April 17, 2001
Hainan Dim-Sum: Feeding a Bully's Sinister Agenda
At the same time that news was coming in about our well-treated, well-fed and comfortable boys and girls on Hainan Island, I was nourishing a mean-spirited reverie. It was a vision of the Chinese soldier who approached the American plane on the runway, and was reportedly obstructed by a member of the crew. I pictured him quickly and effortlessly wrestling the US airman to the ground before proceeding to board the aircraft, almost without breaking his stride. In contrast to the increasingly unimpressive looking members of our own military, the Chinese soldier displayed a strong sense of esprit de corps, pride in his uniform, and awareness of his national identity. Unlike the US armed forces, his army had not tried to build his self-esteem by inculcating him with political correctness, sensitivity and multiculturalism. But while I didn’t exactly "sympathize" with the Chinese soldier, I was deeply disturbed by the fact that I felt no propensity to cheer on my own country’s uniformed serviceman, so neatly and abruptly dropped to the ground in a foreign state, at all.
Amid all the Bush administration’s bluster over the standoff with China, I thought it interesting that all our media more or less took for granted America’s absolute right to spy on China in the South China Sea. Seventy years ago, American leaders viewed spying as "dishonorable" and refused to countenance it as part of official policy. In 1929, no US agency conducted covert operations abroad or performed foreign intelligence as its chief function. Secretary of State Henry Stimson even closed the "Black Chamber," a code-cracking office the War Department set up in Manhattan, saying it was as a "blow for gentlemanliness in foreign affairs." Can anyone imagine this attitude now? Far from becoming a place where spying is a human aberration, the world is transforming – at America’s behest – into a place similar to what Stalin henchman Anastas Mikoyan must have envisioned when he declared: "Every citizen of the USSR is an employee of the NKVD."
Maybe spying is a phenomenon that must inevitably complement (or drive) globalization. However, leaving aside the issues of the competence, reliability and trustworthiness of those charged with interpreting intelligence data for higher-ups, it is difficult to feel entirely confident about the caliber or sophistication of America’s intelligence-gatherers in the field. Surely, many Americans felt at least a tinge of shame when a report came back that the crew of the EP-3E had been visited in captivity, and all they wanted to talk about was the retirement of the Dallas Cowboys quarterback and the rumored comeback of former Chicago Bulls basketball player Michael Jordan. At the center of a crisis rapidly reaching global proportions, they were all eager to hear about their "favorite teams."
This may be little different from US troops during World War II, although one suspects the taste in music has declined since then. But compare today’s troops with soldiers who sent letters home during the American Civil War, many of whom were not only idealistic but also evidently highly literate. The contrast surely says something disturbing about where America and the world are going.
What are we (America) really spreading with our "benevolent hegemony"? If it is true that everyone in the world primarily wants drugs, fast food, discos, pornography, "gangsta rap," violent movies, violent video games, guns in schools, annoying commercial jingles and pop music in every public place, then maybe America really is just giving Humanity what it wants. But one must hope that most of the world does not want to be exactly like America is today.
The message from Charley Reese’s superb article in the Orlando Sentinel on April 10, 2001 ("Sadly, McVeigh is a typical American in many respects") is that the personification of modern American society’s cultural core is rapidly coming to resemble Oklahoma terrorist bomber Timothy McVeigh, who murdered 168 innocent people in a single blast.
Many Americans, while they may not wish to admit it, see themselves when they look at McVeigh. Oh, they don’t have the nerve to act out their malice as he did, but they are always eager to advocate violence; they, too, have cockamamie opinions based on propaganda; they, too, think that not all lives are equal and that some can be sacrificed for political reasons…[W]e are creating our own Frankenstein monsters, and McVeigh isn’t the only one by a long shot. A society that sends a message to its children that violence is the way to settle disputes, that might makes right and that not all lives are equal in value should not play the hypocrite when its sons and daughters learn their lessons well.
