The greatest threat to America's success in its war on terrorism sits inside the Pentagon. The proponents of Big War (that cold-war gift that keeps on giving), found overwhelmingly in the Air Force and Navy, will go to any length to demonize China in their quest to justify high-tech weaponry (space wars for the flyboys) and super- expensive platforms (submarines and ships for the admirals, and bomber jets for both) in the budget struggles triggered by our costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
With China cast as America's inevitable enemy in war, the Air Force and Navy will hold off the surging demands of the Army and Marines for their labor-intensive efforts in Southwest Asia, keeping a slew of established defense contractors ecstatic in the process. How much money are we talking about? Adding up various reports of the Government Accountability Office, we're talking about $1.3 trillion that the Pentagon is locked into spending on close to a hundred major programs. So if China can't be sold to Congress and the American people as the next Red menace, then we're looking at a lot of expensive military systems being cut in favor of giving our troops on the ground the simple and relatively cheap gear they so desperately need not only to stay alive but also to win these ongoing conflicts.
You'd think the great search for the replacement for the Soviet threat would have finally ended after 9/11, but sadly that's not the case. Too many profits on the line. Army generals are fed up with being told that the global war on terrorism is the Pentagon's number-one priority, because if it were, they and their Marine Corps brethren would be getting a bigger slice of the pie instead of so much being set aside for some distant, abstract threat. It's bodies versus bucks, folks, and that's a presidential call if ever there was one. So it's time for George W. Bush to make up his mind whether or not he's committed to transforming the Middle East and spreading liberty to those Third World hellholes where terrorists now breed in abundance. If he is, the president will put an end to this rising tide of Pentagon propaganda on the Chinese "threat" and tell Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in no uncertain terms that our trigger pullers on the ground today deserve everything they need to conduct the counterinsurgency operations and nation building that will secure America's lasting victory in his self-declared global war on terrorism. If not, then Bush should just admit that the defense-industrial complex—or maybe just Dick Cheney—is in charge of determining who America's "real enemies" are.
The most important thing you need to know about the Pentagon is that it is not in charge of today's wars but rather tomorrow's wars. Today's wars are conducted by America's combatant commanders, those four-star admirals and generals who sit atop the regional commands such as Central Command, which watches over the Middle East and Central Asia, and Pacific Command, which manages our security interests in Asia from its perch in Honolulu.
Central Command has gotten all the attention since the Soviets went away, and as a result of all those boots being on the ground in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, the Tampa-based command is clearly dominated by a ground-forces mentality. Ask CENTCOM about the military's future needs and you'll get a long laundry list of requirements focused on the warfighter who's forced to walk the beat in some of the world's scariest neighborhoods, playing bad cop in nightly shoot-outs with insurgents and good cop by day as he oversees sewer-line repairs or doles out aid to the locals.
Nothing fancy here, as most of these unconventional operations are decidedly low-tech and cheap. It's what the Marines like to call Fourth Generation Warfare, or counterinsurgency operations designed to win over civilians while slowly strangling stubborn insurgencies. Completely unsexy, 4GW typically drags on for decades, generating real-time operational costs that inevitably pinch long-term acquisition programs—and therein lies the rub for the Pentagon's Big War clientele.
During the cold war, it was easy for the Pentagon to justify its budget, as the Soviets essentially sized our forces for us. We simply counted up their stuff and either bought more of the same or upgraded our technology.
When the Soviets went away, the Pentagon's strategists started fishing around for a replacement, deciding on "rising China" in the mid-1990s, thanks to a showy standoff between Pacific Command and China's military over Taiwan. Since then, the Taiwan Strait scenario has served as the standard of the Pentagon's Big War planning and, by extension, fueled all budgetary justifications for big-ticket weapons systems and delivery platforms—everything from space-based infrared surveillance systems to the next generation of superexpensive strike fighter aircraft.
