Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reenergized the Trans-Atlantic alliance in a manner unthinkable just two years ago. President Donald Trump entered office in 2017 with a deeply skeptical view of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the role of the United States as the world’s policeman and guarantor of European and Pacific security. He deliberately kept vague his administration’s commitment to uphold Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which commits member states to treat an attack on any one of them as an attack on all of them and to take appropriate action “to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
President Joe Biden entered office last year intent on reestablishing the credibility of the Trans-Atlantic alliance and reaffirming the U.S. commitment to NATO. Two weeks after taking the oath of office, Biden stated unequivocally that “America is back…we will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s. American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy.” At the 31st summit of NATO leaders in June 2021, Biden reaffirmed the commitment of the United States to NATO, while alliance leaders highlighted the challenges posed by a strengthening China and resurging Russia.
Perhaps because they did not believe Russian President Vladimir Putin would go so far as to roll the iron dice and invade Ukraine, alliance leaders did not issue a declaratory statement, or create a “red line,” on what would happen if he actually did so. When as many as 200,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s borders and then invaded, Biden sent thousands of additional U.S. troops to Eastern Europe but explicitly stated that they would not enter Ukrainian territory to assist in the defense of that country. Biden, along with other NATO leaders, fashioned a set of responses to Russian aggression to include a commitment to “defend every inch of NATO territory,” severe economic sanctions (albeit not against Russian export to Europe of badly needed oil and gas), arming Ukraine with defensive weapons such as Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, diplomatically isolating Russia, and going after the assets of Russian oligarchs who benefitted from Putin’s rule. The response by Western leaders has been united and forceful, which undoubtedly surprised Putin, who viewed the West as weak and divided. Instead of making Russia great again, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine made NATO essential again.
The modern idea of a united alliance of great powers intent on deterring conflict is a century old, an outgrowth of the catastrophic Great War that nearly destroyed Europe’s faith in Western civilization. In the aftermath of that titanic struggle, the Big Four at the Paris Peace Conference in Versailles—French Premier Georges Clemenceau, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson—agreed to create a League of Nations, an international body that would adjudicate and resolve international disputes, thus preventing a repeat of the seemingly accidental plunge into world war in 1914 and the resulting slaughter of a generation of youth in the trenches. The United States, however, never joined the League, with the U.S. Senate’s refusal to ratify the Treaty of Versailles resulting in the retreat of the United States into isolation in the Western Hemisphere, seemingly protected by two great oceans.
The League of Nations, nevertheless, appeared to hold promise. The Locarno Pact of 1925, which resolved Germany’s western borders, led to the inclusion of Germany into the League the following year with a permanent seat on the League Council. Nevertheless, the era of mutual security in Europe was short-lived. Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 led to the subversion of the Versailles Treaty, which became a dead letter upon the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 by German forces. In Asia, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933 after a League commission found Japanese forces had illegally occupied Manchuria. An Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 led the League to invoke economic sanctions, but France and Great Britain rescinded their support early the next year and allowed Italy to annex its illegally confiscated African possession. The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, enacted three Neutrality Acts designed to prevent the United States from slipping into war as many believed it had done without much thought in 1917. Lacking widespread support for the hard decisions required to ensure collective security and without the support of the United States, the League withered and died with the onset of World War II.
The victory of the Grand Alliance in that second and even more cataclysmic worldwide conflict led to another and more successful attempt at establishing collective security. The United Nations charter was signed in San Francisco on June 25, 1945, with the United States, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and China holding permanent seats on the Security Council. The onset of the Cold War and the defeat of Nationalist forces in China, however, made consensus in that body difficult, with the lone exception of the Korean War, when a Soviet boycott of the United Nations in protest against Nationalist China maintaining its seat in the body enabled the United States to sponsor a resolution condemning the North Korean attack on South Korea and authorizing the use of force to repel the invading army. UN forces remain on guard along the 38th Parallel to this day.
Given the inability of the United Nations to maintain collective security, the United States and its European and North American allies established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949 to provide for collective defense, to prevent the reemergence of militaristic governments in Western Europe, and to stimulate political integration of member states. Bilateral U.S. defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, and Australia likewise provided a degree of collective security in the Pacific. These defense pacts prevented the outbreak of global hostilities and provided security for the global commons, leading to a new era of globalization and massive economic growth.
NATO is arguably the most successful alliance in history. For forty years it deterred a Soviet attack on Western Europe and provided a defense umbrella under which Europe grew both peaceful and prosperous. Germany was allowed to rearm under NATO auspices, and by the 1980s NATO possessed significant conventional capabilities to accompany its nuclear deterrent forces. It more than achieved its purpose, according to Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General, to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, led some to question the necessity for or viability of the alliance. The breakup of Yugoslavia and the descent of Bosnia and Herzegovina into civil war eventually led to a NATO-sponsored intervention that halted the fighting and stabilized the Balkans. NATO’s purpose, it turned out, was what it had always been—to keep the European continent stable and at peace. After terrorists launched attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, Article 5 of the Washington Treaty was invoked for the first time ever, and NATO aircraft patrolled the skies over U.S. cities for a short time.
For more ambitious American and European policy makers, NATO was seen not as a relic of the Cold War past, but as an avenue to the future. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO sought a new purpose in expanding the zone of democracy in Europe. Several rounds of enlargement expanded NATO relentlessly to the east, until it ran into the Russian border. Although Russian leaders were powerless to stop the advance, they were as it turns out less than enthralled by the prospect of having the world’s most powerful military alliance on their doorstep.
In 2005 Russian President Vladimir Putin stated in a speech to the Duma that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” Putin’s desire to make Russia great again by rebuilding its military capabilities, linking the former Soviet Socialist Republics with Moscow, and dominating what Russian leaders refer to as the “near abroad” was clear enough. Putin directed invasions of Chechnya in 1999 and Georgia in 2008, ordered the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and created puppet governments in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine after sparking a Ukrainian civil war in 2014. The purpose of the latter actions was to create “frozen conflicts” that would prevent NATO from admitting Georgia or Ukraine, as the alliance has never before embraced new members that had outstanding border disputes.
As the world discovered just a few weeks ago, these measures were insufficient to assuage Putin’s ambitions. He desired not just a neutered Ukraine, but a subservient one. Putin never reconciled himself to the ousting in 2014 of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Moscow government in a struggle over whether Ukraine would join the European Union, headquartered in Brussels, or the Eurasian Economic Union, headquartered in Moscow. Ukrainians overwhelmingly wanted to look west for their future and took to the streets in massive numbers to make their point. To Putin, the Maidan Revolution was a western-inspired coup that severed Ukraine from its rightful place as the largest entity in Russia’s orbit.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has smacked Western leaders over the head with a two by four of reality. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has announced an increase in defense spending in his country to more than 2 percent of GDP, a figure that would put Germany ahead of Russia in military spending and which shows how deeply unsettling the Ukraine War has been to one of the most pacifist nations in Europe. President Biden has also earmarked increased funding for the U.S. armed forces, requesting $813B for national defense in FY 2023, with additional increases in the out years. Other NATO countries are likely to follow suit and strengthen their militaries.
Of course, the world has seen this emphasis on defense and deterrence come and go before. After World War II the United States demobilized, only to reverse course and maintain sustained high levels of defense spending from the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 to the Gulf War of 1991. The peace dividend of the 1990s ended in 2001 with the crash of airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Europe’s peace dividend lasted longer, but with Russian tanks rolling onto the Ukrainian steppes, the Continent is rearming. The West is united in opposing Russian aggression and is willing to back up that position with substantial resources and diplomatic clout. This posture has its limits, mainly in Asia, where China is taking a muscular stance towards Taiwan and its neighbors in the South China Sea but maintains significant economic leverage over its trading partners to temper their responses. European nations have also yet to wean themselves off of Russian oil and gas, which places limits on their ability to deter Putin’s adventurism.
Unless the West can come together economically in a manner that complements their military prowess, the current state of unity might be fleeting. At stake is the future of globalization, the prospect of collective deterrence of state-sponsored aggression, and the fate of the world’s democracies. Western policy makers must act decisively to ensure the Free World remains strong and united, even as the iron dice roll across the Eurasian heartland.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speech to Congress last week may not have been the Churchillian moment people had hoped for, but it got the job done. He asked for what his country needed, plainly, simply, and without folding into a grand discourse on the responsibilities of the world’s democracies to keep it safe from fascism as the late, great British leader might have.
Zelenskyy’s remarks showed him to be a most practical man, leading a country under siege. He should get all he asked for, all of it and more. He won’t, because the Biden administration fails to accept that his fight is our fight, whether we like it or not.
Some in Congress insist on shying away from that reality as well, going so far as to shamefully vote against suspending normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus as one more punishment for the aggressive war of national interest being waged against Ukraine.
Zelenskyy can see what far too many policymakers and influencers in the United States cannot. As he explained to Congress, the Russian attack on Ukraine “is a brutal offensive against our values, basic human values. It threw tanks and planes against our freedom, against our right to live freely in our own country, choosing our own future against our desire for happiness, against our national dreams, just like the same dreams you have, you Americans, just like anyone else in the United States.”
America has been called to the fight and must answer in the affirmative. Thus far, the Biden administration has been leading from the back, reluctant to place the United States in the center of the global stage where it belongs. To Zelenskyy’s requests, it responded with a firm, unforgivable “no.”
The sanctions were slow in coming and have not, contrary to what White House spokesman Jen Psaki’s boast crushed the Russian economy. The military aid most needed is blocked, by design and by bureaucratic inertia. Most importantly, because the national security establishment is more worried about what might come next if Putin were ousted, his country still has avenues available to trade with the rest of the world.
It doesn’t have to be that way. It wasn’t all that long ago when Democrats like Biden led a global effort to isolate a sovereign state over a domestic matter the rest of the civilized world considered an offense against God and man. How does the invasion of Ukraine not call for a boycott of Russia and its Balearian ally led by the United States any less vigorous than what America and the other freedom-loving peoples of the world did to bring the Republic of South Africa’s apartheid government to its knees? The time to wreck the Russian economy, to give an incentive for the Russian people to throw off their masters in pursuit of a genuine democratic system is at hand.
George Washington wisely warned against any involvement in messy foreign entanglements when America was a new nation needing time to find its feet. Wise advice at the time, it became increasingly dangerous as the nation grew in economic might and military power until isolationism proved very, very costly to overcome.
From Teddy Roosevelt to today, the United States has strutted boldly across the world stage, stealing the scene from every pretender to global leadership from the Kaiser to Stalin to Saddam Hussein.
We have expended American lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to defend the right of people to live free. This time that is not being asked of us. Zelenskyy and his people have shown they can and will fight. Some even say they are winning. Fear of what Putin might do if he’s backed into a corner cannot be allowed to be the determinant of U.S. policy. Fight now or fight later. That’s the choice.
We found that out in 1917. And in 1941.
And in 1950. And at other times when the fascists on the left and right threatened freedom. Today is not much different except Zelenskyy is asking only for the tools needed, as Churchill famously said so many years ago “So we may finish the job.”
It’s up to America to make sure he gets them.
It will take years for the consequences of 24 February to play out, but there is still much the west can do to help Ukrainians
By The Guardian•
Why do we always make the same mistake? Oh, that’s only trouble in the Balkans, we say – and then an assassination in Sarajevo sparks the first world war. Oh, Adolf Hitler’s threat to Czechoslovakia is “a quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing” – and then we find ourselves in the second world war. Oh, Joseph Stalin’s takeover of distant Poland after 1945 is none of our business – and soon enough we have the cold war. Now we have done it again, not waking up until it is too late to the full implications of Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea in 2014. And so, on Thursday 24 February 2022, we stand here again, clothed in nothing but the shreds of our lost illusions.
At such moments we need courage and resolution but also wisdom. That includes care in our use of words. This is not the third world war. It is, however, already something much more serious than the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The five wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s were terrible, but the larger international dangers that flowed from them were not on this scale. There were brave resistance fighters in Budapest in 1956, but in Ukraine today we have an entire independent, sovereign state with a large army and a people who declare themselves determined to resist. If they don’t resist, at scale, this will be an occupation. If they do, this could be the largest war in Europe since 1945.
Against them is arrayed the overwhelming force of one of the strongest military powers in the world, with well-trained and equipped conventional forces and some 6,000 nuclear weapons. Russia is now the world’s largest rogue state. It is commanded by a president who, to judge from his hysterical rants this week, has departed the realm of rational calculation – as isolated dictators tend to do, sooner or later. To be clear: when, in his declaration of war on Thursday morning, he threatened anyone “who tries to stand in our way” with “consequences you have never encountered in your history”, he was threatening us with nuclear war.
There will be a time to reflect on all our past mistakes. If, starting in 2014, we had got serious about helping to build up Ukraine’s capacity to defend itself, reduced European energy dependence on Russia, purged the sewage lakes of Russian dirty money swilling around London and imposed more sanctions on the Putin regime, we might be in a better place. But we have to start from where we are.
In the early fog of a war that is just beginning, I see four things Europe and the rest of the west need to do. First, we need to secure the defence of every inch of Nato territory, especially at its eastern frontiers with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, against all possible forms of attack, including cyber and hybrid ones. For 70 years, the security of west European countries including Britain has ultimately depended on the credibility of the “one for all and all for one” promise of article 5 of the Nato treaty. Like it or not, the longtime security of London is now inextricably intertwined with that of the Estonian city of Narva; that of Berlin with Białystok in Poland; that of Rome with that of Cluj-Napoca in Romania.
