Decline of The West
by George Szamuely

April 28, 2001

Washingtonspeak – The Language of Empire

There is a particular brand of Washingtonspeak that US policy insiders and their media hangers-on speak which is not only completely inscrutable to the rest of the world, but defies ordinary rules of logic. This is deliberate, of course. The purpose of this newly-created language is to justify the American Empire while resolutely refusing to countenance the notion that such an entity can possibly exist. The purpose of this language is to reassure us that any action by the United States, no matter how aggressive, invariably serves the general purposes of mankind. Why are we selling arms to Taiwan? To ensure the security of the Taiwan Strait. Why are we pressing ahead with the enlargement of NATO? Why, to ensure that Russia will have peace and stability on its western borders.

We heard a grotesque outpouring of Washingtonspeak this week in response to President Bush’s remarks on ABC’s "Good Morning America" about Taiwan. Bush had said that the United States was ready to come to the aid of Taiwan by whatever means necessary. He was asked whether "you, in your own mind, feel that if Taiwan were attacked by China, do we have an obligation to defend the Taiwanese?" Bush responded, "Yes, we do, and the Chinese must understand that. Yes, I would." The interviewer asked: "With the full force of American military?" And Bush replied: "Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself." These remarks came two days after the announcement of a $4 billion US arms package, which included four Kidd class destroyers, eight diesel-powered submarines and 12 P3C Orion antisubmarine planes. Bush put off for the time being a decision on the sale of the Aegis naval air defense system to Taiwan. The Aegis system has the potential of being developed into a theater missile defense system. However, the submarines, if equipped with cruise missiles, are capable of hitting targets on the mainland. They therefore improve significantly Taiwan’s military capabilities. There have also been reports this week that the Bush Administration may let Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian meet congressmen during a stopover in the United States.

Now Bush’s comments were ridiculous. The United States will not do much help Taiwan if China decided to take it over for a very simple reason. By no stretch of the imagination does Taiwan mean as much to us as it does to the Chinese. True, Kosovo does not mean as much to the United States as it does to Serbia. But then China is not Serbia. Washington can huff and puff about democracy. Washington can bluster away about the Butchers of Beijing. The truth is, China could seize Taiwan without too much difficulty. That China has not done so has nothing to do with the alleged chilling effect of empty US threats. It is because Taiwan for the time being is very useful as a source of investment. If the United States seriously intended to respond to a Chinese attack on Taiwan, its only recourse would be to attack the mainland with missiles – a reckless gesture that even the boys at the Weekly Standard would not contemplate seriously, at least not in public.

The Washington media went into their usual let’s-spend-the-rest-of-the-week-feasting-on-trivia mode, obsessing over the issue of whether Bush intended to signal a change in policy or merely shoved his foot in his mouth. According to a story in the Washington Post: "The question buzzing today in Washington diplomatic and political circles: Did President Bush intend to modify 30 years of US-China policy with his startling comments about Taiwan…or did he inadvertently wander off course. The consensus is that Bush didn’t anticipate the furor his comments would ignite, and wasn’t fully prepared to navigate the arcane diplomatic terminology that has outlined China’s and Taiwan’s uneasy relationship for years." Now, it is extremely unlikely that a skilled politician like Bush simply blundered like a delinquent schoolboy who had neglected to prepare for class. Bush knew what he was saying and knew the impact his words would have coming as they did two days after the arms package. The United States was simply throwing its weight around like a bully hoping against hope that no one will dare call its bluff.

The Washington Post was very excited: "There are good reasons for the administration to consider a more explicit commitment to Taiwan’s defense. Even as the island and its 20 million people have moved to a democratic government in the past few years, Beijing has been assembling the air and naval forces that it would need to mount a serious attack." Moreover, the paper went on, "if carefully prepared and delivered in the appropriate context, a more open US commitment to Taiwan might, along with the weapons, increase stability in the region by checking the growing belligerence of Beijing’s military and removing the ambiguity that in some situations might increase rather than decrease the chance of conflict." Washington blowhards enthusiastically seized on the idea that an empty promise to go to war with China would help promote peace and stability in Asia. "I think the President’s straightforward, courageous and unambiguous statement will guarantee that hostility in the Taiwan Strait will not take place," blustered Tom Lantos.

