Friday, May 01, 2020

How the snakes and dragons got the better of us

Most Americans, and indeed most people in the world today, have spent their lives under threat of a Third World War, triggered by accident or malign intent. For much of that time, the threat seemed to be a nuclear first strike by the Soviet Union (or, if you lived in the USSR, by the United States). In time, that faded into a more generalized dread of an electronic pulse that could blitz a nation's economy without physical damage -- and perhaps without knowing who launched the strike. Then, in the past quarter-century, we've learned that a third-rate nation, or even a cult with no national presence, could attack the American homeland as no one has done since the War of 1812. Even more sobering, our weapons have proved almost useless in defense, as we discovered to our cost in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.


I first encountered David Kilcullen's writings in an online course at King's College London, tailored to mid-career officers in the British Army. (About half the class came from other militaries or civilian life.) A veteran of the Australian Army, he was an adviser to General Petraeus in Iraq and Condolezza Rice in Washington, contributed to the US military's  Counterinsurgency Field Manual, and published the must-read The Accidental Guerrilla. Today he's what we used to call a "public intellectual," still concentrating on what we're doing wrong in our 20-year War on Terror. In The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West, he plays off a notion by former CIA Director James Woolsley after the Soviet Union imploded: "we have slain a large dragon, but we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes." And the snakes, says Kilkullen, have learned to fight us on their terms. Worse, there are now four dragons out there -- Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea -- at least four! -- and they too have learned from our swift though temporary victories over Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and the Taliban: Only a fool meets the US military in frontal warfare, so the wise opponent goes behind its back.

The day is probably not far off when China decides it's an exception to this rule of 21st century warfare, but in the meantime it too will attack us in ways that defy retaliation, the way Russia does by sending its "little green men" into neighboring countries to annex them or mire them in a low-grade war of defense; by messing with the democracies' elections and social media; and by dirty tricks like sending a horde of Syrian refugees across the Norwegian frontier, no doubt accompanied by Russian agents. The extent of Russia's cyberwar and hybrid warfare, as Kilkullen demonstrates in chapter after chapter, is astonishing. This is essential and unsettling reading, now that Vladimir Putin has set himself up as Russia's dictator-for-life.

And Russia is a pygmy compared to China, which has proved even more successful in declaring ownership of neighboring territory, occupying and fortifying its conquests, and all without meaningful punishment. Xi Jingping meanwhile has something better than Mr Putin's lifetime lock on the presidency: he has the potentially immortal Chinese Communist Party. Xi likewise has made himself leader-for-life and, unlike Putin, can easily be followed by someone out of the same mold. Thirteen years ago, as a student at King's College London, I wrote a paper called O Brave New Hegemon, predicting that China's growing dominance of Asia and the world must end fairly soon. I was of course wrong: China today is closer than ever to replacing the US as the world's dominant power. (China even has a target date for the takeover: 2049, the centenary of the Red Army's victory in the Chinese Civil war, and the Nationalist Government's exile to Taiwan.)

In Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy, the Singapore diplomat Kishore Mahbubani does a masterful job of showing how the democracies -- meaning the United States, primarily, since potential great powers like Germany and Japan have been happy to let the US act as the world's policeman -- have handed over their economies to China. (He's less convincing when he writes of China's accomplishment, basically parroting Beijing's propaganda.) What this means for the future was thrown in our faces this year, as a virus that had its origin in the triple city of Wuhan, supposedly in the "wet market" where wild animals are sold for food, but possibly in one of the city's two virus labs, tipped much of the world into an economic contraction on a scale not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Nor was this unavoidable. Beijing's obsessive secrecy and manipulation of statistics enabled it to lie about the danger long after the democratic island of Taiwan had warned us what was coming. Instead of being grateful, the World Health Organization parroted Beijing's line until it was too late to head off an economic collapse in Italy and other nations heavily dependent upon China, including the United States. Long after Wuhan was blockaded from the rest of China, its airports remained open for travel to the West, carrying the Wuhan virus around the world.

Some 40 percent of the world's "personal protective gear" comes from China -- or anyhow came from China, because in mid-April their export was shut down, supposedly to ensure quality but more likely to keep them available locally. In the 1970s, when the Organizaton of Oil Exporting Countries boycotted the United States, the US established a Strategic Oil Reserve to supply fuel in time of shortage, and into the bargain helped transform the country from an energy importer into one that has flooded the world market with oil. Time now for a guaranteed reserve of face masks, ventilators, and pharmaceuticals before the next epidemic comes out of China, as most epidemics have done for more than a century. Time to take back the World Health Organization, or to replace it with one not beholden to Beijing. Time to broaden the supply chain, and to bring essential parts of it back to Western shores.

"Time is short," wrote Edward Lucas in The Times on April 13. "Look at the way the Chinese leadership treats its own people. Then imagine how they would like to treat us."

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