[mark safranski/ zen ]
There are 25 episodes in all, with a strong but not exclusive emphasis on Sparta, with Steve reflecting on aspects of his writings and research in relatively short vignettes. Check it out here.
[mark safranski/ zen ]
There are 25 episodes in all, with a strong but not exclusive emphasis on Sparta, with Steve reflecting on aspects of his writings and research in relatively short vignettes. Check it out here.
[mark safranski / zen ]
Facing off with China is all the fashion in military, foreign policy and strategy circles these days but the challenges of insurgency will always be with us. This includes the Islamic world as old conflicts from the war on terrorism continue to burn despite the attention span of the American public and policymakers moving on even though or troops often have not. Dr. Tim Furnish, in a new book, forcefully reminds us that many of America’s counterinsurgency and counterterrorism problems in the greater Mideast are neither new nor particularly American in nature. Indeed, in The Coin of the Islamic Realm: Insurgencies & the Ottoman Empire, 1416-1916 we learn that America or its Saudi allies in Yemen tread down very well worn paths that Ottoman sultans, even invested as they were with the supreme religious authority of the Caliphate, navigated only with difficulty.
Furnish, a specialist in the eschatological history of Islamic sects and Mahdist movements, history professor and former consultant to US Special Operations Command is well qualified to parse the tea leaves of historical Arab insurgencies and religious movements that resisted Ottoman imperial rule. Western analysts coming from perspectives of counterterrorism, military history, IR, colonial history typically underrate or ignore the religious dimensions driving irregular conflict and as Furnish demonstrates, while not always primary, (usually) Arab religious disputes with their Ottoman overlords tended to shape the military and political responses of both insurgent and counterinsurgent for nearly half a millennia, echoes of which we still see today in ISIS or the Houthi rebellion.
In The Coin of the Islamic Realm Furnish begins by briefly reviewing virtues and flaws of policy advice given in recent popular natsec pundit books on Islamic insurgency and terrorism as well as pondering the paucity of COIN studies on Turkish military campaigns in general but also specifically in English; a strange lacunae for western military analysts seeking to understand groups like AQ and ISIS given that the Ottoman state faced many similar rebellious or dissident movements in the same regions. Furnish argues that “Islam is key to understanding both the non-state challengers to Ottoman rule, and the Empire’s state responses” which will offer better template for “lessons learned” for American policy makers faced with Islamic or Islamist orientated terrorists and guerillas.
Furnish takes a look at a spectrum of discrete groups that struggled against the Ottoman empire – the Celalis, Kadizadelis, Druze, Zaydis, Sa’udi Wahhabis and Sudanese Mahdists and then draws distinctions between Ottoman counterinsurgency policies that produced, wins, losses and draws and the disastrous experiences of the earlier Almoravids against the Almohads in the medieval era Mahgreb. Furnish uses two lenses in his approach to analyzing the performance of the Imperial Ottoman state and their insurgent enemies: a constructivist, contextual view that incorporates the social, cultural and religious factors of the time and the traditional yardsticks of modern counterinsurgency strategy and tactics. How well did the Ottomans wage kinetic operations, win hearts and minds, engage in state-building and employ proxy forces?
As with modern counterinsurgency wars, the Ottoman record was mixed though on balance more successful than that of France in the 20th century or America in the 21st. The Ottomans being a polyglot, albeit, Muslim imperial state were regarded by most of their Arab and ethnic minority subjects as foreigners so therefore the religious authority of the Caliphate was a particularly sensitive point for the Sublime Porte. Furnish illustrates how the Ottomans could wage brutal military campaigns against heretical Fiver Zaydis or heterodox Druze, but didn’t particularly view either of these challenges as threats to the Sultan’s authority. Neither the Zaydi imams nor the Druze chieftains could mount an effective ideological challenge to the Sultan’s position as Caliph over a mostly Sunni Islamic world. More dangerous spiritually and seriously viewed were the Wahhabi and Sudanese Mahdist theological attacks on the legitimacy of the Ottoman Caliphate. There were no deals for the Abd Allah bin Sa’ud, his first Sa’udi State and Wahhabist revolt was crushed by the Ottomans for his temerity and he was dragged in chains to Istanbul and publicly beheaded. As a Sufi influenced Hanafi aligned Caliphate, as Furnish describes, the Ottoman Imperial State would brook no religious challenges from either proto-Salafists or messianic Mahdists and their harsh and uncompromising interpretations of Islam.