A key but rather anonymous player in this strategic debate has been Andrew Marshall, legendary Yoda of the superinfluential Office of Net Assessment, which reports directly to the secretary of defense. Marshall's main claim to fame was convincing the Pentagon in the 1980s that the Soviet Union's Red army was hell-bent on pursuing a revolution in military affairs that would—unless countered—send it leapfrogging ahead of us in high-tech weaponry. It never happened, but never mind, because as the neocons brag, it was Ronald Reagan's massive military buildup that bankrupted the Soviets. Now, apparently, we need to do the same thing to "communist" China because its rapid rise as a freewheeling capitalist economy will inevitably close the gap between their military and ours.
Do the Chinese have a trillion-plus dollars locked up in huge acquisition programs like we do? Are you kidding? We spend more to buy new stuff each year than the Chinese spend in total on their entire military. In fact, we spend more on operations in the Middle East each year than China spends on its entire military. Prior to the September 11, 2001, terrorist strikes, the China threat was being successfully employed to win congressional support for all manner of Big War toys that logically had no real application in the 4GW scenarios that U. S. ground forces routinely found themselves in in the post-cold-war world. (Think dirt-poor Haiti or Black Hawk Down Somalia.) But 9/11 changed all that, and the Bush administration's global war on terrorism and resulting Big Bang strategy of transforming the Middle East inadvertently shifted the budgetary argument from the capital-intensive Navy and Air Force to the labor-intensive Army and Marines.
And when did that worm really turn? When Army and Marine officers began their second tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan last year. Program Budget Decision 753, signed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz at the end of 2004, was the budgetary shot across the bow to the Big War crowd, as it announced a substantial shift of more than $25 billion to the Army's coffers. That "war tax," as it became known within the Defense Department, swept through the defense community like the Christmas tsunami, as basically every budget program was forced to give it up to the ground-pounders.
This shift was long overdue. During the cold war, the American military used to engage in nation building every decade or so, but since then it's more like once every two years, with a clear concentration on backward Muslim states. All these operations cost money, and as most drag on for years, either the Pentagon forgoes some of its Big War systems in budget battles, or soldiers and marines on the ground inevitably get shortchanged. Star Wars, say hello to hillbilly armor.
Want to know why it's taken so unbearably long for our loved ones currently serving in Iraq to receive the body armor and armored Humvees they so desperately need? Because budget battle after budget battle, year in and year out, the Big War crowd inside the Pentagon has consistently defeated the Small War constituency found in the Army and Marines. And China has been the hammer the Big War strategists of the Navy and Air Force have used to beat back the Fourth Generation Warfare arguments of the ground-pounders, going all the way back to General Tony Zinni's complaints about all the things his CENTCOM troops were lacking in Somalia in the mid-1990s.
But Zinni's advice was routinely ignored by the Pentagon in the years that ensued, yielding the U. S. military that we have today: a first-half team that plays in a league that insists on keeping score until the end of the game. And of course this all culminated last December when Donald Rumsfeld was asked by an Army specialist on his way to Iraq why the soldiers there had to scrounge up scrap armor in garbage dumps to fortify their thin-skinned Humvees, and he responded that "you go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have.”
Well, the Army that the Pentagon's Big War machine has been wanting for the past ten years is one that's not properly equipped for such second-half efforts as peacekeeping or nation building. None of that mattered so long as the Powell Doctrine reigned supreme and America couldn't give a rat's ass about what came after the wars it waged (because our troops were already home by then, celebrating their "decisive" victory). But the war on terrorism gives the lie to the notion that drive-by regime change has any lasting impact other than making countries safe for terrorist networks. And so now the Defense Department is faced with a new rule set: Don't plan to win the war unless you plan to win the peace.
The Pentagon's own Defense Science Board noted this profound shortcoming in its recent seminal report on postconflict nation-building efforts in the post-cold-war era, "Transition To and From Hostilities," recommending Rumsfeld "direct the services to reshape and rebalance their forces to provide a stabilization and reconstruction capability," one that will require "substantially more resources" if America is going to become more successful in our overseas military interventions.
