An exchange between Arthur Waldron and critics on his July-August 2003 piece, "The Chinese Sickness."
We have heard all this before, many times. Unfortunately, it does not become more convincing with the retelling. In “The Chinese Sickness” [July-August], Arthur Waldron conjures up the specter of a menacing China in the grip of an irredeemably evil regime, simultaneously threatening democratic neighbors and teetering on the brink of bloody disintegration. He argues that foreign politicians, businessmen, and scholars must discard their “Pollyanna-ish” and feckless view of China and embrace instead a new approach that acknowledges the regime’s unqualifiedly despotic character and both anticipates and contributes to the political system’s inevitable violent demise.
Mr. Waldron’s argument has generated substantial attention; nothing can match the allure of an extreme argument unburdened by the complexities of the real world. Nearly all analysts recognize that the Chinese regime confronts major problems, including widespread corruption, and that Chinese behavior is often highly objectionable. Some also concede that the current Chinese regime might one day unravel. But estimates of China’s future require a balanced and open-minded review of evidence and a recognition of the contingent nature of future trends. Instead, Waldron relies on unsubstantiated hyperbole, half-truths, and in some cases complete untruths that produce unwarranted, one-sided conclusions.
Space permits only a few examples. Mr. Waldron states that foreign investment in China has not produced any real returns, and that only coastal China has benefited from such investment. In actuality, foreign companies remit well over $20 billion in profits annually. Major corporations like General Motors, Kodak, Coca Cola, and Intel are reaping large profits in China, while many poorer inland areas continue to experience significant increases in living standards. More broadly, during the 1990’s alone, China almost halved the proportion of its people living in poverty. Although the economy faces severe problems in banking, state-owned enterprises, and agriculture, it also exhibits signs of strength and resiliency, notably in the consumer, automobile, and housing sectors. And, in a recent article in the Journal of Democracy, Andrew Nathan, a highly regarded analyst of Chinese politics and no friend of Beijing, makes a convincing case for the resiliency of the Chinese regime.
Mr. Waldron’s analysis of China’s external behavior and views contains even more errors. He asserts that: America’s security presence in Asia is “thin and diffuse”; Washington has always been and remains strategically unprepared in the region; China’s past military actions in Asia prove that it desires to dominate the region; China will soon deploy nuclear missiles capable of “incinerating the continental United States”; Chinese foreign policy is driven solely by internal concerns; the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 triggered China’s subsequent military modernization and a renewed emphasis on external threats; Chinese youth today are far more xenophobic and anti-American than in the past; and U.S. policy is based on the assumption that the Communist party will “always” govern China.
None of these statements is accurate. Although U.S. force levels have been strained by recent deployments to the Middle East, both air and naval capabilities in Asia will, according to Admiral Dennis Blair, the former head of Pacific Forces, soon return to very robust levels. More important, the Quadrennial Defense Review and the U.S. National Security Strategy confirm the depth and durability of the American regional security presence. Nor is China about to deploy modernized ICBM’s in sufficient numbers to destroy the continental United States. China’s nuclear deterrent remains based upon a capacity for limited retaliation against a small number of U.S. cities. This will likely remain unchanged even if its long-range nuclear arsenal grows in response to U.S. deployment of a ballistic-missile defense system.
Mr. Waldron refutes his own contention about the exclusively internal origins of Chinese external policy by his emphasis on the history of Beijing’s strategic interactions with Japan, Russia, and the United States. China’s post-Tiananmen military buildup resulted primarily from external—not internal—factors, including its military obsolescence compared with other major powers, a more antagonistic U.S.-China relationship, and the rapid emergence of pro-independence forces in Taiwan. One of the few serious surveys undertaken in recent years of Chinese views of foreign events suggests that China’s youth are no more xenophobic or anti-American than their forebears. Finally, most serious scholars, businessmen, and government officials believe that the Communist party will eventually be compelled to share or even relinquish power, especially if China is to grow and prosper over the long run.
In all, the preponderance of evidence indicates that the Chinese regime is relatively stable at present, that its foreign policy is primarily motivated by rational national interests, that the U.S. government’s engagement policy contains sufficient elements of deterrence, and that the U.S.-China relationship, although often unsteady, could witness real improvement. Yet ultimately, Mr. Waldron’s argument about the fundamentally evil nature and inevitably violent fate of the Chinese regime is impossible to disprove. If the regime ultimately collapses, he will claim vindication; if it does not collapse, he can assert that it is still teetering on the brink; if it acts despotically or employs external coercion, he will again claim vindication; if it unexpectedly shuns such behavior, he will argue that it is biding its time, or is attempting to lull its adversaries into a false sense of security.
Mr. Waldron is not the first observer of the Chinese scene to build an argument on unfalsifiable declarations and distortions. But few have employed these methods in an apparent attempt to justify a dangerous policy of unqualified confrontation and subversion toward China.
Michael D. Swaine
Carnegie Endowment for
Richard D. Baum
University of California
Los Angeles, California
Center for Strategic and
National War College (retired)
University of Pennsylvania
Lawrence J. Lau
Palo Alto, California
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan
H. Lyman Miller
Palo Alto, California
Carnegie Endowment for
J. Stapleton Roy
New York City
George Washington University
Chinese Council of
Advanced Policy Studies
Henry S. Rowen:
Arthur Waldron offers a collection of truths, half-truths, and misconceptions. Among the truths is how the Chinese government’s impulse for “secrecy, denial, and cover-up” was expressed in its handling of the SARS epidemic.
Many of Mr. Waldron’s misconceptions are about economics, not his strong suit. For instance, he draws on Thomas Rawski’s mistaken view that Chinese statistics greatly overstate reality. Rawski believed a decline in freight shipments in the late 1990’s signified economic stagnation. Actually, changes in environmental regulations and in the economic structure reduced coal use, and therefore reduced coal shipments, which constituted a large share of all freight carried. Throughout this period, the economy boomed. If one does not believe that, go take a look.
As for official exaggerations, Stanford’s Lawrence J. Lau has studied Chinese accounting methods and his analysis yields a growth rate about one percentage point lower than the official numbers. So growth of 11 percent a year in GDP becomes growth of 10 percent, which is still a remarkable performance to have sustained for more than twenty years.