While Furnish is in particular an expert in apocalyptic Mahdist movements (see his books , Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden and Ten Years Captivation With the Mahdi’s Camps) he does not neglect the aspects of Ottoman military campaigns against self-proclaimed Mahdi, Muhammed Ahmad. The fact is that the Sudanese Mahdist state did not arise simply on cult like religious proclamations but the tactical prowess of the Mahdi and his commanders who repeatedly outfought a series of Ottoman-Egyptian armies with Turkish, Egyptian and British commanders included the heroic but ill-fated Charles “Chinese” Gordon. While it is true that the head of the Mahdi was eventually dug up and carried away in Lord Kitchener’s kerosene can, Furnish uses the experience of the Sudanese to explain how a Mahdist movement can make the leap from movement to military insurgency to Maddiya, or Mahdist state that ruled much of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan for 17 years. That the Almohads, who were even more successful than the Sudanese in that they replaced the Almoravid regime entirely also began under a Berber Mahdi, Ibn Tumart , demonstrates the potential danger if Mahdist movements are permitted to gain popular traction.
The Ottoman campaigns in Yemen against the Zaydi highland tribes have an all too familiar ring to them, echoing both the cruel but fruitless Saudi experience today as well America’s frustrating experience in Afghanistan. Indeed it is not hard to describe Yemen as the Afghanistan of the Arabian peninsula in which the Ottomans endured centuries long on and off again quagmire. Every tool in the modern COIN toolkit was applied in Yemen by Ottoman Pashas – bribery, clear and hold, reprisals, cultivation of local factions, divide and conquer, foreign proxies – nothing could establish Yemen as a docile vilyet integrated into the empire. Yemen had to be abandoned entirely by the Ottomans for very long periods of time and the best that could usually be mustered was Zaydi Imams ruling most of the country, pledging a face saving allegiance to the Sultan while the nominal Ottoman governor was reduced to twiddling his thumbs in Sa’na. And sometimes not even that.
Furnish closes The Coin of the Islamic Realm with a summation of lessons learned from the Ottoman experience to deal with fundamentalist and apocalyptic insurgencies in the Islamic world: be willing to take the kinetic fight to the enemy, interdict outside support, deny the use of safe havens, capture or kill charismatic insurgent leaders (especially Mahdists) enlist respected Muslim religious leaders to condemn the theological distortions, errors and crimes of the terrorists or guerillas. Sound advice, but difficult to do when US policymakers want to fight limited wars with unlimited objectives in far away lands without expending political capital against enemies they seldom have the courage to describe honestly in public. Hopefully when facing the next ISIS or al Qaida they will take Furnish’s advice to heart.
The Coin of the Islamic Realm by Timothy Furnish fills an important gap in COIN literature and is particularly helpful for laymen to get a fast understanding of the theological fracture points within the Islamic world that crystallized into political upheaval and armed rebellion against central authority. I for example, learned much about Zaydi Fivers and the Ottoman Turk relationship with Sufi orders that were previously unknown to me as well as the historical nuances of Islam as practiced in the world’s last great multinational Muslim empire. What stood out from Furnish’s highly contextual take is how deeply rooted America’s policy challenges with irregular violence in the greater Middle-East are as well as how difficult it is for our politicians and generals to profit from lessons learned many times, often painfully, by others.
[Mark Safranski/ zen]
I am stirring from blogging retirement to bring you a series culled from a historical-political essay by a scholar who is a very long time reader of ZP who wrote this post over a long period of time following the last presidential election. He writes under the pseudonym “A Yeoman Farmer” and his foil is the famous “Flight 93 Election” essay of “Publius Decius Mus” in The Claremont Review of Books. I will be breaking the essay into parts and turning the footnotes into section endnotes with each post and linking to the previous sections that have been posted. This post comprises Part IV and the final conclusion of the series.
The Reichstag is always burning: a commentary on The Flight 93 Election
By: A Yeoman Farmer
9. Continetti trips over a more promising approach when he writes of “stress[ing]
the ‘national interest abroad and national solidarity at home’ through foreign-
policy retrenchment, ‘support to workers buffeted by globalization,’ and setting
‘tax rates and immigration levels’ to foster social cohesion." That sounds a lot
like Trumpism. But the phrases that Continetti quotes are taken from Ross
Douthat and Reihan Salam, both of whom, like Continetti, are
vociferously—one might even say fanatically—anti-Trump. At least they,
unlike Kesler, give Trump credit for having identified the right stance on
today’s most salient issues. Yet, paradoxically, they won’t vote for Trump
whereas Kesler hints that he will. It’s reasonable, then, to read into Kesler’s
esoteric endorsement of Trump an implicit acknowledgment that the crisis is,
indeed, pretty dire. I expect a Claremont scholar to be wiser than most other
conservative intellectuals, and I am relieved not to be disappointed in this
The “right stance on today’s most salient issues” sums up the problem for what ails
America is not today’s more salient issues, it is something deeper and not one that is
solved by having the “right stance”, a stance that seems to be right only because it
fits the author’s prejudices. If the right stance were all that mattered, then there is no
fundamental choice to be made only different stances on the same issues. In other
words, there are no choices left, only policy positions, which itself suggests that the
crisis the author claims exist is simply that his policy preferences, the right stance, is
not being chosen or can be chosen. Yet, the author, aside from describing a
declension of the most alarming kind, the 1000-year progressivist Reich awaits,
simply refers to the right policy stances. One wonders if the real 1000-year Reich
could have been defeated with the right policy stances.