How so? Doesn't the fact that America fields the most awesome war-fighting force on the planet ensure that we'll win any wars we wage? Wars yes, but not the peace that must inevitably follow. As the DSB report noted, our enemies in this global war on terrorism have already cracked our operational code: Don't fight the Americans in the first-half war; simply wait until the second-half "peace" and then go on the offensive—insurgency-style—against a follow-on U. S. force that's poorly equipped and poorly trained for the job of securing the original victory.
How many $2 billion attack subs did it recently take to recapture Fallujah—yet again!—from the Iraqi insurgents? None, which is not enough as far as the Big War crowd is concerned—not nearly enough.
But how many of our soldiers and marines give up their lives each and every time our ground forces are forced to engage in such desperate urban warfare because the neocons screwed up the Iraq occupation?
Ouch . Let's not go there, because if we do, the Pentagon's Big War propaganda machinery might be exposed for what it really is: an unprincipled scheme to put the long-term profitability of major defense contractors ahead of the equally long-term needs of our troops in the field.
So tell me, which scenario do you think is more likely in the future? More inescapable? That our sons and daughters will get stuck patrolling urban shooting galleries in Africa and the Middle East, or that America will fight some fabulous high-tech war with Wal-Mart's main subsidiary, China, Inc.? And which scenario do you think has more relevance to a global war on terrorism? Met any good Chinese terrorists lately?
Atlantic Monthly writer Robert Kaplan is probably more identified with Fourth Generation Warfare thinking than any other journalist working today. His steady stream of articles and books on the Mad Max battlefields of failed states, where drug-crazed teenage mercenaries rule the day, have done more to popularize the 4GW arguments of Army and Marine strategists than anything else. And boy, do the ground-pounders love him for it.
Which makes his recent conversion to the China hawks' camp all the more stunning. Writing in the June issue of The Atlantic , the widely respected journalist performed the equivalent of a strategic lap dance for Pacific Command by outlining "how we would fight China," which is the title of the article. Not why , mind you, just how . Kaplan takes such an indirect route because the "why" argument on China frankly sucks. I mean, we're going to fight China to prevent it from becoming our biggest trade partner? To punish it for generating such a huge trade deficit, already our largest with any country in the world? To stop Beijing from funneling all those trade dollars back into U. S. Treasury bonds and secondary mortgage markets, thus keeping our interest rates low? Because China's cheap labor exerts deflationary pressure on global prices? Because China's rapid embrace of globalization has lifted hundreds of millions of Asians out of poverty in the last twenty years?
No, Kaplan avoids all such arguments for just that reason—they defy logic. Instead, he simply flips the Taiwan card on the table and then he's off to the races, or, should I say, the many wars—both hot and cold—that he imagines America must inevitably wage against China in the coming decades. Why? Let Kaplan tell you himself in what constitutes the stunning thesis of his argument: "Pulsing with consumer and martial energy, and boasting a peasantry that, unlike others in history, is overwhelmingly literate, China constitutes the principal conventional threat to America's liberal imperium."
China's "pulsing" with "consumer energy," which apparently means those "literate peasants" want to buy stuff left and right, and since consumerism and literacy go hand in hand with "martial" tendencies (what the Chinese can't buy, they'll wage war to acquire, yes?), obviously America must go to war with them. I mean, a billion-plus Chinese consumers must represent a threat to our "liberal imperium," right?
Having spent a long afternoon in a Wal-Mart in the Chinese city of Nanchang last year, I can personally attest to the horror that is the Chinese consumer: Pushy, demanding, and downright aggressive in their price haggling, these people are not to be trusted under any circumstances. And don't even get me started on their line jumping at the checkout!
But the Chinese threat, we are told, is almost always masterfully indirect, so Beijing's growing economic ties around the planet portend a clear diminution of American military power. Check out how our new Sinophobe cleverly ties "rising China" with the global war on terrorism: "While stateless terrorists fill security vacuums, the Chinese fill economic ones."
Notice that subtle linkage? China and Al Qaeda are basically two sides of the same coin! If there's a vacuum to be found (meaning any place not firmly under America's "liberal imperium," one imagines), we're looking at one of two outcomes: Either Al Qaeda or the Chinese will eventually take over. The former may be committed to killing Americans on sight the world over, but the latter—with their "literate consumerism”—most assuredly want to . . . I dunno . . . sell us low-priced furniture and cars?