The article mentions the US-China standoff in the context of comparing the mentality of those Americans who banged the war drums – in both the corridors of power and Punditland – to McVeigh’s, and the comparison is surely apt in many cases. But something else to be taken from the article was: why should Americans assume that imposing their society on the world – of which they are a part – will make the world a better place? We do face serious social problems at home. Apart from the obviously negative influence of bombings and military police actions everywhere, our cultural impact on the rest of the world is far from totally benign. For example, not long ago regular policemen in Britain didn’t carry guns because there was simply no need. Now, sadly, more police there are armed each year under America’s cultural dominance. Russia is now "Americanized" as well, as murders, prostitution, and mafia crime have snuffed out the decent aspects of that society.
With a plate full of social problems on our domestic table, we Americans should be wary about our forces patrolling the South China Sea. There is little evidence that China – an empire beset with internal problems – is about to launch any of its 32 ICBMs at California or attack Pearl Harbor. We might be better advised to limit use of our military and 982 ICBMs to defending our own borders, instead of those of Taiwan or other Southeast Asian states that weren’t exactly loudly backing us up in the China standoff. "Evil Empire" is a redundant term, and US policing of the globe is unlikely to produce lasting world peace. Americans should be unhappy about footing the bill anyway. That such operations benefit big multinationals more than most Americans has a distinctly corrupt feel to it.
Comparing our own politicians to the leaders of China, most Westerners would probably describe our variety as less "corrupt." We tend to see "corruption" as straightforward palm-greasing, individuals holding positions in government and business simultaneously, and so forth. But corruption should be viewed much more broadly than that. At the risk of offending syndicated columnist George F. Will (who appears to believe he is an expert on the subject of corruption), let us recognize that during the eleven-day US-China standoff America’s executive political leadership exhibited corruption for all the world to see.
Simply pointing to the personal wealth and business connections of Bush administration members and saying "money corrupts" is, unfortunately, inadequate. Likewise, merely pointing out that imperialism is a form of corruption – as I think it is – feels too general and too obvious. Clearly Washington was reluctant to apologize to Beijing for violating Chinese sovereignty out of fear that doing so might limit, at least in principle, US room to violate sovereignty elsewhere around the world. Such an imperialistic mindset is certainly corrupt, but it alone does not define the precise form of corruption displayed by Washington during the crisis. It was, in fact, a pecuniary corruption of the administration’s very ability to lead.
During the 11-day standoff, US policy toward China felt as if it was directly, as opposed to indirectly, in the hands of "Big Business." When the Chinese took twenty-four American servicemen and women into custody, the instant response from Washington was that the US had done nothing wrong, and that there was nothing to say sorry for. It also condemned China for detaining the Americans, but used the word "detainees" in an effort to employ a "softer" tone. Yet if the detention was in fact illegal, the prisoners had to be hostages, because their captors were demanding a ransom (i.e., an apology). Although the administration never spat it out, it defined the Chinese in so many words as "kidnappers" right off the bat. So if the US leadership genuinely believed its own self-righteous rhetoric, it was certainly treating kidnappers with a lot of public deference and respect. From the beginning, one distinctly felt as if a corporate board had supplanted the presidential cabinet.
The pompous right-wing pundit William F. Buckley, Jr., in an article called "The Long View on Hainan" from National Review Online (April 6, 2001), takes the unapologetic approach to inhuman prioritizing:
The goal of the return of the EP-3E crew should be high on our agenda, but not highest. Highest we place the strategic interests of the United States. And these demand that the PRC should feel the high cost of reckless behavior.
It must be easy to talk about the "strategic interests of the United States" from the comfort of wealthy semi-retirement, especially when you never have to define "strategic interests." Ordinary fellow citizens apparently don’t figure into his "strategic interests." Why should the EP-3E crew (fellow Americans) not be "highest on our agenda"? Because they’re only lowly conscripts and junior officers, not members of the oligarchic American Inner Party like Buckley himself. This is the very worst sort of corrupt elitism. But the administration was in lockstep with this attitude from the beginning.
