult to imagine NYU is guilty of some of the accusations leveled by Chen’s supporters, including that Chen was muzzled by an official NYU minder whose job it was to run interference for the school. There are few places more admiring of Chinese-style statism and authoritarianism than elite American universities, but that doesn’t mean they function as Stalinist reeducation camps or thought prisons.

But any intellectual romance Chen hoped to have with the American left or academia was doomed from the very start. The defense of unlimited, unregulated abortion is sacred to the American left. So is the idea that increasing the size and scope of government is the solution to virtually any problem, including those created by big government in the first place. The language the left deploys in these fights dehumanizes unborn children and deemphasizes individual rights and individual identity–“the government is us,” as President Obama said just this week. Chen has dedicated his life to warning of the consequences when those principles are taken to their frightful extremes. And he doesn’t seem to have any interest in stopping now.

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Will China Experience Islamist Blowback?

For the better part of two decades, China has paid nothing and benefited greatly from the American willingness to secure international waterways and police the Persian Gulf. While Washington did the heavy lifting, Beijing played it both ways: Trade with oil-rich American allies and markets guaranteed by U.S. security, while at the same time supporting rogue regimes as part of an anti-American chess match.

In both Syria and Pakistan, China may finally learn that it can only play both sides of an issue for so long. While the Chinese government supports Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Chinese Muslims have been fighting within the Syrian opposition. Jihadi chat forums have posted eulogies, for example, to Chinese Uighurs who came to Syria to fight alongside Turkish, Saudi, Swedish, and British co-religionists.

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For the better part of two decades, China has paid nothing and benefited greatly from the American willingness to secure international waterways and police the Persian Gulf. While Washington did the heavy lifting, Beijing played it both ways: Trade with oil-rich American allies and markets guaranteed by U.S. security, while at the same time supporting rogue regimes as part of an anti-American chess match.

In both Syria and Pakistan, China may finally learn that it can only play both sides of an issue for so long. While the Chinese government supports Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Chinese Muslims have been fighting within the Syrian opposition. Jihadi chat forums have posted eulogies, for example, to Chinese Uighurs who came to Syria to fight alongside Turkish, Saudi, Swedish, and British co-religionists.

At its root, China is an imperialist power, one more brutal than Europe’s formerly colonialist powers who, to this day, continue to beat themselves up over their nineteenth and early twentieth century pasts. The Tibetans have been victims, Taiwan—whose unique identity is apparent to any visitor—might become a victim, and the Uighur Muslims are victims, as are any group who are not Han Chinese. Muslim restaurants in touristy areas of Beijing are one thing, but real cultural and religious diversity is another. Few Uighurs in far Western China like being part of the Peoples’ Republic of China.

As my colleague Dan Blumenthal points out, China is increasingly wary about Islamist blowback from the Middle East (and South Asia). Beijing has recently blamed Syrian rebels for Xinjiang violence, and may finally be recognizing in the way that Russia has that the American retreat from Afghanistan will put them on the front lines of Islamist radicalism. Indeed, Chinese President Xi has already put Pakistani Islamist assistance to the Uighur Muslims on the bilateral agenda.

If China believes that international jihadism derives from grievances against Western countries only and that China will be immune, the Chinese are mistaken: Islamist radicalism promotes hatred toward both West and East. China may soon find that being a global power has a cost, and that not all countries care enough or are even able to restrain Islamists who may be unwilling to turn their back on their Chinese brethren. Get ready, China: The next decade is going to be a very bumpy ride.

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France’s Domestic Surveillance

The sound you hear is my chortling over the news that France’s intelligence agencies undertake domestic surveillance at least as far-reaching as that of the NSA which European leaders have been criticizing. France also spies on users of Google and Facebook, among other Web networks. The biggest difference between the French and American systems is that the former is run without the elaborate oversight that attends the latter’s activities. Le Monde reports that the French system is run with “complete discretion, at the margins of legality and outside all serious control.”

France is also a top offender in spying on its allies–something that President Hollande has denounced as unacceptable. As this account notes: “Back in 2011, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, France and not China or Russia, was found to be the country that conducted the most industrial espionage on other European countries. WikiLeaks also revealed that the spying network was so widespread that ‘damages it caused the German economy were larger as a whole than those caused by China or Russia.’ ”

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The sound you hear is my chortling over the news that France’s intelligence agencies undertake domestic surveillance at least as far-reaching as that of the NSA which European leaders have been criticizing. France also spies on users of Google and Facebook, among other Web networks. The biggest difference between the French and American systems is that the former is run without the elaborate oversight that attends the latter’s activities. Le Monde reports that the French system is run with “complete discretion, at the margins of legality and outside all serious control.”

