TWIB: Mindless right-wing freakout over new Chinese missile
Plus: Biden’s Iran deal fail; more evidence of GWOT fail; Colin Powell viewed from Iraq, etc.
Welcome to The Week in Blob, our Friday take on international news and the nefarious doings of the US foreign policy establishment! If you’re not already a subscriber to the Nonzero Newsletter, I hope you’ll consider becoming one.
Reports this week that China had tested a new kind of missile—one that is “hypersonic” (able to fly five times the speed of sound), can orbit the Earth, and, in principle, could deliver a nuclear warhead—set off fierce competition for the title of “most breathless overreaction to news about a new Chinese missile.”
And the winner is… Rich Lowry of National Review.
For starters, Lowry demonstrated Isaac-Asimov-level creativity in his proposed response to this development: In addition to accelerating America’s own hypersonic missile program, he says, “we should, with an eye to the growing Chinese missile threat, deploy missile-defense interceptors in Australia and more sensors in space, as well as work toward directed-energy weapons that would be the best counter to hypersonic missiles.”
More important, though, is how Lowry reached his conclusion—by sowing confusion about both of the key concepts required to soberly assess this development: missile defense and nuclear deterrence.
Lowry says these missiles “are uniquely suited to defeat our missile defenses.” Well, it’s true that they would use new techniques to defeat our missile defenses (new for China, at least; the Soviet Union developed a functionally comparable weapon decades ago); these missiles could take a path that evades the Alaska-based anti-missile system designed to intercept existing Chinese missiles.
But the new missiles aren’t unique in their ability to defeat our missile defenses, since those defenses could be overwhelmed by China’s existing arsenal. As arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis noted in assessing the new Chinese missiles, “China already has about 100 nuclear weapons that can target the United States—and existing defense systems wouldn’t stop all of them or even most of them. The system is too small, and its test record stinks.”
Which leads to a critical point that went unnoted in much of the coverage about this new missile-defense-evading missile: America’s defense against nuclear attack has never, ever depended on a missile defense system. Indeed, the US and the Soviet Union spent most of the Cold War refraining from building such systems—by mutual agreement in the form of the Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty. Only after President Bush withdrew from the treaty in 2002 did we build the highly porous Alaska system, much to the delight of defense contractors and their lobbyists.
America’s defense against nuclear attack has always depended on deterrence: the fact that both China and Russia know that if they did launch a nuclear attack, we could use a thousand or so nuclear warheads (a small fraction of our arsenal) to obliterate their countries.
Lowry seems aware of deterrence but not aware of how it actually works. He writes, “The Biden administration has proposed more spending on hypersonic missiles, but the latest news should mean even more of an emphasis on their rapid deployment, so we can hold at risk Chinese assets and maintain our deterrence.”
That doesn’t make any sense. The only reason we would need a new kind of offensive weapon to “maintain our deterrence” would be if China developed an effective missile defense system, which this new Chinese missile certainly isn’t (and which, for that matter, is for the foreseeable future impossible, given not only the number of our warheads but the diversity of their delivery via our nuclear “triad”.)
Is it conceivable that the new Chinese missile, if deployed, could pose a threat to deterrence? To imagine such a thing, you’d have to imagine that (a) the missile somehow evaded detection en route to the US (notwithstanding our space-based missile sensing system, which I suppose we can enhance if that will calm Rich Lowry down); (b) China launched so many of these nuclear missiles that America’s command and control structure was wiped out before we knew what had hit us; (c) none of the many captains of US nuclear armed submarines, upon hearing about America’s annihilation, would get pissed off and nuke China; and (d) some other stuff. All of which explains why Lewis concluded that, “if we’re willing to accept mutual deterrence with China, then the new orbital bombardment system doesn’t really change anything.”
At the risk of sounding mean, I want to underscore the fact that, even if (a) through (d) did all apply, so that a new class of Chinese missiles somehow threatened to neutralize deterrence, Lowry’s claim that developing offensive weapons could shore up deterrence would still make no sense whatsoever. Our 5,500 nuclear warheads are more than enough to, as Lowry puts it, “hold at risk Chinese assets and maintain our deterrence”—unless, again, we could be caught by surprise, which is a problem more warheads, or more rapidly delivered warheads, won’t solve.