Mr. Waldron says that investors do not know what returns they will get, although he acknowledges that money is being made by shipping goods to China for re-export. Precisely. Moreover, much money is exported from inside China only to return as “foreign” capital. Investors pouring in these funds might lose their shirts some day, but they are well-informed. The credibility of an American academic who claims he knows better than they do is questionable.
Mr. Waldron mentions one real problem: the bad loans of Chinese banks. As usual, the numbers matter, but here his article is uninformative. Assuming that most such loans are unrecoverable, Lau estimates that they amount to about 30 percent of GDP. If all of them were added to the current public debt, the grand total would come to about 60 percent of GDP. This is pretty good by international standards. (Japan’s debt-to-GDP ratio is 140 percent.) The bad-loan problem will become a crisis if not stopped, but a crisis is not imminent.
Mr. Waldron says that China has carried out none of the reforms that the Russians have, with the result that “the life of the Russian people has improved immeasurably.” But on the important indicator of life expectancy, the Russians have experienced a marked decline while Chinese life expectancy continues to increase.
Deng Xiaoping’s view is worth noting. He gave Secretary of State George Shultz his opinion of Gorbachev’s reforms in July 1988: “He’s got it backwards. He opened up the political system without a clue about the economy. The result is chaos. I did it the other way around, starting in agriculture and small businesses, where opening up worked, so now I have a demand for more of what succeeds.” As for a political opening, Deng’s view was that “that will come later and will start small, just as in the economy. You have to be patient but you have to get the sequence right.”
Quoting the Australian expert Robyn Lim, Mr. Waldron makes much of China’s belligerency abroad and infers that China wants to be a hegemon. But whence might come the damage he expects? Taiwan, backed by the United States, is always a candidate, as are the Sino-Indian tensions that Mr. Waldron makes much of. These conflicts continue to simmer, but it seems that neither side is looking for trouble now.
North Korea is a much more serious source of danger. Mr. Waldron rightly argues that the Chinese seem not to grasp the threat posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear program, and argues that if China does not take the lead, its northeast neighborhood will become the source of much trouble. So far, this case shows a paucity of China hegemony, so to speak, rather than too much of it.
Mr. Waldron asks if the Chinese polity will evolve or crash. He expects a slow-motion crash to start soon—one that will shake the world. Any autocratic state is susceptible of disruption, and there is no good reason to exempt China from the rule. But there, as elsewhere, it is hard to know when and how large political changes will occur. One welcomes those souls brave enough to make short-term predictions, for their grades as forecasters are recorded soon enough.
David M. Lampton:
In “The Chinese Sickness,” Arthur Waldron fails to advance knowledge of China, illuminate American interests, or realistically assess the range of options facing the United States. His article undermines its own credibility by its single-minded focus on systemic defects in the People’s Republic of China (which are legion) while excluding discussion of some of the system’s strengths. It is the multifaceted character of today’s China and the mix of gigantic problems and considerable successes that make it imprudent to forecast China’s future dogmatically or to speak in absolutes about the best course for American policy.
And speaking of policy, Mr. Waldron’s concluding summary sentence anticipating a collapsing PRC and an unprepared America (“The test is coming soon, and the time to prepare grows short”) gives no guidance as to how America might positively shape outcomes in China or how Washington should prepare for the eventuality he postulates. Moreover, he is silent about what China’s collapse would mean for East Asia or the rest of the world.
“The Chinese Sickness” adopts the old polemical ploy of throwing up so many dubious and unsupported assertions that one is paralyzed by the plethora of possible targets and the short time for target selection. I will take aim at three.
First, China is painted as a country surrounded by increasingly alarmed neighbors. True, some of China’s neighbors are indeed concerned about the economic and security implications of China’s rise, and Mr. Waldron appropriately cites things Beijing has done to ignite these anxieties. What we fail to learn from him, however, is that much of Asia also sees great economic opportunities in China, that much of Asia is fitting into a regional division of labor with China, and that on the most dangerous security issue outside the Middle East—North Korea—Beijing has been working cooperatively with Washington. Furthermore, China now has more peaceful and more settled borders with its fourteen land neighbors than it has had in the last 200 years. In short, the picture is not monochromatic, and there is reason for optimism as well as for vigilance. Most importantly, none of the major countries in Asia wants the U.S. to force it to choose between Beijing and Washington.
Second, Mr. Waldron takes gratuitous shots at Bill Clinton’s China policy while sparing five Republican Presidents (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush) from association with essentially the same policy. My point is not that Mr. Waldron is simply partisan or unfair. It is that he thereby avoids asking a more fundamental question: why have the last seven U.S. Presidents (two Democratic and five Republican) pursued a policy of integrating China into the world, fostering economic growth there, and encouraging gradual social and political change? There are many answers to this question, but among them is the fact that there has been enormous, positive change in China since 1978, while the costs of social instability for the Chinese people, the region, and the world would be horrendous.
Finally, there is Mr. Waldron’s inappropriate comparison of the current PRC regime with the Qing dynasty (1644-1911/12): “a combination of external belligerence and internal weakness is making the People’s Republic look more and more like the once-mighty Qing at the point of entering its period of terminal decline.” Aside from the fact that corruption was a huge problem for the Qing as it is today, the analogy breaks down on several fronts. The Qing was highly resistant to voluntary involvement in the international economic system. The PRC, on the other hand, is among the world’s ten largest trading economies and received more foreign direct investment in 2002 than any other nation on earth, including the United States.
Moreover, because it was culturally distinct from the Han population it ruled, the Qing elite aroused Chinese nationalism against itself. By way of contrast, the PRC elite relies on Chinese nationalism for its support. And the late Qing was neither a technocracy nor a meritocracy; today’s China has a considerable way to go in these departments, but it aspires to be both.
In short, if Mr. Waldron is right, he gives us no guidance about what to do—and if he is wrong, as I believe him to be, he is just plain wrong.
School of Advanced
Johns Hopkins University
Jonathan D. Pollack:
In “The Chinese Sickness,” Arthur Waldron diagnoses the Chinese body politic and declares its illnesses to be terminal. He foresees the inevitable demise of Communist rule in China, with Western governments “even less aware and less prepared [for the looming crisis] than they were in the Soviet case.” Though he does not offer predictions of when the regime will unravel, he expects it to be sooner rather than later, and that the end will very likely be violent and extremely dangerous.
