Newsmax: Failed Economic Ideology on China

“Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the way to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed.” 

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

If you say something often enough, you can either talk others or yourself into believing it.  We have been told repeatedly by pundits who lecture us on how vital pragmatism in politics is and how ideology is irrelevant and that the only thing that matters is the bottom line.

Utilitarianism in politics and economics is equally attractive as it is useless. We call this column “From the Heartland,” and so a saying from the heartland is appropriate. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig. This is especially true when one analyzes the assumptions of the status quo regarding China. The media devote much of the news to the “new Cold War” and “sudden tensions” between the United States and China. Those primarily on the Left will use this narrative, with help from some libertarians, to condemn the current administrations’ more robust approach towards China, advocated by officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The problem is that the narrative is false.

In reality, America and the PRC have been on a collision course since 1949. The Truman administration quickly realized that the creation of a left-wing totalitarian dictatorship would not only destabilize Asia, condemn the Chinese people to state terror but also create a permanent enemy to American values and strategic concerns. This situation literally blew up with Mao’s engineering (with the support of Stalin) of the Korean War, which set the tone not only for our relationship with China but with the tragedy on the Korean peninsula.

Early on, there were advocates in the United States that sought accommodation and during the Nixon years, an attempt to use our enemy in Beijing with our stronger enemy in Moscow. When Deng Xiao Ping began opening China in 1978, there were early American promoters who wanted to take advantage of this situation. This resurrected the 19th century American merchant dream of the “China market.”

The 1980s and 1990s saw this blossom into full-throated advocacy of entering China, no matter what the cost, in order to take advantage of a cowed workplace, low wages and a corrupt Communist Party willing to accept bribes and favors to streamline business ventures and foreign investment.

China was lauded as the “workshop of the world,” and billions of dollars of products ranging from heavy industry to electronics to medicines were moved to the communist dictatorship. Many Democrats and libertarian inclined Republicans bought into the idea that globalization and a mutated free-market could change China’s behavior and reap generous profits at the same time.

This became the status quo religion and anyone who opposed it was a heretic. These “panda huggers” took over the levers of the American foreign policy, academics and the corporate boardroom establishment. In more formal language, this camp referred to itself as advocates of “constructive engagement.” This group believed that the economic liberalization and greater opening to the West would lead to democratic liberalization. They saw China’s military growth in the context of internal national security rather than expansion. They argued the necessity of keeping trade open as the only source of Western influence in the PRC.

These establishment thinkers in the public, private and academic sectors were wrong on all counts. It was, to use modern slang, an epic fail. These same experts were the ones who told us that the USSR would never collapse and that terrorism was only a mild irritant.

This “practical” argument was as attractive as it was useless. When I was in the government, I took from a Fulbright report I authored earlier, where I wrote, “The Peoples Republic of China will be the next superpower in the 21st century. She will rise to prominence economically, politically and militarily over the next few decades. The PRC will either rival American supremacy or work around it… these security issues that America faces will lead us and the PRC to conflict.”

Such ideas were heresy and had there been some firewood and stakes I might have ended up as a human bonfire. Later, at the beginning of the 21st century, I and other conservatives identified the flashpoints where conflict with China would occur: the South China Sea, a potential military or economic invasion of South Asia, an attempt to dominate the various maritime straits in Asia such as Malacca, Taiwan and Tsushima. China would use intimidation to coerce Taiwan and Japan, destroy freedom in Hong Kong, modernize its military to expand and use coercive economic diplomacy.

Unlike the constrictive engagers, those advocating containment were right on all counts.

We can add to this the latest and boldest attempts by China regarding their insidious actions concerning the COVID virus, the economic imperialism of “One Belt-One Road,” and the beginning attempts to dominate space.

Those who opposed the status quo thinking of the late 20th Century, advocating containment, were castigated as right-wing warmongers. The “panda huggers” excoriated them, insisting they did not understand the supremacy of the market and the inevitability of democratic thinking.

Just as liberals and progressives have suddenly discovered the Russian threat, a threat they belittled for decades, they failed to see the threat from China and continue to misunderstand China’s strategic objectives. Republicans, who had stars in their eyes about the China market, allowed themselves to rationalize PRC behavior and told conservatives to wait, that China was an adolescent that needed to mature.

Conservatives understood that there was never a utilitarian argument, just as there is no right moral utilitarian argument in philosophy, a curse from the nonsense of Jeremy Bentham and the Benthamites.