What is surprising, but in a deeper sense is not at all surprising since it fits the
contempt for the “corrupt” America, is that none of the conservatives and specifically
Trump did not have a proposal or thought for the opioid epidemic killing thousands of
Americans. Instead, the key issues are immigration, trade, and war as if these are
what are killing the most Americans each year. Here is where Kesler’s glib statement
and the author’s implicit support for it are revealed for their dishonesty. Trump did
not have a policy proposal on the opioid crisis and Hillary Clinton did. 6 I guess that
Professor Kesler believes that no policy option for opioids is better than Clinton’s
What is not explained nor is it explored is how conservatives contributed to America
becoming so corrupt that it was in danger of going over the cliff on immigration,
trade, and war. If we look at the broad level, we see that Obama brought down
immigration levels, improved America’s trade position, and worked to bring
America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan to an end. However, we are to
understand that America is at the cliff edge without having a point of reference to
know when it was not on the cliff edge or what specifically about the general issues
(trade, immigration, and war) as well as the eight sub issues that appear as
constants within American society (all societies?) was not problematic previously but
became problematic in 2016?
We are also given an insight into what Trumpism means when the author praises
Continetti’s proposals. Here is what Trumpism appears to be:
national interest abroad and national solidarity at home
support to workers buffeted by globalization
tax rates and immigration levels’ to foster social cohesion.
On the surface, these appear anodyne or boiler plates. What President does not
seek the national interest abroad and national solidarity at home? Is this an issue for
the campaign? This would also suggest that Obama was not pursuing the national
interest and national solidarity. The desire for foreign policy retrenchment seems to
seem a strange desire since Obama worked to retrench American foreign policy with
Muslim countries and to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If these were
not retrenchments, then what does retrenchment look like? We are told America First
would be a form of retrenchment but would it be if it too seeks the national interest
abroad? How can we retrench foreign policy and simultaneously seek the national
interest abroad? As for the desire to support workers buffeted by globalization, this
appears laudable yet contradictory. Does this mean that we are to be insulated from
globalisation’s negative effectives and open to its positive effects? How exactly does
that work? It seems to be a nostrum that sounds good, it tastes great and it is less
filling or is simply sound and fury signifying nothing. It is a way to flatter the audience
that wants to hear that the government will take care of them so that we return to big
government to protect the worker by intervening in the economy to pick the winners
and losers. This might be Trumpism, but it is certainly not conservatism. As for tax
rates that foster social cohesion that seems rather strange approach unless the idea
is that misery loves company since tax rates have no connection to social cohesion.
Perhaps this is the silver bullet to solve social cohesion, better tax rates. Who knew?
Then again, the author might be right about conservativism’s decline if the best it can
do about social cohesion is to argue that tax rates are the answer.
10. Yet we may also reasonably ask: What explains the Pollyanna-ish declinism
of so many others? That is, the stance that Things-Are-Really-Bad—But-Not-So-
Bad-that-We-Have-to-Consider-Anything-Really-Different! The obvious
answer is that they don’t really believe the first half of that formulation. If so,
like Chicken Little, they should stick a sock in it. Pecuniary reasons also
suggest themselves, but let us foreswear recourse to this explanation until we
have disproved all the others.
Once again, the author suggests that things are so bad that we need a change and
not just any change, but a radical change, but without explaining what it is that ails
America except that the policy alternatives are so bad that people have voted for
them for the past eight years. What we are to understand is that we have a choice
between Candide or Gibbon without a choice between them. We are presented with
a Manichean choice when the reality is that statesmanship is rarely presented with
such choice except in the most extreme positions, usually moments of existential
crisis (think Churchill rallying Britain and the West against Hitler’s onslaught). The
author does not want to accept that the general direction of America can be
improved in some areas but that the Republic in its core is stable or is at least in a
position where the normal challenges that any republic faces are not approaching an
existential nature. If the Republic is in an existential crisis, the ails that he mentions
are at best the symptoms and not the cause, but we cannot discuss that because the
author believes that the symptoms are the cause.
As for the author’s lament of the conservatives who display a Pollyanna-ism which
he claims is unwarranted, we must ask what he thinks of Christians who believe that
final success is to be found with Christ so that any of the today’s travails can be
endured for that reason. In other words, the author seems strangely quiet about
religion’s role in conservatism or more generally the role that optimism plays within
America and American politics. If we follow the author, then we must refuse to be
optimistic in the face of challenges and that the challenges are so great that
optimism cannot be justified. More to the point, if they are to claim things are bad
they must be so bad that radical change is required, not just change but radical
change, which raises the question of whether conservatives can argue things are
bad, or things are very bad, but if they do they must embrace radical change for
anything less is surrender to unwarranted optimism.
