Biden Is Wrong on Taiwan

Biden once again gave some ill-advised answers on Taiwan in an interview with 60 Minutes:

"But would U.S. forces defend the island?" Pelley asked.

"Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack," Mr. Biden said.

"So unlike Ukraine, to be clear, sir," Pelley said, "U.S. forces, U.S. men and women would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion?"

"Yes," the president said.

This is the fourth time that the president has wrongly said or implied that the U.S. has a security commitment to defend Taiwan. By itself, it would be an unfortunate mistake, but it is part of a pattern of gradually eroding the status quo over Taiwan in what seems to be an arbitrary and careless way on the assumption that the U.S. can get away with making unilateral changes without serious consequences. The danger of repeatedly stating a willingness to go to war over Taiwan is that the Chinese government may conclude that it needs to take more aggressive measures in response, and by severely undermining the status quo that has kept the peace for decades the president is making war more likely.

This would be unwise at the best of times, and it is even more so when the U.S. is in such a poor position to make good on the president’s invented commitment. The U.S. is already overstretched as it is, and an additional security commitment that could involve the U.S. in a major war puts the U.S. in the bad position of making a promise it can’t honor. The hawkish solution to close the gap is to throw even more money at the Pentagon and to engage in a massive military buildup, but the better solution is not to overreach with unnecessary security guarantees in the first place.

The U.S. is not obliged to fight for Taiwan, and U.S. officials should not act and talk as if it is. The president has no authority to take the U.S. to war on his own, and unless U.S. territories or forces came under attack as part of a Chinese invasion he could not legally send them into an ongoing conflict without Congressional authorization. The decision of whether the U.S. should fight for Taiwan is not the president’s alone, and we should not tolerate a warped understanding of war powers that pretends that it is. Choosing to fight China for a non-ally ought to be unthinkable, but if it is going to be considered as an option it has to be debated and voted on by the people’s representatives. Maybe Congress would vote overwhelmingly in favor of such a motion, and maybe they wouldn’t, but it is unconscionable that a decision of this magnitude would be left to any one person.

Just as worrying as Biden’s willingness to commit to a war with China over Taiwan were his remarks about Taiwanese independence. Biden said:

We agree with what we signed onto a long time ago. And that there’s one China policy, and Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence. We are not moving – we’re not encouraging their being independent. We’re not – that – that’s their decision.

As Jessica Chen Weiss explainedlast night, the president both repeated a commitment to defend Taiwan and misstated the U.S. position on Taiwanese independence:

@POTUS’ comments are dangerous, even if not an official change in policy (per @WhiteHouse clarification). More explicit here than in previous gaffes is the suggestion that the US would send troops to fight for Taiwan, regardless of what Taiwan does.

Not supporting Taiwan independence is longstanding US policy. But this new combo (a pledge to send troops + decisions about independence are Taiwan’s) suggests an unconditional commitment, one that will strengthen perceptions that the U.S. is issuing Taiwan a blank check.

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

The Inherent Injustice of Empire

Nigel Biggar writes a “Christian defense of the American empire” and it concludes with the same recycled hegemonist nonsense that you would expect:

The United States is not the only trustee of such values and institutions, but, thanks to the gifts of providence and its own achievements, it happens to be the most powerful global actor at this time. Its primary duty to its own people obliges it to sustain its power. But that duty implies a secondary one to promote the weal of other nations. For if it should surrender its dominant international power, other states, less humane and liberal, will pick it up. The U.S. has a vocation to shoulder the imperial burden, certainly for the sake of Americans, but for the sake of the rest of us as well.

“Rule Britannia, Britannia, rule the waves,” we still sing here in the United Kingdom, “Britons never, never shall be slaves.” We know, however, that the days of Britain’s wave-ruling have passed. So now our freedom, and that of many others, depends upon the will of Americans to sustain their nation’s imperial dominance. Let it not be said that Christians in the United States undermined that will and contributed to a world in which we all fall under Beijing’s yoke.

There is a lot wrong with Biggar’s essay, but one of my biggest problems with it is how it seeks to guilt Christians and all other Americans into accepting US “imperial dominance” as obligatory service for the whole world. Bearing an imperial burden is not something that the US does for the good of the world, and much of rest of the world wishes that the US had never taken up that burden. But the imperial burden is also harmful to America, because, as John Quincy Adams told us more than two centuries ago, America’s “glory is not dominion, but liberty.”

There have been many attempts over the centuries to sanitize and sanctify empire by investing it with some higher purpose. In every case, it is an exercise in assuaging the consciences of people that should know better that empire is tolerable and even admirable. It seeks to console the empire’s supporters that they are doing the right and necessary thing when they have good reasons to suspect that they are doing the opposite. In fact, it aims to deaden their consciences and encourage them to prize power over truth.