Conservatives are believers in the free-market, but they do so because they believe the free-market enhances economic and political liberty. A conservative would never serve his nation on a platter to a foreign entity for business. Conservatives made the case that there were national security imperatives that overcame economic utility and industries ranging from high tech to medicine to heavy steel were, by necessity, needed to be domestically maintained. They understood that the driving force behind the Chinese government is the twinning of a corrupt communist party and her grand strategy globally.

The communist party will do anything to stay in power, exemplified by President Xi’s lifetime presidency and a political crackdown on any dissent or freedom. Strategically, China desires to overcome U.S. power regionally first, globally second and finally to dominate the final frontier in space. The “constructive engagers” were wrong in the ’80s, the ’90s and today.

Their poor decision-making has cost America dearly, including the thousands dead of the COVID virus. Beware when someone advocates pragmatism, as it is rarely “what works,” but it is almost always a ruse for a selfish narcissism whose goal is sinister and backward. Conservative principles are the only anchor for any policy regarding China now and in the future.

This piece originally ran on Newsmax on 19 May 2020.

The Hill: What Russia is up to in Syria

Although the world has ground to a near-standstill as a result of COVID-19, America’s foreign policy problems have not disappeared. To the contrary, many are becoming much worse, as dictators across the globe forge ahead with their destructive plans.

Russia’s recent machinations in Syria are a case in point. The Kremlin’s 2015 decision to enter the Syrian civil war on the side of dictator Bashar al-Assad was informed by the “Putin Doctrine,” which had been laid out by Russia’s president in 2008 and the chief focus of which is blunting American influence globally while increasing Russia’s regional status and ability to project power. The subsequent Russian incursion was a prime example of a marriage of Tsarist imperialism and Soviet expansionism: Although Syria’s Ba’athist state does not border the old Soviet empire, it served as a critical piece to Soviet strategy during the decades of the Cold War — and today, of Russia’s, too.

Russia’s activities there over the past half-decade, in turn, have yielded concrete dividends for the Kremlin. Under the guise of an ongoing struggle against ISIS and other “wahhabists,” Moscow has transformed the country into a laboratory for the testing of weapons, technology, strategy, and tactics. In a reflection of this role, the Russian High Command has termed Syria a model for training and its operations there a “strategy of limited action.”

Today, some 5,000 Russian troops, primarily military advisors, special forces, and air support personnel are estimated to operate in Syria. Russia continues to supply Assad with weapons and gives the Syrian dictator much needed diplomatic backing on the international stage. Russian airstrikes, a critical component of the Assad regime’s continued survival, have been directed primarily against rebel forces fighting Assad rather than against ISIS.

These airstrikes, moreover, have indiscriminately targeted Syrian civilians; according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the total civilian death toll in Syria since March 2011 was 226,247, with at least 6,514 of them killed directly by the Russians. Other estimates put the number closer to 8,400. Further, the United Nations has accused Russia of engaging in war crimes through indiscriminate airstrikes against civilians that have terrorized the population and displaced large numbers of Syrian people.

Moscow has learned from its past military mistakes, however. Unlike the Soviet experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Russia has been very measured in its commitment to the Syrian battlefield. The Russian government has prioritized the use of stand-off tactics (like aerial strikes) and military contractors. The results speak for themselves; as of last Spring, the Kremlin has officially confirmed just 116 Russian fatalities.

At the same time, Russia has put a premium on strengthening its military foothold in the country. It has reinforced its naval presence in the southern port city of Tartus, erected an airbase at Hmeimim, and created military encampments elsewhere in the country. For these facilities, Moscow has managed to secure long-term, open-ended leasing arrangements from the Assad government, which remains weak and is eager to see Russia stay and provide security protection.

Economically, Russia has deftly exploited Syria’s precarious situation. Its energy conglomerate Stroytransgaz (which has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department) dominates the Syrian energy sector, developing gas fields whose revenue feeds Assad’s killing machine. The company has secured contracts for exploiting hydrocarbons in eastern Syria, completing pipelines linking Syria and Jordan, multiple gas processing plants, and is given preferential treatment by the Assad regime. 

These activities, and Russia’s continued presence in Syria, represent a threat to American interests. They help to undermine U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. They have allowed the Kremlin to reemerge as a serious player in regional politics and begin to shape Middle Eastern affairs in its image. And they have helped to strengthen Russia’s long-standing ties to Iran, which is also aiding Syria, and which the Trump administration continues to seek to isolate and contain. As such, Moscow’s machinations should be understood for what they are, a serious national security concern for the United States, and should be treated as such by Washington.

This piece originally ran at The Hill on 4 May, 2020.