However, what bothers the author is that his fellow conservatives either do not
believe that things are that bad, in particular as he does not grant that they can be
that bad in specific areas without being that bad overall, or they have a pecuniary
interest to say that things are bad but not so bad as to allow specific changes without
an revolution within the regime. In a neat rhetorical twist, truly Trumpian, the author
declares his fellow conservatives, who do not support him or Trump, are liars or on
11. Whatever the reason for the contradiction, there can be no doubt that there is
a contradiction. To simultaneously hold conservative cultural, economic, and
political beliefs—to insist that our liberal-left present reality and future direction
is incompatible with human nature and must undermine society—and yet also
believe that things can go on more or less the way they are going, ideally but
not necessarily with some conservative tinkering here and there, is logically
The author, by looking at a potential contradiction, almost gets close to the problem
but seems to lose his way. He forgets what Strauss taught that all societies have
contradictions and those societies that try to remove them will destroy themselves for
that is what liberalism requires–the end of contradictions. If this is what the author is
trying to argue, that conservativism retains the same contradictions as Liberalism,
then that is a different argument to America is in terminal decline if it remains on its
current path, unless one thinks that America is not, nor ever was, a liberal country
and to pursue liberalism is the catastrophe that needs to be resisted. Yet, if that is
the argument, it fails, despite the author’s rhetorical flourishes, for two main reasons.
First, America is *the* liberal experiment since its founding. To argue that it was
never liberal, even assuming the argument that it was a deeply republican liberalism,
seems anachronistic. The second is that America’s pursuit of liberalism is its
experiment that unfolds with each generation where conservatives have offered the
necessary course corrections to keep that experiment from ending in failure since
that experiment by definition is whether human nature finds fulfilment through
liberalism and whether the experience of the past 230 years has provided evidence
in that argument. Yet, the crisis to which the author addresses, but does not identify,
is within liberalism, American liberalism, which he does not explore since he never
goes to the cause. Even though he gropes towards the source and sort of touches
on possible solutions, without understanding what he is doing, that is his heart is in
the right place, he never gets to the core of why America is in crisis and why Trump
has been able to emerge as a symptom of that crisis and his attempt to solve that
crisis is hampered by being its symptom. However, the author seems to believe it is
a crisis of liberalism as if there is a serious alternative within America to liberalism or
one that remains untried if not unimagined.
What some of his less restrained colleagues have accepted is a previous alternative
to liberalism, an outcome that is coeval with politics. However, their preferred
alternative only appeals because they have forgotten its previous failures elsewhere
in the belief that *this time* it will work in America which is a country founded in direct
opposition to that alternative.
12. Let’s be very blunt here: if you genuinely think things can go on with no
fundamental change needed, then you have implicitly admitted that
conservatism is wrong. Wrong philosophically, wrong on human nature, wrong
on the nature of politics, and wrong in its policy prescriptions. Because, first,
few of those prescriptions are in force today. Second, of the ones that are, the
left is busy undoing them, often with conservative assistance. And, third, the
whole trend of the West is ever-leftward, ever further away from what we all
understand as conservatism.
What has become clear is that the author really likes to present everything as a
Manichean choice in which the choice is either/or and rarely, if ever, both/and. Either
you must embrace radical change or you admit conservatism has failed. What is
curious about the author’s argument is how ahistorical it is. To claim that he knows
or has divined or diagnosed conservativism’s failure, suggests he has an insight into
conservatism, liberalism, and the American experiment that is superior to any other
argument. In his own words, if he is right, then conservatism is wrong and wrong
simply about everything until he arrived. Yet, for his audacity, his argument lacks
substance. As someone once said, the more audacious your argument, the less
evidence you need, which is perhaps describes the Trump campaign. For a
politician, this is excusable, but for someone professing to be a public commentator it
is inadequate if not bordering on incompetence masked by rhetorical eloquence.
The choice is a false one. America can continue without change to its regime, its
functioning liberal democratic society, its political institutions and norms and one can
demand that there is a need for change within all three without conservatism being
wrong. Yet, it is not whether one is wrong about America, it is that if you do not see
the problem as the author sees them then you are wrong about conservatism and
In a word, you are not a conservative. How we came to this moment is uncertain or
how no one else saw it not clear, but conservative philosophy is wrong for not seeing
that a fundamental change is needed. Except for being a Never Burke conservative,
he does not explain what that means to be philosophically wrong.
wrong on human nature
What is not clear is what this means. Human nature is not fixed nor is it fluid.
Instead, it is something, like philosophy itself, in that we are still working to discover it
which is why you can see dramatic changes in regimes or changes in politics based
on what we understand about human nature. It does not mean human nature has
changed or is changeable to know that our understanding of human nature develops
as we contemplate what it means to be human. However, that type of argument or
understanding is not presented here since it would get in the way of the political
wrong on the nature of politics, and
This statement seems redundant since if you are wrong about human nature then
you must be wrong about politics if it is to determine the best way to live as humans
since it is predicated upon a shared or agreed understanding of human nature. As
mentioned above, that understanding of the nature of politics cannot be fixed for it is
then political philosophy is at an end. If that quest is at an end, then we are now
transported into sectarianism.
wrong in its policy prescriptions
Finally, this seems superfluous since the failure of philosophy, human nature, and
the nature of politics would mean that any policy prescription would be wrong.