France is also a top offender in spying on its allies–something that President Hollande has denounced as unacceptable. As this account notes: “Back in 2011, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, France and not China or Russia, was found to be the country that conducted the most industrial espionage on other European countries. WikiLeaks also revealed that the spying network was so widespread that ‘damages it caused the German economy were larger as a whole than those caused by China or Russia.’ ”

One would hope that these revelations would spare us more mock outrage of the kind being heard from so many countries over NSA activities that are, if anything, limited and tame compared to what they routinely undertake. But rest assured, facts will not stand in the way of America’s critics who are looking for any excuse to kick Uncle Sam in the shins.

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The Damage Snowden Has Done

With Edward Snowden still stuck in the purgatory of Moscow’s international airport, it is worth taking a moment to note some news reporting of recent days on the damage he has already done.

The Associated Press reports that “members of virtually every terrorist group, including core al-Qaida, are attempting to change how they communicate, based on what they are reading in the media, to hide from U.S. surveillance.”

The Washington Post reports that intelligence analysts scouring NSA databases to figure out what Snowden stole believe there is a lot more information in his possession than has already come out: “They think he copied so much stuff — that almost everything that place does, he has,” said one former government official.

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With Edward Snowden still stuck in the purgatory of Moscow’s international airport, it is worth taking a moment to note some news reporting of recent days on the damage he has already done.

The Associated Press reports that “members of virtually every terrorist group, including core al-Qaida, are attempting to change how they communicate, based on what they are reading in the media, to hide from U.S. surveillance.”

The Washington Post reports that intelligence analysts scouring NSA databases to figure out what Snowden stole believe there is a lot more information in his possession than has already come out: “They think he copied so much stuff — that almost everything that place does, he has,” said one former government official.

The Daily Beast reports that Snowden made encrypted digital copies of all of his files and sent them contacts around the world, with the proviso that if anything happens to him the recipients of his files will receive the passwords needed to unlock them.

It may be the case that whoever Snowden sent the files to can’t unlock them without a password, but there is little doubt that the intelligence services of major countries such as Russia and China can easily break through password protections.

The Los Angeles Times reports on the widespread assumption that Russian intelligence agents have already gotten access to “his treasure trove of U.S. intelligence data,” whether he wanted to give it to them or not: “Agents could copy Snowden’s confidential computer files without his cooperation, as he has been in their custody for days in a diplomatic no man’s land at Sheremetyevo airport.” It goes without saying that Chinese intelligence, which is at least as sophisticated as the Russian service, gained access to the same files while Snowden was on their home turf in Hong Kong.

Little wonder, then, that Gen. Keith Alexander, head of NSA, has said that Snowden “has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies.” Snowden may in fact prove to be one of the worst traitors in American history. The only puzzle is why he still has any defenders left.

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That Didn’t Take Long

In my post yesterday, after quoting White House press secretary Jay Carney’s expressions of frustration and disappointment with Hong Kong and China, I wrote, “the Chinese must be shrugging their shoulders and asking, ‘Who cares?’” Then I opened the New York Times today and came across this headline: “China Shrugs at U.S.’s Snowden Warning.”

I’d love to take credit for prescience, but this was about as hard to predict as the sun rising in the east. And as Seth points out, Secretary of State Kerry is already backing away from his initial tough talk aimed at Russia. And why not? Everyone in the world knows that the Obama administration is good at blustering but little else. The humiliation of America continues in ways large and small. It’s quite a depressing spectacle, and it will likely continue until Barack Obama finally leaves office. And even when he does, the damage will be very hard to undo. 

In my post yesterday, after quoting White House press secretary Jay Carney’s expressions of frustration and disappointment with Hong Kong and China, I wrote, “the Chinese must be shrugging their shoulders and asking, ‘Who cares?’” Then I opened the New York Times today and came across this headline: “China Shrugs at U.S.’s Snowden Warning.”

I’d love to take credit for prescience, but this was about as hard to predict as the sun rising in the east. And as Seth points out, Secretary of State Kerry is already backing away from his initial tough talk aimed at Russia. And why not? Everyone in the world knows that the Obama administration is good at blustering but little else. The humiliation of America continues in ways large and small. It’s quite a depressing spectacle, and it will likely continue until Barack Obama finally leaves office. And even when he does, the damage will be very hard to undo. 

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China’s Challenge to Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is famously tough on terrorism–a reputation that dates back to his days as a member of the Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s version of the SAS and Delta Force, in the 1970s. (His brother Jonathan served in the same unit and was killed during the Entebbe rescue operation in 1976.) But now his tough-on-terrorism credentials are on the line as he must decide how far to push a legal case that has implicated the Bank of China in allowing itself to be used to move money for Palestinian terrorists.

Israeli officials had initially encouraged a Jewish-American couple, Tully and Sheryl Wultz of Florida, to sue the Bank of China, because of evidence that, as the Wall Street Journal puts it, “the bank knowingly allowed Iran to use it to deliver funds to the Palestinian militant group that killed their 16-year-old son Daniel in a 2006 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.”