Second, we have to offer all the support that we can to the Ukrainians, short of breaching the threshold that would bring the west into a direct war with Russia. Those Ukrainians who choose to stay and to resist will be fighting by military and civilian means to defend the freedom of their country, as they have every possible right in law and conscience to do, and as we would do for our own countries. Inevitably, the limited scope of our response will lead to bitter disappointment among them. Emails from Ukrainian friends speak, for example, of the west imposing a no-fly zone, denying Ukrainian airspace to Russian planes. Nato is not going to do that. Like the Czechs in 1938, like the Poles in 1945, like Hungarians in 1956, Ukrainians will say: “You, our fellow Europeans, have abandoned us.”
But there are still things we can do. We can continue to supply weapons, communications and other equipment to those who are entirely legitimately resisting armed force with armed force. As important in the medium term, we can help those who will be using the well-tried techniques of civil resistance against a Russian occupation and any attempt to impose a puppet government. We must also stand ready to assist the many Ukrainians who will flee westward.
Third, the sanctions we impose on Russia should go beyond what has already been prepared. Beside comprehensive economic measures, there should be expulsions of Russians in any way connected with the Putin regime. Putin, with his war chest of more than $600bn, and his hand on the gas tap to Europe, has prepared for this, so sanctions will take time to have their full effect.
In the end, it will have to be the Russians themselves who turn round and say: “Enough. Not in our name.” Many of them, including the Nobel prizewinner Dmitry Muratov, already express their horror at this war. Likewise, the Ukrainian journalist Nataliya Gumanyuk has written movingly of a Russian journalist crying on the telephone with her as the Russian tanks moved in. That horror will only increase when the corpses of young Russian men return in body bags – and as the full economic and reputational impact becomes apparent at home in Russia. Russians will be the first and last victims of Vladimir Putin.
That brings me to a final, vital point: we must be prepared for a long struggle. It will take years, probably decades, for all the consequences of 24 February to be played out. In the short term, the prospects for Ukraine are desperately bleak. But I think at this moment of the wonderful title of a book about the Hungarian revolution of 1956: Victory of a Defeat. Almost everyone in the west has now woken up to the fact that Ukraine is a European country being attacked and dismembered by a dictator. Kyiv today is a city full of journalists from all over the world. This experience will shape their views of Ukraine for ever. We had forgotten, in the years of our post-cold war illusions, that this is how nations write themselves on to the mental map of Europe: in blood, sweat and tears.
America is disjointed. Its people have split into factions. The government is dysfunctional, and the economy is beginning to sour. Nearly two-thirds of the nation say things are on the wrong track, according to the latest RealClearPolitics poll averaging various national polls, while only just 28 percent say things are headed in the right direction.
America needs a strong leader, a person of vision, an individual who will take up the responsibility for making the hard decisions necessary to renew the nation and its people. To take the helm of the ship of state to ensure our country is once again on a course that is straight and true.
To find them, however, we must look to our past, to George Washington.
Who among us today can boast they achieved anything close to what he accomplished in his lifetime? First president of the United States. He was the presiding officer at the convention at which the U.S. Constitution was written. Leader of the army that secured America’s independence from Great Britain. Pioneer agronomist and planter. Successful farmer. Accomplished horseman and dancer. Lover. A leader who was a true man of the people.
What Washington told us about the need to limit the powers of the central government so that human freedom might flourish is as relevant today as it was then. His wise leadership has produced what has become the greatest, freest, most prosperous, most generous society ever to exist. No American should be allowed to forget that no matter how large a blot his ownership of slaves might have made on his copy paper.
At one time, Washington was celebrated because he was deemed worthy of the adulation shown him by a grateful nation. Today, with his birthday having been combined with Abraham Lincoln’s to create Presidents’ Day and with his reputation reduced by cultural commentators and pseudo-academics who insist on emphasizing his ownership of slaves above his many accomplishments, it has become unfashionable to talk of his greatness.
This all comes with a cost. The effort to rewrite history to place Washington in a subordinate position over Americans of lesser accomplishments erases the cultural reference points that each generation of new Americans must look to for guidance in determining current civic virtues.
All this should have been foreseen when the nation chose, for the most mundane of reasons, to end the celebration of Washington’s birthday as a separate holiday, a day on which we could consider the man, his flaws—which were mercifully few—and his greatness, which was evident in abundance throughout his life.
Washington the man was once a venerated American institution. He was held separate and apart from every other president and every other leader purposefully. Even those who do not subscribe to the so-called Great Man theory of history must acknowledge he was central to the creation of a new nation based on values like liberty that ended up changing the world, but only because his enlightened leadership in its earliest days allowed the United States to survive its infancy.
No American leader, before or after, can match his record of accomplishment. This we, his grateful descendants, did and should once again observe his birthday as a national holiday. It is time to put him back on the cultural pedestal of which he began to be pulled once his birthday became Presidents’ Day on the cultural and commercial calendar.
Washington, a towering figure, stood head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries. He belongs in that place of honor, his birthday as a national day of celebration and remembrance bestowed upon him. We let those who would downgrade him succeed at our peril. We cannot forge ahead together toward a better day, and we cannot bring the nation and its people together if we do not have a fully informed understanding of where we began. It is time for Congress to strike a blow against historical revisionism by restoring Washington’s birthday on the calendar and moving it back to Feb. 22, where it belongs.
In our contemplation of George Washington and his legacy, we can once again find the commonality of belief that made the United States what Lincoln later said made America “the last, best hope for mankind.” Rather than even attempt to present a more balanced approach to his life and story, those who are happy with the eradication of his former stature from our collective memory see this as a necessary step toward removing him and the other founders from the pantheon of American heroes who are worthy of our admiration.
No one who has been paying attention can honestly say they were surprised the Russians invaded Ukraine. Oh, it’s possible to have been shocked by the timing or because what is currently unfolding is on a larger scale than most people predicted but surprised? No.
What it does suggest is that too many Washington policymakers have been using the Russia issue as a football in a partisan political game that’s gone well into overtime. It’s all well and good to argue about who is to blame – and President Joe Biden, who was also the Obama administration’s point man on Ukraine is at the top of the list – and to point fingers but that’s little better than quibbling about who forgot to lock the barn door before the cow was stolen, ground into hamburger, and eaten. The question now, as an influential New York investor of my acquittance liked to say in times of crisis, “Not what are they going to do but what are we going to do?
Finding the right answer is more challenging than some believe it to be. Before we decide what action the freedom-loving democratic nations of the West should take, it is necessary to determine Putin’s intentions. He wants, as many have suggested, to be the one who put the band back together, to consolidate the disparate parts of the former Soviet Union into Muscovite “Greater Russia” that holds sway over two continents if not the entire world.
Putin’s intermediate end game is a matter of conjecture. Is the invasion the first step toward making Ukraine a Russian province? Or will he use pacification (he’s used the word “demilitarization”) and the installation of a puppet government as an excuse to pull his troops back behind the borders as they were before the start of the current conflict?
It’s hard to tell but presume for the moment the former is, at this moment at least, a more likely outcome than the latter. Neither is acceptable, especially if coupled with a move by the Chinese against Taiwan. It would be 1941 all over again, only this time America would be facing a two-front war against Russia and China instead of Germany and Japan, neither of whom could have incinerated the nation’s heartland in under an hour.
America’s victory in that war came only because we had the time to rebuild. Over the succeeding decades, however, we’ve outsourced much of our industrial might to our enemies. The time to rebuild starts now, meaning Congress and the Biden administration must develop and enact a plan to revitalize our manufacturing sector to bring jobs and facilities home.
We must also confront Putin where he’s most vulnerable. Russia has taken steps to insulate its modern-day “nomenklatura” – including its leader and minister of foreign affairs – from the kind of sanctions imposed by President Biden in the hours and days after the invasion began. America must resolve to do more and, in consort with the British, who oversee many of the international financial holdings of Putin and those who influence them, freeze them out and block access to their holdings until such time as Russia’s troops are out of Ukraine.
President Biden must also allow the U.S. energy sector to deviate from the course he set out for them. In the just about 13 months of his presidency, the United States has gone from being a net energy exporter to an energy importer, reliant on nations in the conflict zone – including Russia – to meet its energy needs.
This is unacceptable. The spike in oil prices sparked by Putin’s invasion has been to his country’s financial benefit. Oil and natural gas are among the few things produced in or by Russia that anyone else around the globe wants. America must take the lead in blocking Moscow’s ability to sell energy in the global marketplace directly and through client states like Belarus. That would show Putin we are serious.
Other steps to be taken include the rebuilding of the post-COVID American economy through the continuation of the reforms implemented under his predecessor to reduce marginal tax rates, flatten the tax code, and deregulate industry to make the United States an attractive place for American industry to do business.
By reopening the nation to oil and gas exploration and by pulling back on new regulations that impede fracking, we would lower the price of oil and natural gas on the world market – something that would be to our betterment and Putin’s detriment – until Russia’s capacity to economically support the occupation of Ukraine evaporates. When Ronald Reagan did something similar in the 1980s, the Soviet Union broke into pieces. By most accounts, this was a good thing. One of the few people who didn’t like it was Putin – who is now doing his best to reverse that outcome.
America won the Cold War when it decided to approach it from a position of strength rather than seeking equality and spheres of influence. Putin will not stop with Ukraine. The Baltic countries – Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia – will be the next to go if something is not done. This will require the forward placement of significant U.S. forces in NATO countries including the aforementioned three so that the Russian leadership knows we are standing by our Article V obligations.
Putin’s ambitions, as revealed by the invasion of Ukraine, bring him into direct conflict with those of the United States. The recognition of that fact should be enough to reunite the internationalist and isolation wings of the American GOP under one banner – a necessary step if we are to confront the threat before us. That must happen before we can move to rebuild the U.S. military, send lethal assistance to Ukraine, develop an energy sector that can meet Europe’s need without having to rely on Moscow’s beneficence, and arm Taiwan with the support it needs to make President Xi Jinping think long and hard about repeating Putin’s mistake.
Have you ever wondered what disgraced former deputy FBI directors do after trying to stage a coup and lying under oath? Apparently, they give talks about “protecting democracy” at top-rated institutions of higher learning. Indeed, this last Thursday the University of Chicago invited former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe to join a panel of partisans to discuss the Jan 6 “insurrection.”
McCabe was fired as the deputy FBI director for leaking sensitive information about an investigation into the Clinton Foundation and then lying about it under oath. He also took part in spying on the Donald Trump campaign through a secret warrant granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.
The dossier he used to obtain the surveillance warrant was funded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and, in an ironic twist, was itself the product of Russian disinformation. McCabe and his allies in corporate media justified all sorts of similar illegal and undemocratic tactics to discredit and attempt to unseat President Trump.
Of course, neither the University of Chicago nor McCabe acknowledged the irony in him discussing the integrity of “democracy” in America on Thursday evening. In fact, what McCabe said at the University of Chicago event on Jan. 6, 2022 is even more shocking than his invitation to speak in the first place. Below are four of the most appalling assertions and policy proposals McCabe made at the public event.
McCabe likened conservatives to members of the Islamic Caliphate: “I can tell you from my perspective of spending a lot of time focused on the radicalization of international terrorists and Islamic extremist and extremists of all stripes… is that this group shares many of the same characteristics of those groups that we’ve seen radicalized along entirely different ideological lines,” he said.
McCabe went on to describe the rise of the Islamic caliphate in Syria and how Islamic extremists were radicalized across socioeconomic, educational, and racial lines, likening it to the “mass radicalization” of the political right across demographics. That’s right, according to McCabe a grandma who shares a Federalist article on Facebook and your uncle with a “Let’s Go Brandon” coffee mug are in the same category as a jihadist who killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub.
“Political violence [is] not just confined to the Capitol,” McCabe asserted. “It’s going on in school boards around the country. It’s going on in local elections. It’s happening, you know, even to health-care workers.” According to this politically protected former FBI no. 2, the “political violence” occurring recently at school board meetings and during local elections is a “very diverse and challenging threat picture.”
McCabe said moms and dads who stand up for their children’s health and education at school board meetings in ways Democrats disagree with are very dangerous. So dangerous that it is actually “essential” we have a “rapid and complete response by law enforcement at the state, local and federal level to this sort of political violence…”
Holding America’s parents “accountable” is not enough for McCabe. He wants to make sure that federal agencies also put “out that message that this sort of conduct that both horribly victimizes individuals, but also serves to undermine our democratic process” is “considered a threat to national security [that is] not tolerated.”
“I’m fairly confident,” McCabe said, “[that] the FBI [and other agencies] have reallocated resources and repositioned some of their counterterrorism focus to increase their focus on right-wing extremism and domestic violent extremists. And I think that’s obviously a good idea.”
But McCabe wants more. McCabe asserted that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and FBI need to stop merely focusing on the “fringes of the right-wing movement,” in order to “catch this threat” of the “right.”
“Are you going to catch this threat if your focus is only on the traditional, right-wing extremist, those groups that we know about, the quote-unquote, fringes of the right-wing movement?” asked McCabe. “And I think the answer to that is no.”
“It’s entirely possible that when the intelligence community and the law enforcement community looks out across this mainstream,” McCabe continued, “they didn’t assume [on January 6] that that group of people — business owners, white people from the suburbs, educated, employed — presented a threat of violence, and now we know very clearly that they do.”
McCabe wants to get around constitutional obstacles that restrict the abuses of federal agencies. He explained that the path to granting the feds more power to spy on and punish “extremists,” a.k.a. conservatives, is by implementing federal penalties against “domestic terrorism.”
A measure like this would grant domestic agencies the intelligence capabilities of the international terrorism-focused National Counterterrorism Center. It would, McCabe says, “give investigators the ability to begin investigating when folks are plotting or planning or organizing to use violence for the purpose of coercing the population or influencing government…”
Joshua Geltzer, President Joe Biden’s advisor on “countering domestic violent extremism,” made the same proposal in a 2019 hearing before a subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee. In his proposal, Geltzer suggested that we need to “polic[e] [tech company] platforms to remove not just incitement to violence, but also, the ideological foundations that spawn such violence.”
