Thursday, July 5, 2007

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Just a wee bit of the old historical revisionism

Brad DeLong responds to my post giving credit where credit is due to the Bush administration with the following rejoinder:

[C]onstructive engagement with China is not the policy of "Team Bush" but rather the policy of "Team Paulson" or "Team State Department" or "Team Reality-Based Interest Groups." The China policy of "Team Bush" was and is Cold War followed by Hot War--but fortunately they got distracted by other things: James Fallows Anecdote of the day (from Gary Hart, at Aspen):
[Gary] Hart said. “I am convinced that if it had not been for 9/11, we would be in a military showdown with China today.” Not because of what China was doing, threatening, or intending, he made clear, but because of the assumptions the Administration brought with it when taking office. (My impression is that Chinese leaders know this too, which is why there are relatively few complaints from China about the Iraq war. They know that it got the U.S. off China’s back!)

Lee Hamilton, who had also been on the commission, was sitting at the same lunch table and backed up Hart’s story. Another chapter in the annals of missed opportunities in recent years.

OK, let's stipulate that there were neoconservatives who looked at China as the big, bad threat that justified bellcose action. Let's also make clear, however, four rather important facts:
a) None of these people held an official positions in the Bush administration;

b) Most of these people backed John McCain in 2000, not George W. Bush;

c) If "the China policy of 'Team Bush' was and is Cold War followed by Hot War," then they missed a golden opportunity to act on the second part of their policy in April 2001 when an EP-3E spy plane had a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter and was forced to land in Hainan Island in the PRC.

When that incident occurred, no one was concerned about terrorism being the primary threat to the U.S. If Team Bush had really wanted to ratchet up tensions between Washington and Beijing, that was the moment. Instead, after a week or two of angry rhetoric from both sides, we got the following letter delivered to Beijing:

Both President Bush and Secretary of State Powell have expressed their sincere regret over your missing pilot and aircraft. Please convey to the Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss.

Although the full picture of what transpired is still unclear, according to our information, our severely crippled aircraft made an emergency landing after following international emergency procedures. We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance, but very pleased the crew landed safely. We appreciate China's efforts to see to the well-being of our crew.

After the incident, President Bush did make a provocative statement or two about Taiwan, but even before 9/11 the administration had abandoned a confrontational approach towards China.

d) Does anyone think that Henry Paulson is implementing China policy without the approval of George W. Bush? Does anyone think that Paulson would have accepted the Treasury position unless he and Bush knew damn well that he'd have the China portfolio?

My own counterfactual -- had 9/11 not occurred, bilateral relations with China would be pretty much where they are now.

posted by Dan on 07.05.07 at 01:52 PM


Dan's point here is well taken, but I fear that between them he and DeLong are getting away from a useful point.

The United States government at any point in time will be pursuing a number of policies inherited from previous administrations (and, of course, from earlier Congresses). In most cases, it is undesirable to attribute these exclusively to the current President, especially if he should happen to become very unpopular. This is because the next administration will face the temptation to change whatever the unpopular administration was doing, whether that change makes sense or not, just to show that it is different.

So it may be an injustice of sorts to attribute current policy toward China (which has been successful compared to, say, policy toward Iraq) primarily to Treasury Secretary Paulson or the State Department rather than to President Bush. But it may also be useful to do this, if it makes continuing the policy easier for a future President elected in part because he or she was not Bush.

From the standpoint of a partisan Republican there is an additional reason to lean toward attributing constructive policies of this administration to subordinate officials rather than to President Bush. This is to reduce the future appeal of the President's brother Jeb in Presidential politics. In 1992 I had taken the elder President Bush's crushing defeat philosophically, reasoning that he would naturally give way to a new generation of Republican leaders. This did not happen, of course -- as soon as they got the chance Republicans turned to Bush's even shallower son. Once burned, as the saying goes; I see no reason to doubt that four years hence many Republicans will be yearning to restore the Republican Presidential nomination to the Bush family.

