Missile defense is no threat to Chinese security.
At the Davos conference in January, Chinese leader Xi Jinping denounced protectionism and postured as a champion of a rules-based international order. It was a clever PR gambit to exploit international unease over the possibility that a Trumpified America could embrace tariffs and abandon its advocacy for free trade and the rule of law. But, as the current brouhaha over South Korea’s deployment of a U.S. THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile-defense system demonstrates, there is a vast disparity between what Chinese leaders say and how they act.
Beijing insists on seeing THAAD as a threat to China even though it is designed to deal with the menace of an increasingly well-armed and belligerent North Korea, which is busy expanding its arsenal of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles needed to deliver them. The threat might be blunted if China were to apply serious pressure on North Korea, given that Beijing is the only friend that Pyongyang has. But that’s not what China is doing. Instead of pressuring North Korea, it is pressuring South Korea—e.g. the wrong Korea.
China’s leadership argues that the THAAD system in South Korea could erode its nuclear deterrent. The case for this is, to put it mildly, shaky; THAAD is too short-range a system to shoot down Chinese ICBMs. Chinese concerns rest more on THAAD’s powerful radar, which, they fear, could be used to track China’s missiles. Independent experts suggest that, as the New York Times noted, China is exaggerating the capabilities of THAAD’s radar and underestimating the extent to which the U.S. and its allies can already monitor Chinese missile launches with radars based in Japan and other neighboring countries.
But rational or not, China’s leadership is irate, and they have orchestrated a crude campaign designed to hurt the South Korean economy—and in particular the giant Korean conglomerate Lotte, which has lent some of its land for the installation of the first THAAD batteries. The Chinese leadership has orchestrated the kind of ugly, supposedly spontaneous nationalist outpouring of anti-Korean hatred that was previously directed at Japan.
Chinese tourists are boycotting South Korea, and Chinese authorities are finding excuses to close Lotte stores in China. Chinese individuals are taking matters further, filming themselves destroying products in Lotte supermarkets or smashing Samsung and LG electronics. The BBC notes that “a large group of students were filmed at the Shijixing Primary School” chanting slogans reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution: “Boycott South Korea! Drive Lotte out of China! This all starts from us! Resist Thaad! Love your country!”
It is extremely doubtful that one Chinese in a thousand could possibly explain why THAAD is a threat to their country. But then this isn’t about reason or logic. This is about the Communist Party turning a switching to mobilize China’s public opinion and economic power against a smaller country that refuses to do exactly what Beijing says—in this case, against a country that has the temerity to try to defend itself from a menacing neighbor.
If anyone needs a reminder as to why China cannot replace the U.S. as the champion of a rules-based international order, this is it. At the risk of stating the obvious, China is not a rule of law country. It is dominated by a Communist oligarchy that squashes dissent at home and bullies its neighbors in Asia. China is happy to take advantage of free trade when it suits its purposes—and there is nothing wrong with that, since we benefit from trading with China, too. But China is always willing to flout international norms if that is seen as the way to achieve its objectives. That is what is currently doing, for example, not only by bullying South Korea but by ignoring an international court ruling that it has no right to assert sovereignty over the South China Sea.
Thus, China is not a viable replacement for the international role that the U.S. has performed since 1945. No one is. If we don’t support free trade and liberal institutions, no one else will step in to fill the vacuum and the world will become more dangerous, chaotic, and lawless, with strong powers like China trying to push around their smaller neighbors.
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China’s Hypocrisy Engine at Work
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"I don't get confused."
Nikki Haley, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, is not confused. “With all due respect,” she said in a pithy and empowering statement to Fox News anchor Dana Perino, “I don’t get confused.”
She issued this pointed assertion in response to National Economic Council chief Larry Kudlow, who accused Haley of getting “ahead of the curve” and suffering a “momentary confusion” when she announced on Sunday morning that the Trump administration planned more punitive sanctions on Moscow over its support for the murderous Assad regime in Syria. But Haley seems to have been on firm ground when she made those remarks.
Shortly after Donald Trump’s address last Friday night announcing strikes on Syrian targets, the Republican National Committee distributed to its surrogates a set of “White House talking points” previewing a new round of “specific additional sanctions against Russia.” President Donald Trump reportedly intervened as late as Sunday night to put a halt to a policy that was all but in motion. The only person who was confused here seems to have been the president. Kudlow later apologized for his remarks about Haley’s competence.
The bewildering 24-hour period between the coordinated announcement of new Russia sanction and the administration’s retreat from that policy is typical of this administration. The source of the White House’s confusion is not hard to identify.
Before Haley suffered the insults of those dedicated to insulating Donald Trump from the consequences of his indecision and ambiguity, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the man in the barrel. Tillerson surely thought he was representing American diplomatic interests when he revealed last September that the U.S. was “probing” North Korea for an opening that might lead to direct negotiations. “Save your energy, Rex,” the president tweeted. The comment cut the legs out from under his chief diplomat, who he said was “wasting his time” by seeking talks with the Kim regime.
When Tillerson conspicuously continued to lobby the North Korean government for an introductory first meeting “without precondition,” a spokesperson for the president’s National Security Council corrected him. There could be no talks, the NSC spokesman said, until North Korea stops testing missiles and nuclear devices for an unspecified period of time. “The President’s views on North Korea have not changed,” the White House said. But the White House was engaging in back-channel communications with the Kim regime with the goal of a face-to-face encounter between both nations’ principals.