Don't get me wrong. I do worry about China's yuan being still overly pegged to the U. S. dollar (despite the recent micro-revaluation), and no American shareholder in his right mind doesn't fear the amount of intellectual piracy currently occurring in China ("One for a dolla!" being the martial cry of Chinese street vendors hawking Hollywood DVDs the very day those movies open in theaters back home). And when pressed to describe what I consider to be the biggest threat to international security in the near term, I always cite the threat of a financial panic brewing inside China's far too rickety banking sector.
But how the Pentagon solves any of these economic "conflicts" with China is really beyond me. Our strategic exposure here is financial, not force-on-force war. And outside of the pure Taiwan scenario, upon which China's military buildup is clearly focused, it's not clear to me that U. S. and Chinese interests necessarily clash whatsoever. Here's another good example of this queer logic: The Wall Street Journal recently ran a front-page story that laid out—in rather breathless detail—China's "broad push into Africa." The Chinese are accused of courting African dictatorships to gain access to strategic resources, including—God forbid!—oil. Good thing America could never be accused of similar motivations and tactics.
But the Chinese aren't waging war in Africa, nor are they establishing military outposts like we are. No, China's "indirectness" comes in the form of building dams and laying roads and "cultivating desperately poor nations to serve as markets for its products decades down the road.”
My, that is scary, reflecting, as the Journal story points out, "Beijing's policy of actively encouraging its companies and citizens to set up shop in Africa at a record pace.”
Hmmm . China's investing and creating business and market opportunities in Africa, a continent long ravaged by civil wars and AIDS and America's complete indifference to a Holocaust's worth of preventable deaths in the last decade. And that's considered bad?
To listen to some fire-breathing congressmen, it sure as hell is, because China will secure long-term access to strategic raw materials, leaving our economy high and dry in the "resource wars" that must inevitably ensue.
This is zero-sum thinking at its worst, reflecting a strategic mind-set that declares a rise in any country's commercial influence around the world as necessarily signaling a decline in American power. If you had proposed in 1980 that the biggest threat to America's "liberal imperium" in 2005 was going to be a China whose rapacious style of capitalism surpassed even our own, you would have been drunk.
Donald Rumsfeld recently did some heavy lifting himself for the Big War crowd, signaling just how powerful it remains in the Bush administration. While in Asia in June for an annual regional security conference, he issued a "sharp rebuke," according to The New York Times , to China for its rising military spending. "Since no nation threatens China," Rumsfeld wondered out loud, "why this growing investment?”
Interesting question. Since no "nation" threatens the United States, but merely a transnational terrorist movement, perhaps the Chinese are wondering about America's skyrocketing defense budget of the last four years. Baseline defense spending is up 35 percent since 2001, not including the couple hundred billion extra in supplementals to pay for the wars. The U. S. routinely spends as much on research and development alone as China, according to the highest estimates, spends on its entire defense budget (approximately $70 billion). Meanwhile, the Rand Corporation's estimates of Chinese defense-spending increases, while routinely registering double-digit annual percentage growth, place China's military spending as a percentage of GDP at far less than that of America's defense burden—roughly 2.5 percent to America's almost 4 percent.
Using George Orwell's "newspeak" from 1984 , I guess you could call our defense hike doubleplusgood to China's merely plusgood . But who's counting?
The Pentagon is. Its latest annual projection of Chinese defense spending, titled "The Military Power of the People's Republic of China, "suggests that in two decades' time, China could, according to our highest estimates, be spending roughly half (as much as $250 billion) of what America's total defense bill was for 2005 (roughly $500 billion)—sort of a doublehalfbad prediction, if I may be so bold.
Do such wild projections matter? You bet. They will play heavily into the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review debate, which in recent months, according to a recent article by Greg Jaffe in The Wall Street Journal , has "intensified divisions among policy makers over how to approach China." Which means, of course, that the immediate tasks of the Army and Marines—fighting terrorists and insurgents in Iraq—will be balanced against the hypothetical threat of China, the "driver of U. S. military modernization," according to the Navy and Air Force.