McCabe claims these proposed federal laws against domestic terrorism can be implemented without infringing on Americans’ First Amendment right to free speech. That seems quite impossible, however, given Geltzer is proposing government oversight of social media, for example.
It is even more difficult to believe when you consider that Democrats are not going after real domestic terrorists and have literally defined parents speaking out at school board meetings as national security threats. As McCabe said himself, to Democrats, the extreme right is the mainstream right.
Ironically, one of McCabe’s last remarks was a proclamation of equality under the law. “Whether you are a Trump supporter or a Biden supporter, right, left, or otherwise, we should all be able to agree on the principle that no one is above the law,” stated McCabe.
“… [F]rom the lowliest trespasser on January 6, up to the highest-ranking government officials who may have been aware of a plan that would ultimately lead to violence in the Capitol––those people should be held accountable, period,” he announced. “And if we can’t do that, that is just another sign that we are becoming a non-functioning democracy.”
Ironically, McCabe’s firing for repeatedly breaking the law was expunged from the record only because he settled with a partisan Biden Department of Justice. If no one is above the law, as McCabe claims to support, then he would be in jail. Of course, McCabe is above the law. Only dissenting conservatives, in his view, deserve the suspicion and wrath of unelected federal agencies.
Disturbingly, the University of Chicago does not care about national introspection post-January 6, 2021. If it did, it would not have invited McCabe, of all people, to speak about “protecting democracy.”
UChicago allowed McCabe to spin lies about what truly happened one year ago and filtered student questions via Zoom, refusing to ask him any tough questions. Consequently, McCabe was given a platform to teach young, impressionable college students without question that the federal government should be weaponized against fellow Americans whom leftists brand as “extremists.”
To the elites in America — Democrats like McCabe, university administrators, and professors – January 6 is the key to labeling their political opponents as dangerous, “white supremacist extremists” and enacting new policy accordingly.
America’s universities are now indoctrination machines that shape the minds of the next generation. Academia openly exploits its power and rewrite history to serve their illiberal agenda.
Sadly, McCabe’s dishonest version of January 6 is happily accepted by the academic elites who invited him Thursday night. His frighteningly despotic views and policy prescriptions will likely be accepted and implemented by his young listeners.
To corrupt media, Democrats, and Big Tech, anyone who protested the 2020 election is no different than the fools who stormed the U.S. Capitol.
n the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, the corporate media is working overtime to convince the American public that Republicans as a whole stormed the nation’s beacon of democracy at the beginning of 2021 and have waged a war on all that is good and decent. While lunatics and fools did invade the Capitol last January, tens of thousands of Americans peacefully assembled to demand answers from the government about what they believed to be the sloppiest election in which they’ve ever voted.
Political violence should always be condemned, but a majority of the people present in Washington, D.C., and on the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6 weren’t violent. Yes, hundreds of people stormed the U.S. Capitol in a riot, but tens of thousands of people of all ages, races, backgrounds, and lifestyles gathered together that day at the Save America Rally to protest the Democrats’ sleazy election manipulation and hear from President Donald Trump.
Crowds began to form early at the White House Ellipse where Trump was scheduled to speak beginning at noon. After hours of waiting in the cold, Trump supporters finally heard from the president, who encouraged them to head to Capitol grounds and “peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” Following Trump’s urgings, tens of thousands of people slowly and peacefully marched to the Capitol grounds to rally at multiple planned events, all of which were permitted through the proper, official channels. Many of the peaceful protesters were unaware until the end of the day of the vandalizing and looting that had occurred inside the Capitol.
As multiple reports suggest, violence was not even considered by the vast majority of the rally attendees who simply wanted answers about what they saw as the messiest election in their lifetimes. Multiple states had used COVID-19 as an excuse to loosen absentee voting protocols, opening up a window for bad actors to push their preferred candidates to the top.
In Pennsylvania, the Democrat Party circumvented the state legislature and instead used the leftist courts to make six changes to the state’s Election Code ahead of the 2020 election. These changes included expanding mail-in voting and drop-boxes and relaxing verification standards for absentee ballots. Some key states and counties even accepted money from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg through shady election-manipulating organizations designed to increase Democratic voter turnout.
These voters became even angrier when they realized how corporate media and Big Tech worked together to suppress stories that should have tarnished Joe Biden’s reputation and therefore his chances in the election. Whether the Democrats and their media cronies agree, these voters had every right to be upset and express their frustration peacefully at the feet of the government, legislators, and the system that they felt had betrayed them.
The idea that everyone who was at the Capitol grounds that day is an insurrectionist is patently and deliberately false. Yet the same corporate media outlets, Big Tech oligarchs, and Democrats who defended the arson, looting, and crime associated with the political riots after George Floyd’s death as “fiery but mostly peaceful” branded nearly everyone within a 10-mile radius of the Capitol an insurrectionist. These institutions gladly overlooked the numerous accounts of peaceful assembly, to wrongly conflate the rioters with protesters. Anyone who protested the election was no different than the horned-hat guy and the other fools willing to vandalize the U.S. Capitol.
The mischaracterizations didn’t stop in January of last year. For urging their state legislatures to listen to and take action regarding their grievances, Republicans as a whole are still being smeared by The New York Times for engaging in a so-called “bloodless, legalized form” of the Capitol riot. Just because of how they vote, Republicans are shunned for using the legal, rightful means presented before them to enact change that ensures safe and secure elections.
It is a familiar tactic often employed by the anti-Trump crowd, who use everything in their power, including political censorship, to disparage and tear down the reputations of conservatives and the former president. They think that by tarring all Republicans as Jan. 6 insurrectionists, they can prevent future GOP victories, and therefore prevent Republicans from taking action to ensure that the sloppiness of 2020 is never repeated.
Extremist political cycles seem to have a natural lifespan, but it requires real political will to overcome them.
November’s off year elections revealed that the rollback of wokeness, if not imminent, may be nearer than many had hoped. Voters rejected decisively two of wokeness’s core policy components: Defunding the police lost badly in heavily Democratic cities from Seattle to Minneapolis to Buffalo, while Republican Glenn Youngkin’s vow to curb critical race theory in Virginia schools was central to his surprise win in the blue state.
Extremist political cycles seem to have a natural lifespan. Five years passed between the storming of the Bastille and Thermidor—the arrest of Robespierre by his fellow revolutionaries, fearful that the guillotine would touch them next; another five and a national equilibrium of sorts was restored to France. A similar ten years ensued between years between Mao’s launching of the Cultural Revolution and the arrest and imprisonment of its major backers by their rivals within China’s ruling hierarchy. Neither country had meaningful elections, but they did have public opinions, which eventually shifted enough to embolden those in position to challenge the radical wave to step up and assume the risks. If one dates the onset of wokeness from 2014, which saw the sudden explosion of phrases about race, equity, and white supremacy in the prestige media, we are seven years in.
The United States has free elections, a First Amendment, and political norms which remain more or less intact, and wokeness is an ideological movement which has managed to humiliate its victims and get them fired from their jobs, not to kill them. But it is not a stretch to see in it parallels to the totalitarian movements of the past century: the preening self-righteousness of its enforcers; their seeking of forced confessions, depicted as apologies from their victims; the attempted politicization of every aspect of social life, including language; the insistence that the traditional mores of their own country are utterly debased. Never in American history has so much energy been devoted to getting people fired for expressing an opinion.
Wokeness may well advance to the point where many of its goals become as institutionalized and naturally accepted as the abolition of slavery. (Some of the woke elect left style themselves as abolitionists). More likely it will be rolled back, its practitioners and cultural preferences first widely mocked and then ignored, its victims rehabilitated and in some cases honored. November 2 marked the first hint of a real electoral pushback against wokeness; hopefully it will prove as pivotal as the battle of Midway.
The origins and nature of the woke revolution have been described extensively if not yet definitively. Yes, it has elements of a new religion; yes, it was made possible by social media, with the potential to organize quickly a Twitter mob; yes, the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath pulled the rug out from a generation of debt-ridden recent college graduates while giving business elites incentive to welcome diversions from a more class based leftism.
Within less than a decade a fringe and not especially popular way of thinking and speaking, spawned in the humanities departments of prestigious universities, had become the dominant discourse in all non-explicitly conservative media and, seemingly, the regnant ideology of the nation’s largest political party. This takeover occurred with stunning speed, while the initial popular resistance to it—chiefly the 2016 election of Donald Trump—served more as an accelerant than a brake. At this writing, wokeness seems entrenched in the media, liberal foundations, and universities, but also in institutions thought of as mainstream and non-political. A top navy admiral touts the work of Ibram Kendi; the American Medical Association officially calls for doctors to work absurd woke phraseology into regular communications with their patients.
The core idea of wokeness is that America and the West are essentially defined by interlocking systems of oppression, the main pillar of which is white supremacy, while secondary but important ones are the privileging of heterosexuality and of men over women. To be woke is to believe that all social life is permeated by these dominations, and that overturning them is a moral imperative. Radical leftists have held views proximate to this for over a century, but their nominal embrace by much of the establishment is a new thing.
For the woke, America’s history of slavery and segregation are at its core, more important than virtually everything else. Wokeness portrays itself as a struggle against whiteness, or white supremacy, rather than against white people themselves, a rhetorical evasion which allows white people to become the main practitioners of woke politics.
With black activism, wokeness has a somewhat contradictory relationship.
On one side it is given to displays of performative submissiveness. While fires from the George Floyd riots were still smoldering, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer led Democratic members of the House and Senate to the halls outside the congressional visitor’s gallery, where they donned kente cloth and knelt before the cameras; similar, if less striking, quasi-religious enactments continued throughout the summer. A few weeks later the New York Times announced it would henceforth capitalize black when it referred to race (white would remain lowercase) as its standard style, inevitably evoking the Bible’s capitalization of pronouns referring to the deity. Virtually every national news organization followed suit.
On the other side of wokeness is a kind of paternalism, which sees black Americans as people without much agency or control over their lives, defined by the past injuries of slavery and segregation and still burdened by chains of structural racism which are seldom specified but so pervasive that standards of achievement and conduct appropriate for other Americans must be suspended for them.
But despite its apparent dominance in corporate media and major institutions, wokeness increasingly resembles what ’60s era Maoists called a “paper tiger”; when confronted directly, as wokeness has seldom been in the past seven years, its popularity and power prove less than meets the eye.
The battle over “critical race theory” in the Virginia gubernatorial election was an early illustration. It’s difficult to discern how much critical race theory is being taught in Virginia schools: there are official Virginia state documents which call explicitly for “critical race theory” to be used in the training of teachers and the make-up of the curriculum; in some districts, CRT inspired consultants were hired to do mandatory teacher training. Materials deployed by these new “diversity” consultants are full of a bizarre racial essentialism, portraying white people as cruelly individualistic, people of color as warm communalists. Some Virginia parents in comfortable suburban districts were troubled enough by it to turn traditionally sleepy school board meetings into hotbeds of protest.
Curiously, the response by the Terry McAuliffe campaign—to charges by his opponent that Democrats were ignoring parents and teaching CRT in schools—was to claim that there was “no critical race theory” taught in Virginia schools, that the whole issue was a racist “dog whistle” cooked up by conservative activist Christopher Rufo and others. This denial was echoed repeatedly by nearly every mainstream media outlet covering the election.
This itself was an interesting tell. Liberals generally have no reluctance to defend their beliefs or policies, whether they be the right to have an abortion, higher taxes on corporations and the rich, or worker and environmental protection laws. But on CRT they mounted no defense, just denial and obfuscation. They would explain, as to a fifth grader, that critical race theory was a high brow discipline sometimes studied in law schools, and is absolutely not something taught to Virginia elementary and high school students. As if they assumed that people wouldn’t notice that programs and curricula explicitly grounded in CRT pedagogy, endorsed officially by the nation’s largest teacher’s union, was seeping into the schools.
Why did the sophisticated, consultant heavy, and poll savvy McAuliffe campaign lie? The most plausible answer is that it understood that the substance of a critical race theory pedagogy couldn’t be defended before voters in a campaign, knew it was extremely unpopular among people of all races, and knew also that it couldn’t be disavowed, because powerful constituencies within the Democratic party, especially the National Education Association, were too heavily invested in it. When push came to shove in a tight election, the establishment left wouldn’t stand up and fight for woke pedagogy.
Woke attitudes about law enforcement fared no better. The aptly named war on cops has been building for years, generating a narrative that most American police departments have been systematically oppressing black people. Its first major significant victory came in New York, with a series of court rulings against the NYPD’s policies of proactive policing, sometimes called “stop and frisk,” in 2013. Stop and frisk had proven enormously successful in getting illegal guns and the criminals wielding them off the street, but the tactic almost invariably targeted young black men.
This made sense to those who believed police should focus their efforts on those neighborhoods plagued by a disproportionate share of illegal gun crime. But by the end of the Bloomberg mayoralty, ending proactive policing had become a liberal cause célèbre. The next year, when a black man from Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown, was killed while resisting arrest, the anti-police narrative exploded nationally, with major voices in the mainstream media giving oxygen to the idea that the nation’s police were waging a “genocidal” war against black people, that calling 911 was an effort to get black people murdered.
It was a lie of course—the number of unarmed black Americans killed by the police is small, not disproportional to the number of white people killed by the police and infinitesimal in comparison to number of black people killed by black criminals. But the sheer enormity of the lie—repeated incessantly—made it a widely accepted fact, if not a true one. If the police were indeed racist murderers as frequently portrayed, defunding police departments made a great deal of sense.
By the summer of 2020, the topic of racist policing dominated the national conversation; and left-wing candidates calling for abolition of police departments began winning democratic primaries. A month after George Floyd’s murder, Minneapolis’s City Council voted by a 9-3 margin to dismantle the police department altogether, replacing it with a social worker agency.