The president’s Northeast Asia policy is about as clear as his Middle East policy. When Trump announced to an Ohio crowd in late March that the U.S. would withdraw its approximately 2,000 troops from Syria “very soon,” to let “the other people take care of it,” it came as a surprise to his administration. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said she was “unaware” of any plan to pull troops out of Syria, and Pentagon officials had spent that same week previewing plans to augment U.S. deployments to Syria. The White House later disclosed that Trump had been convinced of the virtue of maintaining a footprint in Syria indefinitely.
In fact, the president has a bad habit of forcing his staff and allies to clean up after his messes.
When Donald Trump explicitly agreed to a Democratic proposal to make the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program permanent without reciprocal border security legislation at an on-camera meeting with legislators, he had to be reminded that his comment did not reflect the GOP’s position. The transcript of the event was initially written to omit the president’s injudicious comments.
In a similar meeting with lawmakers regarding American gun policy, Donald Trump declared his support for legislative measures that would expeditiously strip guns from the hands of potentially dangerous people. Due process rights, he said, were a secondary consideration. The remarks sent Trump’s GOP allies reeling, and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders quickly dialed the president’s position back to one that was recognizably Republican.
Former Press Secretary Sean Spicer has had to correct the president for misstating the number of Guantanamo Bay detainees released under the Obama administration. In response to Trump’s comments about the value of raciallycharged protests that culminated in violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, the White House released a statement clarifying that Trump “of course” condemns white supremacists.
The White House has had to walk back Trump’s criticism of German trade policy, his claims about specific terrorist events in Sweden, his support for blanket tariffs on a variety of commodities, his intention to leave three college basketball players in a Chinese prison in response to personal criticism from one of the player’s fathers, and a statement about whether or not the travel ban was (as Trump called it) a “ban.”
The White House corrected the president’s myriad eye-popping assertions made before an audience of Boy Scouts last year, confirming that no one called Trump to congratulate him on “the greatest speech that was ever made” before this audience. They were also compelled to admit that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto did not call Trump to confess that the flow of Central American migrants north through Mexico had ebbed to a trickle as a result of Trump’s policies on the border.
Trump has reserved for himself both sides of the issue when it’s come to major U.S. policy initiatives such removing the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accords, corporate tax rates, whether ObamaCare will be stabilized or allowed to “explode,” and almost every aspect of America’s strategic relationship with Russia. Trump has promised to eliminate the carried-interest loophole, reduce individual tax brackets to just three tiers, and create targeted tax credits for working parents with elderly or young dependents—proposals Congress simply ignored.
If there is confusion within the administration as to what Donald Trump’s policy preferences are at any given moment, the president only has himself to blame. Nikki Haley might have been the first administration official to refuse to take the fall for Trump’s lack of clarity, but she is unlikely to be the last.
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Podcast: North Korea talks and Trump's legal troubles.
On our latest COMMENTARY podcast we wonder at the fact that Democrats are going to vote en masse against Mike Pompeo as secretary of state for no real reason other than that they don’t like Trump—and how this marks the fulfillment of a degradation in the advise-and-consent process that’s been accelerating for the past couple of decades. Also, we talk about Stormy Daniels, alas. Give a listen.
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The other last refuge.
Someone in the 19th century (Mark Twain attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli, but that’s dubious) said that there are three forms of lying: lies, damned lies, and statistics. If you would like a beautiful example of the last category of mendacity, check out David Leonhardt’s April 15th column in the New York Times, entitled (try not to laugh) “The Democrats Are the Party of Fiscal Responsibility.”
In it, he compared the deficits run up by each Democratic and Republican administration from Jimmy Carter on to the present with the GDP of that time. Precisely how he did this is anything but clear. Is he, perhaps, confusing the debt with the deficit? For instance, he has the ratio for George H. W. Bush’s term as 0.4 percentage points. But the total deficits in those years were $932 billion and the total GDP was $23.9 trillion. That’s 3.8 percentage points. And how the national debt could double in eight unprosperous years under Obama while the “change in deficit, in percentage points of GDP” went down 0.1 percent is totally mystifying
Thus, Leonhardt committed the cardinal sin of statistics: using obscure methodology, which is the way people lie with statistics—presuming they are not just making the numbers up.
Whatever his methodology, Leonhardt was comparing apples and oranges. For instance, he ignores such factors as the raging inflation of the Carter years, when income tax brackets were not adjusted for inflation, pushing people into higher and higher brackets when their real income had not increased at all (This, of course, was one of the reasons why Carter carried fewer states in 1980 than Herbert Hoover won in 1932).
Leonhardt implicitly ascribed to the president the power to shape the budget and, thus, the deficit. But presidents have been effectively bit players when it comes to federal spending levels since the wildly misnamed Budget Control Act of 1974. It was not Bill Clinton who slew the deficit dragon in the 1990’s but the Congress, which the public transferred to Republican control in 1994 for the first time in 40 years following an outcry over Democratic profligacy. The Republican Congress increased spending by a mere 18 percent between 1995 and 2000, while the roaring economy increased tax revenues by 51 percent.
Nor did Leonhardt take into account the phony accounting the federal government uses to obscure reality. Officially, we ran surpluses (meaning, by definition, that income exceeded outgo) in 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001. But the national debt went up, not down, in each of those four years.
Nor did he take into account the fact that recessions cause government spending to go up and government revenues to go down—something quite beyond the control of Congress or the President. The brutal recession of the early 1980’s (when unemployment reached 10.8 percent), for instance, skewed Reagan’s numbers while Carter’s four years were largely recession-free.
There’s plenty of blame for both parties, of course. As Jesse Unruh famously said, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” But in the last forty years, the only time the federal government made a serious, sustained effort to rein in the deficit was when a Republican Congress was writing the checks.