Moreover, a number of the Bush people had for years been calling on the United States to be more threatening with the Chinese. In November 1999 Paul D. Wolfowitz, currently Deputy Defense Secretary, said that the US policy of purposeful ambiguity has led to war. "I don’t believe that in the case of Taiwan today that anything is gained by leaving any doubt in the minds of Communist China that the use of force against Taiwan would be met with a strong American response," he declared. Wolfowitz did not care if the Chinese were threatening to use force in response to a Taiwanese declaration of independence. The main thing is that America lays it on the line for the Chinese. In 1999 the Heritage Foundation issued a statement on Taiwan, signed by a number of prominent Republicans now holding important posts in the Bush Administration: "It has…become essential that the United States make every effort to deter any form of Chinese intimidation of the Republic of China on Taiwan and declare unambiguously that it will come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of an attack or blockade against Taiwan." Note again that the commitment is not conditional on Taiwan’s not declaring itself independent. The signers included current Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage; Paul Wolfowitz, of course; the current Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff Lewis Libby; John Bolton, in the running for an undersecretary of state position; and Richard Perle, former assistant defense secretary under Ronald Reagan.

In contrast to the "on to Beijing" crowd there are the "old China hands," usually connected in some way with Henry Kissinger. They are the practitioners of the policy of "nuance". In other word, they are under the impression that everyone is much stupider than they are. "The language on Taiwan is very arcane, very nuanced, and people are apt to make mistakes with it," explained former ambassador to China Winston Lord. According to Senator John Kerry: "We have been deliberately vague about the circumstances under which we would come to Taiwan’s defense, not only to discourage Taiwan from drawing us in by declaring independence but also to deter a Chinese attack by keeping Beijing guessing". We know we are lying when we say that we will come to Taiwan’s defense. But the rest of the world is unable to figure this out. The Chinese must be kept guessing. For some bizarre reason this is believed to add to "stability". Common sense would suggest the opposite. It is precisely when states are unable to guess what their adversaries will do that they are liable to make mistakes.

This is a favorite argument of the Kristol-Kagan-Wolfowitz "anti-appeasement" brigade. But they are quite wrong. Usually states have a pretty good idea how others will respond to their actions. For more than fifty years China has known that the United States has been no more prepared to go to war for Taiwan than it was to take on the Russians over Hungary in 1956 or over Czechoslovakia in 1968. During this time China has neither invaded, nor threatened to invade, Taiwan. China only behaves belligerently the moment it suspects the United States is helping Taiwan towards independence. Therefore, experience would suggest that the best way to keep peace across the Taiwan Strait is to make sure the Chinese do not suspect that we are surreptitiously paving the way for Taiwanese secession. But this is where "nuance" comes in. We know we are pushing Taiwan for independence. Why else are we selling them arms? But the Chinese don’t know this. We say we support a "One China" policy. But we don’t really mean it. And the Chinese are too stupid to figure out that we don’t really mean it.

In any case, even if the United States threatened to go to war over Taiwan and really meant what it said, it would not do any good. The Chinese would still probably take their chances and seize Taiwan. In August 1914, the Germans had little doubt that Britain would enter the war if their troops marched through Belgium. Yet they still believed that a thrust into France through the Low Countries in the hope of a quick victory in the West was a gamble worth taking. In 1939 Hitler did not that Britain would go to war over Poland. Why else would he have signed the non-aggression pact with Stalin just a week before his attack? Yet he still believed that the gamble was worth taking.

The point has to be repeated again and again: There is nothing whatsoever the United States can do to save Taiwan should China decide to take over the island short of launching a nuclear attack. The paunchy, flak-jacketed table-thumpers of the Weekly Standard are crazy but even they might hesitate before bringing civilization, as we know it, to an end over Taiwan. This of course why the American Right is so crazily enthusiastic about the Missile Defense System. With America largely invulnerable to retaliation we can happily go off and pick fights with the Chinese and even the Russians.

