Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan Trip: A Needless Provocation

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was intent on visiting Taiwan, and did so despite President Biden’s misgivings and criticisms from many China experts. The trip might not seem like a big deal to Americans, but these are not ordinary times in US-China relations. That makes a Taiwan trip by a senior person in the US government – in this case, the most senior in 25 years – very risky. Prior to her trip, on July 28, I explained why I thought the timing and rationale for the trip were flawed.

A Needless Provocation

Why did Pelosi go?  She insists she went to demonstrate unwavering support of Taiwan’s democracy and confront China’s imminent threat to Taiwan’s security. "In the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) accelerating aggression," she wrote, "our congressional delegation’s visit should be seen as an unequivocal statement that America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, as it defends itself and its freedom."

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Pegasus and the Global Surveillance Business

We have just learned about a powerful spyware known as Pegasus, manufactured and leased by the Israeli company NSO Group and capable of extracting just about every kind of data stored in a smart phone. The Pegasus Project, a consortium of 17 organizations and individuals, mostly journalists, has acquired a leaked list of 50,000 individuals around the world whose phones may have been hacked, though not necessarily penetrated.

Purportedly developed to track criminals and terrorists, Pegasus is also being widely used to hack into the smart phones of human rights activists, journalists, and their political opponents at home and even abroad.

Who is using Pegasus to track enemies? Only a fraction of the 50,000 hacked phone numbers so far obtained have been examined, but that’s enough to reveal that governments from left to right have made use of Pegasus. Among them: Saudi Arabia, India, and Hungary.

The two people closest to the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, including his widow, are among those whose phones were penetrated. The Modi government in India and the Orban government in Hungary have caused uproars over their use of Pegasus to spy on critics.

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War Over Taiwan? Avoiding a US-China Miscalculation

Taiwan has returned as a troubling issue in US-China relations. It is no longer merely a case of verbal jousting over the island’s autonomy versus Chinese claims of sovereignty.

The new round of US-China tensions over Taiwan actually began in the Trump administration, when the administration authorized new arms sales to Taiwan, an official visit to Taiwan by a senior US official (Alex Azar, secretary for health and human services, the highest-level visit since 1979), and strong statements of support for Taiwan.

Early on in the Biden administration, the Chinese responded with pressure of its own: repeated violations of Taiwan’s air defense zone by their military aircraft and regular coastal patrolling by China’s coast guard and naval vessels, all justified as reactions to US naval maneuvers near Taiwan and closer political ties.

US media reported internal debate in the administration about whether and how to clarify the "strategic ambiguity" that has long existed in US declaratory policy regarding Taiwan’s security. Some officials argued for a stronger verbal commitment to Taiwan’s defense, others for directly warning Beijing or increasing military aid to Taiwan. A US Senate bill, the Strategic Competition Act of 2021, calls for bringing Taiwan within the compass of US regional defense plans.

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The Afghanistan Pentagon Papers

The war in Afghanistan, America’s longest, has cost about 2,300 US lives, over 20,000 wounded, and about $1 trillion. Now, thanks to the persistence of the Washington Post, we have an abundance of interviews which, like the Pentagon Papers, reveal the enormous wastefulness, ignorance, and deceit that make Afghanistan, like Vietnam, a chapter in the history of failed US interventions.

In my October 2015 blog, “Truth and Consequences,” I cited a report at the time that Richard Nixon had complained to Henry Kissinger about the US failure to win the Vietnam War given all the firepower at its disposal. But that’s not what Nixon said publicly. I concluded: “We are now witness in Afghanistan to the same scenario: public lies, private doubts.” I also identified some of the problems with the US war effort in Afghanistan that the Post documents now reveal – problems that should have led Obama to deliver on his promise to withdraw US troops. Instead, he continued the failed effort and passed Afghanistan on to Trump. Both presidents had plenty of bipartisan support from people who, as in Vietnam, use “resolve” and “commitment” to justify the sacrifice of blood and treasure in a country they barely know. “Afghanistan is blessed with a substantial number of lobbyists who seem incapable of thinking beyond war,” I concluded in my blog.

Vietnam Syndrome

Decision making on Afghanistan, the interviews tell us, parallels that in Vietnam in several specific ways. Here are some symptoms of this seemingly chronic illness drawn from the Post interviews:

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Getting to ‘Yes’ With North Korea

For the first time in quite a few years, direct US-North Korea dialogue seems within reach thanks to North-South Korea talks involving Kim Jong-un and top officials of the Moon Jae-in administration. Whether or not North Korea’s complete and verifiable denuclearization, which has long been the chief US demand, will actually be on the table much less be agreed upon remains to be seen, of course. Kim Jong-un surprised the South Korean delegation by apparently indicating a willingness to discuss denuclearization. But most media reports neglected to mention that Kim wants concessions in return-concessions that his father and grandfather have long sought in return for surrendering a deterrent to feared American attack.

From what I can piece together, here is the North Korean position as reported in US and South Korean publications.

North Korea wants:

  • Recognition as a "serious partner for dialogue"
  • Summit meeting with ROK and resumption of exchanges
  • Security assurances, namely, "eliminating the US military threat to North Korea and a guarantee of its security."
  • Normalization of relations with the US

In return, North Korea

  • Is willing to discuss denuclearization
  • Will refrain from threats to South Korea: North Korea "will not attempt any strategic provocations, such as nuclear and ballistic missile tests."
  • Will not demand as a precondition for talking that US-ROK joint exercises scheduled for April be canceled.
  • Will not test missiles or a nuclear weapon during talks with the US.

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Dubious Partnership: The US and Saudi Arabia

In recent months Donald Trump has shown no hesitation to comment critically on political developments in Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela, and North Korea. He supported protests in Iran against "the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime." He deplored the many years of US military aid to Pakistan, for which "they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. . . . No more!" His criticisms of the Maduro government in Venezuela were accompanied by the threat to use the "military option," reminiscent of what Trump had once said when talking about Mexico. And of course his personal insults directed at North Korea’s Kim Jong-un are now legendary.

Such interference is now taken for granted, for in Trump’s world, relying on diplomacy and abiding by the principle of noninterference in others’ affairs have no currency in Washington. Of course trying to destabilize other countries, even to the point of seeking regime change, has been part and parcel of US foreign policy for a long time. The difference now may be the constancy of Trump’s interference, and the undiplomatic language he uses.

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