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

The Stories That Hardliners Tell

Samuel Charap and Mike Mazarr have responded to Vindman’s fantasy history about U.S. Russia policy:

US policy toward post-Soviet Russia has never come close to the extreme accommodationism that Vindman describes. Washington did try to forge a partnership with Moscow, but those efforts were carefully circumscribed to avoid even the impression of a great-power condominium. When American and Russian interests diverged, the United States did not hesitate to act. Even in the 1990s, the heyday of bilateral relations, Washington actively pursued NATO enlargement, intervention in Kosovo, and ballistic missile defenses in the face of Moscow’s vehement objections.

Contrary to Vindman’s claims, US policy has been consistently nonaccommodationist in Russia’s immediate neighborhood, seeking to prevent a new Moscow-led regional juggernaut from reemerging after the Soviet collapse.

It is clear that Vindman gets the history of the last thirty years badly wrong, and this matters because he uses this misreading of the past to push for an even more aggressive policy towards Russia than the one that the US has already had. This is a common move that hardliners make when there is a crisis or conflict, especially when it is at least partly the result of policies that the hardliners supported. When confrontational policies blow up in our face, hardliners come up with a story to explain how the real cause of the problem was that the US was too passive or too willing to compromise. The story is usually false, but it can be appealing to policymakers that want to avoid accountability for past errors.

I am reminded of how many of the most aggressive interventionists responded to 9/11 by inventing a fictional version of US foreign policy in the 1990s where the US had supposedly been ignoring the rest of the world for the entire decade. This was doubly useful for interventionists, because it allowed them to deflect attention from the role that US interventionism had in stirring up hostility to the United States and it also let them pretend that the US had been on a “holiday from history.” Charles Krauthammer put it this way: “We are now paying the wages of the 1990s, our holiday from history. During that decade, every major challenge to America was deferred.” By painting the 1990s as an era of feckless neglect of international problems, interventionists were laying the groundwork for the hyperactive foreign policy that they wanted. The hardliners also had an advantage that this distortion of the past came with simple recommendations of “do more” and “be aggressive” that could be applied wherever they wanted.

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

Stop Starving Afghanistan

Ali A. Olomi calls attention to the damage being done by US sanctions and asset freezes in Afghanistan:

Despite militarily withdrawing, the United States continues to pursue a policy of financially starving Afghanistan of desperately needed funds in an attempt to force the Taliban to reduce its repression – especially of women – as well as its support for terrorism.

This approach resurrects the American policy toward the Taliban between the late 1990s and the US invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 – and early signs indicate it will have the same consequences now as it did then. Starving the regime of funding won’t improve its behavior. Instead, it will only lead to prolonged suffering for Afghans.

Last month, dozens of economists implored the Biden administration to free up the frozen assets so that the Afghan economy can begin to function at least somewhat normally. As they said in the letter, “These reserves were critical to the functioning of the Afghan economy, in particular, to manage money supply, to stabilize the currency and to pay for the imports – chiefly food and oil – on which Afghanistan relies.” Thus far, the administration’s response has been to keep the money that by all rights belongs to the people of Afghanistan.

The official line from the State Department is that the US is “looking at mechanisms that could be put in place to see to it that these $3.5 billion in preserved assets make their way efficiently and effectively to the people of Afghanistan,” but this amounts to stealing another country’s money while claiming to be its responsible steward. While the US looks to deliver these assets “efficiently and effectively,” ordinary Afghans are going hungry and dying. There may be legitimate concerns about some of these funds being misused and diverted, but that is not a good enough reason to deprive an entire country of its financial lifeblood.

Read the rest of the article at SubStack

Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

The Solomon Islands and the Perils of ‘Great Power Competition’

Bob Wright identifies a recent article as an example of Blobbish self-parody:

Spencer-Churchill argues that “Invade that sovereign state!” can be a good answer – so long as the sovereign state is the Solomon Islands and the invader is the United States or Australia. His piece is devoted to arguing that these two allies should consider intervening militarily to keep the Solomon Islands from cozying up to China.

That article’s author is not the first one to suggest aggressive intervention in the Solomons in the last few months. Ever since the signing of a security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands was announced in the spring, some China hawks have been promoting the idea that the agreement is just a prelude to a Chinese base and that the US and Australia must not “allow” that to happen. It has simply been taken for granted in some circles that the US and Australia have the right to dictate how the Solomon Islands conducts its foreign and security policies, and states in the “free and open Indo-Pacific” are free to do as they like only as long as they do what Washington and Canberra endorse.

