Saying The Quiet Part Out Loud About War With China
The Pentagon says it doesn't want a war after an Air Force general predicted it. But what anyone wants is less important than what the dynamics of "Great Power Competition" yield. PLUS: Really good books by Kerry Howley and Sevgi Soysal.
Edited by Sam Thielman
IN A PURELY FORMAL SENSE, Air Force General Mike Minihan is out of step with the current policy of the United States of America toward China. A few days ago, it came to light that Minihan, who runs the Air Force's globally-operative logistics element, Air Mobility Command, told his subordinates to prepare for a war with China that "my gut tells me we will fight in 2025." You can read Minihan's memo for yourself, courtesy of Nick Slayton at Task & Purpose.
Understand that Minihan is well outside the chain of command, as well as broader decision-making, that would decide on a war with China. But should circumstances bear out Minihan's gut, in 2025 or otherwise, he and his command will play a key role in the conflict. Among their responsibilities will be taking needed material—everything from people to ammunition to office supplies, stuff positioned forward on the territory of the U.S.' Pacific allies or resident back in the United States—to the theater of war with China, presumed to be closer to Chinese territory than American territory, and sustaining that resupply, presumably under fire. Crucially, Air Mobility Command provides mid-air refueling for fighters, bombers, jammers and cargo planes, which mitigates the tyranny of distance. The Navy has its own complementary elements to accomplish these missions by sea.
Very soon after the Minihan memo emerged, the Pentagon said the memo was pretty much a cocktail napkin containing random thoughts. Minihan's views "are not representative of the department’s view on China," according to the Pentagon press shop. Its chief spokesman, Air Force Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, reiterated views that are representative of the Department of Defense: "The National Defense Strategy makes clear that China is the pacing challenge for the Department of Defense and our focus remains on working alongside allies and partners to preserve a peaceful, free and open Indo-Pacific." (By contrast, Minihan told his airmen that they better "fire a clip into a 7-meter target with the full understanding that unrepentant lethality matters most." OK, logistics guy!)
The awkwardness here is that Minihan is voicing the subtext of calling China "the pacing challenge for the Department of Defense" and "preserving a peaceful, free and open Indo-Pacific," and for that matter the entire Great Power Competition construct, which is a euphemism for imperial conflict. In the narrow sense, yes, Minihan is wrong and provocative to predict in a command memo that we're two years away from war with China, and is not voicing official policy.
But in the broader sense, Minihan's memo is the inevitable result of defining the 21st century as an epic conflict between America and China for global hegemony. Senior military officers are bound to posture their commands accordingly. Their Chinese counterparts will read all of these signs as provocation, to which they will both respond and add escalatory provocations of their own. All this serves to underscore that war with China is not only a realistic peril, but perhaps one nearer to hand, obscured and enabled by euphemisms about competition that drive the U.S. closer to confrontation.
NOT TO TAKE THIS TO A PLACE OF TRUMP, but a laurel MAGA liked to award their guy was that he, unlike his five predecessors, didn't start any new wars. Readers of REIGN OF TERROR know the line is cynical, given how Trump escalated the wars he inherited, but there's a more fundamental problem with it. Trump laid the foundation for an entire Cold War with China, a sorting concept for U.S. foreign policy in the unfolding century. When the shooting starts, the origins will backdate, at least on the U.S. side, to him.
Unlike most works of the Trump administration, the U.S.-China Cold War—sorry, "Great Power Competition"—enjoys massive elite support from both parties, who consider it a viable, valuable legacy of Trump's. It's an endeavor that pivoted the U.S. away from the mire of the War on Terror without needing to, say, end the War on Terror, and instead only required us to refocus on securing something more closely akin to what they consider America's geopolitical destiny. I'm in the final process of editing a magazine piece that gets into this a bit more, but this is a really lasting geopolitical contribution of Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster, one that the Biden administration, guided by China strategist Kurt Campbell, a really under-profiled foreign-policy figure, has run with. I'll turn it to the retired Navy captain turned CNAS naval analyst Jerry Hendrix in 2021:
It appears that the one area of bipartisan foreign policy consensus finds its center on the U.S. approach to China. [Both of the] nation’s political parties seemed to accept Davidson’s threat window, with Biden administration senior officials electing to continue both the rhetoric and policies of their more bellicose predecessors from the Trump administration.