Except that it isn’t which gets us back to a deeper secondary question, again
unanswered and unasked by the author, in that we only see hints or a shadow of it or
rather its negation makes us aware of its presence. The author never explores the
relationship of thought to politics or how political philosophy informs political theory
for policy prescription especially as they appear only to be needed to resolve or
apply what is already agreed or already implicit in the system. If politics or political
thinking does not require philosophy or political philosophy, then the author should
discuss that since it seems to be a fundamental element of whether conservativism
is right or has something to say or whether the American experiment is even
possible. But, we never get to see this work. Instead, we are told why we are wrong.
Here we are doubly disappointed. The author does not explore such questions, as
we would expect that if you are to disagree and be wrong about the fundamentals of
political life, philosophy, human nature, politics and policy prescription then
something must exist to demonstrate this but the evidence for his argument is
disappointing in its superficiality and shallowness. The evidence that you are wrong
first, few of those prescriptions are in force today.
Our philosophy is wrong, our understanding of human nature is wrong, our
understanding of politics is wrong because few of those prescriptions are in force?
How does that follow? How can you draw such a sweeping conclusion from such
meagre evidence? The public do not like us and did not vote for us so everything is
wrong. Our policy prescriptions were changed, not all so some must have worked,
but most and therefore we are wrong not that the policy prescriptions were wrong or
poorly supported. It seems laughable but here we are and it gets worse because
some conservatives seem to disagree with other conservatives about what
conservative prescriptions are best.
Second, of the ones that are, the left is busy undoing them, often with
What this suggests then is that the policy prescriptions that were badged as
conservative might not have been truly conservative but served a faction and
therefore were not rooted in anything enduring except for what that faction wanted.
However, that is not possible because this problem is caused by the ever-present
And, third, the whole trend of the West is ever-leftward, ever further away
from what we all understand as conservatism.
The author makes it appear that “fundamental change” is required without saying
what is a fundamental change. He hits at something deeper, something larger,
something longer lasting, something permanent, but he dares not address it. If
Trump is the fundamental change, we must wonder what was Franklin Roosevelt or
Lyndon Johnson? Were they the continuity candidates? We can believe that America
needs changes and there are areas of great or even urgent attention and we can
also know that the 2016 election is nowhere as important or requiring a “fundamental
change” as say the 1932 election or the 1968 election.
Leaving aside the hyperbole, which is quite difficult since the piece and its thinking
are infused with it, we face the fundamental question that is still unasked. The author
assumes that the policy prescriptions he has described, or the “right stances” on
policy issues, are what needs to change. If this is the radical change, the
“fundamental change”, then we have to ask: “How is this different from just another
series of policy proposals?” Within the essay, we do not find a fundamental or *the*
fundamental question, which would indicate a crisis of the magnitude exists, has
End Part IV
6. When Professor Kesler used to make similar glib statements in his graduate seminars, some
students would ask afterwards about a particular statements and he would often grin and prevaricate
demonstrating his superior rhetorical skills and thus provided the more advanced students a second
seminar in the art of sophistry or the challenge of trying to differentiate the philosopher and the
sophist. One student, a veritable ubermensch, would often buy him a beer to congratulate him for
being particularly skilled in dodging that day’s questions. In the academic arena such games are
educative. In the public domain, they prove problematic because they display a desire to flatter and
dissemble to promote a man singularly unqualified to be president as the public cannot discern their
educative effect and only their political effect. If an academic is to dabble in politics, the least they can
be is responsible, but history has shown academics, particularly German ones have been less than
responsible when getting involved in politics.
[mark safranski / “zen“]
Ann Scott Tyson, Beijing Bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor, recently published an important in-depth reflective piece on the evolution of Sino-American relations, particularly the deep slide under China’s supreme leader Xi Jinping. Featured prominently in the story are the views of former National Security Adviser, LTG H.R. McMaster.
….What is clear is that the current conflict has been exacerbated by profound misperceptions and misplaced expectations that go back decades, eliciting feelings of betrayal on the U.S. side and arrogance on China’s side.
All these dynamics were on the mind of Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, as he rode the next day in the presidential motorcade toward the massive, Soviet-style facade of the Great Hall of the People, for another meeting with Chinese leaders. The three-star Army general was preparing to unveil a new U.S. national security strategy at home with an elevated focus on China. On his first trip to the country, he was soaking up “the symbolism, the zeitgeist” of Beijing, he recalls in an interview.
As General McMaster settled into a black swivel chair at a conference table in the great hall, he and his team had one simple goal: to wrap up the meeting quickly so the president could prepare for the evening’s lavish dinner. Premier Li Keqiang began speaking, reading from 5-by-8 cards – as Chinese officials often do to stay on message. The general girded himself for more empty diplomatic speak.