With Rumsfeld—who has seemed committed to transforming the Pentagon from its leaden cold-war thinking—himself sounding the China hawks' alarm, you have to wonder just how committed the Bush administration remains to fighting this global war on terrorism. Prior to 9/11, the Republican neocons were firmly fixated on "rising China." With Saddam gone, has the Pentagon's preferred analysis of China simply resurfaced, suggesting that the war on terrorism was nothing more than an excuse to target Iraq? Trust me, Mr. President, you don't ever want to have that conversation with Cindy Sheehan.
If Rumsfeld's comments in Singapore were designed to test the waters for a redemonization of China, they failed dramatically with our allies there, who told the secretary in no uncertain terms that such fearmongering wasn't welcome. Somewhat chastened, Rumsfeld returned to the Pentagon and, according to department insiders, instructed that the Pentagon's annual assessment of China's military capabilities be rewritten to tone down the hype. The final draft that emerged weeks later certainly couldn't have satisfied the neocons or the Pacific Command's hawks, citing as it did only the long-term possibility that "if current trends persist, [the People's Liberation Army's] capabilities could prove a credible threat to other modern militaries operating in the region." Hardly the red meat the Big War crowd requires, and that alone may give the Army and Marines just enough bureaucratic breathing space to prevail in the QDR debates, which will be fought out—PowerPoint slide by PowerPoint slide—in Pentagon conference rooms throughout the fall and right up to the final report's unveiling to Congress in February 2006.
But don't harbor any illusions that anyone will give up the fight anytime soon. With Chinese companies buying up America's industrial-age crown jewels, like IBM's PC-production unit, and planning to build almost thirty nuclear power plants in coming years with the help of global giants like Westinghouse, rest assured that plenty of old men with military-industrial ties will be keeping a close watch on Beijing's so-called communists, hoping to spot some "disruptive" technology that justifies that trillion-and-a-half pipeline of Big War products. Check out the new "China caucus" in Congress and count the number of members who likewise sit on the House Armed Services Committee.
This game ain't over by a long shot.
The winning strategic construct that's likely to emerge in the Quadrennial Defense Review is described by Pentagon insiders as the "one-one-one" strategy of organizing our military's force structure around three main pillars, all seemingly equal: 1) homeland defense; 2) the war on terrorism (and all the nation-building efforts it inevitably triggers); and 3) deterrence, an old term now recast to mean, "China, we've got our eyes on you, so don't try anything . . . you know . . . disruptive!”
But let's be honest here. Homeland defense doesn't generate any force requirements beyond having enough National Guard to save lives in natural disasters and to baby-sit nuclear power plants on Code Red days. As the response to Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, homeland security requires an emphasis on the very same kind of low-tech, labor-intensive forces we've long neglected. No big programs are won or lost on that "pillar." And we know that the global war on terrorism tends to generate lots of Small War equipment needs, largely for the Army and Marines. That leaves "deterrence" as the long pole in the tent, and that means the Pentagon needs China like Red Sox fans need the Yankees.
Business executives who've worked China's increasingly open market over the past decade or so will tell you flat out: If possible, avoid working with older Chinese businesspeople, because that first generation of capitalists is simply too tainted by its socialist upbringing to get anything done according to what we would consider to be normal business standards and practices. Frankly, that crowd you bribe—a lot.
No, if you're smart, you deal with the generation of capitalists that followed, which puts almost all of them under age fifty. This crew came of age after Chairman Mao departed the scene, during the long-running economic boom that began with Deng Xiaoping's "four modernizations" campaign in the early 1980s. Moreover, an amazing number of them got some training or education in the U. S., so they get us—and our style of capitalism—in ways we tend to underestimate.
