Go Not Abroad in Search of Monsters to Unite the Country

Militarism is not a cure for anything, especially not in a society that is already poisoned by political propaganda and demagoguery.

Janan Ganesh has written another exceptionally odd column about U.S.-China rivalry:

And so an era of non-state enemies was always going to be awkward for the US. A superpower tussle is a beguiling return to the familiar. Washington’s enthusiasm for the China contest is not just a clear-eyed recognition of a real opponent. It is the relief of a governing class finding its métier again.

The change goes beyond the conceptual to the guts and grease of US power. For a generation, the Pentagon has planned for two regional (that is, Afghan-sized) wars at the same time. In 2018, its doctrine changed to fight one war for the very highest stakes.

The new posture should go better, which is to say it cannot go worse.

If the new posture means preparing to fight a war for the “very highest stakes,” it is easy to imagine how it could go much worse for the U.S. than our failed wars of the last twenty years. Maybe it leads to the destruction of multiple aircraft carrier groups. Maybe it ends with nuclear explosions that destroy West Coast cities. It could go so much worse that we should be horrified at the prospect of intentionally courting a new great power conflict.

Ganesh opens his column by referring to war games that consistently show the U.S. losing badly to China. He puts this down to “canny” lobbying by the Pentagon for more money. No doubt the Pentagon is angling to secure lots more funding with its obvious threat inflation and ridiculous claims about China quadrupling its nuclear arsenal in a decade, but it doesn’t follow that the war games are wrong about the outcome of a major war with China on their doorstep. We should take seriously the possibility that our government is gearing up for a major fight that it could very well lose, and the arrogant belief that the U.S. is some sort of master at great power statecraft sets us up for exactly that kind of failure. Assume that the U.S. government will conduct the rivalry with China with the same incompetence as the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war and the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID pandemic, and then ask yourself if that is something you want to roll the dice on.

The column then goes from being odd to completely fatuous:

If it were just the technical challenge of China that the US will prefer, this would only be cheer for admirals and generals. What really sets the new era over the old one is its potential for some semblance of domestic unity.

Entry into the second world war helped to bind the fractious America of the interwar years. Soviet Russia did the same: when it fell, so did what bipartisanship there was in Washington. (The last unanimous confirmation of a Supreme Court justice was in 1988.) The age of terror came nowhere close as a national adhesive.

One would think that the failure of the “war on terror” to unite the nation in common cause over the long haul would give Ganesh pause here, but it does not. The “war on terror” did begin with extraordinary national unity following the 9/11 attacks. There was virtual unanimity for the first year or two, and that angry nationalist mood produced a major expansion of the security state and helped grease the skids for an illegal war of aggression that we’re still paying for today. That was the era of torture and illegal detention without charges. Many of the worst errors of that period were made because the country was consumed by a spirit of vengeance and hostility to dissent from hard-line and aggressive policies. Yes, we were mostly united, and we were united in doing a lot of horrible things. Much of what is wrong with the country today can be traced back to the damage done during that period.

The Cold War is remembered as an era of bipartisan cooperation, and in some respects it was, but I’m not sure why people look back on it so fondly. The foreign policy consensus of that era quashed and marginalized intelligent dissenters. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed by overwhelming margins in both houses with only two senators casting votes against it. Those two senators, Ernest Gruening of Alaska and Wayne Morse of Oregon, were soon out of office even as their warnings about the war were being vindicated. We should have had less unity of purpose and more skepticism and questioning of official narratives, and then perhaps tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians wouldn’t have died.

I can’t think of a worse piece of evidence for his argument than the vote tally for Anthony Kennedy’s Supreme Court nomination, since Kennedy’s nomination came in the wake of the bruising fight over the Bork nomination earlier in the same year. Two of Nixon’s nominees were voted down near the start of his first term at the height of the Cold War, so that suggests that confirmation votes for Supreme Court justices don’t tell us much of anything about the degree of political unity in a country anyway.

I doubt very much that a rivalry with China will have the unifying effects that Ganesh refers to, but we should be wary of seeking such unity by rallying against a foreign enemy. The “war on terror” shows how corrosive open-ended conflict can be on our system of government and our political values. The country was briefly united by the 9/11 attacks, and within twenty years the political culture had become so toxic that you had supporters of the incumbent president storming the halls of the Capitol to interfere with the transfer of power. Militarism is not a cure for anything, especially not in a society that is already poisoned by political propaganda and demagoguery. Pursuing rivalry with China will just make our politics more fractious and ugly as both parties try to outdo each other in proving how Sinophobic they are.

Ganesh writes that “the grim distinction of the past 20 years is the collapse of the national cohesion after 9/11,” but we should assume that national cohesion will fall apart even faster in a rivalry with China. One thing Ganesh doesn’t account for at all in this column is that national solidarity is remarkably weak, and American society is also much less conformist than it was in earlier eras. Trust in government for much of the Cold War was extraordinarily high, and today it is at its nadir. When our political leaders call on Americans to come together in common cause, it does not elicit solidarity. It provokes mockery and derision, and given the government’s track record over at least the last twenty years it is easy to see why. Conflict with China will likely cause the same sugar-high of enthusiasm that leads to years and perhaps decades of recriminations and bitterness, especially if the U.S. ends up in a major war that it couldn’t win.