But what came next surprised General McMaster. Despite Mr. Li’s reputation for being friendly to the West and relatively pro-reform, he spoke bluntly, echoing Chairman Xi’s assertive 3 1/2 hour speech at the October party conclave. His brusque message: China no longer needs the U.S. China has come into its own. Beijing would, however, help Washington solve its trade problem by importing U.S. raw materials for China’s emerging high-end manufacturing economy.
What struck General McMaster was how Mr. Li’s monologue suggested an almost neocolonial relationship between a superior China and a servile U.S. It was “remarkable for the aura of confidence, you could almost say arrogance, and the degree to which he dismissed U.S. concerns about the nature of not only the economic relationship but the geostrategic relationship,” he recalls.
Such encounters helped convince General McMaster that a dramatic shift in China strategy was critical. “It reinforced the work we were doing and highlighted the urgency of it,” he says.
Soon, it would be Beijing’s turn to be surprised.
Imperious rhetoric was also a feature of Chinese Cold War diplomacy under Mao ZeDong and Zhou Enlai during the first twenty years after the 1949 declaration of the People’s Republic; first toward the United States and then increasingly toward the Soviet Union as the two Communist giants accelerated to the Sino-Soviet Split. Interestingly, during this time the PRC fought a ground war against US and UN forces in Korea and later clashed militarily with the USSR over some islands in the Ussuri river border area which nearly escalated to a nuclear war. Relations with Moscow had grown so hostile and the ideological convulsions of the Cultural Revolution so extreme that when Soviet premier Alexi Kosygin phoned Zhou Enlai in an attempt to defuse the order war, the Chinese operator screamed at Kosygin that she would not put through a call of “a revisionist”. Only after this near miss with WWIII, did Beijing’s rhetoric toward the United States soften at the Warsaw talks and warm in a series of diplomatic backchannels to the Nixon administration.
Mao has been something of a convenient lodestone for Xi in his drive to centralize power in his own hands, tighten the grip of the Party over the life of ordinary Chinese citizens and expand China’s influence in the world, echoing Mao’s prior ideological effort to contest for leadership of the Communist bloc, especially those “revolutionary” movements in the Third World struggling against “western imperialism”.
In December 2017, Washington released its new National Security Strategy. In sharp contrast to the 2015 blueprint, which welcomed China’s rise and hailed “unprecedented” cooperation, the new document labeled China a “strategic competitor” that seeks to “shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests” and “displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific.”
Underlying this shift – ending the decades-old U.S. policy of engagement with China – was American disappointment that had been building for years. To be sure, U.S. engagement with China had multiple goals and had succeeded on many fronts. President Nixon reestablished ties with Beijing primarily to counter the Soviet Union, and the normalization of U.S.-China relations in 1979 ushered in decades of relative peace and rising prosperity in East Asia.
….“Was it foolish or … misbegotten? I don’t believe it was,” says Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. Engagement was worth the chance, he says. At different junctures, Communist Party reformers seemed to gain the upper hand. But success was never guaranteed. Hard-line, anti-Western leaders won out, fearing a loss of control that would spell the party’s demise, he says.
What was naive, experts say, was the conviction among some Americans that opening China’s markets made political liberty inevitable – a misperception echoed in centuries of Western interactions with the country.
Western engineers, soldiers, and other advisers brought expertise to China “as the wrapping around an ideological package,” seeking to entice the Chinese to accept both, writes historian Jonathan Spence in “To Change China,” a study of Western advisers in the country from 1620 to 1960. “It was this that the Chinese had refused to tolerate; even at their weakest, they sensed that acceptance of a foreign ideology on foreign terms must be a form of weakness.”
Similarly, when China opened up in the late 1970s, pragmatic leader Deng Xiaoping introduced market techniques to generate wealth and raise living standards, but without relinquishing state ownership or one-party rule.
“China saw that prosperity was related to capitalism, and Deng Xiaoping’s revolution basically adopted capitalism with socialist characteristics,” says Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch, president of the U.S.-China Education Trust. “Things they saw in America were things they aspired to – not the values, not the political system, but the things, the prosperity. They wanted that.”
….But as reforms stalled and then reversed after Mr. Xi took charge in 2012, disenchantment grew among Americans who had long championed change in China.
Some U.S. officials, in fact, felt deliberately misled. Looking back, General McMaster, who has a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, sees deception. “The party officials with whom we engaged for so many years, in so many different dialogues, were just great at stringing us along and holding the carrot in front of our donkey noses,” he says.
U.S. engagement “underestimated the will of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to constrain the scope of economic and political reform,” concludes a White House report on China strategy published in May.
Read the rest here.