I do not propose to rebut Mr. Waldron’s characterizations of China’s present condition, its threats to its neighbors, and its almost certain demise. Instead, for the sake of argument, I will address the policy implications of his assessment. How does he propose to prepare for the collapse of Communist rule? Alas, this is where Mr. Waldron seems far less nimble and self-assured. He does not offer a clear prescription, so it is necessary to infer possible courses of action from his analysis.
Four strategies are discernible in his remarks, two of which I believe he rejects as wholly inadequate. The first is current U.S. government policy, generally labeled as engagement, which posits that Beijing can be successfully integrated into international institutions while its leaders undertake a step-by-step departure from the Communist era. Mr. Waldron seems to see this strategy as a fool’s errand. The second strategy is “muddling through,” thereby seeking to manage change and potential eruptions, without an expectation that a future crisis will be life-threatening. Mr. Waldron seems to regard this path as far too inertial and overly optimistic, leaving the United States ill-prepared for more extreme possibilities.
Ineluctably, therefore, Mr. Waldron is drawn to activist courses of action. Under a third path, the United States could emphasize crisis control and consequence management. We would prepare for the inevitable catastrophes that await China, thereby mitigating or avoiding outright disaster. This would presumably include high-level contingency planning within the U.S. government, possibly even plans for American military intervention in especially dire circumstances. A fourth path would take the third approach to its logical conclusion by removing the Chinese patient from life support. Under this approach, the United States would no longer deem the PRC a legitimate, sovereign government, and Washington would seek to accelerate the end of Communist rule in China.
I do not think I am mischaracterizing Mr. Waldron’s analysis. If conditions are as dire as he describes them to be, how could a farsighted U.S. government sit on its hands and wait? Mr. Waldron offers some ideas on what America should do once the death rattles are first heard, but not on what America should do now, while there is presumably time to limit the damage and control the risks. Would he advocate de-recognition of Beijing, and restoration of relations with Taipei? Would he advise that Washington urge U.S. multinationals to withdraw from China? Would he advocate a U.S. trade embargo? Would he propose that we remove the terrorist label from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and instead deem the group to be freedom fighters? Indeed, in view of the extraordinary pressures on U.S. military resources, would he recommend that we redeploy forces presently assigned to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Central Asia so that we might be better prepared to address highly worrisome contingencies involving China? Would he urge immediate consultations with China’s neighbors to diminish the more extreme consequences of the collapse of Communist rule, or should we simply exit East Asia and let the region confront the unraveling of the Chinese state on its own?
Mr. Waldron has done COMMENTARY readers a disservice: he has painted the bleakest of futures, but he has not told them what he thinks we should do to confront these supposed realities. I await his policy recommendations.
U.S. Naval War College
Newport, Rhode Island
John J. Tkacik, Jr.:
Arthur Waldron has written a perceptive and valuable analysis of the problems and crises besetting China. His prognosis for “The Chinese Sickness” is somewhat more pessimistic—or perhaps optimistic—than my own. China’s economic performance has certainly been exaggerated, and although his own figure of $250 billion a year for China’s total foreign trade is less than half of the official Chinese figure for 2002, it is probably close to the true trade picture—minus the foreign-owned export-processing sector, which imports vast amounts of components and re-exports the finished goods, with foreign factory owners, not Chinese workers, pocketing the difference.
Flouting its trade commitments, the Chinese government pressures foreign firms to invest in ever higher-tech production lines by granting China-produced high-tech commodities almost full rebates from the hefty value-added taxes that weigh down imports. China levies a 17-percent VAT on foreign semiconductors, but offers a rebate that makes local chips vastly cheaper than imports—regardless of the fact that importing chips is far less expensive than building billion-dollar chip-fabrication factories in China. China has surpassed the United States as the world’s leading consumer of aluminum. And China’s oil demand in 2002 averaged 5.36 million barrels a day, more than Japan’s 5.34 million barrels and second only to the United States’ daily demand of 19.7 million barrels. Even if there is puffery in the statistics, China is clearly an economic powerhouse.
As Mr. Waldron notes, the regime’s post-Tiananmen bargain with the Chinese people was “you let us rule and we’ll make you rich,” and the Communist party seems to be keeping its part of the bargain—at least in the large coastal cities. But it also struck another bargain—with the army. In January 1992, Deng Xiaoping redefined socialism by declaring that “whatever increases the ‘comprehensive strength of the nation’ is socialism.” “Comprehensive strength,” he explained, is China’s overall influence, particularly in military and strategic terms. Indeed, Deng’s pronouncement was followed by the Chinese military’s vow to “protect and shepherd the policies of [economic] reform.” My own research indicates that the People’s Liberation Army is the primary mover—and one of the top financiers—of the push to get a foreign-equipped semiconductor infrastructure established in China. Pentagon estimates that China’s military budget nears $65 billion annually (again, second in the world only to the United States) do not count the spending in dual-use industrial infrastructure investments.
All things considered, I am less sanguine than Mr. Waldron that, in time, China will fall apart.
William E. Odom:
Arthur Waldron provides an excellent antidote to the conventional wisdom on China. He is right that China is headed for a major domestic political crisis and exceptional for calling attention to future Chinese-Japanese competition. At the same time, he may underestimate the wealth China has created thus far and the degree of its diffusion.
Let me reinforce his conclusion with a different line of analysis. The “totalitarian” regime-type, defined by Carl J. Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski in the 1950’s, found its original embodiment in the Soviet Union and to a lesser extent in Nazi Germany. After World War II, the Soviet variant became a recipe book, not only for Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe but also for China, North Korea, and, later, North Vietnam and Cuba. In the minds of many Western observers, however, the process of de-Stalinization that began under Khrushchev threw doubt on the utility of the totalitarian model for understanding these states, especially the Soviet Union.
This is unfortunate because the model has remained the best guide to understanding the demise of Communist states (and also “national socialist” states). According to the model, the system’s internal dynamic brings decay of two kinds: a vast squandering of resources through the command economy, and political and moral decay through endemic corruption, cheating, and other deviant behavior when leaders cease using bloody purges to revitalize commitment to the regime’s ideology. De-Stalinization served only to accelerate decay, not the political transformation that many Western scholars believed.