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is famously tough on terrorism–a reputation that dates back to his days as a member of the Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s version of the SAS and Delta Force, in the 1970s. (His brother Jonathan served in the same unit and was killed during the Entebbe rescue operation in 1976.) But now his tough-on-terrorism credentials are on the line as he must decide how far to push a legal case that has implicated the Bank of China in allowing itself to be used to move money for Palestinian terrorists.

Israeli officials had initially encouraged a Jewish-American couple, Tully and Sheryl Wultz of Florida, to sue the Bank of China, because of evidence that, as the Wall Street Journal puts it, “the bank knowingly allowed Iran to use it to deliver funds to the Palestinian militant group that killed their 16-year-old son Daniel in a 2006 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.”

But the case, in a New York federal court, only has a chance of succeeding if the Israeli government allows “a pending deposition by a former Israeli intelligence official, who is expected to testify that he was present at 2005 meetings in which Israeli officials told China that Bank of China accounts were being used to fund militant organizations including Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian outfit that claimed responsibility for the attack that killed Daniel Wultz.” The official’s testimony could establish the bank’s negligence and culpability–but will he be allowed to testify?

Last year, Netanyahu approved the testimony, and informed the family and members of Congress of his decision. But now things are far from clear because of reports that Netanyahu, who visited China last month, is wavering under heavy Chinese pressure. Israel and the People’s Republic of China already have well-established trade links–China is one of the best customers for Israel’s arms industry. In fact Israel has gotten into hot water with the U.S. in the past for its willingness to sell sophisticated technology to Beijing that could one day be used against the U.S. Armed Forces and U.S. allies. Now China appears to be upping the ante.

The Israeli press is reporting that a state-owned Chinese construction company is offering to build a new city of 30,000 homes near the Israeli town of Latrun–with an estimated $3 billion in financing to be provided by none other than the state-owned Bank of China. Neither the Chinese construction firm nor the Bank of China has a history of building homes in Israel before. Perhaps this is a straight commercial proposition, but there is cause to wonder if the Chinese state is trying to pay off the government of Israel to drop an embarrassing lawsuit that could seriously affect Bank of China’s ability to expand in the lucrative U.S. market. (Being tagged as a terrorist financier does not endear a foreign bank to American banking regulators.)

Netanyahu has a tough choice to make–alienate Beijing or not? If he remains true to his anti-terrorist outlook, he should run the risk of upsetting the Israel-China relationship in favor of establishing a broader and more important principle: that banks should not get into bed with terrorist groups. By showing that the state of Israel and the victims of terrorism will stop at nothing to punish financiers of terror, this case could serve as a deterrent to banks in the future that are thinking of doing business with groups such as Islamic Jihad.

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Nations Swinging Away at the Obama Pinata

White House press secretary Jay Carney, in responding to Hong Kong and China allowing National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden to flee to Moscow, said “The Chinese have emphasized the importance of building mutual trust. And we think that they have dealt that effort a serious setback. If we cannot count on them to honor their legal extradition obligations, then there’s a problem.” He added, “We are just not buying that this was a technical decision by a Hong Kong immigration official. This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant, and that decision unquestionably has negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship.” Mr. Carney went out of his way to express “our frustration and disappointment with Hong Kong and China.”

To which the Chinese must be shrugging their shoulders and asking, “Who cares?”

I wonder if it has begun to dawn on the administration that nations are lining up to demonstrate their indifference to, or contempt for, President Obama’s wishes. A headline in the Washington Post today, for example, reads this way: “Through Snowden, Ecuador seeks fight with U.S.” Fine, but only after Hong Kong, China, and Russia get their chance to swing at the Obama piñata. And the Snowden debacle is only the latest, and in some respects the least important, example of this. 

“Nobody’s afraid of this guy,” Professor Eliot Cohen told the Post. “Nobody’s saying there are any real consequences that would come from crossing him – and that’s an awful position for the president of the United States to be in.”

It is indeed; but that is where we find ourselves in the Obama Era.

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White House press secretary Jay Carney, in responding to Hong Kong and China allowing National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden to flee to Moscow, said “The Chinese have emphasized the importance of building mutual trust. And we think that they have dealt that effort a serious setback. If we cannot count on them to honor their legal extradition obligations, then there’s a problem.” He added, “We are just not buying that this was a technical decision by a Hong Kong immigration official. This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant, and that decision unquestionably has negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship.” Mr. Carney went out of his way to express “our frustration and disappointment with Hong Kong and China.”

To which the Chinese must be shrugging their shoulders and asking, “Who cares?”

I wonder if it has begun to dawn on the administration that nations are lining up to demonstrate their indifference to, or contempt for, President Obama’s wishes. A headline in the Washington Post today, for example, reads this way: “Through Snowden, Ecuador seeks fight with U.S.” Fine, but only after Hong Kong, China, and Russia get their chance to swing at the Obama piñata. And the Snowden debacle is only the latest, and in some respects the least important, example of this. 