Tyson does an excellent job reconstructing the rosy assumptions of US post-cold war policymakers regarding China “evolving” toward, if not liberal democracy, a mellower state increasingly incorporating western notions about liberal markets and rule of law domestically while becoming a responsible global citizen internationally. McMaster deserves plaudits for pushing a (very) long overdue strategic reassessment of China’s ambitions abroad and the nature of the regime at home. Ironically, McMaster’s difficult tenure at the NSC probably would have been far more successful in most regards in a “normal” Republican administration like that of Ford or either Bush but would never have succeeded in revising China policy with an establishment administration. While it is fashionable today to express bipartisan skepticism of China now, prior to Donald Trump taking office, the DC foreign policy consensus backed by corporate America was to ignore Beijing’s insults and provocations, no matter how outrageous, when not actively rewarding them. That’s an uncomfortable fact to discuss in a polarized campaign season, but a fact it remains.
Since McMaster left the administration, Xi’s regime has engaged in mass incarceration of the Uighurs, built the most advanced surveillance state in human history outside of Orwell, engaged in border disputes with most of its neighbors, including India, crushed Hong Kong, stretched it’s Party and secret police hands to university campuses in Western democracies and is currently threatening – loudly – to invade Taiwan. One would hope that regardless of the outcome of the presidential election that the new consensus to stand firm against Chinese belligerence will hold firm in Washington and that Xi’s regime will be measured by it’s actions as well as it’s chronically unfriendly words.
If not we will come to rue it sooner rather than later
[Mark Safranski/ zen]
I am stirring from blogging retirement to bring you a series culled from a historical-political essay by a scholar who is a very long time reader of ZP who wrote this post over a long period of time following the last presidential election. He writes under the pseudonym “A Yeoman Farmer” and his foil is the famous “Flight 93 Election” essay of “Publius Decius Mus” in The Claremont Review of Books. I will be breaking the essay into parts and turning the footnotes into section endnotes with each post and linking to the previous sections that have been posted. This post comprises Part III of the series.
The Reichstag is always burning: a commentary on The Flight 93 Election
By: A Yeoman Farmer
What the author does not consider is whether those wars suggest a deeper problem, an unspoken or implicit problem, with America and republicanism, that he does not want to address.
6. Conservatives spend at least several hundred million dollars a year on think-tanks, magazines, conferences, fellowships, and such, complaining about this, that, the other, and everything. And yet these same conservatives are, at root, keepers of the status quo. Oh, sure, they want some things to change. They want their pet ideas adopted—tax deductions for having more babies and the like. Many of them are even good ideas. But are any of them truly fundamental? Do they get to the heart of our problems?
Here we start to see that the issue is more than a lament over the electoral challenges or policy proposals for the conservative movement. They are too conservative since they spend their time defending the status quo or tinkering with change. The author wants more, he wants serious and fundamental change. At this point, the question is whether the author is being ironic since he is asking conservatives to seek a fundamental change which would suggest he wants them to start a revolution. He does not explain how one decries the ills of society means that one defends the status quo. The author provides no evidence so we are to take his word that the conservatives defend the status quo. Except that they don’t but that is not a concern to the author since he has a point to make. Instead of trying to conserve institutions, rule of law, or the norms that sustain decent politics, the author lets us know that we must embrace a candidate who will challenge, change, or even undermine these institutions and norms so that conservative ideals can be encouraged if not enforced through electoral victory because no one else is serious about doing something “truly fundamental”. In a strange way, conservatives are to be as much social engineers as the “progressive” they appear to denounce. In this approach, we start to get a sense that the problem isn’t a specific political policy or norm, the problem for the author appears to be what is fundamental about America. Will the author explore this question? Will he get to the heart of the matter?
7. If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed “family values”; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.
Despite the promise that something fundamental is at stake, we get the warmed-over platitudes that have been presented at any number of elections for the past 50 years if not the past 100. These are not the fundamental questions that face America for they are the same questions we have faced and answered since the founding. Even if the conservatives are right they are not necessarily going over a cliff because they can be right in principle but not application. We can have immorality on a large scale and still have a decent society. As should be readily apparent to any political thinker all societies contain contradictions so that it is not an axiom that if the conservatives are right on their preferred areas that America is going over a cliff. The first problem is that conservatives cannot even agree if they are right about what they are proposing. Moreover, the different policies they propose often conflict with each other when they have to be applied. The author says that conservatives want better schools and they want a smaller government. At the same time, they want a strong defence and a smaller government. Yet, none of these are issues that have been resolved as they remain questions for each generation to answer. America’s strategic situation is not fixed as the threats it faces and the opportunities it seeks change. They are not what challenges America to its core nor are they *the* core question that the conservative movement faces. The cliff the conservatives face is not a policy mix or even the next election, but the author never explores that since he is only concerned with scoring political points and not stopping America from going off the cliff it was truly going over a cliff.
If America was really going over a cliff, it raises the question of when it started. Did America really start going over the cliff in 2008 when President Obama came into office? Did the issues that conservatives lament only begin then or did they begin in 2001 or did they begin sooner or have they always existed because they represent core questions about what it means to live as we do and cannot be resolved definitely?
Let’s look at the list of what the conservatives might be right about to indicate America is going over the cliff.
