Steve Bannon is on the warpath. That’s not surprising since on leaving the White House he proclaimed that he was locked and loaded for bear (Democrats and recalcitrant Republicans, that is). In a NY Times interview he proclaimed a new foreign policy bête noire for the Breitbart/Tea Party alt-right: China. It is the new bogeyman to replace devils of yore like Communism or even, more recently, radical Islam. It’s interesting, and quite telling, that in Bannon-World Russia has ceased being a threat to the U.S. In fact, Bannon recently told Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes that the current Russia investigation conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller was much-ado about nothing. Which means that Russia is no longer the American menace it once was. He also said in that interview that America wasn’t built on the back of immigrants. Another outrage, but that’s for another time and another post…
“A hundred years from now, this is what they’ll remember — what we did to confront China on its rise to world domination,” he said in an interview, previewing the themes in his speech.
“China right now is Germany in 1930,” Mr. Bannon said. “It’s on the cusp. It could go one way or the other. The younger generation is so patriotic, almost ultranationalistic.”
…In March 2016 he declared, “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years.” Last month, he told Robert Kuttner, co-founder of the left-leaning journal The American Prospect, “We’re at economic war with China”
As an enemy, China offers terrific potential: it’s big, it’s powerful, it’s often bellicose and nationalistic; its leaders are strident and uncompromising. It’s ruled by corrupt autocrats who exploit their power for personal gain. It has grand territorial, commercial and military ambitions in the region. It has a formidable military apparatus. All these things are a formula for a terrific Hollywood villain (let’s not forget Bannon’s time as a would-be film producer in Tinseltown).
Also, pay attention to the historical references above: China is Nazi Germany. 2017 is 1930. That is, China is ruled by a bunch of jack-booted would-be Nazis and we have a chance to stop them before they take power and dominate the world. These images are completely fraudulent historically and factually. China, for all its many faults, is not Nazi Germany. Nationalism and fascism are not the same thing. Nor is today anything like 1930. We can’t stop China before it takes power (as the Nazis hadn’t yet done in 1930). China today is a formidable power which cannot be overthrown. There can be no hope of regime change as Israel and American neocons have advocated for years regarding Iran.
Thinking of China as a cardboard villain is not only foolish, it’s extremely dangerous. Most Americans, unlike Bannon, do not want a war against China. And even if Bannon is blustering and bluffing in all his bloviating about the matter, most Americans don’t even approve of contemplating war, let alone actually fighting one. To do so would be catastrophic not only for the U.S. and China, it would be even more so for the nations of the region. Anyone who advocates war is on a fool’s errand.
There are parallels for what Bannon is trying to do: the Project for a New American Century sought to recalibrate U.S. foreign policy when it sent its broadside to Bill Clinton declaring that liberating Iraq ought to be the country’s highest priority. This became de facto policy when George Bush became president. The neocons behind PNAC and the war in Iraq sought to create a new level of hysteria around a foreign policy issue that few Americans thought worthy of serious consideration. But with Dick Cheney and Bush they found their political patrons who turned their dreams into a reality that eventually became a miasma.
Bannon is doing much of the same. There are two interesting pivots he’s attempting here. First, he’s moving the national debate away from domestic policy, which had focussed on Trump’s bromance with the white supremacists in Charlottesville. Bannon, despite his sympathy for these groups, understands that the rest of America is tired of it. So he changes the subject with his diatribe against China.
Second, the China pivot moves the U.S. away from the debilitating debate around refugees and radical Islam. Though Bannon again agrees fundamentally with Trump’s policies in this area, he realizes this isn’t the hill on which the radical right should choose to make a last stand. Americans don’t want to demonize refugees. While many may not totally trust Muslims, neither do they want to turn them into brown devils with horns, which is what white supremacists and much of the extreme-wing of the GOP have been trying to do. That strategy hasn’t worked.
So in this sense China is a safe bet. It’s a foreign power with no real base of support within American society. Hating China won’t tear the country apart as the issues I mentioned above have.
But there is one major problem with this calculation: China is a powerful nation. It has nuclear weapons. A battle between China and the U.S. could kill hundreds of millions of people. And even if it doesn’t come to that, a military incident could cause irreparable damage to the delicate balance of interests that has existed among all the nations of the regions since WWII.
If our miserable war in Iraq has taught us anything, it’s that imposing an artificial dictat on an unwilling populace is a recipe for disaster. We’ve killed millions of Iraqis since 2003 and what has it won us or Iraq? Little or nothing. It is still a nation on the brink of collapse; still riven by fierce ethnic and religious strife. Do we really want to go to war in order to teach the Chinese some lesson about maintaining U.S. imperatives in the Far East?
If Bannon’s rhetoric above sounds familiar to those of you reading this blog or following the bellicose rhetoric of Bibi Netanyahu concerning Iran–it should. I don’t know how many times he’s said something along the lines of: today is Munich in 1938 and Iran is Nazi Germany. Once again, this is pure unadulterated nonsense. Iran isn’t Nazi Germany. Nor is today a decisive moment when we can stop Iran from turning into Nazi Germany. There is simply a dispute among nations who don’t wish to see Iran develop a nuclear weapon. Pres. Obama and our allies negotiated a nuclear agreement which took such a prospect off the table for fifteen years. He didn’t do this by rattling sabres. Nor did he do it by planning to bomb Iran as Bibi has done. He did it through difficult negotiations in which each party compromised on its objectives and interests. That’s called diplomacy.
Luckily, the world didn’t believe Bibi’s false rhetoric about Iran. Nor should they believe Bannon’s bloviating about China.
Finally, there’s another historical parallel worth remembering here: in the 1980s, with the rise of Japan as an economic power, “Japan-bashing” become a popular sport in the media and popular culture. Books were written predicting America would be gobbled whole by the Japanese. Scaremongers warned that our economy and values were too weak to withstand the threat. Asian-Americans were murdered by Americans petrified their jobs and livelihoods were under threat. Some went so far as to predict war between our nations. It’s important to remember what eventually happened. Japan’s economy took a nosedive and for the past thirty years it has, while retaining some of its economic and technological power, largely faded as either a commercial powerhouse or threat. Japan has become a country like any other. China, despite the very real differences between us, is also a country like any other.