“Nobody’s afraid of this guy,” Professor Eliot Cohen told the Post. “Nobody’s saying there are any real consequences that would come from crossing him – and that’s an awful position for the president of the United States to be in.”

It is indeed; but that is where we find ourselves in the Obama Era.

If there is anything good that might emerge from what has happened to America during the Obama presidency, it might be that we have tested in the real world the theories and ideas that animate Mr. Obama’s progressive foreign policy vision. They include the belief that American power is the source of animosity against us; that serial apologies for America’s past would win us the favor of our adversaries; and that “leading from behind” would increase America’s influence in the world. Each of those myths has been exploded by events. So, too, has Mr. Obama’s belief that placating our enemies would win us their favor (it hasn’t) and that losing wars is the same thing as ending wars (it is not).

Over and over again during the 2008 campaign, and early in his presidency, Barack Obama said he would “restore America’s standing in the world” and make us more “respected.” He has done neither. America today, under Obama, is viewed as feeble, supine, and enervated.

I am reminded of what Ronald Reagan said (in 1980) about America under Jimmy Carter. “Adversaries large and small test our will and seek to confound our resolve,” according to Reagan:

but the Carter Administration gives us weakness when we need strength; vacillation when the times demand firmness. Why?  Because the Carter Administration live in the world of make-believe.  Every day, it dreams up a response to that day’s troubles, regardless of what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow.  The Administration lives in a world where mistakes, even very big ones, have no consequence. The rest of us, however, live in the real world.  It is here that disasters are overtaking our nation without any real response from the White House… Who does not feel a growing sense of unease as our allies, facing repeated instances of an amateurish and confused Administration; reluctantly conclude that America is unwilling or unable to fulfill its obligations as leader of the free world? Who does not feel rising alarm when the question in any discussion of foreign policy is no longer, “Should we do something?”, but “Do we have the capacity to do anything?”

Reagan went on to describe the Carter years as “years of weakness, indecision, mediocrity and incompetence.”

What once was, is again. And America, now as then, is paying a high price for the irresolution and weakness of its commander in chief. 

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Obama’s Diplomatic Humiliation

Forget “Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?” The hottest real-time game in the world is: Where in the world is Edward Snowden? The rogue NSA techie—who, in the judgment of the NSA’s head, Gen. Keith Alexander, “has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies”—has fled Hong Kong and wound up in Moscow. He was rumored to be heading to Ecuador via Havana but he didn’t make the Aeroflot flight he was expected to take, leaving a pack of journalists who bought tickets to photograph an empty seat. So presumably Snowden remains in Russia at least for the time being, with rumors swirling that Ecuador or possibly Venezuela remain his destination of choice.

No matter what he’s up to, he’s making the United States government look foolish. Hong Kong’s decision—which, in effect, means Beijing’s decision—to let him leave even though he is wanted on felony charges in the United States and had his passport suspended suggests that notwithstanding the positive atmospherics from the recent summit meeting between President Obama and President Xi Jinping, there remain sharp limits on how far the Communist regime is willing to go to accommodate American concerns. Indeed, Beijing seems to be positively reveling in Snowden’s unfortunate revelations about the NSA’s penetration of Chinese computer networks, which serves to deflect attention from the much more massive intrusions into computer networks both foreign and domestic that Beijing routinely undertakes. Vladimir Putin, for his part, doesn’t seem to have heard of any “reset” in relations with the U.S. He, too, appears happy to grant Snowden sanctuary, at least for a short while, as a way of giving Uncle Sam the middle finger.

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Forget “Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?” The hottest real-time game in the world is: Where in the world is Edward Snowden? The rogue NSA techie—who, in the judgment of the NSA’s head, Gen. Keith Alexander, “has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies”—has fled Hong Kong and wound up in Moscow. He was rumored to be heading to Ecuador via Havana but he didn’t make the Aeroflot flight he was expected to take, leaving a pack of journalists who bought tickets to photograph an empty seat. So presumably Snowden remains in Russia at least for the time being, with rumors swirling that Ecuador or possibly Venezuela remain his destination of choice.

No matter what he’s up to, he’s making the United States government look foolish. Hong Kong’s decision—which, in effect, means Beijing’s decision—to let him leave even though he is wanted on felony charges in the United States and had his passport suspended suggests that notwithstanding the positive atmospherics from the recent summit meeting between President Obama and President Xi Jinping, there remain sharp limits on how far the Communist regime is willing to go to accommodate American concerns. Indeed, Beijing seems to be positively reveling in Snowden’s unfortunate revelations about the NSA’s penetration of Chinese computer networks, which serves to deflect attention from the much more massive intrusions into computer networks both foreign and domestic that Beijing routinely undertakes. Vladimir Putin, for his part, doesn’t seem to have heard of any “reset” in relations with the U.S. He, too, appears happy to grant Snowden sanctuary, at least for a short while, as a way of giving Uncle Sam the middle finger.