If they are right or wrong about these issues, they must convince the public that they are right and why the are right. In doing this, they must put together policy proposals that accord with the political institutions, the constitution, to ensure that any changes they propose are legitimate and sustainable. If they are truly about the common good, then they need to demonstrate or at least convince the public to vote for it locally, at a state level, and at a federal level.
If America is going over the cliff why are the conservatives, why is the author, apparently the only ones who can see it? It seems strange that the rest of the country is blind to this or unaware of it.
8. But it’s quite obvious that conservatives don’t believe any such thing, that they feel no such sense of urgency, of an immediate necessity to change course and avoid the cliff. A recent article by Matthew Continetti may be taken as representative—indeed, almost written for the purpose of illustrating the point. Continetti inquires into the “condition of America” and finds it wanting. What does Continetti propose to do about it? The usual litany of “conservative” “solutions,” with the obligatory references to decentralization, federalization, “civic renewal,” and—of course!—Burke. Which is to say, conservatism’s typical combination of the useless and inapt with the utopian and unrealizable. Decentralization and federalism are all well and good, and as a conservative, I endorse them both without reservation. But how are they going to save, or even meaningfully improve, the America that Continetti describes? What can they do against a tidal wave of dysfunction, immorality, and corruption? “Civic renewal” would do a lot of course, but that’s like saying health will save a cancer patient. A step has been skipped in there somewhere. How are we going to achieve “civic renewal”? Wishing for a tautology to enact itself is not a strategy.
The author wants to claim that America is beyond renewal except if Trump is elected. He will accomplish what no one other conservative has been able to accomplish. How the author knows this is uncertain, yet that is his claim. Trump has displayed no insight into politics or America nor has he ever held an elected office yet he is going to be the one to enact *the fundamental change* that conservatives need and none have been able to deliver.
What is unexplained and is alarming is that the American people, including conservatives, have gone along with this corruption. The unspoken theme throughout this article is that the American people are simply passive, almost unwilling, participants. Except that they are not. The American people have consistently chosen what they want. We may not like their choices but they have decided. To suggest, as the author does, is that they are the deceived, the rubes in this great game is something disturbing. What it suggests is that the conservative movement has been part of this great game but only it is the virtuous one or more precisely it is only Trump as the conservative saviour who knows this and will succeed where other politicians and presidents have failed. Trump alone can renew conservativism, but most importantly he will reform America by stopping and rolling back the “tidal wave of dysfunction, immorality, and corruption.” If only that were true. What is surprising is that any candidate that demonstrates the dysfunction, immorality, and corruption of America that the conservatives preach against, it is Trump. Time again he has proudly demonstrated his immorality “I would date my daughter if she wasn’t my daughter”. He has displayed his corruption where he famously promises to pay the full amount only to pay the mount minus the potential legal costs to the supplier which forces them to accept the lower amount as it will cost them more in legal fees to get the difference between the promised amount and the offered amount. He has demonstrated dysfunction as his family and his businesses demonstrate dysfunctionality as many of his brands have failed and his failed university ended up settling a 25 million dollar fraud case out of court. Yet, the unstated thought is that the people may be the virtuous ones and the conservatives and the progressives have been out of touch with America and what the American people have wanted. The author never explores that possibility. Trump, though, is not the answer.
How can Trump be the solution when the author’s lament is that Conservatives typically combine “the useless and inapt with the utopian and unrealizable.” Is there any better description of what Trump promised and has delivered? The only thing that is missing from his description is incompetence which Trump has delivered. By contrast, the previous conservative Presidents or at least with the largest element of conservative ethos and policy, of which Reagan is held to be the paragon, demonstrated a hard-headed understanding of what they could deliver with the political pragmatism based on compromise. Above all, though these administrations, unlike the conservative commentators cheering from the side lines, demonstrated competency, which now seems less important than commitment or loyalty as if the means to power determines the ends to power since the only goal is power yet we know that power without purpose is something conservatives have always, or at least before Trump, decried. Perhaps, we have to accept that whatever Trump can deliver is considered worth supporting him though his inexperience suggest that he will deliver less politically, which means effecting lasting positive change, that is starting policies and programmes that reflect a vision for America as opposed to a negative change which is about stopping what previous presidents have done as if that is a positive change, than truly transformational presidents like Reagan, LBJ and FDR.
At the same time, pre-Trump commentators did not hold the American public in such contempt by dismissing them all as immoral, dysfunctional, and corrupt. Moreover, one would not find Clinton making those claims about the American public. If a statesman is one who can weave together a web of politics to protect the community, that is to protect and promote the common good, then we must ask how Trump demonstrates that aspect of statesmanship if his policies, personality, and pronouncements are divisive? Instead of uniting the country or seeking a higher consensus through which a new vision for American can emerge, he has sought discord with a clear appeal to his faction as the expense of all others. In that sense, he operates a form of trickle-down politics in the sense that if he deliver for his faction, in particular the corporations, the rest of the country will receive whatever secondary benefits trickle down from what has benefitted his faction and his party.
End Part III.
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