Not being a fan of political dynasties, in this country anyway, and believing the Bush family has done quite enough damage to the United States already, I think it would be wise to discourage this in any way possible. If this means doing some small historical injustice to the current President Bush's policy legacy, I can live with it. Such literal injustice would be poetic justice, really, considering how many badly conceived and incompetently executed policies this President has sought to keep secret.

posted by: Zathras on 07.05.07 at 01:52 PM [permalink]


minor point, but you seem to think that the bush/powell letter was an example of US groveling. in fact the letter was actually very carefully crafted to avoid giving the chinese the apology they had demanded. note that no where does the letter say that Bush/Powell are sorry for US actions. the letter is sorry for the loss of the pilots life (very easy to admit), and the letter is sorry that the US plane wasn't given permission by the chinese to land (suggesting, in fact, that had the plane received the permission that is customarily due a crippled aircraft in peacetime the whole incident wouldn't have escalated the way it did, e.g. the chinese are to blame). this was very carefully done so as not to acknowledge any US responsibility for the dust up that followed the chinese pilot's bad flying. it was enough for the chinese to back out of the corner they painted themselves into in demanding a very formal and contrite apology from the US for the whole incident, but no where does it acknowledge US guilt for or regret over what the US plane was doing before or after the collision.

posted by: iain johnston on 07.05.07 at 01:52 PM [permalink]

I see you have "support" from Pejman Yousefzadeh. Condolences. I hope they stay away from here.

Look: if you want to praise Paulson or Zoellick or even Powell, fine. But it has not been an administration in which Paulson and Zoellick and even Powell have guided Bush onto the paths of sanity, is it? It has been a Cheney administration.

Do mention the name "Lynne Cheney" in your link to Fallows, Hart, and Hamilton...

posted by: Brad DeLong on 07.05.07 at 01:52 PM [permalink]

Yes, indeed. Condolences for the support, Dan. How ever will you cope--I mean, Brad DeLong thinks you won't, so I guess that means your argument is doomed.

A reply to DeLong's Lynne Cheney/Chewbacca defense can be found here:

posted by: Pejman Yousefzadeh on 07.05.07 at 01:52 PM [permalink]

9-11? Wasn't it the reaction of the business community--"China? That's where we want to put our factories!"

posted by: lee on 07.05.07 at 01:52 PM [permalink]

Gary Hart said...

What the...?

Good Lord, now we're taking Gary Hart's word on foreign policy. I'm pretty sure that's one of the signs of the apocolypse.

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 07.05.07 at 01:52 PM [permalink]

Odd; the story said explicitly that Lee Hamilton confirmed Hart's testimony. Guess they must both have been either lying or hallucinating. I mean, we all know about Hamilton's pinko tendencies.

posted by: Bruce Moomaw on 07.05.07 at 01:52 PM [permalink]

As for Pejman's argument (if that's the word for it): please. DeLong said that Bush would probably have been saber-rattling at China IF 9-11 hadn't occurred. Francis Fukuyama says that the Neocon-Cheney bloc told him repeatedly that a confrontation with China was necessary just to increase the GOP's popularity -- until, once again, they found that other invaluable target to rattle at instead.

posted by: Bruce Moomaw on 07.05.07 at 01:52 PM [permalink]

And as for the straight-faced statement by one of PZ's commenters that there's no reason to believe that Cheney's own opinion on the subject probably matched that of his wife: again, please. If they differed on it, it would be a first.

posted by: Bruce Moomaw on 07.05.07 at 01:52 PM [permalink]

As a final note, I really don't see much conflict between what Delong and Drezner have said. "Team Bush", lest we forget, has always been spectacularly schizophrenic between the Cheney faction and the Powell-State Dept. faction -- but in the end, he usually follows Cheney's (godawful) advice. Clearly he didn't jump to Defcon Five in response to that fighter incident; but what would he have done later in his administration, after Cheney had had the chance to work on him more, if 9-11 hadn't intervened (and distracted Cheney & company)?

posted by: Bruce Moomaw on 07.05.07 at 01:52 PM [permalink]

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