Then we come to Ecuador, whose president, Rafael Correa, appears to be bidding for leadership of the anti-American bloc in Latin America—a position left open by Fidel Castro’s enfeeblement and Hugo Chavez’s death. He has already granted refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy to WikiLeaks founder and accused rapist Julian Assange. Now he may very well try to grant sanctuary to Snowden too. He is entitled to do that, but Washington should make clear to him that if he does so he will suffer the consequences—including a loss of trade privileges that could threaten the $10.7 billion worth of goods that nation exports to the U.S. every year.

This is all, it must be said, a colossal embarrassment for President Obama. He looks, to unsympathetic eyes at least, to be a budding tyrant (witness all of the absurd and overheated comparisons between the NSA’s measured and carefully controlled activities and those of authoritarian states such as China and Iran which spy on their own people to suppress dissent)—and a notably ineffectual one at that who can’t even snare one Pepsi-swilling, pizza-gobbling computer geek.

It may well be that case that a Republican president—John McCain or Mitt Romney—would have had no more success in apprehending Snowden, but the equanimity with which other states rebuff our appeals for his apprehension makes clear that the U.S. is suffering a significant loss of respect. Quite simply, the U.S. is no more universally loved than it was prior to Obama’s ascension—and now we are less respected too. As anyone who consults Machiavelli will know, this is not a recipe for a prince’s success.

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From Fugitive to Hostage for Snowden?

Such is the interest in Edward Snowden’s travel plans that a plane taking off without him on board is newsworthy. But the news that a Moscow-to-Cuba plane left Sheremetyevo Airport without Snowden is receiving prominent placement–and three reporter bylines, as well as seven contributing bylines for background on the story–on the New York Times’s website.

That may seem like overkill, but in fact it’s appropriate. And it may signal that the diplomatic angle of this case is about to escalate. Over the weekend, Snowden left Hong Kong with Cuba or Ecuador as his expected destination but with a stopover in Moscow first. Though he was seemingly there only to catch his connecting flight, that would have been a strange development, considering that Vladimir Putin has more to gain from virtually any scenario other than one in which Snowden just passes through Russia on his continuing search for asylum.

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Such is the interest in Edward Snowden’s travel plans that a plane taking off without him on board is newsworthy. But the news that a Moscow-to-Cuba plane left Sheremetyevo Airport without Snowden is receiving prominent placement–and three reporter bylines, as well as seven contributing bylines for background on the story–on the New York Times’s website.

That may seem like overkill, but in fact it’s appropriate. And it may signal that the diplomatic angle of this case is about to escalate. Over the weekend, Snowden left Hong Kong with Cuba or Ecuador as his expected destination but with a stopover in Moscow first. Though he was seemingly there only to catch his connecting flight, that would have been a strange development, considering that Vladimir Putin has more to gain from virtually any scenario other than one in which Snowden just passes through Russia on his continuing search for asylum.

The Obama administration has asked Russia to send Snowden back to the U.S. for prosecution. That means Putin can win points from the Obama administration and its allies in the West by complying and cooperating. Or he can play to domestic anti-Americanism–as China did by refusing to extradite Snowden–and let the fugitive leaker continue on his journey. But each of those two options can be “supersized,” so to speak, by detaining Snowden first.

Earlier reports from the Times shed light on the timing of Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong:

Two Western intelligence experts, who worked for major government spy agencies, said they believed that the Chinese government had managed to drain the contents of the four laptops that Mr. Snowden said he brought to Hong Kong, and that he said were with him during his stay at a Hong Kong hotel.

If that were the case, they said, China would no longer need or want to have Mr. Snowden remain in Hong Kong.

Chinese authorities seemed anxious to get rid of Snowden since they didn’t want to hand him over to the U.S. and didn’t want to be the center of public pressure over it. But they obviously wanted to know everything Snowden knew, and since no thinking person would ever take Snowden’s word for anything, they could not just ask him. There was likely no need to ask anyway, and the Times report suggests that was indeed the case.

So China chose Option No. 2: play to domestic anti-Americanism and let Snowden go. But the Chinese leadership made sure to maximize its benefits by getting access to all of Snowden’s information first. Letting Snowden leave was almost certainly a strategic error on China’s part, since they could have won credit for returning Snowden to the U.S. while still obtaining all the U.S. government secrets Snowden carried with him and ensured that no one else would gain access to Snowden.

Russia and China may act in concert at the UN Security Council, but they are rivals. Letting Snowden go to Russia enabled the Russian security services to try their hand at wringing secrets out of Snowden, and perturbed the U.S. For the same reasons, it would have been strategically foolhardy for Russia to simply ignore Snowden. And today’s Times report very credibly hints that Putin never truly considered this option:

It was unclear how Mr. Snowden spent his time at the airport or precisely where. The departure of the flight to Havana from Moscow came after an all-night vigil by journalists who were posted outside a hotel in the transit zone of the airport where Mr. Snowden was apparently staying. But on Monday morning, hotel staff said that no one named Snowden was staying there.