"Davidson's threat window" refers to Adm. Phil Davidson, who until 2021 was the senior U.S. military commander for what it calls the "Indo-Pacific" mega-region. As Hendrix recounts, in 2021, Davidson, with specificity that marked a bit of an inflection point in the coalescing cold war, told the Senate that China was within six years of possessing the military capability and will to seize Taiwan. In that respect, Minihan is following in Davidson's footsteps, and he's not the only senior officer doing so, as defense reporter Valerie Insinna memorably captured in meme form.
During Biden's two years in office, the U.S. has both assiduously bolstered its military clients in Asia and warned its Middle Eastern clients against "hedging" through expanding security cooperation with China. Most importantly, Biden has undertaken a historic decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies, an entanglement that had been an impediment—it's a matter of speculation as to how large an impediment—to, y'know, war. Now, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) leadership is concerned that the world is coalescing into rival economic blocs between the Americans and the Chinese, and examples of this coalescence are accumulating. As I drafted this edition, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. is securing expanded access to military bases in the Philippines, which anyone who's read Stanley Karnow's excellent book In Our Image will recognize as a retread of both Cold War and pre-Cold War imperial form. The Cold War templates are stacking atop each other like dinner plates. Trump is Truman, Biden is Eisenhower, Mattis is Forrestal, McMaster is Acheson, Campbell is, I guess, John Foster Dulles, and this guy Minihan seems to think he's Curtis LeMay.
Defense nerds are mashing their little action figures together and making explosion sounds with their mouths. "The China-Taiwan war scenario is especially appealing because the U.S. and China are locked in a rivalry and are also equipped with large, advanced, and powerful militaries. What would happen if the two fought is an inherently fascinating question," Rand's Timothy Heath recently wrote about the prospect of something that will likely kill, at a minimum, many thousands of people, and could scale upward into total catastrophe. It's a typical blitheness that elides how being "locked in a rivalry" is a deliberate policy choice, rather than some force of nature or imperial Destiny.
Given the China Cold War's MAGA pedigree, we shouldn't be surprised to see a constituency emerge on the right for making that choice explicitly. Jamie McIntyre's Washington Examiner defense newsletter compiles plaudits for Minihan from the congressional GOP defense hawks, who treat war with China as an inevitability to prepare for rather than a nightmare to avoid. Mike McCaul, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, told Fox News, "he's right, unfortunately." Tom Cotton, who agrees with the Chinese Communist Party when it comes to shooting protesters, dropped the pretense of it being unfortunate: "Gen. Mike Minihan has the correct mentality—our bureaucracy needs to catch up."
Biden and the Democrats, as we've seen, are making the same choice, just not explicitly. As Carnegie's Jon Bateman recently wrote, "Joe Biden’s actions have been more systematic [than Trump's], but long-term U.S. goals have remained hidden beneath bureaucratic opacity and cautious platitudes." The Biden National Security Strategy is filled with gobbledygook about how they want to "avoid a world in which competition escalates into a world of rigid blocs," while taking action that, as even the IMF can see, escalates into a world of rigid blocs. Calling China a "pacing challenge" sanitizes a strategy of arraying U.S. global economic and military activity to stifle a rising great power. Minihan, Cotton and McCaul are correctly reading the Great-Power-Competition room. Biden's team prefers to deny that they've furnished the room in such a fashion.
I acknowledge there are limits to my War on Terror prism, but it's hard not to notice how after 9/11, the War on Terror was supposed to play a similar role in restoring American Destiny. Then as now, we were advised that only a reassertion of American military power could keep the barbarians from the gates of civilization, which in turn licensed all manner of American barbarism. Similarly, an underacknowledged accelerant of the invasion of Iraq was the perception that conflict with Saddam Hussein was inevitable. If conflict is inevitable, why not pursue it on your own terms? Anyway, I forget how all that turned out.
I WAS UNFAMILIAR with the late Turkish writer Sevgi Soysal until I read this Times review of Soysal's 1975 novel Dawn, which this fall was translated and published in English for the first time. Got it from the library a couple weeks ago and struggled with the opening pages—not because they're bad, just because life, work and other books kept intervening—before turning to it in earnest on Sunday, when I inhaled pretty much the whole thing. While no one reads FOREVER WARS to taste the sweetness of life, this is bleak even by my standards!