But it did not take long for anti-cop wave to peak. In Minneapolis, as murders surged 50 percent and the number of downtown shootings doubled, city residents mobilized against the City Council’s anti-cop campaign. In Dallas, the City Council moved to hire more cops. In New York, progressives were stunned when a former black cop running on a law-and-order platform trounced progressives in the Democratic mayoral primary, while running up impressive margins in black and Latino working class districts. On election day last November, a defund-the-police socialist who had won the Democratic primary in Buffalo lost the general election even though she was the only person on the ballot. In Minneapolis, voters rejected an abolish the police department ballot measure decisively. In very liberal Seattle, an actual Republican won the city attorney race.
A restoration of the kind of policing that cut crime rates so successfully in the 1990s won’t come quickly—much legal damage had been done to inhibit effective policing, while in many cities left-wing district attorneys, elected late in the last decade in low turnout elections and committed to not putting criminals in jail, remain in office. But a 30 percent rise in murders in 2020—the largest since records have been kept, and a surge in violent crime in nearly every major city has made defunding the police a non-starter.
These political battles over education and policing plainly originate from America’s long standing racial divisions of black and white. But they are now contested on a very different demographic playing field. After 40 years of historically high levels of immigration, the United States has a far different racial makeup than it did when Martin Luther King was assassinated. An influx of immigrants from Mexico, Latin America, Asia and the Mideast has reduced the white share of the population from over 85 percent to under 65 percent; among school children, “Anglo” white kids make up less than half.
There may be no more broadly accepted assumption about demographics in American politics than that the reduction of the white share of the population favors the left. This was true in the 1960s, when one progressive intellectual famously labeled the white race the cancer of human history. It was central to Jesse Jackson’s two presidential bids during the ’80s, where he touted a “Rainbow Coalition” of black, Latino, and progressive white voters. It was a theme of Mike Davis’s much-admired-on-the-left 1986 (and recently reissued) book Prisoners of the American Dream which forecast a “black and Latino working class, 50 million strong” spearheading the triumph over American imperialism. It is true of contemporary left-wing authors enthusing triumphantly over demographic transformation, like Steve Phillips (Brown is the New White), and of liberals like Ruy Teixeira (The Optimistic Leftist). The woke neologism BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) arose to underscore the implicit solidarity of all non-whites, the soon to be demographic majority, against a declining group of conservative white Americans.
This analysis is intuitively persuasive. It was also prominent in paleoconservative circles in the early 1990s; Peter Brimelow at National Review published essays showing the GOP shrinking to national irrelevance by the early middle of this century. To some extent it has been vindicated: California, which launched the political careers of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, has become a reliably one-party state and other states are moving in the same direction. On many issues, the new immigration probably has shifted the United States towards the left; certainly any kind of “old fashioned” rooted-in-land-and-tradition conservatism, including anything associated with Dixie, now has a smaller demographic base to appeal to.
But this is not the case for the particular issues that emanate from wokeness. To state the obvious, most Asian, Latino, and other non-white immigrants and their children are not that invested in black-white history and the proper negotiation of the historic wrongs white Americans have done to black Americans. The vast majority of them have lived all their American lives in a post-civil rights revolution country, where racial discrimination is carefully monitored and illegal. Their ancestors didn’t own slaves, nor fight a war to end slavery. They can’t easily be made to feel guilty about the American past, and despite great efforts by university social science departments, it is not so easy to get them to feel aggrieved by it either.
An unforeseen aspect of the wokeness phenomenon is how many new immigrants, or children of new immigrants, are playing critical roles in pushing back against it. Optimistic “immigrants are socially conservative” arguments have bandied around pro-immigration Republicans for decades (I was never one of them), but no one predicted the polemical vitality and occasional brilliance that would emerge from newer Americans as wokeness pushed into the center of the national agenda. Any list of names will leave out dozens, but those paying attention know that writers and activists as distinct in style and ideology as Andy Ngo, Wesley Yang, Zaid Jilani, Harmeet Dhillon, Sohrab Ahmari, and Melissa Chen—to pick a half dozen at random—are not only important in the pushback against wokeness, but that their arrival at the battlefield was an absolutely necessary reinforcement. Of course one could point to comparable numbers of woke leftists of recent immigrant background, but compared to their conservative counterparts they don’t seem important or agenda setting to a movement emotionally centered on black and white Americans.
Indeed, if one wanted to design a movement explicitly to alienate Asian Americans, it would be hard to improve on the woke’s agenda on law enforcement and schools. Some consequences of the war on cops and so-called “over-incarceration” were predictable: Police would retreat from proactive policing, and crime would rise. But no one foresaw that this would produce a surge in crime against Asians. The mainstream media took great pains to obfuscate the most salient aspects of this trend. Stories about it invariably mentioned former President Trump’s depiction of Covid-19 as the “China virus” so as to imply without saying that the hate crime perpetrators were white Trump supporters. Always highlighted was the horrific case of the white man who murdered several Asian massage parlor workers and others of different races on a killing spree apparently prompted by feelings of sexual guilt. But the reality is that what is experienced by many as an open season on vulnerable Asian Americans in our cities is driven by the same group that commits most American street crime.
One must assume Asian Americans know this. Last summer’s New York Times Magazine story about the murder of a Thai grandfather in San Francisco quoted his son-in-law, who had begun attending anti-Asian-hate rallies in the Bay Area and asking how many people there had been pushed or spat on, and by whom. Yes, many, was the response, always by a black person. This Times piece acknowledged, with seeming reluctance, that hate crimes against Asians were “more likely” to be committed by non-white people. A former Oakland police captain relates that suspects in anti-Asian hate crimes are almost exclusively black. In New York City, black people are six times more likely to commits hate crimes than white people, and comprise half the suspects in anti-Asian attacks. In the all too common videos of such attacks that show up on social media, the perpetrators are almost always black.
The tensions between the groups have roots which have not been systematically explored, but were evident as early as the racially incendiary 1990 boycott of Korean grocery stores in Brooklyn and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Of course, all ethnic and racial groups suffer from rising crime, and those in black neighborhoods are numerically most victimized by it. But in the past year of racial reckoning, the surge in anti-Asian hate crimes does, to say the least, complicate the woke narrative of an ascendant Rainbow coalition struggling to overcome white supremacy.
Everyone opposes hate crimes, and it requires some deductive reasoning to connect liberal campaigns against proactive policing, bail reform to keep suspects out of incarceration, progressive district attorneys determined to reduce the number of black Americans jailed for “minor” offenses, and the broader war on cops, to the surge in criminal attacks on vulnerable citizens.
The education issue is far more direct. For years, progressive educators have railed against standardized tests as barriers to racial equity. They have won some stunning recent victories: The University of California has ceased using the SAT as means for sorting applicants, and hundreds of other colleges have followed suit.
The SAT has not been discredited as a metric for determining the likelihood of a student succeeding academically; for that it has no equal. Its problem is a political one: Standardized test results reveal with considerable precision how much of a leg up is given to black students in college admissions competition over white and especially Asian students. The frequent result is a mismatch between student and institution where black students have less developed academic skills than their classmates, with many pooling in the bottom of the class. Some of the most notorious instances of woke cancel culture deployed against truthful speech have occurred when professors who had noticed and lamented these facts were hunted down by leftist students and subsequently dismissed from their jobs.
But in terms of potential to spark a widespread disaffection, the five decades long dispute over affirmative action in college admissions will pale next to the battles over the use of standardized tests for granting admission to academically selective high schools and curricula. In the past year of racial reckoning, the use of student standardized test scores for admission has been dropped or rolled back in Lowell High School in San Francisco, the Boston Latin School, and Thomas Jefferson High school in northern Virginia. Outgoing New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio sought unsuccessfully to have the tests banned entirely for its top schools, the storied Stuyvesant and Bronx High School of Science, and is still maneuvering to reduce the percentage of students admitted to those schools by exam only. His rationale is that they aren’t sufficiently diverse—at this point more Asians pass the exams than other groups and black students do so at comparatively low rates.
Not surprisingly, Asian parents from New York to California have begun to mobilize politically and legally to combat what is quite plainly an effort to tilt a level playing field against their children. (In San Francisco their pressure has at least temporarily kept in place the exam as criterion for admission to Lowell.) In picking a fight against the exam high schools, Democratic politicians following the woke playbook have chosen to attack an institution vitally important to one of the country’s most dynamic and academically successful immigrant groups. For the first time since the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, grassroots organizations of Asian parents are at odds with Democratic politicians.
Wai Wah Chin, president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, observes (in an interview on Glenn Loury’s podcast) that De Blasio and other Democrats pitch their campaign against the high performance schools in the language of representation, claiming that the student bodies of Bronx Science and Stuyvesant are not “representative” of New York. (Former New York schools chancellor Richard Carranza had gone further, warning Asian parents to back down with the menacing formulation that “no ethnic group owns admission to these schools.”) In response, Chin makes the necessary point: The kids who pass the rigorous math and verbal exams are not “representing” anyone but themselves. They have studied as individuals and take the exam as individuals, representing not a community but their own efforts. She adds that the student’s family or community might feel pride in their accomplishment; one could add that all Americans might feel proud of these incredibly successful schools. Graduates of Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech have won an extraordinary 14 Nobel Prizes in the sciences, more than many countries. Wai Wah Chin’s assertion stands directly against the racial essentialism that lies at the core of wokeness.
The issue is broader than the select exam schools which admit the cream of the student crop. There is a nationwide movement to eliminate tracking of students by ability. California, following San Francisco’s lead, is eliminating the teaching of algebra to eighth graders, which means far fewer public school students will have the opportunity to take calculus in high school. This will narrow the pipeline of students who might go on to pursue STEM majors in college and in their careers. The rationale for such changes is always the woke watchword “equity,” followed by lamentations that white and Asian students are overrepresented in advanced math courses. But of course parents of bright students want their kids to be challenged in school, and inevitably America as a whole will suffer if they are not. As one California math teacher put it, “I feel so bad for these students. We are cutting the legs of the students to make them equal to those who are not doing well in math.”
But if recent social history shows anything, it is that parents will fight harder over the education of their children than almost any issue. All over the country, parent groups are mobilizing—Asian parent groups often in the lead. As school questions emerge as hot button political issues, it will become apparent that the woke project of dumbing down schools to promote equity will fare no better than defunding the police.
The most widely noted defection from the anti-whiteness coalition comes from Latinos, emerging as the second largest demographic group in the country. Long viewed as the bedrock of any leftist Rainbow Coalition, there were certainly enough visible left-wing Latinos in academia to give this a certain plausibility. But it’s not turning out that way. Latinos remain a largely Democratic constituency, voting roughly 60 percent for Biden over Donald Trump. But this is a 16 percent drop from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 levels, a remarkable shift.
Polling shows Hispanics lukewarm towards the Black Lives Matter movement, favoring it at lower rates than whites did (the question was posed at a time when support for BLM was assumed to be the only possible opinion for decent people). Latinos oppose reparations and defunding the police, core components of the woke agenda, by more than 2-1 margins. As Ruy Teixeira, a long time proponent of the view that Hispanic immigration was a key to solid Democratic majorities, recently put it, “clearly this constituency does not harbor particularly radical views on the nature of American society and its supposed intrinsic racism and white supremacy.” Others noted that Hispanics are now jailed at lower rates than white Americans, and are increasingly employed in law enforcement.
Few discern specific issues for the shift, though it is unlikely that woke efforts to neuter the Spanish language with terms like “Latinx” have attracted more Latinos and Latinas to the Democrats. Might the trend continue towards transforming Hispanics into a group politically analogous to Reagan Democrats—that is, a formerly Democratic working- and middle-class constituency that now votes GOP? It seems improbable, but no one predicted that a candidate could be as tough on border enforcement as Donald Trump and experience a dramatic gain in Latino votes.
The fundamental political error of wokeness lies in its judgement about how popular a movement based on anti-whiteness is likely to be in a nation increasingly less European in ancestry. Immigrants have come to America for many reasons, but a hatred of “white supremacy” is probably nowhere near the top for the vast majority. One could easily surmise that many of them are motivated by appreciation of the very qualities wokeness either deplores or works to undermine: law and order, careers open to talents, advanced levels of science and technology—and the legal and cultural structures that make those things possible.
A passage from David Reiff’s book on Los Angeles from more than three decades ago comes to mind: In the coda of one chapter, Rieff describes a billboard for a Mexican beer, then visible in nearly every Mexican town, which touts the product as “a high class blonde,” double meaning very much intended. It played on aspiration, the kind that prompted men from Mexican small towns to decamp for Mexico City, or ultimately to Los Angeles, “the greatest blonde of all.”
One of the more provocative interpretations of the origins of the relatively new movement to bring critical race theory into the teaching of elementary and high school students was suggested, almost as an aside, by Wesley Yang. Sometime in the late 2000s or early 2010s, the left looked at Latino immigration and realized that a considerable degree of assimilation was actually happening: that the Latino working class was not drinking in the vaguely Marxist ideologies incubating in university ethnic studies departments, and that there was actually a possibility—perceived by the left as a danger—that just as (according to ethnic studies phraseology popular on the left) Irish and Italian immigrants had been “allowed to become white,” the same thing was happening to non-European immigrants as well. Critical race theory thus developed as a kind of reaction, to indoctrinate school-aged children of the new immigration into a kind of racial essentialism, to deflect them from an assimilationist path.
Yang’s suggestion would correlate with Eric Kaufmann’s argument in Whiteshift, a detailed and comprehensive study of demographic transformations and evolving racial attitudes likely to occur in the West. Intermarriage rates between white Americans and new immigrants or their children are fairly high, and over time the boundaries of whiteness will expand—American and other Western majorities won’t be exclusively white any longer, but they will have some connection to white ancestry; they will acknowledge and feel cultural ties to the traditional heroes of their nations. This may be an overly optimistic view, but recent American elections do nothing to contradict it.