Russian news services had reported that Mr. Snowden would take the flight to Cuba, prompting a late rush for tickets from the horde of journalists gathered at the airport. But others dismissed it as a ruse to put the news media and others off Mr. Snowden’s trail.

One of the reasons Snowden’s decision to flee to Hong Kong was so detrimental to the U.S. was because, as Max Boot pointed out presciently and immediately, he would be almost certainly unable to hide the information he held on electronic devices from the Chinese government, even if he wanted to withhold the state secrets. It’s unclear whether Russian hacking abilities match those of the Chinese government, but what the Putin regime may lack in technological proficiency it can certainly make up in persuasive questioning from the FSB.

Snowden’s detour through Russia, then, is likely to yield an intelligence windfall for Putin regardless of what he decides to do with Snowden once Snowden goes from being a useful idiot to a useless idiot. Thus it never made much sense for Putin to stand aside. Today’s reports align much more with common sense. Now, if Putin does get the intel he’s looking for from Snowden, what he does next will depend on whether he cares more about domestic opinion or America’s. Putin can do what China did and appeal to nationalist sentiment by refusing to extradite Snowden to the U.S. Or he can one-up China by gaining Snowden’s intelligence and then winning Western plaudits by cooperating.

Russian public opinion has not recently been at the forefront of Putin’s mind, but then again neither has Obama’s. Of course, he could hand Snowden over to American authorities only in return for some additional concession, outplaying both the U.S. and China. It would be ironic, certainly, for Snowden to flee the U.S. in the name of openness and transparency only to become a hostage of the Russian security services.

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Memo to Fox’s Bolling: America Isn’t Iran

In an interview with former Governor Sarah Palin, Fox’s Eric Bolling–in speaking in part about the National Security Agency surveillance program–said, “It feels to me like we’re either in Iran or Communist China.”

He’s serious.

Mr. Bolling may want to take some time to read this State Department report on Iran. It points out that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocratic republic. Its surveillance and monitoring of citizens’ online activities belongs in an entirely different category than what is being done in America. (As Max Boot points out, the NSA’s surveillance programs “are hardly rogue operations. Both programs were initiated by President George W. Bush and continued by President Barack Obama with the full knowledge and support of Congress and continuing oversight from the federal judiciary.”) And on Iran there’s also this (courtesy of the State Department report):

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In an interview with former Governor Sarah Palin, Fox’s Eric Bolling–in speaking in part about the National Security Agency surveillance program–said, “It feels to me like we’re either in Iran or Communist China.”

He’s serious.

Mr. Bolling may want to take some time to read this State Department report on Iran. It points out that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a theocratic republic. Its surveillance and monitoring of citizens’ online activities belongs in an entirely different category than what is being done in America. (As Max Boot points out, the NSA’s surveillance programs “are hardly rogue operations. Both programs were initiated by President George W. Bush and continued by President Barack Obama with the full knowledge and support of Congress and continuing oversight from the federal judiciary.”) And on Iran there’s also this (courtesy of the State Department report):

The most egregious human rights problems were the government’s severe limitations on citizens’ right to peacefully change their government through free and fair elections; restrictions on civil liberties, including the freedoms of assembly, speech, and press; and the government’s disregard for the physical integrity of persons whom it arbitrarily and unlawfully killed, tortured, and imprisoned. Other reported human rights problems included: disappearances; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including judicially sanctioned amputation and flogging; politically motivated violence and repression, such as beatings and rape; harsh and life-threatening conditions in detention and prison facilities, with instances of deaths in custody; arbitrary arrest and lengthy pretrial detention, sometimes incommunicado; continued impunity of security forces; denial of fair public trials, sometimes resulting in executions without due process; political prisoners and detainees; the lack of an independent judiciary; … arbitrary interference with privacy, home, and correspondence; severe restrictions on freedoms of speech (including via the Internet) and press; harassment of journalists; censorship and media content restrictions; severe restrictions on academic freedom; severe restrictions on the freedoms of assembly, association, and religion; … legal and societal discrimination and violence against women, children, ethnic and religious minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons based on perceived sexual orientation and gender identity; incitement to anti-Semitism and trafficking in persons; and severe restrictions on the exercise of labor rights. 

Call me an old-fashioned conservative, but when those on the right begin to put the United States in the same category as Iran and Communist China, it’s problematic. This is a variation of the kind of thing one heard in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the Weather Underground, the Chicago Seven, and Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dorn (though thankfully without the calls for an “armed struggle”).