A recent issue of Business Week has an article about the China standoff with the following subheading: "The Bush administration is caught between Big Business and military hawks." In other words, "Big Business" was a factor even though it should not, if the American leaders were sincere, have had any moral authority or influence in this case. Apparently Kodak, Motorola, and the other big American players in China were factored heavily into the equation even though, if the Americans were really illegally in custody, all peaceful retaliatory measures should have been employed from the start, including closure of all ports to Chinese ships and goods pending release of the "hostages." As others have said already: God knows what would have been the case with a lesser market for US multinationals. Amid all the cheering and adulation for Bush and his cohorts from the relatives of the freed Americans, most people apparently never noticed the stench of lies.
The "bottom line" was that big corporate interests weighed in decisively and corrupted the ability of our leaders to lead when the liberty of American citizens hung in the balance. The administration looked confused and disoriented. President Bush’s repeated, terse statements of "they need to be home" sounded increasingly pained, as if concentrating on the unfolding crisis was bringing him to an agonizing boil. He seemed to be saying "out damned spot" as he prepared to single-handedly seize the reins of leadership in some dangerously unforeseen way. He looked as if he were searching somewhere in the recesses of his mind for a principle beyond the prospects for American businesses of "damaged" relations with China. He began to sound as if American Psycho were lurking just beneath his cranium.
For eleven days this went on, and with each passing day it highlighted to the world the sad fact that the bonds of American national identity, bonds that are supposed to link our leaders to our citizens, had become diluted by money. After ten days, Washington announced that it had run out of options for saving relations (i.e., business relations) between the US and China. Now the prestige of empire was at stake, and we were getting really mad. The implication was that demonstrating that we were prepared to discard the business relationship early on might have freed the Americans, but what is freedom when you have business? That is corruption. Our intrepid leaders weighed American lives and liberty against the interests of Corporate America’s boardrooms (i.e., the dollar).
Now clearly this argument from the standpoint of corporate corruption assumes, for the sake of argument, that our great leaders sincerely believed the US was right. But of course they had to know the US had wronged China. This was a military spy plane, not a Delta Airlines passenger carrier in distress, and the Chinese therefore committed no misdeed in detaining the aircraft and its crew. Actually, they showed remarkable restraint.
Our country put a military reconnaissance plane down on foreign territory thousands of miles from home with no clearance from the host country. And we expected the host to treat the intruding military personnel and property like "guests" that were just "passing through"? The very least we could have said was: "Excuse us." It was only the relative power of China that made America come close to pondering its own self-righteousness. Personally, I would have been far less charitable in the shoes of the Chinese. It is disgraceful to contemplate US arrogance and presumptuousness at thinking we could end it all simply by saying (with a little smirk): "We were only spying." The Chinese were not only hospitable; they were extremely gracious. They were, in fact, perfectly within their sovereign rights to turn the crew over to a domestic tribunal. Yet they showed a graceful willingness to settle for a mere apology.
In the end, the "kidnappers" did get some sort of apology, however weak, and our sports fans were released. Because of linguistic nuance, saying we were "very sorry" for the Chinese pilot’s death did not necessarily imply accepting culpability. But no matter what our two-faced leaders told the American public after the fact, saying we were "very sorry" for the landing could only reasonably be construed as admitting we had done something wrong.
We can’t entertain too seriously the hope that the incident will lead to America being more "humble" around the world, as George W. Bush promised during his campaign. "Big Business" demonstrated its strong influence during the crisis, and there is no reason to believe it will allow its hands to be tied in future when military intervention looks profitable.