What does that mean for the trajectory of wokeness? If one is inclined towards optimism, one can see signs that the movement has already peaked. Clearly the national conversation is not where it was in the summer of 2020. Andrew Sullivan wrote recently how he was cheered by the HBO mini-series The White Lotus, in which the obvious villains were two highly privileged very woke college students. A similar point could be made about The Chair, a miniseries about an Asian-American woman (starring and co-produced by Sandra Oh) assuming the English department chairmanship of a Williams or Amherst type college; there too the villains are Red Guard type students who concoct spurious accusations of “Nazism” against an undisciplined professor, who is portrayed sympathetically. Would either have been aired last year? The New York Times, having last year pushed out Bari Weiss and James Bennet to appease woke staffers, suddenly found the will to give a small slot in its opinion page roster to John McWhorter, author of a brilliant book hostile to wokeness.
It can be notoriously difficult to read accurately the tenor of one’s own times. Historians can point to many private letters of learned people written well before the darkest nights of communism and Nazism, assuring one another that the worst was certainly over and things would soon improve. Still, it strikes me that America’s liberal elite is beginning to find wokeness a bit embarrassing. What does the president of Yale really think about his diversity deans publicly threatening a law student for sending an email that used the phrase “trap house”?
The actual number of the woke remains small—perhaps 6 percent of the population, according to Pew surveys of American political attitudes. It is educated, it is mostly white, it is heavily concentrated in the media and universities. But it isn’t powerful enough to control the country if majorities are mobilized to resist it.
Overcoming wokeness will require real political will and courage, as well as legislation. At some point there will need to be a successful legal challenge to the idea that disparate income and disproportionate racial outcomes by themselves constitute sufficient evidence of racial discrimination, but that too is in the realm of the possible. As voters from New York City to Buffalo to Seattle showed without ambiguity, when wokeness is on the ballot and opposed vigorously, it loses. In activism and voting patterns, America’s most rapidly growing demographic groups are largely showing themselves indifferent or actively hostile to woke policies. If the tide is indeed turning, in a few years wokeness will be more mocked than celebrated. If not, America’s long reign as a relatively successful country will end.
A failure of American nerve
“Democracy needs champions,” President Biden said on December 9 as he called to order his summit of democracies. It sure does. Yet Biden has a funny way of championing it.
Less than a year into his term, the number of global democracies has already decreased by one. Two others are under threat of invasion and extinction. What happened in Afghanistan, and what might happen to Ukraine and Taiwan, is a reminder that democracies do not vanish because of a failure to pass a partisan agenda or win an election. They die when the rule of law collapses. And that can happen in two ways. A polity can descend into anarchy. Or an adversarial force can replace a democratic state’s monopoly on violence with its own.
Both threats are serious. The risk of internal decay was manifest in the riots of 2020 and the storming of Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021. The moment demands that both Republicans and Democrats recommit to the rule of law, to constitutional deliberation and procedure, to empirical evidence, and to civil peace. But domestic challenges should not blind us to external dangers.
Otto von Bismarck once joked that the United States is blessed to be bordered on two sides by allies and on the other two sides by fish. Not every democracy is as lucky. The fate of freedom elsewhere is tenuous. For the last 80 years, American power and American security guarantees have sustained and expanded the ranks of democratic nations. The tinier and more fragile the state, the more hazardous its neighborhood, the more it depends on American aid and American strength. Remove America from the equation, and the jackals take its place.
That is what happened when America cut off aid to South Vietnam in 1975. It is what happened only a few months ago when President Biden overruled his national security team and the generals on the ground and withdrew U.S. forces from Afghanistan with no plan for the evacuation of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents as the Taliban advanced. Was the democratically elected government of Afghanistan flawed and corrupt? Yes. Was its control limited to the major cities? You bet. Did it nevertheless provide countless Afghans (population of Kabul: four million) a measure of freedom, security, and opportunity in which they could pursue their destinies in peace? Incontrovertibly.
And it’s gone. Because Biden lacked the will to sustain a relatively low deployment of U.S. troops to aid Afghan forces. America’s weary democracy endures. Afghanistan’s does not. And the man who condemned Afghanistan to misery—and who incidentally also had no problem abandoning South Vietnam to one-party Communist rule—now says the contest between authoritarianism and liberal democracy will define the twenty-first century. What he says is right. But what he does is wrong. Terribly wrong.
Consider Ukraine. It too is a democracy—and it too must be worried about Biden’s resolve. For the second time this year, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has built up his forces across Ukraine’s eastern border. A Russian invasion is a real, if unlikely, possibility. Putin is not “securing his border,” as if Ukrainians were entering Russia illegally looking for work. There isn’t any. Nor does Putin “feel threatened” by NATO. He’s the one making the threats. He’s the one who annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014. He’s the one raising the prospect of a major military operation against an independent state. It’s funny how many of America’s most famous “nationalists” don’t seem to be bothered by imperialism, so long as the imperialists speak Russian.
President Biden is vocal in defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence. But he is also playing into Putin’s strategy of “reflexive control.” Biden agreed to a video teleconference with Putin that had one upshot: elevating the autocrat’s status. Biden warns of sanctions, an end to pipeline construction, and reinforcement of NATO allies in Eastern Europe. The trouble is that the measures would happen only if Putin invades. At this point Biden has done nothing concrete, has established no facts on the ground, to dissuade Putin from his present course. On the contrary: According to the AP, Biden wants Ukraine to recognize the “autonomy” of Russian-backed separatist zones. According to Bloomberg, he wants NATO members to negotiate with Russia over the future of the alliance.
Biden wants to avert war by naming potential reprisals. This is like telling your kid to behave or else you will send him to his room. Chances are he won’t listen. Why? Because he’s heard the same thing many times before without lasting consequences.
“I will look you in the eye and tell you, as President Biden looked President Putin in the eye and told him today, that things we did not do in 2014 we are prepared to do now,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said to the White House press corps on Pearl Harbor Day. Let’s hope so. Whatever President Obama did seven years ago—and he didn’t do much—had no discernible effect on Putin. Why then should Putin be worried about Obama’s former vice president—especially since Biden currently opposes sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, hasn’t yet retaliated against Russian-backed cyberattacks, and is going out of his way to address Putin’s phony grievances?
Deterrence doesn’t run on promissory notes. Deterrence raises the cost of hostile action in the here and now. Which is why Biden’s video conference was a mistake, and why his preemptively ruling out U.S. boots on the ground was too. No one wants or expects the commitment of U.S. forces in the case of Russo-Ukrainian war—but no one should tell Putin he doesn’t have to worry about that possibility either. Deterrence is about keeping Putin on his toes: by calling for real increases in the defense budget, by reinforcing the Baltic states sooner rather than later, by selling drones and other lethal materiel to Ukraine, by pledging construction of additional liquefied natural gas facilities in Poland, Ukraine, and Latvia.
What’s happening in Ukraine today is the result of what happened in Afghanistan over the summer. And what might happen in Taiwan in the coming years depends on what happens in Ukraine now. The failure of American nerve in Afghanistan caught the attention of authoritarians everywhere (including in Iran). They watched as America bolted and a democracy collapsed. They saw that democracies don’t live or die on talk. Democracies live or die upon their willingness to use force to defend their way of life. And that willingness, in turn, depends on the leadership and support and resolve of the world’s oldest, richest, and most powerful constitutional democracy.
This isn’t theory—ask the Afghans. Democracies perish when America bugs out.
Is America—and the world—prepared for what comes next?
On December 1 the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. At issue is the constitutionality of a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Judging by the media reaction, things did not go well for the pro-choice side. “The Supreme Court Seems Poised to Overturn Roe v. Wade,” reads one Bloomberg headline. “‘Roe’ is dead. The Roberts Court’s ‘stench’ will live forever,” reads the title of a Washington Post column. The headline of another Washington Post article puts it this way: “The question is not whether ‘Roe v. Wade’ is overturned—but how.” Pro-lifers hope so.
I remain unconvinced. It’s never a good idea to infer a final ruling from the content of oral argument. In March 2012 everyone walked away from arguments in NFIB v. Sebelius, judging the constitutionality of Obamacare, assuming that the health care law was doomed. They underestimated Chief Justice John Roberts’s creativity. The same thing could happen in Dobbs: Roberts may use his smarts and guile to persuade other Republican appointees that the Mississippi law can stand without overturning the right to an abortion in Roe. Such a ruling would be illogical. It would be a jurisprudential mess. It would further aggrandize the Court’s power to decide when and under what circumstances abortion is legal. It would look, in other words, like plenty of other Supreme Court decisions.
Whatever happens, I find I cannot escape the sense that America has reached an impasse, that it has arrived at a moment of transition, and not just on the matter of abortion. Whether one looks at politics, economics, or the world, one sees a realignment of forces, a shuffling of players off and on the stage, to prepare for the next act in the drama. The Trump presidency seems less like the harbinger of a new beginning than a spectacular climax to a historical epoch. If so, we are living through a sort of denouement, a working through of conflicts left unresolved. “It feels like the order we have all taken for granted since the end of the Cold War is badly decaying, and has gotten so fragile that it might well shatter soon,” wrote Damir Marusic of Wisdom of Crowds last month. Question is: What replaces it?
If the Court does overrule Roe next summer, America will have entered uncharted territory. Many states will ban abortion immediately. Others will legalize it for the duration of a pregnancy. Still others will restrict and limit the practice. Abortion will be a matter for legislatures—including the U.S. Congress. Both Democrats and Republicans believe that abortion would become a major issue in next year’s midterm campaign, with unforeseeable consequences. Would a pro-choice backlash help Democrats? Perhaps. Then again, some of us thought that Texas’s fetal heartbeat law might help Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey. That didn’t happen.
Conversely, if the Court does preserve Roe, many conservatives and Republicans fear a pro-life backlash directed at the GOP infrastructure and conservative legal movement. No less an authority than former attorney general Ed Meese wrote in the Washington Post that the “success” of constitutional originalism depends on the Court’s ruling in Dobbs. Tension already is high within the conservative legal movement over former president Donald Trump, his attempt to remain in office, and the intellectual challenges from “common-good” constitutionalists and from advocates of judicial “engagement” over “restraint.” A disappointing ruling may not only deflate Republican enthusiasm, but also turn grassroots conservatives in more radical directions.
Either way, our constitutional system and its parties, ideologies, and politics will look different from before. And this change will happen concurrently with a transition in leadership. As of this writing, 19 House Democrats have announced their retirements. More will follow. It is widely expected that the 81-year-old Nancy Pelosi will retire after the midterm election, even if Democrats somehow keep the House of Representatives. Should we really expect the 82-year-old majority leader and 81-year-old majority whip to remain in their jobs? The belief that the 79-year-old President Joe Biden won’t run for reelection in 2024 is so pervasive that the White House scrambles desperately to calm Democratic nerves. For a party that maintains the allegiance of young people, the Democratic leadership class is disturbingly old. It will have to give up power. And the Democrats waiting in the wings are not what you’d call inspiring.
As these generational fights play out, both the Democratic and Republican parties face the internal challenges of their respective countercultures. The woke neo-socialist left and the national populist right disrupt and polarize, complicating the chances that the electorate will arrive at a non-crazy, common-sense politics of moderate reform and civil peace. The mindless controversies over outlandish personalities, the endless and sophomoric exchanges of social media call-out culture, distract attention from the new issues in political economy that ought to be the basis of policy discussion.
And these issues really are new. The air is so thick with neologisms that I barely can keep up: SPACs, DeFi, NFTs, BTC. It would be foolish to expect government to understand these innovations in finance any better than the rest of us. Meanwhile, millions of Americans have quit their jobs during the recovery. Inflation cuts into earnings. The political class has signed up the developed world for an “energy transition” whose costs dwarf potential benefits.
Congress is nowhere close to figuring out how to deal with Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Google. And AI and quantum computing are coming down the pike. One doesn’t have to go the full Andrew Yang to recognize that the worlds of work, saving, investment, production, and trade look much different than they did just a few years ago. The problem isn’t identifying the change. It’s thinking about the change in constructive and original ways that promote human flourishing in the valued places of family, church, neighborhood, and vocation. There’s been work done in this space. But it hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Why? Because the loudmouths, grifters, cranks, and conspiracists drown it out.
Democracies can muddle through political and economic disruption. Foreign policy is different. The prospect of catastrophic miscalculation is real. President Biden’s foolish and botched withdrawal from Afghanistan looks more and more like a curtain-call for the post-Cold War era of American global leadership. It ought to be obvious that his retreat failed to improve American security. Russia and China have become more aggressive in recent months. Iran has accelerated its nuclear program. Belarus aimed its migration weapon at Poland. The Balkans fell back into bad and deadly habits.
China builds up its nuclear weapons cache as it sails a submarine through the Taiwan Strait. Russia shoots down a satellite as it builds up forces on the border of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s recent comments about Russia’s strong relationship with China are the most disturbing and underreported aspect of rising tensions in Eastern Europe. Putin and Xi Jinping seem to have assessed that America has become so decrepit, so inward-looking, so guilt-ridden and risk-averse that the moment has arrived to make the world safe for autocracy. Biden’s response is weak sauce. Holding a summit of democracies may be worthwhile. But it certainly is not a deterrent.
From the Court to Crimea, the past week offered glimpses of the different world we soon will be inhabiting. Not all the images are comforting. They remind us to temper our expectations, avoid rash judgments, and be modest in our presumptions. Above all, they remind us to think seriously about how best to preserve our traditions of freedom in these strange and darkening times.