The Soviet Union would exist today had Gorbachev resorted to repressive purges and resisted reforms. North Korea’s economy is much weaker than the Soviet economy was, but the regime has not collapsed precisely because its leader is ruthless and opposed to reform. Thus far, every time a Communist country has attempted a transition to a different regime-type, it has collapsed. The exception seems to be China. But is it really an exception?
Soviet-type institutions, especially those characteristic of its command economy, never penetrated as deeply into Chinese agriculture—the largest sector of the economy. Thus, traditions from the pre-Communist era have survived to promote better economic performance in some areas (especially agriculture and small commerce) than had been the case in the Soviet Union. But there is no pre-Communist liberal political tradition in China, as there was in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, where it served to facilitate industry and finance. And even Mejii Japan, which imported liberal institutions from Europe, eventually collapsed in the 1930’s. Japan only had to deal with a ten-year hiatus in liberal institutions. All the objective factors thus suggest that the present Chinese regime will not achieve a liberal institutional breakthrough. Chinese economic performance has helped stave off a crisis, but it cannot be sustained without change that will provoke one.
Many students of Gorbachev’s perestroika believe the political collapse of the USSR was avoidable without stopping reform. None of them, however, has offered a cogent explanation of how such a miracle could have been achieved, although several have provided platitudes. The evidence for China drives us to the same conclusion—there is no way out, only a breakdown or long-term stagnation.
Mr. Waldron’s policy warning—that the United States needs to prepare for the crisis—is difficult to reject, but what preparations make sense? Talking to regional leaders within China, as he recommends, may be useful, but that is only a tactic. What is needed is a regional strategy.
Let me suggest a broad one that starts with a recognition that we cannot do much to affect Chinese developments. More urgent is to apply the analysis offered above to North Korea and to recognize that a “soft landing” through reforms there—South Korea’s hope—is daydreaming. A political crisis in Pyongyang will likely come before one comes in Beijing. Rather than prepare for it, the United States has been focusing entirely on North Korean nuclear weapons while ignoring the strategic significance of the North’s impending collapse.
If Washington fails to manage the political crisis on the Korean peninsula successfully—achieving reunification under the South Korean government and retaining U.S. troops there to prevent a nuclear competition between Japan and Korea—it will do very badly at managing the region’s biggest future problem, namely Japanese-Chinese strategic competition. In other words, Korea is the most urgent issue facing U.S. strategy, while Japanese-Chinese strategic competition is the largest issue.
Mr. Waldron’s clear-eyed analysis makes it easier to see one’s way to this wider strategic view. He is to be congratulated for it.
James R. Lilley:
With his profound grasp of Chinese history and his insights into what is happening today, Arthur Waldron has pulled aside the curtain and exposed the Wizard of Oz feverishly manipulating the levers to project an image of Chinese unity and power.
The spin pouring out of China tells us that 25 percent of the world’s cranes are in Shanghai, that China’s economic growth rate is at 8 percent, and that China has over $300 billion in foreign-exchange reserves. And if that is not enough, look at those skyscrapers in Pudong. The truth, however, is that rural unrest, massive corruption and disparities of wealth, and archaic systems of production and distribution have clogged China’s arteries. The patterns of Chinese history tell us that, without significant reform, the current dynasty will face escalating problems that could challenge its stability.
Pointing all this out, Mr. Waldron suggests some bleak scenarios for the future, based in part on recent analyses by Ross Terrill and Robyn Lim. I would suggest that China is already making some adjustments, domestically and internationally, to assure its survival. And it is acting none too soon, as its projections of power have landed it in hot water with its neighbors. Thus, its seizure of the Paracels in 1974 from South Vietnam has recently issued in the first U.S. naval visit to Saigon in 30 years. Its heavy-handed attempts to influence Taiwan’s presidential elections in 1996 and 2000 with threatening rhetoric and demonstrations of military might resulted in victories for the candidates Beijing was trying to defeat. Most importantly, in North Korea, where in the 1990’s China stood on the sidelines and watched the tigers fight, shoving the nuclear problem onto the back of the United States, a nuclear crisis has evolved that directly threatens the PRC’s vital national interests—even as Beijing continues to pour aid down the black hole of North Korea’s failed economy.
Mr. Waldron sagely observes that we will know major change is afoot when elements of the Chinese regime lobby for our support against other elements. I agree; we have seen this before, as when Deng Xiaoping sought our support against the radical Gang of Four. We showed our preference, and Deng eventually prevailed. Less successfully, we once supported the forces of Chiang Kai-shek against the Chinese Communists. And yet today the result is the democratic regime in Taiwan, whose example holds out a certain hope for the future. China and Taiwan’s economic fortunes are becoming more interdependent, and China’s coastal areas are beginning to resemble the Taiwanese model of development. Might this be a sign of things to come? War, after all, is not good for business, and listening to the voice of the people is not always a bad thing.
American Enterprise Institute
Larry M. Wortzel:
Just before the Tiananmen massacre, when the People’s Liberation Army began to stage its infantry divisions for the assault on the innocent civilian demonstrators in Beijing, the first hints that blood would be shed came out slowly. Local residents saw the army’s inexorable buildup, knew that people would die, and communicated that expectation to foreign residents in Beijing. It must have been like that during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, which presaged the downfall of the Qing dynasty. Arthur Waldron tells us that the same thing will happen again when change comes to China.
Mr. Waldron believes that “we will learn about [change] because the Chinese will tell us, albeit only indirectly.” He thinks that a “major” change will be afoot “when members of both the central and regional governments of the People’s Republic of China start, in private, to lobby for [American] support against other members of their own government.” As usual, Mr. Waldron has it about right. He realizes that the façade of normality and reform that is the face of Communist China is just that, a false front.
Underneath the façade of reported economic growth is a “shell-game” in which there is no pea under any shell. China has a hollow banking system, where people’s savings are funneled as loans into bankrupt industries to pay salaries, while the people are also forced to buy bonds in the same industries. The banks are insolvent. Government agencies falsify their statistics in order to “maintain the illusion of [economic] growth,” according to Mr. Waldron and Thomas Rawski, whom he cites. China’s world-trade figures are at a record high in absolute terms, $250 billion a year; but measured against the percentage of world trade, the ratio for China today is about what it was in the 1920’s.