Although the US letter to China acknowledged that Beijing wanted the US spy flights in the South China Sea stopped, Vice President Dick Cheney said the missions were not up for reconsideration. Perhaps the EP-3E flights will be curtailed or pushed out to sea to a distance the US would tolerate if China conducted similar flights off our own shores, but every indication is that the US will stay as "in-your-face" as possible. Pentagon Spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said of the Chinese: "They don’t have the exact same system of bases and the same models of airplane and whatnot… Their flights tend to stay closer to their coast." This was another way of saying that "our boys" (and girls) were a long way from home when they were forced to take the American plane down, a fact that was mostly swept under the rug in all this. The cabinet may be less than monolithic, but our national government as a whole – Republicans and Democrats alike – seems sure it has an absolute right to spy for the purpose of mapping wars and bombing campaigns wherever it likes.
There is, however, a real hope – if a feint one – that this incident will make the world more aware of the moral flimsiness of America’s global policeman status. And our public acknowledgment of China’s displeasure over the flights admits of the fact that America’s right to conduct such missions may not be a sacrosanct after all. "International law," as defined by the United States, could be trumped (or formed) by China’s assertion of greater sovereignty over the South China Sea. Could this be a little crack in the dike of the Hegemon’s global surveillance empire? If the US can be made to pull back from China, it can, at least in theory, be made to pull back elsewhere. That remote hope is intrinsically bound up with the hope of keeping the America’s law-abiding citizens– and others who couldn’t point to Taiwan on a map – out of wars in which they have no interest.
Sadly, once Colin Powell had announced that the US never actually apologized to China for anything, it became instantly clear that the world would have to wait and see the ultimate effect of such smug American triumphalism on the Chinese once it had filtered through the mainland. The language of Chinese Minister of National Defense Chi Haotian, a veteran of the Korean War who fought against Americans, was very harsh during the incident. If the crisis has played into the hands of nationalist warlords in Beijing, and that turns out to be contrary to the "national interest" as many a war-drum-banging pundit has speculated, then our pious war-drum-banging attitude in the wake of the crisis will surely be partly to blame.
The Chinese have many proverbs, but my favorite goes something like: "Wait patiently by the side of the river, and the bodies of your enemies will come floating past." In other words, the Chinese (not-so-distant cousins of our Native Americans) are a patient lot. They are a civilization that thinks of the future of their country in terms of several generations, not simply the period before the next election. China was a great and remote empire until Western merchants started arriving in large numbers in the 19th century. Serious resentment against foreigners built up from this time, culminating in the Chinese Communist Party’s formation in 1921. Chinese Communism was an isolationist reaction to the West, not a Western import like Leninism in the USSR.
I wouldn’t want to "reform" the Chinese from above or force them at gunpoint to be Americans, even if I thought it were possible. They may never have produced anything as beautiful to me as Wagner’s Parsifal, but then neither have any of my country’s composers. If we start a Cold War with China, assuming "victory" is possible, what will it look like? Will it transform America the same way and to the same extent the first Cold War changed us?
China’s political elite probably takes a much more conspiratorial view of geopolitics than our bunch does, and that is wise. They think clearly about how to play the "game of nations" cautiously and realistically. Because they do not claim to act on the international stage for the purpose of advancing "democracy and human rights," it is doubtful that any of their leaders believe they do. This contrasts sharply with some of our more shrill Western, warmongering pundits and even politicians, who actually seem to believe their frighteningly ridiculous prattle at times. In countering US hegemony, the Chinese have almost certainly recruited myriad agents inside the US (probably including Clinton and Gore), just as the CIA has financed the Dalai Lama and his Tibetans since the 1960s, and is no doubt funding the Falun Gong cult today. The Chinese leaders are certainly not saints, but nor are they sanctimoniously hypocritical liars like many of our "corporate exec" politicians.
In the end, payoffs to corrupt Chinese Politburo members may have tipped the scales in the standoff. But some within China did not see money as a reward. The dead Chinese fighter pilot, Wang Wei, became a "hero of national defense," and the hero myth probably invigorated an army not cringing in fear of Imperial America to begin with. The defense minister and his peers are old enough to have seen raw, undisguised evil on a mass scale in their lifetimes, as the Chinese revolution killed 60 million people from 1949-76, decimating a population of 600 million. That sets them apart from their complacent US counterparts. People who have lived through such human travesty tend to be cooler and more circumspect in foreign affairs than spoiled rich kids like Bill Kristol or Jonah Goldberg.
