McMaster and the Myths of Empire

Originally appeared at The American Conservative.

Ethan Paul dismantles H.R. McMaster’s “analysis” of the Chinese government and shows how McMaster abuses the idea of strategic empathy for his own ends:

But the reality is that McMaster, and others committed to great power competition, is actually playing the role of Johnson and McNamara. This shines through clearest in McMaster’s selective, and ultimately flawed, application of strategic empathy.

Just as Johnson and McNamara used the Joint Chiefs as political props, soliciting their advice or endorsement only when it could legitimize policy conclusions they had already come to, McMaster uses strategic empathy as a symbolic exercise in self-validation. By conceiving of China’s perspective solely in terms of its tumultuous history and the Communist Party’s pathological pursuit of power and control, McMaster presents only those biproducts of strategic empathy that confirm his policy conclusions (i.e. an intuitive grasp of China’s apparent drive to reassert itself as the “Middle Kingdom” at the expense of the United States).

McMaster calls for “strategic empathy” in understanding how the Chinese government sees the world, but he then stacks the deck by asserting that the government in question sees the world in exactly the way that China hawks want to believe that they see it. That suggests that McMaster wasn’t trying terribly hard to see the world as they do. McMaster’s article has been likened to Kennan’s seminal article on Soviet foreign policy at the start of the Cold War, but the comparison only serves to highlight how lacking McMaster’s argument is and how inappropriate a similar containment strategy would be today. Where Kennan rooted his analysis of Soviet conduct in a lifetime of expertise in Russian history and language and his experience as a diplomat in Moscow, McMaster bases his assessment of Chinese conduct on one visit to Beijing, a superficial survey of Chinese history, and some boilerplate ideological claims about communism. McMaster’s article prompted some strong criticism along these lines when it came out:

McMaster’s narrative is all the more deceptive because he claims to want to understand the official Chinese government view, but he just substitutes the standard hawkish caricature. Near the end of the article, he asserts, “Without effective pushback from the United States and like-minded nations, China will become even more aggressive in promoting its statist economy and authoritarian political model.” It is possible that this could happen, but McMaster treats it as a given without offering much proof that this is so. McMaster makes a mistake common to China hawks that assumes that every other great power must have the same missionary, world-spanning goals that they have. Suppose instead that the Chinese government is not interested in that, but has a more limited strategy aimed at securing itself and establishing itself as the leading power in its region.

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New START and the China Diversion

Originally appeared at The American Conservative.

New START has a little over seven months left to live, and the Trump administration remains fixated on its impossible and bizarre condition of bringing China into the treaty:

The Trump administration is increasingly set on trying to bring China into a key nuclear arms deal with Russia, according to documents obtained by Foreign Policy, amid fears by arms control experts that the effort is futile and the United States is running out of time to recommit to the Obama-era New START treaty.

The effort to bring China into an arms reduction treaty certainly is futile. Not only is China not going to participate in arms control negotiations with the U.S. anytime soon, but even if China were persuaded to participate the limits set by New START would allow China to increase its nuclear arsenal many times over while still remaining in compliance. It makes no sense to press another government to join an arms reduction treaty when that government currently possesses a fraction of the number of weapons that the treaty permits. There is no compelling reason to add China to an existing arms control agreement when their nuclear forces are much smaller than ours. One might as well insist that Pakistan or Israel joins the treaty. It is obvious that the administration has never been serious about extending New START. Talk of bringing in China has been a diversion from the real issue and a weak excuse to let the treaty expire. U.S.-China relations are extremely poor right now, so it’s not as if negotiations on this or any other issue would be productive in any case. As a general rule, arms control agreements are reached during periods when both governments are trying to cooperate with each other because they desire to reduce tensions. It is safe to say that there is no appetite for détente in either capital at the moment. Even if there were a good reason to pursue negotiations with China on arms control, this is probably the least propitious time imaginable.

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Pompeo’s Cynical Attack on the Nuclear Deal

Originally appeared at The American Conservative.

The Trump administration has been desperately trying to kill the nuclear deal for the last two years after reneging on it. Now they will try to kill it by pretending to be part of it again:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is preparing a legal argument that the United States remains a participant in the Iran nuclear accord that President Trump has renounced, part of an intricate strategy to pressure the United Nations Security Council to extend an arms embargo on Tehran or see far more stringent sanctions reimposed on the country.