Soysal spent much of the early 1970s imprisoned as a left-wing dissident following the Turkish military coup of 1971. I'm not for a second going to pretend I understand the complexities of Turkish politics before and during the coup. But several months ago I read an illuminating graphic novel, Turkish Kaleidoscope: Fractured Lives in A Time of Violence by Jenny White and Ergün Gündüz, which narrates 70s Turkish political violence through several characters on both the right and the left who participate in it and navigate it. That helped orient me, I think, for Soysal's powerful social novel about the negation of freedom and the extreme difficulties in reclaiming your life after experiencing it, as she did.
A very short plot description: There's a roundup of a suspected anarchist cell in Adana, based on the sort of bullshit intelligence produced by a police state. Informants, it turns out, are everywhere, even in the houses where your children play. The book's characters are the torturers and the tortured. Prison doors open, but leaving prison is a lifelong process, particularly for one of the main characters, Oya, whom the Times says is a fictionalized Soysal. This passage comes toward the end, but it doesn't spoil anything, and it reflects the soul of the novel:
While crossing the bridge, Oya caught sight of the fairground. Oh, to jump onto that ferris wheel and feel free as a child. Oh, to go back to the days when she believed that a world of limitless freedom awaited her, if only she could escape the strictures of home. Oh, to feel that giddy rush again. To be back on the ferris wheel. Racing across those gardens and parks and fields. To think herself free. To have yet to learn how hard freedom was, and how easy it was to lose. How so much in life had to be taken from the lion's mouth. There was no going back there. Her innocence long lost. She has two choices. Either she goes back to dawdling. Or she returns to the struggle. To the war. If you're up for it.
The köfte peddlers in front of Sigir Pazar cut the dreams of hungry children down to size. The coins in their pockets can buy them a köfte bread or it can buy them a taste of freedom on a ferris wheel, but it cannot stretch to both. The adults tell them they must choose. "One more simit, and there's no ferris wheel, do you hear?"
Read this novel and tell me that the conception of "freedom" that serves as America's civic religion is anything like what freedom really is.
SPEAKING OF HOLLOW AMERICAN conceptions of freedom, my old pal and former Washington D.C. neighbor Kerry Howley will soon publish her second book, Bottoms Up And The Devil Laughs: A Journey Through The Deep State. (This is one of the books I put Dawn down to read.) If you're a writer, it's a bad idea to approach a piece or a book from Kerry in a competitive spirit. I, for one, will not win a matchup with her. And here she is writing about the stuff I write about.
Bottoms Up And The Devil Laughs is the book Joan Didion would have produced if Didion chose to delve into the motivations, circumstances, passions, absurdities and persecutions of "national security" whistleblowers and other people on the margins of the War on Terror. Howley chronicles a widespread, insidious social derangement, but never for a moment treats her characters as anything other than fully realized human beings, whether her attention centers on Joe Biggs from the Proud Boys or John Walker Lindh, who came to the Taliban via Marin County. I practically threw the book across the room when I read Kerry's description of the physicality of modern surveillance at an NSA
giant warehouse, the size of six city blocks, sucking in water in the middle of a Utah desert. …[I]n the blueprints, one can see room for a kennel, where guard dogs must sleep, because American surveillance is partly made of electrons and partly made of tubes and partly made of dogs. The true enemy of data is not something against which dogs can protect. The enemy of all this data, of all data, is heat. To cool the whirring racks, the NSA must pump in 1.2 million gallons of water per day, in the desert, in drought conditions. Data is physical. It can therefore be confronted.
"The enemy of data is heat" is a line I'm going to lie awake at night beating myself up for not writing despite covering surveillance for, like, most of my adult life.
Among several valuable contributions Howley makes in the book is a not-unsympathetic but no less devastating portrait of the CIA operative John Kiriakou, who bursts into the public by lying flagrantly about the torture of Abu Zubaydah—he presented it as a valuable thing!—and incepting himself as a whistleblower, despite blowing the whistle on nothing. Kiriakou shouldn't have been prosecuted and shouldn't have spent time in prison, and Howley narrates his story with humanity. But she elegantly captures the thing that's bothered me about Kiriakou's public presentation over the past decade-plus, and quotes Kiriakou acknowledging it as well. Still, the heart of the book is the story of Reality Winner, and I doubt anyone will ever tell it better than Howley does.
I reserve the right to write more about Kerry's book the closer it comes to publication. But you should really, really pre-order Bottoms Up And The Devil Laughs. The Didion comparisons are apt.