I agree on the need for vigilance when it comes to potential abuses in the NSA program. And I know, too, that there are serious people who object to what the NSA is doing. But the kind of unreasonable and uncontrolled rhetoric we’re hearing from some on the right is quite stunning. America, even under Barack Obama, is not Iran or Communist China; and the last people in the world who should have to be informed of that fact are conservatives. 

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The Costs of Obama’s Miguided Nuke Policy

I wrote yesterday about President Obama’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate, in which he embraced Cold War symbolism on behalf of the West and acknowledged that Cold War tensions still exist and must be countered. Where once the president would knock Republicans for being stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” he now criticizes Vladimir Putin for the mindset.

This was a welcome rhetorical adjustment. But in seeking to harness the heroism of the past for the challenges of the present and future, the president did focus on one misguided policy goal: U.S.-Russia bilateral nuclear arms reductions. It isn’t that the president is wrong when he says we may not need quite as many nukes as we have, but that he underestimates the benefits of those weapons and risks diverting attention away from much more pressing, and genuinely dangerous, perils of nuclear proliferation.

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I wrote yesterday about President Obama’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate, in which he embraced Cold War symbolism on behalf of the West and acknowledged that Cold War tensions still exist and must be countered. Where once the president would knock Republicans for being stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” he now criticizes Vladimir Putin for the mindset.

This was a welcome rhetorical adjustment. But in seeking to harness the heroism of the past for the challenges of the present and future, the president did focus on one misguided policy goal: U.S.-Russia bilateral nuclear arms reductions. It isn’t that the president is wrong when he says we may not need quite as many nukes as we have, but that he underestimates the benefits of those weapons and risks diverting attention away from much more pressing, and genuinely dangerous, perils of nuclear proliferation.

As I wrote last year when this issue surfaced, the argument in favor of nuclear reduction rests on faulty logic. We have been told time and again that one benefit of arms reduction would be the display of American leadership: other countries would be encouraged to follow our lead, and we can’t be accused (at least to the same degree) of hypocrisy when we advocate for nuclear nonproliferation abroad. This is untrue, because the U.S. has reduced its nuclear stockpile over the years and offered additional cuts, and yet China has continued over the years to increase its own stockpile and other nations have crossed the nuclear weapons threshold.

Additionally, nuclear weapons are just that–weapons. Rogue states have no “right” to those weapons just because we have them, and the U.S. has long possessed strategic advantages on the battlefield. Those advantages do not make us hypocrites; we have no moral obligation to permit those who seek to harm us to level the playing field. If we legitimize the argument for strategic parity then we would lay the groundwork for the argument that just reducing our stockpile is insufficient: if we have a thousand nukes, so should Pakistan and North Korea.

Not only does the case for cutting our stockpile ignore history, it misrepresents the concept of strategic deterrence. Once we reach a large number of nukes, could it possibly make a difference if we scrapped some of them? Well yes, actually, it could. As Georgetown’s Matthew Kroenig explains:

In an analysis of 52 countries that participated in nuclear crises from 1945 to 2001 (think the Cuban Missile Crisis), I found that the state with the greater number of warheads is over 17 times more likely to achieve its goals. In addition, there is qualitative evidence from these crises that leaders in nuclear-armed states pay close attention to the nuclear balance of power, that they believe nuclear superiority enhances their position, and that a nuclear advantage often translates directly into a geopolitical advantage. For example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Secretary of State Dean Rusk argued, “One thing Mr. Khrushchev may have in mind is that… he knows that we have a substantial nuclear superiority…. He also knows that we don’t really live under fear of his nuclear weapons to the extent… that he has to live under ours.”

Even if Russia agrees to match the president’s proposed cuts, the nuclear reductions would attenuate our advantages vis-à-vis Russia and eat into our margin of superiority against other nuclear-armed states, such as China, possibly increasing the likelihood that the United States will be challenged militarily and reducing the probability that we achieve our goals in future crises.

Which brings us to the two other weaknesses of Obama’s push for arms reduction: opportunity cost and financial cost. Russia’s nukes are far less of a threat to American interests and security than those of North Korea or Pakistan (or even China), and the same is true for those states trying to obtain nuclear weapons, such as Iran and, until recently, Syria. If the Obama administration wants Russian cooperation on the issue of nukes, it should seek not mutual reductions but instead address Russia’s enabling of Iran’s nuclear drive and protection of regimes such as that of Bashar al-Assad. If it wants to make progress on the nuclear issue while being seen to help Russia as well, it should seek not American cuts but moderation on China’s militarization or China’s support for North Korea–two troublesome nuclear states on Russia’s increasingly vulnerable eastern flank.

As for the financial cost, there is only so much money to go around. It would be costly to reduce our nuclear arsenal, which also needs costly modernization. Such modernization is much more urgent than reduction. As the Washington Post reports, we’ve been kicking the can down the road on addressing “the decrepit, neglected state of the aging nuclear weapons complex,” but each delay only increases the expense of the project, which the arsenal needs “to keep it safe and reliable.” Keeping our existing nukes “safe and reliable” should take priority over dismantling part of the arsenal. The president isn’t wrong to address issues relating to our nuclear stockpile and global proliferation. He’s just focusing on the wrong ones.