The administration’s latest destructive ploy won’t find any support on the Security Council. There is nothing “intricate” about this idea. It is a crude, heavy-handed attempt to employ the JCPOA’s own provisions to destroy it. It is just the latest in a series of administration moves that tries to have things both ways. They want to renege on U.S. commitments while still refusing to allow Iran to benefit from the agreement, and they ultimately hope to make things difficult enough for Iran that their government chooses to give up on the agreement. It reeks of bad faith and contempt for international law, and all other governments will be able to see right through it. Some of our European allies have already said as much:

European diplomats who have learned of the effort maintain that Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo are selectively choosing whether they are still in the agreement to fit their agenda.

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Trump Draws a Reckless ‘Red Line’ in the Sea

Originally appeared at The American Conservative.

Earlier this week, I said that we would be hearing more exaggerations warnings about minor nuisances around the world. One example of these nuisances has been the recent “harassment” by Iranian boats in the Persian Gulf. Right on schedule, the president tweeted another reckless threat of escalation:

Threatening to commit acts of war against another country over something like this is unhinged. These confrontations have gone on for years without any loss of life. As long as no one overreacts and starts killing people, there is no reason for the situation to escalate. Once again, Trump is choosing escalation when he doesn’t have to. There is always some danger in having our naval forces and theirs in close proximity, but threatening to start a war over it is cartoonish overkill. The president is giving a green light to further escalation against Iran when he has no legal authority to do so, and that makes it more likely that the U.S. and Iran end up in an avoidable conflict. The president likes to mock Obama over his ill-advised “red line” in Syria, but this is far more irresponsible because the behavior that he is using as his “red line” isn’t a serious threat to anyone. At best, this is the president’s desperate attempt to distract attention from the ongoing failure of the federal government’s response to the outbreak here at home. At worst, he is trying to provoke an incident to give him an opening to launch a diversionary war.

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Iran Is Not Ours to ‘Steer’

Originally appeared at The American Conservative.

The Edelman/Takeyh article on Iran had so many bad ideas in it that it will take a second post to respond properly to some of the rest. One of the sillier claims that they make is that regime collapse won’t cause Iran to become a failed state because it is a real country, unlike the other countries that the U.S. destabilized and turned into failed states:

But there are significant differences between Iran and those countries. An Iranian state and polity have existed for thousands of years: unlike Iraq and Libya, Iran is not an invention of European postcolonial cartography. What is more, although ethnic tensions do exist in Iran and the regime in Tehran does repress religious minorities, Iranian society is overwhelmingly Shiite and not riven by the ethnic and sectarian divisions that plague Iraq or the tribal factions that make Libya difficult to govern.

Each time that regime changers talk about bringing down a foreign government, they offer these reassurances, and they are consistently proven wrong. Before the invasion of Iraq, supporters of the invasion insisted that religious differences among Iraqis were nothing to worry about. Prior to intervention in Libya, we were told by the interventionists that Libya was not divided like Iraq and there was no need to worry about the country sliding into civil war. Now we’re told that Iran isn’t like either of them because it isn’t an “invention of European postcolonial cartography,” so we shouldn’t worry about civil war there. There is a lot wrong with this assumption. First, countries that have a long history of having their own “state and polity” can and do fall into civil war following the collapse of an earlier regime all the time. It happened in France after the destruction of the monarchy, it happened in Russia after the tsar’s abdication, and of course it happened in China more than once in just the last hundred years. A country can be mostly ethnically homogeneous and united by the same religion and still be rent by other political divisions. It is an analytical error to assume that religious and ethnic divisions drive internal conflicts. These become the rallying points that people use to ensure their own security when political order breaks down. That would look different in a post-regime collapse Iran, but the need for security would be the same.

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Regime Change Is Wrong

Originally appeared at The American Conservative.

Eric Edeleman and Ray Takeyh dispense with the usual hawkish smokescreens and evasions and call for regime change in Iran:

“Regime change” is a toxic phrase in Washington. It conjures up images of the Iraq war, with the United States trapped in a quagmire of its own making. That is why those who favor a coercive U.S. approach to Iran are routinely charged with secretly supporting regime change. In response, the accused almost always deny it. They don’t want regime change, they insist: they just want the Islamic Republic’s theocrats to change their behavior.

But no such transformation will ever take place, because the Iranian regime remains a revolutionary movement that will never accommodate the United States. That is why regime change is not a radical or reckless idea but the most pragmatic and effective goal for US policy toward Iran – indeed, it is the only objective that has any chance of meaningfully reducing the Iranian threat.

Edelman and Takeyh are as wrong as can be, but their article does have the virtue of being a straightforward case for this terrible idea. There is no need to tease out the implications of their position to figure out that they want to destabilize the region and cause more massive upheaval, because they tell us this right from the start. At the very least, it saves us some time.

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