No Comment — May 29, 2007, 4:19 pm

Targeting the Celestial Kingdom

“Interest is contagious,” says Nietzsche. Which may explain why the American media is consumed with developments in the Middle East these days. We have a war raging in Iraq. A war brewing in Lebanon. And an almost daily exchange of provocations between Iran and the United States. All-in-all more than enough to keep several fully stocked bureaus busy cranking out stories.

But serious foreign policy analysts in this country recognize that the Middle East is far from being the world’s only hot spot, even from the perspective of risk to the United States – is the risk presented by terrorists there really the top threat? It’s serious enough, surely, but it hardly seems to constitute a sort of existential threat, the way that Soviet communism did during the Cold War, or the Fascist menace did during World War II. If we tour the horizon carefully and do our best to assess risks, we’re likely to come up with a short list on which the challenge of Al-Qaeda figures prominently, but probably isn’t quite at the top.

At the beginning of the Bush Administration, during the late spring and early summer of 2001, Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld did such a survey, and it’s very clear that they didn’t put the threat of Islamic militants at or near the top of their threat assessment list. In fact it’s unclear that Al-Qaeda made the list at all. The dynamic duo who later brought us the Iraq War felt a compelling need to identify a new threat against which security needs could be defined. Both had, throughout the Clinton years, been hold-outs for Russia as a continuation of the Soviet menace – let’s call Russia the “nostalgia candidate.” But after the economic meltdown of 1998-99, and with a new president committed to economic reconstruction, that was an increasingly implausible sale.

No, Rumsfeld and Cheney had settled on a new top menace: China. Just a short while ago, I found myself in the company of an old National Security Council hand who was around at that time and I floated my theory. “Bingo,” he answered, “you’re right on the mark.” Of course, then Osama bin Laden intervened by bringing us 9/11, and this assessment was upturned.

Today, however, some far-sighted souls at Defense seem to be trying to put the old locomotive back on the tracks. On Friday, the Defense Department issued a report citing the Chinese Army’s impressive and growing capacity in the novel area of “cyberwarfare,” that is, the ability to strike offensively against an enemy’s use of sophisticated technology, especially computer technology – now used very heavily for navigation, targeting and communications, among many other defense applications. The Pentagon has also criticized Chinese military spending – highlighting China’s new class of nuclear-missile-equipped submarines, which make China a full-fledged member of the “second strike” club. Both the “cyberwar” and the submarine critiques were presented by Pentagon spokesmen in the context of Taiwan and Chinese aspirations with respect to what Beijing considers a renegade province. To Americans, this looks like sober strategic analysis, but a China insider will appreciate the extremely inflammatory consequences of such characterizations.
Taken alone, this wouldn’t be much for Beijing’s octogenarian autocrats. But they are now facing a steady downpour of “issues” raised by Washington – trade complaints, concerns about conduct in Sudan – where Chinese investments are threatened by a proposed sanctions regime, consumer protection issues raised over pet food supplies.

Is it too much to say these steps, considered cumulatively, reflect a major strategic reassessment of relations with Beijing on the part of the Bush administration? This point is worth some careful thought. There so many criticisms moving on so many planes in Washington right now that it’s hard not to see a decision to turn against Beijing.

In any event, this is the way the Chinese themselves are reading the situation. They feel like a ton of bricks has been dropped on them – after their commitment to important new purchases from Boeing, the loosening of regulations on the largely American software operating system industry, and their slow but steady move towards introduction of a regime of intellectual property protections. No doubt China would not have made any of these moves had it known what Washington had in store for it.

No doubt, U.S.-Chinese relations are headed for a chill. The question now is how far things will do from there. If the U.S. picks up on the current consumer safety issue and uses it as a pretext for imposing severe import restrictions on Chinese goods, that would signal a decided worsening. Bad as the tainted pet food issue was in the United States, it paled compared with the tainted toothpaste scandal in Panama, which claimed more than a hundred humans. These incidents raise legitimate alarm for the health and safety of consumers.

But in the end, there is one question on which Washington must focus: after its disastrous war in Iraq, with conditions in Afghanistan deteriorating, with a war in Iran on the horizon, and a second proxy war in Lebanon now broadly expected by Middle East experts, can Washington really afford to be making still more enemies?

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2016

Acceptable Losses

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Home

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tennis Lessons

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tearing Up the Map

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Land of Sod

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Only an Apocalypse Can Save Us Now

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
 
Andrew Cockburn on the Saudi slaughter in Yemen, Alan Jacobs on the disappearance of Christian intellectuals, a forum on a post-Obama foreign policy, a story by Alice McDermott, and more
Artwork by Ingo Günther
Article
Land of Sod·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Just a few short years ago, Yemen was judged to be among the poorest countries in the world, ranking 154th out of the 187 nations on the U.N.’s Human Development Index. One in every five Yemenis went hungry. Almost one in three was unemployed. Every year, 40,000 children died before their fifth birthday, and experts predicted the country would soon run out of water.

Photograph by Mike Slack
Article
The Watchmen·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Just a few short years ago, Yemen was judged to be among the poorest countries in the world, ranking 154th out of the 187 nations on the U.N.’s Human Development Index. One in every five Yemenis went hungry. Almost one in three was unemployed. Every year, 40,000 children died before their fifth birthday, and experts predicted the country would soon run out of water.

Illustration by John Ritter
Article
Acceptable Losses·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Just a few short years ago, Yemen was judged to be among the poorest countries in the world, ranking 154th out of the 187 nations on the U.N.’s Human Development Index. One in every five Yemenis went hungry. Almost one in three was unemployed. Every year, 40,000 children died before their fifth birthday, and experts predicted the country would soon run out of water.

Photograph by Alex Potter
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News

Chances that college students select as “most desirable‚” the same face chosen by the chickens:

49 in 50

Most of the United States’ 36,000 yearly bunk-bed injuries involve male victims.

In Italy, a legislator called for parents who feed their children vegan diets to be sentenced to up to six years in prison, and in Sweden, a woman attempted to vindicate her theft of six pairs of underwear by claiming she had severe diarrhea.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today