Edited by Sam Thielman
LAST WEEK, we talked about how rapidly the U.S. has recently drifted toward conflict with China, and some of the constituencies for war. In a weekend Wall Street Journal essay, Robert Kagan, who as late as 2004 called the Iraq invasion "the right war for the right reasons," offers himself as a tribune for the China Cold War during our post-balloon moment.
Kagan's essay has less to say about China-qua-China than about the rise of German and Japanese power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He ladles that history over an argument that China challenges the United States at its own peril. I don’t disagree with that, given American military superiority and all the bases in the Pacific designed to constrain Chinese military power—but Kagan whistles past those things, since the idea of American provocation breaks the continuity of the Kagan Cinematic Universe. One generation's responsible Chinese statecraft might pave the way for the next generation's reckless imperial adventurism, Kagan observes. That’s a valid point, though Kagan doesn’t seem to grasp that he exemplifies it.
In his argument by analogy, Kagan writes that the post-Bismarck generation of Germans "feared that they would be prevented from their fair share of global influence by Britain, France and Russia." How might the U.S.' chain of Pacific and east Asian air and sea bases operate in such an analogy, if we're determined to see China as pre-World War One Germany? (For an actual great history of the British-German naval buildups and the road to the Great War, read Dreadnought by Robert Massie.)
But this is the bit from Kagan’s column that jumped out at me:
Are Americans as a people up to a major confrontation with another great power, whether in immediate conflict or a protracted Cold War-like struggle? It would be dangerous for a potential adversary to assume they are not. Whatever condition the American political system may be in, it is not appreciably worse than it was during the 1930s. That, too, was a deeply polarized America, including on the question of whether to intervene in the world’s conflicts. But once the U.S. found itself at war, dissent all but disappeared. If ever there could be a cure for American political polarization, a conflict with China would be it.
This is a tangle of bad history and bad prediction. First, political polarization was indeed really pronounced during the 1930s, but there simply isn't a comparable political figure today with remotely the chance of commanding the sort of popular support that FDR did before Pearl Harbor. When things got bad for Roosevelt during his trouble-strewn second term, his approval rating went down to its lowest, 48 percent in August 1939, a figure presidents today would envy during their bad times. Additionally, "from the mid-1930s until Pearl Harbor," write scholars Matthew Baum and Samuel Kernell in Public Opinion Quarterly, "the electorate arguably realigned its partisan loyalties more dramatically than at any other time in American history, and it did so almost exclusively on the basis of economic class." In these senses, today's American political system does look appreciably worse than the American political system of the 1930s. Secondly, the wartime unity of Americans in the second World War resulted from Japan attacking the United States at home, which China isn't envisioning. Would a Chinese reconquest of Taiwan trigger such domestic American mobilization? Ask Nanjing when Japan invaded it in 1937.
But those are the trees. This line is the forest: "If ever there could be a cure for American political polarization, a conflict with China would be it."
Of all the terrible arguments for the coalescing China Cold War, this one is perhaps the worst. U.S. policymakers must never be allowed to believe this, since if they do, they'll pursue confrontation with China as a means of political power. I can tell you from writing REIGN OF TERROR that many politicians, journalists and intellectuals convinced themselves after 9/11 that the War on Terror would be a force through which a history-chastened America would put away childish disputes and reclaim its destiny. We know thoroughly how false this is. It's measured in an unknown number of lives ruined, freedom stolen, demagogues empowered and anti-democratic forces mobilized. The China Cold War wouldn't redress that. It would scale it all up. "The Cure for American Political Polarization" will not include your Asian-American neighbors any more than the post-9/11 "national unity" included your Muslim neighbors.
Also, I was on the Daily Beast's New Abnormal podcast to talk about the balloon and the China Cold War, if you want to check that out. It's mostly jokes but occasionally I give some defense-nerd speak.
But let's not lose sight of the big picture: America can still pop a balloon. And in so popping, we finally found an opportunity for air-to-air combat for the impossibly expensive F-22. "Absolutely, there was a warhead on that missile" fired by that Raptor, General Glen VanHerck of U.S. Northern Command told reporters on Monday, and he sounded a bit chipper, I thought. At long last, the F-22 had its bar mitzvah.
I want to go back in time to the 2000s, run to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense and tell them that by 2023 the only dogfight ever recorded by the first 5th-generation fighter will be against a plump ol' balloon. Then watch as they don't care and keep shoveling money into a jet that one day will have a balloon decal on its nosecone.
MEANWHILE, about half an hour before the House Armed Services Committee held its first hearing on China ("The Pressing Threat of The Chinese Communist Party To U.S. National Defense") on Tuesday morning, the Journal flashed a story by Michael Gordon, who really ought to know better by now, that invents a missile…launcher gap, courtesy of the U.S. military's nukes command:
"The number of land-based fixed and mobile ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] launchers in China exceeds the number of ICBM launchers in the United States," the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees nuclear forces, wrote the Senate's and House's Armed Services Committees on Jan. 26.
Sounds like a scary decline of American power, until you remember that the U.S. has more warheads, missiles and means of delivery—subs and bombers, in addition to the land-based-launch option—than China does. Even with advances in Chinese hypersonics, the delivery-means gap will favor the U.S. for long after a Chinese nuclear expansion reaches 1500 warheads in 2035, the current Pentagon estimate; which would be fewer than the U.S. currently keeps deployed out of its full stock of more than 5,400.
Read a little further into Gordon's piece and you'll see this is a piece about… empty silos.
Many of China's land-based launchers still consist of empty silos, according to U.S. officials and experts outside government. The Strategic Command also notified Congress that the U.S. has more intercontinental-range, land-based missiles and more nuclear warheads mounted on those missiles, than China.
The command's notifications also don't include submarine-launched missiles and long-range bombers, where the U.S. has a decided advantage, U.S. officials say.