President Biden rewards a hostile China
And you think your Zoom calls are important. On the evening of November 15, President Biden spoke over video for three and a half hours with China’s autocrat Xi Jinping. The “virtual summit” was held online because Xi hasn’t left China since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic two years ago. According to official readouts of the conversation, Biden and Xi talked to one another warmly. They covered a lot of ground—everything from ICBMs to global energy supplies. They took the first steps toward improved relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Global media amplified this official message. “The Biden-Xi Summit Was Actually Kind of a Big Deal,” read one headline in Slate.
Don’t believe it. Biden’s tête-à-tête with Xi Jinping was less constructive and more harmful than his in-person visit with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in June. At least Biden got something, however insignificant, from that earlier encounter with authoritarianism. The United States and the Russian Federation issued a brief joint statement on nuclear “strategic stability.” They established a “Strategic Stability Dialogue” that would “lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.” The dialogue began in September. Will it go anywhere? Probably not. But the mind-numbing diplomatic process has started. And it involves real people, meeting in real five-star hotels, in real European cities.
That’s not the case with China. The only thing Xi gave Biden was a pledge to make a pledge sometime in the future. The virtual summit was vaporware—the promise of a possible conversation that doesn’t yet exist and most likely never will. At a Brookings Institution event on November 16, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the two heads of state decided to “look to begin to carry forward discussion on strategic stability.” Try saying that diplomatic tongue-twister three times fast. It’s the equivalent of a contestant on The Bachelor gushing, “I think I’m maybe beginning to fall in love with you.” I translate Sullivan’s gobbledygook this way: Xi and Biden had a conversation about having a conversation about China’s rising stockpile of nuclear warheads and the threat it poses to global security and nonproliferation. Nothing more.
This doesn’t even rise to the level of negotiating for the sake of negotiating. It’s talking about having negotiations for the sake of … well, what exactly? Talking some more? Reminding Xi of all the good times he spent on the phone with Biden a decade ago? Apparently, at the outset of the discussion, Xi used a friendly idiom to describe the U.S. president. Whoop-de-do. Does that signal a meaningful change in China’s behavior on trade, the pandemic, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, North Korea, and Taiwan? Of course not.
On the contrary: The most powerful, ideological, and despotic ruler of China since Mao Zedong used this opportunity to remind the U.S. president that the only guarantee of good relations with the PRC is to get out of its way. Even more worrisome, Xi Jinping repeated his threats against Taiwan, but with a twist, saying, “We are patient and willing to do our utmost to strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with the utmost sincerity, but if separatist forces provoke and force the issue, or even break through the red line, we will have to take decisive measures.” He also said the United States is playing with fire. And “whoever plays with fire will get burned.”
The Obama veterans who work for Joe Biden have trouble enforcing red lines. Xi Jinping does not. He used similar language in 2017, warning Hongkongers not to challenge the mainland’s sovereignty and Chinese Communist Party control. And, sure enough, when a protest movement emerged in Hong Kong in 2019, Xi crushed it.
Notice, too, how Xi blames Taiwan for cross-strait tensions even as his air force violates Taiwanese airspace with impunity. His message is that China’s policies will remain the same and that it is Biden’s responsibility to rein in Taiwan and to not provoke the mainland. Some “friend.”
Journalists close to the administration emphasize the personal exchanges between Biden and Xi rather than the content, or lack thereof, of the meeting itself. “Monday night’s discussion touched the bedrock of what matters most in the U.S.-China relationship,” wrote David Ignatius of the Washington Post, “and it was at least a beginning of something that could reduce the risk of a global catastrophe.” If Monday really was a beginning, it was not auspicious. Ignatius himself quotes Biden aides “who recalled that when the two men met at Sunnylands, Calif., in 2013, while Biden was vice president, the Chinese leader had raised the possibility of new measures for crisis prevention between the two countries. Little came of that opening.”
Less will come of this one. The vaporware summit was a return to an earlier model of Sino-American relations: the two nations play nice and pretend one isn’t at the other’s throat. It was also a reminder that, since the fall of Afghanistan, President Biden has spurned the China hawks for China doves. The Economist reports that in early September, as the administration reeled from its ignominious and self-inflicted defeat in Central Asia, Xi Jinping “was shockingly testy at the start of a telephone call with Mr. Biden.” Then in late September the United States assented to the swap of imprisoned Huawei executive Meng Wenzhou for two Canadian businessmen held hostage since 2018. On October 7, Jake Sullivan met with Chinese foreign secretary Yang Jiechi in Switzerland to find areas “where the United States and the PRC have an interest in working together.” And on November 10, the United States and China issued a joint declaration to fight climate change.
Words on a page. Another statement China will ignore. This summit was a gift to Xi as he consolidates rule ahead of next year’s winter Olympics in Beijing and his anticipated (and unprecedented) third term as China’s leader. Biden has done nothing to make China pay for its pandemic cover up. He hasn’t increased the defense budget in real terms. He hasn’t further restricted Chinese investment in the U.S. economy. “China’s leaders still want investment and technology from the West,” writes the Economist‘s correspondent, “but they think it is in decadent decline and are decoupling from Western norms and ideas.” America’s leader has done nothing to make them think otherwise.
The Afghan debacle just marks a new, more murderous phase
“I’m now the fourth American president to preside over war in Afghanistan—two Democrats and two Republicans,” President Biden said during his speech on August 16. “I will not pass this responsibly on— responsibility on to a fifth president.” He needn’t have corrected himself. He did indeed irresponsibly bequeath to his successor a terrible situation in central Asia.
The best-case scenario, according to Biden, would look like this: Afghanistan’s reversion to Islamofascism fades from the international headlines. The Taliban understands that its continued rule depends on its ability to prevent terrorists from launching attacks from its territory. America goes back to fighting over masks and vaccinations and “building back better,” or whatever.
But the best-case scenario is an illusion. Why? Because the war isn’t over. Afghanistan is just one front in a global conflict that the United States did not initiate and cannot wish away. The Cold War did not end when the South Vietnamese government collapsed. Nor will the war on terror or the “Long War” or the “Forever War” cease with Taliban control of Afghanistan. When participants in the worldwide Salafist-jihadist movement look at the developments of the last week, they don’t see reasons to quit their mayhem. They see the chaos, panic, violence, disorder, and American retreat as a vindication of their ideology and a spur to further action.
It’s happened before. North Vietnam’s victory over the South did not make communism less expansionist or revolutionary. On the contrary: Laos fell to the Communists, Cambodia was subjected to the barbarism of the Khmer Rouge, Cuba sent advisers to the pro-Communist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, the Sandinistas overthrew the anti-Communist Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and a pro-Communist insurgency took root in El Salvador. The relentless humiliations that followed America’s defeat in Vietnam ended Jimmy Carter’s presidency. They did not stop until Ronald Reagan shifted the nation’s course.
Or try a more recent example. When America removed its troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 and failed to enforce its red line against the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2013, the Middle East did not become less violent or pathological or dangerous. It was only a matter of time before ISIS overran the Iraqi cities of Falluja, Ramadi, and Mosul. On June 29, 2014, the terrorist army’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced the formation of a caliphate. Then ISIS moved toward Baghdad and enslaved and massacred Iraq’s Yazidi population along the way.
So terrible was ISIS that in August 2014 President Obama intervened against it with airstrikes—an intervention that continued, with greater success, under Obama’s successor. As I write, the caliphate is no more, Baghdadi is dead, and Iraq has another shot at a better future. There are 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq and some 900 in Syria. This is not a coincidence.
How long, then, before U.S. forces return to Afghanistan? I recognize that it might feel a little silly to ask such a question at this moment. Biden already has deployed more troops to Afghanistan to evacuate civilians than were there when he gave the order to leave. Let’s say, though, that the withdrawal is completed without incident—a questionable assumption—and that there are no Americans in Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. What happens next?
The first thing to note is that the Taliban faces rebellion. Demonstrations against the return of the Islamic militia have been met with violence. They may increase in number. Meanwhile, the son of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary anti-Taliban mujahid who was murdered two days before 9/11, has announced the renewal of his family’s resistance campaign. Just as the Taliban never surrendered after the U.S. intervention, neither will the former partisans of the Northern Alliance acquiesce to the collapse of Kabul. Afghanistan is too geographically and ethnically diverse to submit easily to the domination of one party.
Even a low-grade civil conflict will draw in other powers. The list of interested parties begins with nuclear-armed Pakistan and includes Iran, Russia, China, and India. America will be forced to pay attention and likely will become involved. After all, the fate of Afghanistan is part of the “great power competition” that President Biden said he cares about.
Biden also said he’s “adamant that we focus on the threats we face today in 2021—not yesterday’s threats.” And the “terrorist threat,” he went on, “has metastasized well beyond Afghanistan.” He didn’t acknowledge that one of the reasons the threat spread out of Afghanistan was that for 20 years America denied it a base there. Now that the Taliban is in, and the Americans are out, the elements of al Qaeda and ISIS in Afghanistan today will be joined by more holy warriors.https://ddc8dde6090d8332df22f7d8a904db36.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Not to worry, though, said Biden. “We conduct effective counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don’t have a permanent military presence.” And we can do the same thing in Afghanistan, he continued, because “we’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.”
Let’s hope he’s right. The problem with his argument is that America does have a “military presence” in north and east Africa, Syria, and Iraq, as well as in Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, and elsewhere. And America does have a naval presence in the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean. Our eyes are “firmly fixed” on bad spots in the Middle East and North Africa because we are nearby. The horizon over which our counterterrorism forces must travel is short. That won’t be the case in Afghanistan.
Biden created a situation in which America has neither boots nor eyes on the ground in a landlocked, mountainous country thousands of miles from port and surrounded by unfriendly states. Unlike 20 years ago, China and Russia are strong and adversarial and looking for opportunities to embarrass the United States. Every threat or attack that emanates from Afghanistan will testify to U.S. stupidity and weakness. Furthermore, the Taliban, even as it is dogged by internal opposition, will command more territory and field stronger forces than any of the Salafist-jihadist outfits scraping by in the ungoverned and contested spaces of the Maghreb, the Sahel, the Levant, and the Arabian Peninsula. Our intelligence capabilities will be hobbled and our response time lengthened.
This dispiriting assessment doesn’t include the propaganda boon to the Salafist-jihadist cause. Kabul will be transformed from an island of modernity to the global capital of anti-Western jihad. International terrorism flourished alongside the Islamic State. It manifested in spectacular, mass-casualty attacks in Paris, Marseilles, San Bernardino, Orlando, and Manchester. “For a long time now Islamist movements have defined the creation of an ‘Islamic state’ as their goal and standard for achievement,” writes former State Department official Charles H. Fairbanks. “A state provides a better terrorist sanctuary, and has far more versatile capabilities, than a movement.” A state gives a movement safe harbor, institutional support, and physical inspiration for “lone wolves” in the West to murder unbelievers. Such a state is what the Taliban will build in America’s place.
“I made a commitment to the American people when I ran for president that I would bring America’s military involvement in Afghanistan to an end,” Biden said. “And while it’s been hard and messy—and yes, far from perfect—I’ve honored that commitment.” Yes, he has. The Taliban’s military involvement in Afghanistan, however, continues in our absence. And so the Afghan people are left to suffer, the world watches agog, and America is vulnerable to resurgent Islamic extremism. The Forever War isn’t over—it’s entered a new phase. Where the enemy has the upper hand.
In December 1949, Chiang Kai-shek moved the capitol of the Republic of China (ROC) to Taipei. He intended the relocation to be temporary. He had already moved his government multiple times: when the Empire of Japan invaded China, when World War II ended, and again when Mao Zedong’s Communist insurgents took the upper hand in the Chinese Civil War.
To Chiang’s eyes, Taiwan was the perfect place to refit his tattered forces and prepare them for the long struggle ahead to defeat the Communists. The main island was protected by dozens of tiny island citadels, many just off the mainland coast, and surrounded by famously rough waters. While Chiang’s army had sustained crushing battlefield defeats and mass defections, he believed his superior navy and air force would make Taiwan an impregnable fortress.
The events that followed presented successive U.S. presidents with some of the most consequential foreign policy questions ever confronted by America’s leaders. During the decades since 1949, there have been several incidents that tested whether or not Washington was willing to confront the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and support Taiwan. If past is prologue, how the United States responded to previous crises might say something important about what it will do in the future. So, what does the historical record say? What might we expect to see if China attacks Taiwan in the 2020s or beyond?
The Korean War
On January 12, 1950, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech in which he suggested that America no longer intended to defend its erstwhile allies the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Republic of China (Taiwan). According to Acheson, those governments were outside of America’s defensive perimeter in Asia. His speech encouraged the newly established People’s Republic of China (PRC) to accelerate plans to invade Taiwan. But before Mao Zedong and his generals could act, their North Korean ally Kim Il-sung launched an invasion of South Korea.
On learning of the attack, President Harry Truman decided that the U.S. would defend both Korea and Taiwan, and ordered the U.S. Navy to forestall the CCP from attacking the ROC’s last redoubt. On June 29, 1950, an American aircraft carrier, heavy cruiser, and eight destroyers sailed into the Taiwan Strait to conduct a show of force within visual range of Communist forces arrayed along the mainland coast. Soon thereafter, armed American seaplanes were stationed on the Penghu Islands and began to search for any hostile movements toward Taiwan.
To further enhance its early-warning picture, the U.S. sent submarines to monitor Chinese ports across from Taiwan, areas where enemy vessels were expected to marshal if an invasion was imminent. In addition, four American destroyers were stationed in Taiwan. Their mission was to patrol near the coast of China, with at least two warships watching around the clock for signs of a pending amphibious assault. The Taiwan Patrol Force, as the mini-surveillance fleet became known, operated continuously for nearly three decades to come.