Mr. Waldron concludes that the most likely outcome for China is that there will be some kind of crash. And, as with the Tiananmen massacre, he expects that crash to involve bloodshed. I think Mr. Waldron is right. Communist parties do not simply evolve themselves out of existence, nor do they surrender power voluntarily. The case of Mongolia notwithstanding (where the end of the Soviet Union led to free elections with no bloodshed), Communist parties are Leninist organizations that believe the average person is deluded by a “false consciousness” of what is in his political and economic interest. Instead of allowing for the articulation of political interests, Communist parties use violence and intimidation to impose their will on the populace. And in China, although the outcome can be postponed, the most likely result will be that the Communist party will go out kicking and screaming.
I differ with Mr. Waldron only on one point. I did not hear President George W. Bush say that the United States would do “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan, as Mr. Waldron states. What Bush said was more nuanced: “we’ll do whatever it takes to help Taiwan defend itself.”
Few people are able to analyze grand strategy, economics, politics, and history effectively. Arthur Waldron is one of them, and he is not afraid to make strong predictions. We are all in his debt for this stimulating article.
Striking to me is the extent to which my correspondents, even those whose tone is most negative, either agree with the central points of my article or fail to refute them. I began by saying that China’s mishandling of the SARS crisis has implications beyond the field of public health. From this initial example I moved to two distinct sets of problems. The first involves misgovernment at home, ultimately rooted in the Communist-party dictatorship; the other, of similar origin, takes the form of threats to China’s neighbors. Finally I argued that the convergence of both sets of problems would, before long, push the Chinese regime toward some sort of major change, possibly spelling the end of Communist rule but in any case likely to be abrupt and unexpected (though perhaps not inevitably bloody)—to which possibility we and our government should be paying much greater attention.
And what do my critics say? On the bungling of SARS, Henry S. Rowen finds correct my view that this demonstrates the “Chinese government’s impulse for ‘secrecy, denial, and cover-up.’ ” On internal problems, David M. Lampton concedes the “systemic defects in the People’s Republic of China (which are legion),” while, regarding the worries felt by China’s neighbors, he endorses my citing of the “things Beijing has done to ignite these anxieties.” Jonathan D. Pollack, another critic, likewise declines to rebut my characterizations of China’s present condition and future prospects. Even the joint communiqué from the twelve China specialists, whose tone I will address below, fails to take serious issue with my main contentions, instead treating them as common knowledge: “Nearly all analysts,” write the twelve, “recognize that the Chinese regime confronts major problems, including widespread corruption, and that Chinese behavior is often highly objectionable.” They even grant my point about regime change, wearily stipulating that “most serious scholars, businessmen, and government officials believe that the Communist party will eventually be compelled to share or even relinquish power.”
But if regime change is likely, as “most serious scholars” allow, or even possible, then surely experts like the twelve, not to mention the rest of us, should be actively thinking about the when, the how, and the why. China is an immense country, and regime change there would be an event comparable in significance to the collapse of the USSR and the end of Communism in the West. Yet neither the group of twelve, nor Mr. Lampton, nor Mr. Rowen, nor Mr. Pollack has anything at all to say about this possibility, its modalities, or its implications. All of them, save Mr. Rowen, are China specialists. What do they spend their time thinking about, if not this biggest of all the big questions?
It is, indeed, a delicious irony that it falls to General William E. Odom to show my China-watching colleagues how the discipline of political science should be practiced. He does this by looking immediately to the larger picture—the one that forms the context for China today. Above all he looks at the collapse of the USSR, and from that event and the events in Europe at the end of the 1980’s he draws a generalization: so far, it would appear that “every time a Communist country has attempted a transition to a different regime type, it has collapsed. The exception seems to be China. But is it really an exception?” Exactly the right question, it seems to me, but one which his fellow correspondents do not even raise, let alone attempt to answer.
Instead, they shrug their shoulders in dismissal, focus on a few minor areas of disagreement—and engage in vitriol. This is particularly true of the letter from the group of twelve, which garnered the endorsement of so many weighty and visible authorities. The explanation for the vitriol, I think, lies in the unwelcome situation now confronting sectors (though not all sectors) of the China-watching community. In brief, it is no longer possible to defend the largely upbeat views about China and its future that have been a standard establishment line for so long. What then to do? They will not or cannot say they were wrong; but neither can they or will they say that another view was right. What they can do is to argue ad hominem, accusing someone like me of “unsubstantiated hyperbole, half truths, and in some cases complete untruths that produce unwarranted, one-sided conclusions”—though without documenting the charge.
Those who remember the comparable intellectual scandal that afflicted the field of Sovietology during the period of the USSR’s existence will recognize the phenomenon. In Vixi, his forthcoming memoir, Richard Pipes says something about the groupthink then dominating Soviet studies that applies equally well today to at least one group of China specialists: “That is not to say that there was no room for controversy; there was room but it was strictly circumscribed. Thus, for example, it was permissible to maintain that the Soviet regime was more stable or less stable, but not that it was unstable.” Something about my analysis—something, perhaps, too candid—crossed the line of the permissible.
My critics do in fact disagree with me on a few points of substance. Thus, Henry Rowen points to “misconceptions about economics” that I have supposedly derived from the “mistaken” work of Thomas Rawski. It is true that economics is not my “strong suit,” as Mr. Rowen helpfully adds, but my confidence in Rawski is not based merely on his reputation as a respected academic economist who also happens to be a superbly qualified China specialist. In his early work, Rawski turned on its head the conventional wisdom about pre-1949 China—that it was “economically stagnant”—and was proved correct. He is now in the process of doing the same for our understanding of the PRC, most notably by querying the high growth rates that have been claimed for it and tracking the burgeoning problem of resource misallocation. His work is painstakingly empirical, though not lacking in a certain intellectual adventurousness. Above all, his sources of information on that closed society include Chinese statisticians and economists who themselves know what they are talking about.
In his brief letter, Mr. Rowen manages to skate perilously close to self-contradiction—twice. Life expectancy is falling in Russia, he writes, but rising in China. This may or may not be true; but it escapes me how he can accept official statistics as his only evidence for the situation in China after conceding that the falsification of SARS statistics is a good example of the regime’s penchant for “secrecy, denial, and cover-up.” Are we to conclude that the penchant is limited to SARS? If anything, the SARS crisis should have taught us how little we and the Chinese government know about the most basic conditions in the Chinese countryside, where most people live.