Also, we knew about the silo expansion. Still, I see that in new House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers mentioned in his opening statement for this hearing, "We’ve also just [been] informed by DoD that the CCP now has more ICBM launchers than the United States." I wonder whose office passed along that STRATCOM report?
Getting this kind of bullshit leaked to you ought to be a clue that the deeper story here concerns the ginning up of an arms race—a money-making Cold War classic—at a time when perhaps the U.S. ought to engage with China on nuclear arms control, given that the U.S. is modernizing its arsenal and China is expanding its own in response. Can we skip to the arms-controlling part of the Cold War?
IT MAY BE FORGOTTEN LATELY, given the abundance of horrors around us in the years since, but Ilhan Omar was a two-minutes-hate-style anti-applause line during Donald Trump's rallies as president.
I don't mean simply that Trump led "send her back" chants, inciting a crowd to cheer for her deportation. When I was writing REIGN OF TERROR, I sometimes watched deep into those Trump speeches, listening to stuff he would say that wouldn't often be captured in conventional day-story coverage. And he would mention Omar more frequently than I expected to hear. During his return to the campaign trial in Tulsa during COVID, Omar, in Trump's telling, was trying "to make the government of our country just like the country from where she came, Somalia."
While I'm sure America will one day congratulate itself for the fact that a Somali refugee who wears a hijab was elected to Congress, Omar appears in the broader MAGA imagination as a glitch in the American matrix. Something has gone dangerously, self-evidently wrong in this country, in this view, when someone like her can achieve political power. Twenty-one years of a War on Terror has provided a hysterical context of danger that permits Omar’s detractors to elide just what it is about her they find threatening. It's one of many manifestations of the structural racism of the War on Terror, and it's why the Republicans last week stripped Omar of her position on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Ilhan Omar is not an antisemite; if she were, she would find good company in the Republican Party. Instead, she is a critic of Israeli apartheid. This is a difference worth insisting upon, particularly at a time when U.S. client Israel is intensifying the violence of its apartheid in the West Bank. And there we find the stakes of stripping Omar of her committee assignment.
As Peter Beinart recently wrote in the New York Times, Omar tends to be the holdout against the American Exceptionalist consensus on the committee. Her focus is on the human impact of U.S. foreign policy and the ways in which American hegemony compounds or outright causes the problems it's predicated on solving. Vanishingly few legislators would compare Narendra Modi to Augusto Pinochet, let alone at a time when the imperatives of waging two simultaneous Cold Wars hold that the U.S. needs India in its orbit. Peter wrote in his newsletter, "Ilhan Omar’s involvement in foreign policy, if you read the hearings, most of it, the vast majority of it is really not about Israel-Palestine per se, but that her critique of American military support for Israel is part of a broader critique that she’s making about the militarism of American foreign policy all over the world."
That critique is simply not welcome on a congressional panel overseeing that foreign policy. I suspect that's why Elliott Abrams reacted to Omar bringing up his role in Iran-Contra so operatically—first, as a genuine expression of rage at his past actions being brought to account; and second, as a performance to cue the rest of the committee that accountability for American empire should be understood as calumny. Abrams at the time was special representative to the Venezuelan opposition, so it's worth remembering that in the background of Omar's mutual-contempt-filled colloquy with him was a question about the U.S. supporting a coup that John Bolton, years later, admitted to supporting.
I DON'T KNOW how to help Turkey and Syria after this horrific earthquake, but it seems like an emergency lifting of sanctions on Syria will save Syrian lives, which is supposed to be the point of sanctioning the murderer Bashar al-Assad.
TALIBAN ENNUI. War was a force that gave meaning to the Taliban, like so many others, and now at least some of them are feeling like, as Bane said to Batman, victory has defeated them. "You have to go to the office before 8 AM and stay there till 4 PM. If you don’t go, you’re considered absent, and [the wage for] that day is cut from your salary. We’re now used to that, but it was especially difficult in the first two or three months," 32-year old Omar Mansur lamented to Sabawoom Samim for the Afghanistan Analysts Network. Personally, I've never found the Taliban more relatable.
A 24-year old who formerly was a sniper in Zormat, a district in southeastern Paktia Province where I spent a week in 2008—making this guy nine years old or so then—added: "The Taleban used to be free of restrictions, but now we sit in one place, behind a desk and a computer 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Life’s become so wearisome; you do the same things every day. Being away from the family has only doubled the problem."
Abdul Nafi from Logar Province sometimes misses the war, he said: "In our ministry, there’s little work for me to do. Therefore, I spend most of my time on Twitter. We’re connected to speedy Wi-Fi and internet. Many mujahedin, including me, are addicted to the internet, especially Twitter."
FOR REAL: WALLER VS. WILDSTORM #1 final-order cutoff is Sunday, February 12—I'm told President's Day pushes the cutoff date back—so please, go to your local comic shop by then and tell them to pre-order a copy for you. Click this link to find the comic shop closest to you. The book is out on March 21, and I won't be mad if you asked them to save you a copy after February 12, since I have to figure that they'll read that as customer demand for the second issue, too.
But I just got colored pages back for the first issue and they're—Olivia Cooke voice—stunning. That's Mike Atiyeh, another tremendous comic-book talent who, like Jesús Merino and Evan Narcisse, I can't believe I get to work with. We're leaving it all on the page. It's a spy thriller set in the most paranoid enclave of the DC Universe: WildStorm. If you read this newsletter, you'll love it!
THIS EDITION WAS PRETTY BLOGGY. Do you want more of these kinds of editions, which are easier for me to produce? Or do you want more of the reported/essay editions, which take longer and require more effort? Maybe I'll do these to fill the gap between those? Or maybe you think they're too lightweight? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know what you're feeling!