Soon thereafter, the U.S. established a defense command in Taipei and sent a Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) to Taiwan under the command of a two-star general. This organization was tasked with providing training, logistics, and weapons to the ROC military in order to develop it into a modern fighting force. By 1955, there were tens of thousands of American troops stationed in Taiwan, including over two thousand military advisors, making MAAG the largest of the U.S. advisory groups then deployed around the world. In the following years, MAAG transformed the ROC military into one of Asia’s most capable fighting forces.
The 1954–1955 Taiwan Strait Crisis
In August 1954, the Chinese Communists launched a string of operations against ROC forces along the mainland coast. Mao and his top lieutenants judged that by attacking the offshore islands they could drive Washington and Taipei apart and set the stage for a final invasion of Taiwan. They began by shelling Kinmen and Matsu, island groups located just off the coast of Fujian Province. Not long after, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched air and sea raids on the Dachens, a group of islands 200 miles north of Taiwan, near Taizhou in China’s Zhejiang Province.
In November 1954, the PLA encircled Yijiangshan, a ROC island base located at the extreme northern flank of the Dachens. Using modern equipment and tactics from the Soviet Union, the PLA carried out a successful invasion operation, taking the island on January 18, 1955. In response, the U.S. Navy steamed into the area with 70 ships, including seven aircraft carriers. The Americans then launched Operation King Kong, the evacuation of the Dachens. U.S. Marines assisted ROC forces to safely move some 15,000 civilians, 11,000 troops, 125 vehicles, and 165 artillery pieces back to Taiwan with no casualties.
On March 3, 1955, Washington formally cemented a mutual defense treaty with Taipei. President Dwight Eisenhower also received permission from Congress to exercise special powers in the defense of Taiwan, granted by the Formosa Resolution. In May 1955, the PLA stopped shelling Kinmen, and, three months later, the CCP released 11 captured American airmen. The 1954-1955 Taiwan Strait Crisis was over, but the standoff continued.
The 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis
On August 23, 1958, the PLA launched a surprise attack on Kinmen, showering the island group with tens of thousands of shells as a prelude to planned amphibious landings. Beijing sought to test the resolve of the Americans, seeing if the seizure of Kinmen and the threat of war could break the U.S.–ROC alliance apart and demoralize Taiwan. The plan failed almost immediately. ROC military engineers had tunneled deep into Kinmen’s granite, carving out subterranean bunkers and strongholds that allowed the defenders to weather the shelling with few casualties. The PLA made an amphibious assault on the nearby island of Tung Ting and was repulsed. To the north, Communist units launched artillery strikes against the Matsu Islands. But those were just as ineffectual.
The U.S. sent in four aircraft carriers, along with a large number of cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and amphibious ships. The American fleet was equipped with low-yield atom bombs, designed to stop a potential human-wave assault on the islands, a PLA tactic previously seen in Korea. After torpedo boats and artillery began to target ROC Navy ships resupplying Kinmen, the U.S. Navy began escorting the convoys from Taiwan with cruisers and destroyers. On September 18, 1958, American artillery guns were rolled ashore Kinmen, which were capable of firing tactical nuclear shells that could incinerate any invader (the shells were kept aboard U.S. Navy ships located nearby). The colossal guns also fired conventional rounds that increased the garrison’s firepower and morale.
During the crisis, ROC Air Force pilots used new Super Sabre jets and Sidewinder missiles to engage PLA MiG-17s in air-to-air combat. The results were decisive: ROCAF pilots achieved 33 enemy kills in return for the loss of four of their own. On October 6, Beijing announced a cease-fire under pressure from its Soviet allies, who feared the fighting could escalate and go nuclear. The 1958 Crisis was over and Taiwan’s offshore island bases remained undefeated.
The 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis
In the early 1990s, Taiwan began peacefully transitioning to a democracy. With the Cold War over, it seemed hopeful that the U.S. and other nations would recognize Taiwan as a legitimate, independent country. Taiwan’s president, Lee Teng-hui, publicly signaled that, in his view, the Chinese Civil War was over; Taiwan was now the ROC, the ROC was Taiwan, and his country would no longer claim sovereignty over territory controlled by the authorities in Beijing.
In June 1995, President Lee returned to his alma mater, Cornell University, to announce Taiwan’s plans to hold free and fair elections. The CCP responded by conducting a series of ballistic missile tests, firing rockets into the waters north of Taiwan. In August, the PLA moved a large number of troops to known invasion staging areas, conducted naval exercises, and carried out further missile firings. That November, the Chinese military staged an amphibious assault drill. In March 1996, just before the elections, the PLA fired more ballistic missiles into waters directly off Taiwan’s two largest ports, and implicitly threatened to turn a planned exercise into a real invasion operation.
The U.S. played an important role throughout the crisis. President Bill Clinton responded to Beijing’s provocations by sending two carrier battle groups to waters near Taiwan. The American demonstration succeeded: China backed down, and Taiwan’s elections went ahead as planned. President Lee won the elections with a decisive margin, and the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis ended on a positive note. Nonetheless, Taiwan remained diplomatically isolated and has slowly become more vulnerable over time, a trend that continues unabated to present day.
Implications for the Future
While all historical analogies are imperfect, precedents previously set could provide American leaders with a guide in subsequent similar circumstances. The record of past policy decisions made by Washington demonstrates that, when tested, American presidents have always viewed it in their nation’s interest to come to Taiwan’s defense, even amid situations that could have escalated to the level of nuclear warfare. In 1958, for example, Washington was resolved to defend Taiwan against invasion even if that required the use of battlefield atomic weapons—and even if such usage invited nuclear retaliation from the Soviet Union, which was then closely aligned with Beijing.
Perhaps even more notable were those American leadership decisions undertaken in the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. In that instance, the U.S. deployed aircraft carrier battle groups to waters near Taiwan in spite of the fact that the CCP had recently detonated two nuclear warheads at a test site; had carried out multiple tests of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles; and, in backchannel conversations, had implicitly threatened Los Angeles with nuclear attack. The resolve displayed by Washington in 1996 might be considered particularly remarkable given that the U.S. no longer diplomatically recognized Taiwan’s government at the time.
To date, there is no known case in which an American president failed to send forces to support the defense of Taiwan in response to a credible CCP threat. If this track record is indicative of future performance, the years ahead are likely to see the U.S. government continually improve its operational readiness to defend Taiwan in accordance with the evolving threat picture. In times of crisis, American leaders will likely send overwhelming national resources to the Taiwan Strait area and make their commitments to Taiwan’s defense more explicit in hopes of convincing the PRC to deescalate tensions.
Even barring a major political-military crisis, it seems probable that the years ahead will see the U.S. government improve its early-warning intelligence via regular ship, submarine, and aircraft patrols of the Taiwan Strait; more frequent overhead passes of space and near-space platforms; and expanded intelligence sharing arrangements with the Taiwanese security services. It also seems probable that the U.S. will make significant enhancements to its diplomatic, trade, intelligence, and military presence in Taiwan.
It remains an open question whether a Taiwan Patrol Force and MAAG-like organization will be reestablished—let alone an official country-to-country relationship and defensive alliance. But each could be considered past examples of political and military initiatives that, when combined, were successful in helping to deter CCP aggression. Herein we might find positive lessons for the future.
On August 1, 2021, Viktor Orban the long-serving Prime Minister of Hungary posted a photo on Viktor Orban/Facebook with Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson chatting amicably at the Prime Minister’s official residence situated in the Buda Castle’s historical Carmelite Monastery. To clarify the situation, Tucker Carlson tweeted: “We’re in Budapest all this week for Tucker CarlsonTonight and a documentary for Tucker Carlson Originals. Don’t miss our first show here starting tonight at 8 pm ET on #Fox News.”
Tucker Carlson’s interest primarily in Viktor Orban personally and secondarily in Hungary harks back to early 2019, when he rightly praised Viktor Orban’s opposition to Angela Merkel’s lax immigration policies. Yet, Viktor Orban’s resolute opposition to Angela Merkel’s and the European Union’s permissive immigration drive would have been more credible if he would not have granted either the equivalent of green cards or even citizenship to countless well-paying individuals as well as their families from Asia. His “humanitarian” largesses that mostly favored rich Chinese and Russian citizens have been performed in total secrecy, raising all kinds of rumors about his, his families’ and his close collaborators’ private dealings with tens of thousands of those individuals with overwhelmingly questionable background.
Artificially linking Viktor Orban’s anti-immigration stand to Europe’s declining birth rate in general and Hungary’s abysmal record of steady population decline, he extolled the prime minister thus: “Hungary’s Leaders actually care about making sure their own people thrive. Instead of promising the nation’s wealth to every illegal immigrant from the Third World, they’re using tax dollars to uplift their own people, imagine that.” Again, Tucker Carlson grossly embellished the Hungarian demographic situation. According to the Central Statistical Office (Hungarian acronyms: KSH), just in the first two months of 2021, the rate of population decline increased by a steep five percent. In the same period, the death rate increased by a whopping six-and-a-half percent. Meanwhile, the number of marriages decreased to 6,877 in the same period. These trends are nothing new in Hungary. Since Viktor Orban’s allegedly pro-Hungarian and pro-family policies, close to one million Hungarians left the country either permanently or temporarily. To add insult to injury, young people declare in unison all over the social media that they do not see their future secured in Hungary and leaving the country permanently.
Furthermore, in the same vein, Tucker Carlson opined: “Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, has a different idea. Instead of abandoning Hungary’s young people to the hard-edge libertarianism of Soros and the Clinton Foundation, Orban has decided to affirmatively help Hungarian families grow.” In this manner, in addition to not reflecting reality, his praise of Viktor Orban’s stand on illegal immigration spookily mirrored Hungarian government propaganda. As a follow-up to his flattering comments, he invited in February 2019, the Orban-puppet political non-entity Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto to reinforce this narrative on his show.
To crown his sojourn to Hungary, Tucker Carlson sat down on August 5, 2021, for an interview with Viktor Orban and on August 7, 2021, addressed as the featured speaker the Mathias Corvinus Collegium Symposium, held between August 5th and 7th in the town of Esztergom at the bend of the Danube river. According to the Director-General of the Collegium, “the biggest name at the Mathias Corvinus Fest will undoubtedly be Tucker Carlson.” Both his interview and his speech were unmitigated disasters and made him permanently a laughing stock in Hungary. Except for their utter idiocy, neither highlight of his stay deserves detailed analysis. However, his senseless and unjustified denigration of the United States of America abroad merits a more comprehensive scrutiny.
The Collegium itself has been under the auspices of the Maecenas Universitatis Corvini Foundation, as does the University too, that was established under Law No. XXX of 2019. The Foundation has been endowed by Law No. XXVI of 2020, with many billions of Hungarian Forints (HUF), such as 82 million shares from the government-owned oil company (Hungarian acronyms: MOL), each share worth almost 2000 HUF, 19 million shares of the government-owned pharmaceutical company Richter, at about 7000 HUF each, and a variety of other government-controlled foundations as well as institutions that indirectly channeled government-endowed largesses in the tens of billions to the university. This Foundation is run by a Board of Directors (Kuratorium in Hungarian) selected exclusively by Viktor Orban and his FIDESZ party with the absolute monopoly of power in Hungary. Nominally, the Collegium’s mission has been “talent development” of gifted Hungarian youth from all over the Carpathian Basin, meaning mainly ethnic Hungarian youth from the Ukraine, Romania and Slovakia.
For those who are not familiar with Hungarian history and geography, King Mathias, adoringly called Corvinus, ruled the Hungarian Kingdom from 1458 to 1490, and was dubbed the Renaissance King on the account of his progressive reforms and his marriage to an Anjou princess by the name Beatrice from Naples. The town of Esztergom has been the seat of the only Hungarian Catholic Cardinal, starting with Bishop Domonkos the First in 1001. For final historical accuracy, the Corvinus University of Budapest was named under the Communists the Marx Karoly (Karl Marx) Economics Scientific University.
To add intellectual cover to Tucker Carlson’s adventure to Hungary, Rod Dreher, a Senior Editor at the American Conservative, authored on August 4, 2021, a long article in the same publication under the title “Tucker To Hungary, Nixon To China.” Claiming “a personal intellectual investment in the Hungary story” and trying to justify his grandiose title as a conservative breakthrough toward a more sane and effective Republican policy against both the Democrat as well as Republican Establishments and their misguided supporters, he suggests that “Tucker to Hungary is a kind of Nixon to China for conservative American intellectuals and thought leaders.” Then follows an equally idiotic and confusingly discombobulated, grossly superficial and totally useless snippet of quotations from various writers, in which Rod Dreher attempts to show the difference between the allegedly uberliberal and unfree United States of America and the ideally much freer conservative Hungary.
With due respect for Rod Dreher’s “personal intellectual investment,” whatever it is, I would like to present my objective intellectual analysis as well as my learned opinion to his and to Tucker Carlson’s unprofessional as well as extremely irresponsible flirtation with Viktor Orban and his equally unserious creed.
For starters, some personal background. I was born and mostly educated in Hungary. After I took the Hungarian Bar for Judges and Prosecutors with distinction and oversaw all kinds of crimes in Hungary’s Communist society, I escaped to the Federal Republic of Germany. Following a stint with Radio Free Europe, I worked in Academia in Germany. Subsequently, I got an invitation from the United States Congress to join one of its research departments. When Ronald Reagan was elected, I was on loan first to the Supreme Court, then to Senator Orin Hatch’s office and later to the White House. I ended my government career as Congressman Christopher (Chris) Cox’s foreign affairs adviser. I published hundreds of articles as well as opinion pieces and authored several books. Already in 2005, I wrote an article about the real Viktor Orban under the title “Viktor Orban the Hungarian Chavez.” Very recently, I published three major analyses on the current situation in Hungary at www.ff.org. My aim with presenting my professional background is not to boast but to establish my credentials as knowing the United States of America and Hungary too, as opposed to the Monday Morning Quarterbacks of international relations like Rod Dreher and Tucker Carlson. So-called intellectuals should not lecture others for being ignorant of the world when they are guilty of the same offense.