Mr. Rowen’s second near self-contradiction occurs when he refers unfavorably to “those souls”—like me, presumably—“brave enough to make short-term predictions,” only to offer just such a prediction himself. Thus, he observes that China’s “bad-loan problem will become a crisis if not stopped, but a crisis is not imminent” (emphasis added). How can he possibly know? This year, through July, bank loans in China expanded by 23 percent; known bad loans (which Standard & Poor’s estimates at perhaps 50 percent) were thus rendered a smaller proportion of the newly expanded loan book—which does not look to me like stopping the problem. Nor can we tell what proportion of these new loans will prove bad. According to J.P. Morgan, as reported in the Financial Times, a total clean-up of China’s banks could cost roughly $571 billion, or 47 percent of the 2002 Chinese GDP. That figure is for the state banks alone, and does not include the vast rural credit system, where bad loans are estimated at about 50 percent. How long can this situation be maintained? Exactly how imminent is imminent?
Finally, there is Mr. Rowen’s quite remarkable invocation of Deng Xiaoping, the man who observed of Mikhail Gorbachev (an incomparably more humane and better educated man) that he had “got it backwards. He opened up the political system without a clue about the economic system.” But look at the results. After a difficult but nearly bloodless transition, Russia today is free of Communism, beginning to show signs of real economic as well as political, intellectual, and artistic life, and has a government that, if not completely democratic, is nevertheless immeasurably freer and more representative than China’s.
And China? Mr. Rowen again quotes Deng, this time on political reform: “that will come later and start small, just as in the economy.” In a sense, truer words were never spoken. For it is now very much later, Deng is in his grave, most of the world is democratic, and yet in China political reform has not even begun, even “small.” Indeed, when Deng had an ideal opportunity to initiate such political change a quarter-century ago, he opted instead to unleash the People’s Liberation Army to sack and terrify Beijing.
David Lampton, even while acknowledging the defects of the PRC government and its responsibility for at least some of the unease now general in Asia, counters that China nevertheless presents a great economic opportunity. I do not deny that, though I would stress that war and economics are largely independent phenomena. Mr. Lampton also takes me to task for comparing today’s China with the late Qing dynasty (1644-1912). This is sensitive territory in China: a popular Beijing-produced television series dealing with the years just before the end of the monarchy has recently been canceled, evidently because of the all-too-obvious parallels with today.
According to Mr. Lampton, “the Qing was highly resistant to voluntary involvement in the international economic system. The PRC on the other hand is among the world’s ten largest trading economies.” What I take him to mean is that when foreign gunboats arrived to force the Qing to trade, the monarchy resisted. But so did the PRC resist, not gunboats but voluntary trade. The whole point of Chinese Communism in its original form was to abolish foreign (“imperialist”) penetration of the country’s markets, which, it was believed, had led to the gradual impoverishment or “immiseration” of the people. The Communists acted on this diagnosis, systematically closing down every sort of foreign or foreign-related enterprise. The PRC had scarcely any foreign trade at all until the changes post-Mao.
How does the overall PRC record, starting in 1949, compare with that of the Qing? Back in the dark days of that last Chinese dynasty, native merchants (as well as the then-equivalents of “General Motors, Kodak, Coca Cola, and Intel”) made money by selling tea and silk and porcelain and all manner of Chinese goods to the world. (Thoreau’s simple bamboo lattice bed at Walden Pond came from China.) They ran up such a massive trade surplus that the West had to discover and impose the sale of opium in order to square things. The miracle is not, as Mr. Lampton seems to believe, that the PRC has made China into a great trading power; it is that, for nearly 30 years, the Chinese Communist government managed almost completely to prevent the country they ruled from trading, let alone becoming the powerhouse it could easily have been by the late 1950’s when Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and the rest were beginning to take off.
Now let me turn again to the twelve and to the points on which we genuinely disagree. The two main areas are, first, the dimensions of the Chinese nuclear-missile threat to the United States and, second, the future American role in Asian regional security.
My statement that China is in the process of deploying nuclear missiles “capable, among other things, of incinerating the United States” evidently produced a shudder. Here is how the twelve put it: “China’s nuclear deterrent remains based on a capacity for limited retaliation against a small number of U.S. cities. This will likely remain unchanged even if its long-range nuclear arsenal grows in response to U.S. deployment of a ballistic-missile defense system” (emphasis added).
What do they mean by the phrase, “a small number of U.S. cities”? Right now, China has perhaps twenty ICBM’s capable of hitting this country. That could mean twenty cities, which, if we go in descending order of population, would take us from New York down to Boston and hold at risk a total population, in the metropolitan areas alone, of roughly 29 million. By 2010, at present rates of production, China may have 60 ICBM’s capable of hitting the United States, which would get us all the way down to Newark (population about 268,000). I cannot tell whether twenty, or 60, thermonuclear detonations over the U.S. would be “limited” or, alternatively, constitute “incineration” as my academic colleagues understand those terms, but surely they will agree it would be quite a conflagration.
As for Asian regional security, on this the twelve follow their usual pattern of not actually disagreeing with what I wrote. They admit that U.S. forces in Asia are important to keeping the peace, and they do not dispute my observation that the U.S. presence now is “thin and diffuse.” Their tack is to assert that things will get better in the future: “Both air and naval capabilities will, according to Admiral Dennis Blair, the former head of Pacific Forces, soon return to very robust levels.”
A most curious statement. In the sentence I placed in italics above, the twelve appear to go on record against U.S. missile defenses, or to hold such defenses accountable, at least in part, for any Chinese build-up of offensive nuclear forces. So I would ask the following question: should the “very robust” American forces that Admiral Blair has promised us be defended against missile attack (as I assume Admiral Blair and his colleagues would insist), or not?