While the United States proffers empty guarantees to Taiwan, it is busily pushing for the enlargement of NATO. The United States had promised at the time of Germany’s reunification that there would be no expansion of NATO. Then it was just going to be Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic. Now NATO membership is being promised to the Baltic States, in addition to Rumania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Albania, Bulgaria and Macedonia. As in the case of Taiwan, this of course has nothing to do with the United States exerting its dominance over power over another continent. It has nothing to do with the creation of forward bases to project US power over Central Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East. It has nothing to do with eliminating Russia once and for all as a major power with negligible influence in Asia and none at all over Europe. No, the enlargement of NATO, it turns out is being pushed by Washington so as to reassure the Russians about the security of their western borders. Here is former Clinton official Anthony J. Blinken writing in the New York Times: "When President Clinton opened NATO’s doors in 1994, some predicted a crisis with Russia. That did not occur, mainly because the Kremlin understood that NATO enlargement did not threaten Russia’s interests…The Bush administration, if it remains committed to enlarging NATO, needs to lay the groundwork with Russia. It should begin by toning down its rhetoric." Here then is choice Washingtonspeak. The Russians are really dumb. They can’t figure out what NATO enlargement is about. So let’s fool them "by toning down" the rhetoric.

Blinken goes on: "The Bush administration should make the case to Moscow that NATO enlargement to the Baltic states would advance Russia’s own interests as well as ours. Russia wants stability along its Western borders, neighbors who treat their Russian minorities with respect and prosperous trading partners. NATO enlargement promotes such developments. Aspirants know that strong democratic structures, respect for minority rights and free markets are necessary for inclusion in the club; just as important, they are necessary to remain members in good standing." Thus ceding control over access to the Baltic Sea to Russia’s adversaries, loss of the vast Baltic naval and intelligence infrastructure, sudden vulnerability to NATO’s military and espionage resources just a few miles away are really mere trifles. The Russians will be able to rest easy that their nationals living in the Baltic States will be well looked after by our NATO humanitarians. This is also a lie. We have seen in Kosovo just how committed NATO really is to securing the rights of peoples who are out of favor in the capitals of the Great Powers.

While the rulers of the former Warsaw Pact countries regular trot around to Washington or Brussels pleading to be let in to the illustrious NATO club, their long-suffering populace is less than overwhelmed. According to a recent poll, less than 50 percent of Slovenians support the country’s membership of the European Union and NATO. Recently, the Bulgarian parliament approved a five-year agreement to allow NATO troops unimpeded access to its territory in case of a crisis in the Balkans. Popular opposition to NATO was neither here nor there. The Rumanians authorities are also pressing hard for NATO membership, the will of the people be damned. According to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting: "A team of NATO officials last week completed a four-day evaluation of Romania’s Alliance credentials. It concluded that Bucharest had made real progress in the judicial, constitutional, political, economic, and security fields, but there were still areas that needed improvement." Note then that NATO membership implies that the most fundamental issues of sovereignty are simply ceded away. They are to be decided elsewhere. The report goes on: " ‘NATO perception of Rumania should have changed following the…war in Yugoslavia and new threats to the Balkan region,’ said Cornel Codita, a military analyst and professor of international studies at the University of Bucharest. He says the US, which objected to Bucharest NATO membership bid in 1997, has shifted its view of Rumania as an Alliance partner after the latter’s support during the Kosovo conflict, ‘During the bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999, Rumania acted like a member of the Alliance: allowed NATO bombers to use its airspace and fulfilled other obligations such as maintaining the oil embargo on Belgrade.’

Back then, there was widespread domestic opposition to the government’s pro-NATO stance – many here siding with Serbia and the defiant nationalism of Slobodan Milosevic." In other words, it is of the essence of NATO membership that democracy be cast aside. What matters is that elites accept the rules of Washingtonspeak. Whatever serves the interests of Washington serves the interests of humanity, even if humanity has yet to figure this out.

One man who has thoroughly mastered Washingtonspeak is Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica. Having denounced NATO for its "depleted conscience" in January, he turned around a couple of weeks later and announced that he could quite easily envisage Yugoslavia becoming a member of NATO. Of course he phrased in his usual evasive way: "Partnership for Peace", he declared, "is not" – yes, you guessed it – "a priority for us, but it is not excluded and has been discussed. I would need more time and a change of attitude before thinking about it." It is always a pleasure to find lord and vassal to be so happily of one mind.

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