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China’s Atrocities Don’t Interest Americans

Last week, the New York Times finally ran a piece on a story that had been circulation around the Internet for months. A woman purchasing a package of Halloween decorations at a K-Mart in Oregon found a letter in English placed there by one of the workers who had made the product. It said the following:

“Sir: If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization,” said the note, which was tucked between two ersatz tombstones and fell out when the woman, Julie Keith, opened the box in her living room last October. “Thousands people here who are under the persicution [sic] of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”

Ms. Keith was profoundly affected by this shocking message—whose author was recently found—but knew nothing about the situation in the Laogai, the Chinese gulag where “re-education through labor” subjects hundreds of thousands if not many millions of Chinese criminals as well as religious believers and political dissidents to horrific conditions as well as torture and death. So do most Americans. But the really awful truth about the American view of China is that even those who know or ought to know what is going on there simply don’t care. Five days after the Times ran the story about the inmate’s letter, it published a piece about New York University’s decision to push out a prominent Chinese dissident for fear that his continued presence on campus would harm the school’s close financial relationship with Beijing. Just as any hope of abolishing these camps is made impossible by the fact that the Chinese police profit from the suffering of their inmates, so, too, American institutions and businesses are compromised by their financial ties to an evil system.

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Last week, the New York Times finally ran a piece on a story that had been circulation around the Internet for months. A woman purchasing a package of Halloween decorations at a K-Mart in Oregon found a letter in English placed there by one of the workers who had made the product. It said the following:

“Sir: If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization,” said the note, which was tucked between two ersatz tombstones and fell out when the woman, Julie Keith, opened the box in her living room last October. “Thousands people here who are under the persicution [sic] of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”

Ms. Keith was profoundly affected by this shocking message—whose author was recently found—but knew nothing about the situation in the Laogai, the Chinese gulag where “re-education through labor” subjects hundreds of thousands if not many millions of Chinese criminals as well as religious believers and political dissidents to horrific conditions as well as torture and death. So do most Americans. But the really awful truth about the American view of China is that even those who know or ought to know what is going on there simply don’t care. Five days after the Times ran the story about the inmate’s letter, it published a piece about New York University’s decision to push out a prominent Chinese dissident for fear that his continued presence on campus would harm the school’s close financial relationship with Beijing. Just as any hope of abolishing these camps is made impossible by the fact that the Chinese police profit from the suffering of their inmates, so, too, American institutions and businesses are compromised by their financial ties to an evil system.

Chen Guangcheng had his 15 minutes of fame when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton persuaded the Chinese government to allow the blind lawyer to leave the country. Chen was a forceful critic of the country’s despotic one-child policies that have involved forced abortions and was given a law fellowship at NYU, but he was recently told to leave and vacate the apartment the university gave him in Greenwich Village. NYU claims it has done nothing wrong and treated Chen with generosity, but the school’s interest in disassociating itself from the dissident’s forceful criticism of China’s Communist rulers is clear. Like many American colleges, NYU is opening a Chinese campus and doesn’t want to pick fights with Beijing.

Chen said the following in a statement:

“The work of the Chinese Communists within academic circles in the United States is far greater than what people imagine, and some scholars have no option but to hold themselves back,” Mr. Chen said. “Academic independence and academic freedom in the United States are being greatly threatened by a totalitarian regime.”

According to NYU, Chen’s fellowship simply expired and it was time for him to move on to other opportunities. But even if that were true, the university’s well publicized generosity to scholars that it considers academic stars—including loans and fabulous vacation homes in the Hamptons—makes their eviction notice to a man who might be considered an academic luminary if education about human rights was a priority seem slightly suspicious.

But the problem here isn’t so much NYU’s hypocrisy or whether Chen simply has had a misunderstanding with the school. With the American economy inextricably tied to that of China via an astronomical debt and trade imbalance and with U.S. consumers and industries addicted to the cheap goods produced in Chinese sweatshops or in concentration camps, there is no constituency behind protests aimed at highlighting abuses there.

China is not quite the totalitarian nightmare that it was under Mao as free enterprise has blossomed there, but neither is it remotely free. Political and religious freedom doesn’t exist there. Nor can private property truly be safe in a system where there is no rule of law. For all the talk about the lunacy in North Korea and other tyrannical nations, the scale of human rights abuses in the world’s most populous country dwarfs anything happening anywhere else.

Americans should be ashamed that they don’t know that the cheap stuff they purchase in stores here is paid for in the blood of suffering dissidents and religious believers. Where once mass movements pushed for change in the Soviet Union and even South Africa, people like Chen find themselves stranded in a free country that isn’t interested in what is going on in China. If they lash out in despair at this lamentable situation, who can blame them?

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