“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?