One of the more extreme responses to the security agreement came from David Llewellyn-Smith, the former owner of The Diplomat, who said that Australia should be prepared to invade and overthrow the government to halt the agreement. Llewellyn-Smith would win the gold medal in an Olympic threat inflation event with his declaration that the agreement with China was Australia’s “Cuban missile crisis” and that a Chinese base in the Solomons would be “the effective end of our sovereignty and our democracy.” Official responses have been much more measured and they have paid lip service to the sovereignty and independence of the Solomon Islands, but there has still been an undercurrent of menace in the refusal to rule out military action.

The agitation for an anti-Chinese intervention in the Solomons is a useful reminder that this sort of unhinged militarism is what usually happens when great powers begin vying for influence with one another. The great powers treat smaller states as valuable only insofar as they can be used as pawns in their rivalries, and they are willing to trample on the rights of small nations to gain an advantage over their rivals. Because the relationship with China is increasingly framed in adversarial, zero-sum terms, the US has taken to viewing any sign of growing Chinese influence as a potential threat to be countered. Once this view takes hold, it no longer matters whether there are any discernible US interests at stake. Thwarting China becomes an end in itself, and “failure” to do so is then spun as “weakness.”

Read the rest of the article at SubStack

Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

Washington’s Fear of Non-Existent Chinese Bases

Eric Miller wants to sound the alarm about future Chinese bases in Africa, but mostly he just recycles the same unpersuasive claims we have been hearing for months:

Chinese military basing efforts abroad have become a topic of great international interest and scrutiny. The completion of Beijing’s first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017, revelations last year of a potential military base in the United Arab Emirates, and the announcement this spring of Chinese investment in a Cambodian military base with suspected exclusive Chinese use all support the realization that China is methodically moving forward on improving its ability to project power globally. Deciphering where Beijing plans to place its next flag is challenging because it is a dynamic equation – one that must factor in China’s goals and those of a host nation, along with the willingness of those involved to deal with the invariable regional and international questions and blowback. One area of the world where this calculus appears favorable for China is Africa.

Miller is U.S. Africa Command’s director of intelligence analysis, so it is a bit worrisome that there is so little analysis in this article. The entire piece comes across as a longer version of the threat inflation we saw in news reporting about a possible Chinese base in Equatorial Guinea that does not exist and may never be built. Nine months later, there have been no moves towards establishing a base, and neither government has given any indication that there ever will be. Even if Equatorial Guinea agreed to a Chinese base on its territory, that would bring the number of Chinese overseas bases in the world all the way up to two. The US has 29 bases and outposts just in Africa.

Pointing to a naval base in Cambodia as evidence for Chinese ambitions in Africa is hard to take seriously. It is not even certain that China will be granted exclusive use of any part of the facility at Ream. The US has been overreacting to the possibility of a Chinese presence in Cambodia, but at least there is something real to overreact to. In Equatorial Guinea, there doesn’t appear to be anything to the rumors of a future base. It is questionable whether the Chinese government has much interest in establishing a military presence on Africa’s Atlantic coast to begin with. That hasn’t stopped the head of AFRICOM from asserting in March that China is “actively seeking” a base and zeroing in on Equatorial Guinea as the “likeliest” candidate for a host country.

The main problem for Miller’s argument is that there is very little evidence that the Chinese government is even trying to establish any additional bases in Africa, and there is even less evidence that they are having success in doing so. Miller addresses this problem by waving away the lack of evidence and appealing to an unproven assumption about Chinese ambitions:

The lack of visible, publicly available evidence of Chinese basing progress in Africa has fueled skepticism, with some commentators suggesting that concern about such basing efforts is overblown. This is understandable, but it overlooks the secretive nature and substantial timelines associated with these diplomatic and military negotiations. One just has to look closely enough and understand that China has a patient, long-term approach to achieving its global military ambitions.

Concerns about these basing efforts are indeed overblown, as Cobus van Staden explained in an article earlier this year. He commented on the reporting about a possible base in Equatorial Guinea, saying that “the current flurry of rumors seems to reveal more about Washington’s priorities than Beijing’s.” He added that “worries among US officials about a Chinese naval presence on Africa’s Atlantic coast seem to be based more on speculation than superior intelligence about Beijing’s intentions.” That seems right to me, and I would add that this speculation starts from the assumption that China has “global military ambitions” that would require them to acquire bases in the Atlantic and then moves to conclude that this must be what they are doing to realize the ambitions that Washington assumes them to have.

Read the rest of the article at SubStack

Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.