The reason for my question is that intermediate-range ballistic missiles are a major growth area in China’s arsenal, and these missiles already threaten not only our friends and allies like Taiwan and Japan but also our entire current force structure in Asia. If we do not protect our “very robust” forces in Asia, they will be sitting ducks, doomed to “incineration” in case of war. But if the twelve, favoring those forces, also favor missile defenses for them as long as they are protecting Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, do they then mean to oppose missile defenses for the civilians of the United States? This would be an absurd position, albeit one growing logically from a faulty premise: namely, that the future of the Chinese missile force is not something that the PRC is deciding on its own, for its own reasons, but rather something that has taken shape as a reaction to things we do. In academia this argument, called the “response” school of thought, was once widespread, but it has been severely undermined in recent years by new evidence from Chinese as well as East European and former Soviet archives about the actual cause-and-effect relationships of the cold war; it is also stunningly condescending to the Chinese government.
Unique among my critics is Jonathan Pollack, who takes me to task not for what I say or how I say it but for what I do not say: namely, what U.S. policy should be. To this I plead that my article was intended as a diagnosis, not a prescription. But the policy recommendations follow directly from the analysis. We should devote our efforts to maintaining good relations with China’s current regime, a challenging task requiring every bit of diplomatic talent we possess as well as enough military clout to deter any Chinese adventures. At the same time (and this is the difficult part), we must realize that one of these days the regime is going to change, perhaps suddenly, as the Soviet Union did, and begin to prepare for that eventuality. How? By working so to strengthen our alliances among Asian democracies that no matter what happens in China, the region will not be de-stabilized.
The letter from John J.Tkacik is a welcome example of genuine, reasoned disagreement. Mr. Tkacik stresses the strength of the Chinese army and its close ties to the party to which it reports. In 1989, we saw how brute force could defeat the will of millions of peaceful Chinese demanding some say in how they were ruled; may we not see the same thing again if and when the army is called upon—or steps in—to “solve” the problem of political instability? Mr. Tkacik may well be right, and what some are already calling “Chinese fascism” may yet come to pass. Nevertheless, it seems to me that another attempt to use the military against the people would risk splitting the military itself and possibly a military coup against the civilian administration. Besides, even a successful military intervention would not solve the problems I described in my article; at most, it would suppress them for a few years, and at a potentially disastrous cost to a China today heavily dependent upon foreign trade and investment.
Ambassador James R. Lilley’s letter manifests wisdom derived from decades of deep involvement with the Chinese world. I agree with nearly everything he says, with two caveats. First, not all the scenarios to which I refer are “bleak.” Things could go relatively well in China, especially if political reform were to follow economic reform. But, second, the most perilous moment for a corrupt regime is precisely the one when, having long postponed reform, it finally attempts to change. I believe China is very close to that point.
My thanks, too, to Larry M. Wortzel, who in his earlier career was one of the ablest American military officers ever to serve in China, for his intellectual support. He is correct that I misquoted President Bush, and that the nuances in the phrase “We’ll do whatever it takes to help Taiwan defend itself” are important.
The point of my article was that we Americans must start thinking about how we are going to deal with the change that is coming in China. My critics, while not disputing that change is coming, nevertheless appear to find the task of thinking hard about it misconceived, uncongenial, and unwelcome. Why they feel this way, and with such passion, they do not explain—which is a great pity. Nevertheless, I thank them all for taking the time to write.
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Justice both delayed and denied.
According to Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat Chris Coons, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when she was a minor, did not want to come forward. In an eerie echo of Anita Hill’s public ordeal, her accusations were “leaked to the media.” With her confidentiality violated, Ford had no choice but to go public. Coons could not say where that leak came from, but he did confess that “people on committee staff” had access to the letter in which Ford made her allegations. Draw your own conclusions.
Though many observers insist that what we have witnessed since Ford’s allegations were made public is about justice, it’s hard to see any rectitude in this process. Ford has been transformed into a public figure apparently against her wishes. The details of the attack that Ford alleges are deeply disturbing, but they are not prosecutable. Ford’s recollection of the events 36 years ago is understandably hazy, but what she alleges to have occurred is too vague to establish with much accuracy. She cannot recall the precise date or location in which she was supposedly attacked. Contrary to the protestations of Senate Democrats like Kamala Harris, the FBI cannot get involved in a matter that is not within the federal government’s jurisdiction. And even if local authorities were inclined to involve themselves, the statute of limitations long ago elapsed.
With precious few facts available to congressional investigators and without the sobriety that public scrutiny in the age of social media abhors, the spectacle to which the nation is about to be privy is undoubtedly going to make things worse. A public hearing featuring both Ford and Kavanaugh will be a performative and political display, if it happens at all. It will be adorned with the trappings of courtroom proceedings but with none of the associated protections afforded accused and accuser alike. It will further polarize the nation such that, whether Kavanaugh is confirmed or not, public confidence in Congress and the Supreme Court will be severely damaged. And no matter what is said in that hearing, it is unlikely to change many minds.
Given the dearth of hard evidence, it is understandable that observers have begun to look to their own experiences to evaluate the veracity of Ford’s allegations. The Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan is the author of a powerful and compelling example of this kind of work. Her essay, entitled “I Believe Her,” is important for a variety of reasons. Maybe foremost among them is how she all but invalidates defenses of Kavanaugh that are based on the positive character references he’s assembled from former female acquaintances and ex-girlfriends. Flanagan was assaulted as a young woman, and her abuser—a man she says drove her to a suicidal depression similar to what Ford has described to her therapist—was not interested in a romantic relationship. CNN political commenter Symone Sanders, too, confessed that “there is no debate” in her mind as to Kavanaugh’s guilt, in part, because she was the victim of a sexual assault in college. The similarities between what she endured and what Ford says occurred are too hard for her to ignore.
These are harrowing stories, but they also reveal how little any of this has to do with Brett Kavanaugh anymore. For some, this has become a proxy battle in the broader cultural reckoning that began with the #MeToo moment. Quite unlike the many abusive men who were outed by this movement, though, the evidentiary standard being applied to Kavanaugh’s case is remarkably low. His innocence has not been presumed, and a preponderance of evidence has not been marshaled against him. It is not even clear as of this writing that Kavanaugh will be allowed to confront his accuser. At a certain point, honest observers must concede that getting to the truth has not been a defining feature of this process.
In the face of this adversity, there are some Republicans who are willing to sacrifice Kavanaugh’s nomination. Some appear to think that Kavanaugh’s troubles present them with an opportunity to advance their own political prospects and to promote a replacement nominee with whom they feel a closer ideological affinity. Others simply don’t want to risk standing by a tainted nominee. The stakes associated with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court are too high to confirm a justice with an asterisk next to his name—a justice who may tarnish future rulings on sensitive cases by association. Those Republicans are either capitulatory or craven.