I got a good description of this dynamic when I sat down recently for dinner with a couple of big American distributors of high-end consumer products. This pair of old-school guys told me of their recent attempts to forge a strategic alliance with a Chinese company to import a large volume of Chinese-produced big-ticket goods. Their initial attempts at negotiations were complicated by a lot of previously proposed deals that reflected early Chinese capitalist sensibilities, meaning those deals set up by the original Marco Polos who raced into China in the 1990s. Not surprisingly, few of those deals have gotten off the ground, mired as they are in the usual back-scratching arrangements.
The American executives I spoke to were not willing to grease anyone's palms, and they won't be conned into any questionable investments. But they discovered that when they dealt with younger Chinese managers at the factory level, the attitude was entirely focused on "What do you need" to make a deal work in the American market. Chinese capitalism has matured to the point that the government is starting to back off and say, "Don't talk to us, talk to the factory.”
And it is the simple fact that American businessmen will be making billions of dollars either in China or partnered with Chinese businesses that leads us to a new twenty-first-century rule: If you're better off not trusting anyone over fifty in China on a business deal, you're also better off not listening to anyone over fifty in Washington on the "threat of rising China." The Cold Warrior crowd received its ideological imprinting on China decades ago, and no matter how smoothly they may talk about global affairs today (think Condi Rice), they are none of them to be trusted on China. Here's an easy way to spot them: If they ever quote Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski, tune them out completely. If they think Ronald Reagan defeated communism single-handedly, watch your wallet, but if they've ever worked under, or anywhere near, Dick Cheney, then watch your back.
It is no secret that in a generation's time China's influence over the global economy will rival America's, so it requires no great leap of logic for any strategist shy of fifty to realize that China and America are destined to enjoy a deep strategic partnership if globalization is to continue its historic expansion across the twenty-first century. This is probably the biggest strategic choice we've ever faced as a nation, because if we avoid this path, we'll most certainly prevent a future in which all of humanity can benefit from globalization's promise.
Few historic ends will ever come close to justifying such a wide array of means as the strategic alliance of the United States and China in coming decades. In this century, this partnership will define global stability just as much as the U. S.-British "special relationship" of the twentieth century did. It will be that important in its execution, that precious in its bond, that profound in its reach. The blueprint for global peace will be a joint Sino-American document. There is no alternative.
Too big of a paradigm shift for you? Check that birth certificate. If it's dated earlier than 1955, you're excused for the century, and here's why: Cold-war babies can't escape the logic that says, "If you resemble America politically, then you must be our friend." That was fine and dandy for the late-twentieth-century version of globalization, limited as it was to the narrowly defined West. But that's not the globalization we face today—much less tomorrow. No, that process is far more defined by the emergence of such new pillars as China, India, Brazil, and Russia than it is by that old-boys' club of North America, Western Europe, and industrialized Asia.
In the future, America will have more in common with China than with Japan, with India than with the UK, with Brazil than with Canada, and with Russia than either France or Germany. In general, if you're more like us economically, then you're logically America's strongest allies—despite whatever political differences appear to divide us. That's realism in the age of globalization—love it or leave it.
If you're an aging Boomer, take a seat, but if you're an Echo Boomer, the largest American age cohort in history (currently aged ten to twenty-five), then please stand up and be counted—now—because your future is on the line in this debate.
And if you're one of those Echo Boomers, like my two nephews, wearing a uniform in Iraq today, your life is on the line in this debate.
Today, more than ever, the question of U. S.-Chinese security relations depends on how the president of the United States chooses to define the global future worth creating. And China's continued emergence as a stable pillar of the global economy is crucial to that vision, whether the Pentagon's advocates of Big War planning realize it or not.
America will expend blood and treasure in coming years no matter which strategic path we take. But a whole lot less of each will be wasted if our leadership in Washington displays the moral courage and the strategic vision to realize that China is our natural strategic partner in any global war on terrorism, and not a strategic excuse to lowball that effort and—by doing so—needlessly sacrifice American lives in the process.
Americans need to demand more from our political leaders than an unimaginative strategy of just waiting around for the next "near-peer competitor" to arise—in effect, keeping our powder dry while the blood of our loved ones is spilled in Southwest Asia. America can't embrace its globalized future until it lets go of its cold-war past.
Get moving, Mr. President.