Lowry wasn’t the only one in contention for the breathless overreaction trophy. There’s the anonymous expert who told the Financial Times (which broke the story) that the Chinese missile appeared “to defy the laws of physics.” For that matter, the FT reporter who wrote that story gets points for talking about the threat the new missile might pose to America’s “missile defense” without even mentioning the fact that it’s nuclear deterrence, not missile defense, that keeps America safe.
Note: As this newsletter goes to press, David Sanger of the New York Times hasn’t yet written about the new Chinese missile. So Lowry shouldn’t get too attached to his trophy.
In the American Prospect, Anthropologist Stephanie Savell assesses the Global War on Terror in its African incarnation and finds that a “military first approach” is often counterproductive, corrupting local institutions and aiding jihadist recruiters. The “military first” approach includes not only US drone strikes and special forces operations but the training and equipping of state security forces. In Burkina Faso, a civil society leader told Savell that “about 80 percent of those who join terrorist groups say that it isn’t because they support jihadism, it is because their father or mother or brother was killed by the security forces.” Savell cites an analysis, published by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, which found that, when it comes to counterterrorism, “Africa is, in some ways, worse for the fix.”
In Responsible Statecraft, Trita Parsi sheds new light on why the Biden administration has failed to restore the Iran nuclear deal: It refused to give Iran a written guarantee that, at least through the end of the Biden presidency, the US wouldn’t withdraw from the deal (as Trump did) unless Iran violated it. Also in Responsible Statecraft, Jim Lobe examines recent opinion polling in Iran and notes souring sentiment toward the Iran Deal and toward America, increasingly favorable views toward China, and strong support for the Iranian leadership; newly elected president Ebrahim Raisi—a conservative whose political fortunes were boosted by the collapse of the nuclear deal under Trump—has a favorability rating of 78 percent.
Israel has outlawed six Palestinian civil society organizations that operate in the West Bank, deeming them “terrorist organizations.” Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International jointly called the move “an attack by the Israeli government on the international human rights movement.”
The Guardian reports on reactions in Iraq to the death of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose 2003 UN speech helped convince Americans that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and should be invaded. Reactions ranged from "I am saddened by the death of Colin Powell without being tried for his crimes in Iraq" (from the man who famously threw a shoe at President Bush during a 2008 Baghdad press conference) to "He made Iraq a better place" (from a Kurd in northern Iraq) to (from another Kurd) “He made Iraq better by helping introduce freedom and democracy. But at the same time, security was destroyed here. The American presence led to increasing terror activities and was the reason that ISIS and al-Qaeda appeared in the Middle East.”
In TomDispatch, Michael Clare examines the huge role played by China and the US—together responsible for two fifths of the world’s fossil fuel consumption—in climate change. He says cooperation between the two countries on the issue is currently stymied by rising antagonism, as each side finds recent actions by the other threatening and responds to the perceived threats with more such actions. Clare observes that, for example, “even more than during the final Trump years, Washington under President Biden has voiced support for Taiwan—considered a renegade province by Beijing—while seeking to encircle China with an ever-more-militarized network of anti-Chinese alliances.” Biden, in explaining that the US can pressure China on human rights and other issues while making progress on climate change, has said, “We can walk and chew gum at the same time.” But China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, deployed a different metaphor in September when he told US climate change representative John Kerry that cooperation on climate change “cannot be divorced” from overall China-US relations: “The US side wants the climate change cooperation to be an ‘oasis’ of China-US relations. However, if the oasis is all surrounded by deserts, then sooner or later, the ‘oasis’ will be desertified.”
My weekly conversation with frenemy Mickey Kaus can be found after 10:00 p.m. US Eastern Time (give or take an hour) this evening on The Wright Show podcast feed or at bloggingheads.tv or the bloggingheads YouTube channel. And our after-podcast podcast—the Parrot Room conversation, which is available to paid newsletter subscribers and Patreon supporters—can be found shortly thereafter by going to the NZN Substack home page—right here—and clicking on this week’s Parrot Room episode. There you’ll also find a way to get the Parrot Room as a feed in your podcast app.
Illustration by Nikita Petrov.