Based on what we know now, Kavanaugh does not deserve an asterisk. Maybe he will tomorrow, but he doesn’t today. Those who would allow what is by almost all accounts an exemplary legal career to be destroyed by unconfirmable accusations or outright innuendo will not get a better deal down the line. Some Republicans are agnostic about Kavanaugh’s fate and believe that his being stopped will make room for a more doctrinaire conservative like Amy Coney Barrett. But they will not get their ideologically simpatico justice if they allow the defiling of the process by which she could be confirmed.
The experiences that Dr. Ford described are appalling. Even for those who are inclined to believe her account and think that she is due some restitution, no true justice can be meted out that doesn’t infringe on the rights of the accused. Those in the commentary class who would use Kavanaugh as a stand-in for every abuser who got away, every preppy white boy who benefited from unearned privilege, every hypocritical conservative moralizer to exact some karmic vengeance are not interested in justice. They want a political victory, even at the expense of the integrity of the American ideal. If there is a fight worth having, it’s the fight against that.
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Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.
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The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
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Michael Wolff is its Marquis de Sade. Released on January 5, 2018, Wolff’s Fire and Fury became a template for authors eager to satiate the growing demand for unverified stories of Trump at his worst. Wolff filled his pages with tales of the president’s ignorant rants, his raging emotions, his television addiction, his fast-food diet, his unfamiliarity with and contempt for Beltway conventions and manners. Wolff made shocking insinuations about Trump’s mental state, not to mention his relationship with UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Wolff’s Trump is nothing more than a knave, dunce, and commedia dell’arte villain. The hero of his saga is, bizarrely, Steve Bannon, who in Wolff’s telling recognized Trump’s inadequacies, manipulated him to advance a nationalist-populist agenda, and tried to block his worst impulses.
Wolff’s sources are anonymous. That did not slow down the press from calling his accusations “mind-blowing” (Mashable.com), “wild” (Variety), and “bizarre” (Entertainment Weekly). Unlike most pornographers, he had a lesson in mind. He wanted to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness for office. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes,” Wolff told the BBC. “And suddenly everywhere people are going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s true—he has no clothes.’ That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end this, that will end this presidency.”
Nothing excites the Resistance more than the prospect of Trump leaving office before the end of his term. Hence the most stirring examples of Resistance Porn take the president’s all-too-real weaknesses and eccentricities and imbue them with apocalyptic significance. In what would become the standard response to accusations of Trumpian perfidy, reviewers of Fire and Fury were less interested in the truth of Wolff’s assertions than in the fact that his argument confirmed their preexisting biases.
Saying he agreed with President Trump that the book is “fiction,” the Guardian’s critic didn’t “doubt its overall veracity.” It was, he said, “what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch asked: “No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew?” Complaining in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Wolff broke no new ground: “Everybody” knew that the “president of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounded himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound.” Remind me never to get on Gessen’s bad side.
What Fire and Fury lacked in journalistic ethics, it made up in receipts. By the third week of its release, Wolff’s book had sold more than 1.7 million copies. His talent for spinning second- and third-hand accounts of the president’s oddity and depravity into bestselling prose was unmistakable. Imitators were sure to follow, especially after Wolff alienated himself from the mainstream media by defending his innuendos about Haley.
It was during the first week of September that Resistance Porn became a competitive industry. On the afternoon of September 4, the first tidbits from Bob Woodward’s Fear appeared in the Washington Post, along with a recording of an 11-minute phone call between Trump and the white knight of Watergate. The opposition began panting soon after. Woodward, who like Wolff relies on anonymous sources, “paints a harrowing portrait” of the Trump White House, reported the Post.
No one looks good in Woodward’s telling other than former economics adviser Gary Cohn and—again bizarrely—the former White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after his two ex-wives accused him of domestic violence. The depiction of chaos, backstabbing, and mutual contempt between the president and high-level advisers who don’t much care for either his agenda or his personality was not so different from Wolff’s. What gave it added heft was Woodward’s status, his inviolable reputation.
“Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book…is especially surprising,” wrote Dwight Garner at the New York Times. That was the point. The audience for Wolff and Woodward does not want to be surprised. Fear is not a book that will change minds. Nor is it intended to be. “Bob Woodward’s peek behind the Trump curtain is 100 percent as terrifying as we feared,” read a CNN headline. “President Trump is unfit for office. Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ confirms it,” read an op-ed headline in the Post. “There’s Always a New Low for the Trump White House,” said the Atlantic. “Amazingly,” wrote Susan Glasser in the New Yorker, “it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.” How could it be, when the press has emphasized nothing but these aspects of Trump for the last three years?
The popular fixation with Trump the man, and with the turbulence, mania, frenzy, confusion, silliness, and unpredictability that have surrounded him for decades, serves two functions. It inoculates the press from having to engage in serious research into the causes of Trump’s success in business, entertainment, and politics, and into the crises of borders, opioids, stagnation, and conformity of opinion that occasioned his rise. Resistance Porn also endows Trump’s critics, both external and internal, with world-historical importance. No longer are they merely journalists, wonks, pundits, and activists sniping at a most unlikely president. They are politically correct versions of Charles Martel, the last line of defense preventing Trump the barbarian from enacting the policies on which he campaigned and was elected.
How closely their sensational claims and inflated self-conceptions track with reality is largely beside the point. When the New York Times published the op-ed “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” by an anonymous “senior official” on September 5, few readers bothered to care that the piece contained no original material. The author turned policy disagreements over trade and national security into a psychiatric diagnosis. In what can only be described as a journalistic innovation, the author dispensed with middlemen such as Wolff and Woodward, providing the Times the longest background quote in American history. That the author’s identity remains a secret only adds to its prurient appeal.
“The bigger concern,” the author wrote, “is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” Speak for yourself, bud. What President Trump has done to the Resistance is driven it batty. He’s made an untold number of people willing to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe rumor is fact, hyperbole is truth, self-interested portrayals are incontrovertible evidence, credulity is virtue, and betrayal is fidelity—so long as all of this is done to stop that man in the White House.
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Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.