Moreover, throughout my professional career, I have been a staunch conservative and a Republican. I wrote articles against George Soros and those who supported him either intellectually or politically. Until his commentaries about Hungary, I mostly have agreed with Tucker Carlson’s opinions, especially with regard to the overall situation in the United States of America. However, his lying about Hungary has turned him into an idiot. As a result, his reporting about Viktor Orban and the Hungarian situation has only shown glaring ignorance and shameful fakery. More dangerously, Tucker Carlson has positioned himself outside the intellectually objective and honest political debate in the United States of America, thus embarking on a zigzag course seeking to mix order and reform. Seeing himself as becoming the media-equivalent of the “Reagan conservative,” he is running into political as well as intellectual headwinds, because of his deficient intellect and compensatory arrogance.
Both of these qualities have been in full display during his short stay in Hungary. Limiting Viktor Orban’s policies to his justifiably firm response to illegal immigration and his “illiberal” responses to Brussels’ liberal value system are short-sighted and misleading. It would be more helpful to put the Viktor Orban phenomenon in the context of the post-Communist developments in the formerly Soviet Union-occupied region’s general and specific situations. Generally, all the countries that constituted the so-called Soviet Empire in Central and Eastern Europe have been in difficult transitions since 1990 from their original ubiquitously abnormal state to a more normal Western political, economic, cultural and ethical system. In this quest, some have been more successful than others. The Czech Republic and Slovenia have made the most progress. Behind these two states are Slovakia and Croatia. Romania and Bulgaria have been struggling to overcome corruption, poverty and political instability. Poland and Hungary have been the most complex and contradictory examples of the post-Communist parochial as well as global challenges. As far as Hungary is concerned, Balint Magyar published a thought-provoking article in Magyar Hirlap on February 22, 2001, in which he opined: “With the appointment of Lajos Simicska (a former close friend of Viktor Orban’s) as the head of APEH(acronyms for the Hungarian IRS) a new chapter begins. What has happened since means the introduction of the state employing mafia methods within the democratic institutional framework to systematically build up an “organized uberworld” [in Hungarian felvilag as opposed to alvilag that means underworld]. Later, the same author with the assistance of Balint Mladovics published a book titled The Anatomy of Post- Communist Regimes, in which they argue that the so-called linear transition theory cannot be applied for those regimes, because of their “moral inhibition” to consequently adopt liberal democracy. In conclusion, the authors coined the term “hibridology,” according to which those regimes are an inconsistent mixture of liberal and illiberal constructs.
Although I tend to agree in general with Balint Magyar, I think that the term “Mafia state” for Hungary is erroneous. In a Mafia state the government is transformed because the Mafia that develops parallel to the state gradually overtakes the local and central positions of political, economic and financial organizations. What has happened in Hungary since 1990 is exactly the opposite. First, politicians gained absolute political power through using and then abusing the democratic processes. After that, they turned the government into the instrument of their extreme lust for power and money. Therefore, I would rather use the term “Kleptocratic Absolutism” to describe the political regime of today’s Hungary.
The post-Communist so-called “Democratic Politicians” were either members of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (Hungarian acronyms: MSZMP) or non-party persons who elected to stay in the country and conform superficially to the norms as well as the abnormal values of the Communist dictatorship. The latter led a schizophrenic existence that made them hover between collusion with the regime or merger with the political and economic power holders. Clearly, neither the former members of the Communist elite nor the passive sympathizers espoused democracy or free market capitalism.
To add insult to injury, both groups unconditionally believed in the redeeming value of government institutions and their bureaucracies. Thus, instead of changing society by promoting new ideas, they tried to modify, but not reform, the existing government organizations, in order to transpose society and its mentality to their own bureaucratic image. Predictably, the results were devastating. The first democratically elected Antall government in 1990 was on a futile search for a new Hungarian business elite that would, in turn, finance the new-old bureaucracy forever. No wonder that corruption on the scale unimaginable even under the Communists has taken roots in the society. This government of supreme amateurs only lasted a single term. In 1994, the former Communists, their party rechristened to the “Hungarian Socialist Party” (Hungarian acronyms: MSZP) returned to power with an absolute parliamentary majority. Yet, to avoid being reminded of their one-party dictatorship, they allied themselves with the Free Democrats (Hungarian acronyms: SZDSZ) in an absolutely unworkable political alliance. In 1998, came Viktor Orban and his Young Democrats (Hungarian acronyms: FIDESZ) in alliance with the Smallholder Party (Hungarian acronyms: KGNP). First, Viktor Orban destroyed his coalition partners and then started to take over the political as well as business heights of powers. The first signs of Viktor Orban’s corrupt dictatorial mentality and his lust for money emerged. Suspicion of corruption and conspiracy theories were abound across Hungary. In 2002, his government was sent packing into opposition by the voters for eight long years. The former Communists were back in the saddle with their unloved Free Democrats.
In opposition, Viktor Orban behaved in a most undemocratic and disgusting manner. In addition to barely showing his face in the Parliament, he tirelessly incited his loyal Antifa-like mob to disrupt, threaten and destroy everything in their way. As a result, the years between 2002 and 2010 were the eight lost years for Hungary. Tired of the former Communists and the politically impotent Liberals, the Hungarian voters, in their desperate stupidity, gave Viktor Orban and his party an absolute parliamentary majority.
Viktor Orban’s second chance at absolute powers from 2010 would enter the annals of Hungarian political history as the rapid return to the one-party rule combined with the resurrected self-defeating “Magyar” (Hungarian) semi-Feudal mentality. Domestically, Viktor Orban has been convinced that he is the Messiah the Hungarians have waited for since the humiliating Trianon peace treaty in 1920. Better still, he has believed that he is infallible and possesses God-like qualities to decide by himself what is good for the nation and what is not. For these reasons, he has zero tolerance for any other opinion that happens not to be his. Therefore, he is convinced that he has every right to tyrannize the entire nation whose citizens he looks upon as his subjects.
To this end, his and his party’s first major political/legal act was in 2011 to pass a new constitution, which with its nine amendments thus far, has become a highly politicized instrument for political, economic and moral corruption. Naturally, more laws, decrees, regulations and an avalanche of government decisions have followed that have perpetuated his hold on the media, prescribed the limitations of free speech, the conduct of elections, the financing of political parties, and the obtrusive acquisition as well as shameless expropriation of the national wealth to his family and his chosen elementary, high school and university buddies.
To complete the creation of his absolutism, Viktor Orban and his pliant Parliament appointed a bunch of Yes-men to key and lesser important central and local government positions. In this manner, Janos Ader, the President of Hungary, has become the “signing automat” of every law having been passed by the Parliament without any regard to its constitutionality; Laszlo Kover, the Speaker of the Parliament, who rules with iron hand over the opposition and metes out insane amounts of fines exclusively against their members; Peter Polt, the Prosecutor General of Hungary, who sees his role to protect the Prime Minister and his close associates from domestic and foreign criminal prosecution; Sandor Pinter, the Minister of Interior, who does the same on the police investigation level; and Judit Varga, the Minister of Justice, who tries to explain why the frequent violations of the rule of law are more democratic than any legislation passed by the European Union, etc.
Thus, it beggars belief to hear Tucker Carlson claim incessantly that in Viktor Orban’s Hungary the people enjoy more freedom than in the United States of America and that in Hungary people fear less of the government than in the United States of America. As opposed to Tucker Carlson’s tendentious and misleading narrative, Hungary under Viktor Orban’s absolutism has turned into a closed stock company for the exploitation of the national wealth with profits shared exclusively among members of the government, parliamentarians and their privileged adherents, called in Hungarian slang the “Knights of the NER.” Most of them, including Viktor Orban, have entered government poor as Job, but in politics they have been elevated to millionaires and even billionaires. The Orban absolutism functions like a private business, in which each shareholder thinks of public affairs only insofar as he or she could turn his or her position into private profit. Money reigns supreme for a small minority, while the overwhelming majority of the population either lives in poverty or struggles to make ends meet on a monthly basis.
Meanwhile, the building of soccer stadiums, organizing international sport events, exhibitions, politically motivated financing of ethnic Hungarians across the neighboring countries, etc. have been in full swing for a decade. Unnecessary mega projects, such as the Budapest Belgrade railroad, the extension of Hungary’s only nuclear power plant in Paks, the construction of hotels that would never be filled with tourists, and the elevation of Viktor Orban’s birth place in Felcsut have been objects of nationwide derigion. On the other side of the coin, the once excellent Hungarian education system and the health industry have been run to the ground.
In this economically insane situation, a set of scandals has tarnished the so-called elite. Without going into the well-publicized details of those scandals, it should be sufficient to mention the fact that between 2015 and 2019, Hungary has headed the European Union’s anti-fraud investigation list. During this four year period, the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) concluded forty three probes into misuse of funds where it found irregularities and recommended to the European Union Commission to recover some four percent of payments made to Hungary under the organization’s structural and independent funds and agriculture funds. In comparison, in all other member states the recommended rate of recovery of European Union money was below one percent. At the same period, the European Union average was 0.36 percent. Hypocritically, the Hungarian government defended itself by claiming that all the irregularities took place under the previous government. Just a humble note: Viktor Orban and his FIDESZ party has enjoyed absolute power since 2010.
The most recent chaotic controversy again touches upon the suspicion of corruption in Hungary. At the center of this new scandal is the Norwegian government’s financial contribution to the NGOs operating in Hungary. The sum was 77 billion HUF, the equivalent of about 217.5 million Euros. The saga of the Norway project has had its origin in an agreement concluded in December 2020. Accordingly, the above quoted sum was designed to be distributed by an organization totally independent of the Hungarian government. The latter had seven months to designate such an organization. The Hungarian government missed the deadline and still demanded that the Norwegian Fund wire the money to Hungary. The Norwegian Foreign Ministry informed the Hungarian government in early August 2021, that it considers the agreement null and void, because of the Hungarian government’s breach of the agreement. Demonstrating that the word chutzpah has entered the vocabulary of the Hungarian government too, it first criticized Norway claiming that “Norway owes us this money,” since Oslo has benefited from its participation in the common market, despite not being a European Union member state. To show the seriousness, better defined as irrational greed, of the Hungarian government, Gergely Gulyas, the government’s spokesman, stated that Hungary is looking into the legal possibilities to obtain the Norwegian money. To support such a claim, the Hungarian government passed on August 6, 2021, Decision (in Hungarian: Kormany hatarozat) 1564/2021, in which the government instructs the competent ministries to launch a complaint against the “Nowegian Kingdom” concerning the latter’s failure to provide the said amount of money to Hungary.
In this single episode the entire mentality of the Viktor Orban-led regime is present. For Viktor Orban and his clique, politics, including international affairs, is not the art of settling controversies but of trying to intimidate and to shut up those who disagree with them. No wonder that the Viktor Orban regime is losing credibility at home as well as abroad.
With respect to the Viktor Orban-led regime’s international shenanigans, the most important facts have been its anti-American, anti-European and pro-Chinese, pro-Russian and to a lesser extent pro-Turkish policies. The gulf among the former and the close coordination among the latter are alarming, because the feeling of alienation on the one side and the hostile elation on the other are mutual. Increasingly, Viktor Orban is asking what NATO and the European Union would do for Hungary. Clearly, he is trying to use his allies to blackmail them into accepting his “illiberal democracy,” while offering Russia and China access to NATO and the European Union for personal favors. In this dangerous game, in which he could easily be eliminated as prime minister, Viktor Orban has turned Hungary into a state of lies, fear, intimidation and vicious rumors.
As this analysis demonstrates, occasionally small countries must struggle with great challenges too. Clearly, Hungary is at a crossroads. The upcoming national elections next spring will be crucial for the future of the country. Either Hungary will sink further into the swamp of Viktor Orban’s “Kleptocratic Absolutism,” or it will have a chance to rejoin as a democratic nation to the European Union and NATO. The opposition parties have forged a united front, but barely. Currently, their programs lack maturity. In order to succeed, they will have to come up with a more homogeneous set of political and economic messages. Yet, another election victory for Viktor Orban and his party would be unacceptable for Hungary and the West, including the United States of America, regardless of whether the Democrat or the Republican party controls the White House and Congress. For this reason alone, objective information about the situation in Hungary would have been in America’s national interest. Regrettably, Tucker Carlson’s week-long visit to the country did not serve this purpose.
Most importantly, Tucker Carlson appears to be in denial of Viktor Orban’s burgeoning authoritarian tendencies and endemic corruption both at home and abroad. He says nothing or very little about strengthening the ruthless manifestations of glaringly anti-democratic values, such as censorship and other restrictive measures that have become daily occurrences in Hungary. Even more alarmingly, Tucker Carlson is totally silent about the illegal spying on citizens, mainly opposition politicians and journalists. Finally, it is never a positive professional sign about the strength of one’s case when a journalist compares Viktor Orban’s dictatorial regime favorably to the current state of affairs in the United States of America. Thus, instead of presenting an explanation for his fallacious reporting, Tucker Carlson simply suppresses all the unpleasant and negative issues. To a real and knowledgeable journalist, the difference between fraudulent government propaganda and the reality must be self-evident. But not for Tucker Carlson who appears to be on a phony ideological mission. Recommending Viktor Orban’s Hungary worthy to be followed by the United States of America is inexcusably idiotic. In the end, Viktor Orban’s war on the Hungarian people and the West is not about politics. It is about culture and mentality. And in the long run, Western civilization carries far more weight than Viktor Orban’s and Tucker Carlson’s corrupt as well as bastard illiberal democracy.