As the outcome is hailed in the United States, therefore, we should not lose sight of the shortcomings our leadership displayed. They assumed that because the US represented a third of China’s export market, the Chinese could not afford to make a "thing" out of it. But counting on doing "business as usual" with Beijing after humiliating China started to reveal the substance of our leaders in a matter of days. Before the Chinese agreed to release the Americans, the US tactic of working "behind the scenes" and "keeping all channels open" had already begun to make America look smaller. Through it all, the Chinese side watched, waited, figured out what our leaders were made of, and gauged the possible extent of our reaction. They must have been encouraged beyond their wildest expectations.
Bullies generally aren’t brave, and it doesn’t take someone bigger than a bully to make that bully feel small. All it takes is enough strength and resolve to make sure he doesn’t get away without a bloody nose. The Chinese were strong enough to give us that bloody nose, diplomatically and otherwise, and from the time Beijing first demanded an apology, the bully that looked big in the skies over Yugoslavia looked smaller and more distasteful by the day.
It appears that our Republican leaders don’t have the courage of their beliefs, because their will to lead – if any of them every possessed any – has been sullied by money. They are unable to purge their minds of all the US "investment" and what might happen to all those US corporations flourishing over there. Even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the big "hawk" on China, wasn’t a convincing man of principle. Very often, the patriotism of the most warlike right-wing leaders is only a caricature, and somehow Rumsfeld fits that mold.
Antiwar partisans should appreciate the fact that the escalating US-China rivalry has nothing to do with freedom, democracy or promoting human rights. Rather, it is directed toward the triumph of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned of in his farewell address. A new Cold War that builds up American military power in Southeast Asia would primarily serve that "business" sector, and no decent American should want the US economy to receive its primary stimulus from so baleful a source. It is quite plausible, by the way, that some unseen eminences grises close to the Chinese military-industrial complex would like nothing more than for Rumsfeld to take over US foreign policy. Which reminds me…
"Raymond, why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?"
These words from the 1962 film, The Manchurian Candidate, cause Raymond Shaw – a US veteran of the Korean War and recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor – to enter a trance and start dealing cards from a deck. When he turns up the Queen of Diamonds, he becomes suddenly obedient to any command from his controllers, including an order to kill.
In the opening scene, Sgt. Raymond Shaw and other members of his platoon have already been captured on the battlefield and subjected to hypnosis and brainwashing by the Chinese. Shaw has been made into a robotic assassin for the Communists, whose political designs on the United States include installing a puppet as President. That puppet is to be Senator Johnny Iselin, Shaw’s bombastic and idiotic right-wing stepfather, while Shaw’s chillingly evil mother (who is a party to the plot) will become First Lady, the power behind the throne. The plan is already well in place by the time Shaw returns home from Korea, and Shaw’s mother and Iselin seize every opportunity to be photographed with the returning hero.
Now imagine this. April Fool’s Day, 2001: A US spy plane collides with a Chinese fighter over the South China Sea. Instead of trying to land the plane on the water, the US pilot – Lt. Shane Osborn – heads for land and sets the aircraft down on Chinese soil. Osborn is taken into custody with his crew for eleven days. Upon his release, Osborn is immediately flown home to a hero’s welcome. Among the senior administration officials eager to meet with the Navy pilot is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who invites Osborn to his office in the Pentagon for a one-on-one meeting. It is not the first time the two have met, although Osborn cannot remember ever meeting Rumsfeld face-to-face. Reaching into his desk drawer, Rumsfeld calmly takes out a deck of cards and fixes his gaze on Osborn.
"Shane, why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?"
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