Monday, April 25, 2005

Shifting with the Winds in Iraq

The tone of news from Iraq shifts as press coverage moves through different cycles, slow and fast. January's election created an ambiance of success, but gridlock in the formation of a new government and more lurid violence from the insurgents has caused a new tide of pessimism. This see-sawing of perspective creates a deficit of credibility. At this point it is difficult to rely on the media for significant indices of the state of affairs in Iraq. Amidst all the spin and sound-bites, however, several factors seem to indicate future trends.

Though tactical shifts made by the US general staff have brought the casualty rate down, US soldiers continue to die at an average rate of more than one a day, during both "hot" and "cold" news cycles of insurgent violence, with wounded far exceeding that number. This fact is significant as force security is priority number one of the US soldiers stationed in Iraq. If the presence of 140,000 of the most technologically advanced soldiers in world history can not prevent the insurgency from killing 10 or more of their number weekly one can only imagine what the insurgency will be capable of once that force of soldiers has departed Iraq.

For its own part, the insurgency has remained persistent, if not consistently frequent and intense. Amid all reports of its "slowing down" or "speeding up" one must remember that time is on the side of the insurgency. Building a government is a slow, difficult process, where tearing one down can generally be achieved in short bursts of intense effort, timed carefully. The insurgents have very little incentive to stop fighting- their extreme politics will make them marginal to any system that emerges from a successful program of democratic nation-building. Their chances of successfully reconstituting Iraq on their terms are very low, but for the Islamic extremists among them that fact provides little deterence and for the Ba'athists among them days of past glory just might fuel dreams of future triumph.

It must be as clear to the insurgents as it is to me and to other observers world-wide: US forces will not remain in Iraq indefinitely. Once the new Iraqi constitution is approved by the end of 2005 the clock will begin running down marking time to the end of the Coalition occupation. UN resolutions call for an end to the Coalition occupation in 2006. As that will be a mid-term election year it will be very difficult for the Bush administration to justify extending the US presence in Iraq beyond the UN mandate.

The insurgency must know this timetable as well as anyone, and so their strategic situation amounts to a waiting-game. The continued presence of US forces until then might erode some of the insurgency's capacity, though the opposite effect might well result. Persistent adaptation and innovation in contention with US forces might make for a more capable and deadly insurgency in the wake of a US withdrawal. The surest deterrent to insurgent success between now and 2006 rests with the conduct of the new Iraqi government. If the winners of January's elections can come together forge stable and effective institutions (which hinges most crucially on whether they themselves respect the institutional accomodations they negotiate with one-another) the new Iraqi goverment will almost certainly emerge victorious from the civil conflict that will inevitably follow the Coalition withdrawal.

Friday, April 15, 2005

China and Taiwan

The National People's Congress of the PRC recently adopted legislation authorizing the Chinese government to use force in the event of a Taiwanese declaration of independence. This is not really a policy change except in that the legislation outlines in detail small changes in Taiwan's constitution that may be deemed a provocation and initiate a military response. For example, were Taiwan to change it's official name from The Republic of China to The Republic of Taiwan, the PRC military could attack Taiwan with full legislative authority.

The proximal incentive for this rather inflammatory piece of legislation seems to have been a referendum included on the ballot of last year's presidential election in Taiwan, in which voters were asked to vote in favor of a resolution calling on the PRC to stand down all missiles fixed on Taiwan. Though that referendum was not ratified by a sufficient percentage of the electorate to pass, it was widely perceived as a dry run for a plebiscite (or series of plebiscites) on changing the Taiwanese constitution and declaring de jure independence from China.

The prospect of a Chinese attack on Taiwan is often followed by the question "what would (or should) the U.S. do?" Few options are left to the U.S. once hostilities break out in the Taiwan Strait, and none of them are very good. Thus U.S. policy should and has been geared toward preventing such choices from ever having to be made.

Unfortunately, few in the U.S. understand the situation in the Taiwan Strait. I am leery of speculating how many Americans can not distinguish between Taiwan and Thailand. Even those Americans aware of Taiwan's geography and political status are confused as to why the PRC and Taiwan are technically "one nation." Few are aware of the history of the Chinese civil war and the flight of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government to Taiwan. Fewer still are aware of Taiwan's fifty years as a colony of Japan.

This general ignorance is troubling, because a number of factors have to be kept in mind in order to clearly analyze the situation. Partisans on both sides of the issue will quote a blizzard of facts and figures in support of seemingly rock-solid cases, but the facts are torturously complex and clear moral imperatives extraordinarily difficult to draw. Advocates of Taiwanese independence will note that the Taiwanese "speak a different language" and that Taiwan was "part of China" for less than 10% of China's recorded history. A defender of the Chinese case will counter that the language spoken in Taiwan is no more different from the language spoken in Beijing that that spoken in Canton or Xiamen or Shanghai or any other of dozens of unimpeachably Chinese cities in which a dialect other than Mandarin is spoken. Moreover, Taiwan came under the administration of Beijing in 1687, making the history of "Chinese Taiwan" longer than that of the United States.

Perhaps the most salient fact that must be kept in mind by U.S. policymakers is evinced by the recent actions of the National People's Congress. Though the PRC remains an authoritarian state, the NPC is the institution within that system most responsive to the democratic impulses of the Chinese citizenry. The cold, hard fact is that the legislation drafted by the NPC most likely reflects the passionately held opinion of the vast majority of ordinary people in the People's Republic of China. Many in China are deeply disatisfied with their government, but they remain at the same time zealously nationalistic. The reunification of mainland China with Taiwan is a sacred cause of Chinese nationalism, and has been since Taiwan was ceded to Japan (after defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War) in 1895.

Three summers ago I had an encounter in Nanjing which helped illustrate some of the situation for me. I was invited to the opening of a chic new night-spot by a young man, one of China's new entrepreneurs. The interior was lavishly decorated in the height of "bourgeois decadence (the kicker were the pornographic tiles airbrushed over the urinals in the men's lavatory). Posters adorned the walls in which quotations from Chairman Mao had been edited to turn them into dirty jokes. An old surplus army truck had been turned into a stage on which bands performed ear-splitting rock music. As I sat and watched one of the bands I noticed that along the side of the truck had been spray-painted a slogan: "We will definitely liberate Taiwan!" The young owner noticed me reading it and smiled proudly, declaring, "I painted that!"

Taiwan is a robust young democracy and must be protected. At the same time, U.S. leaders must understand that a declaration of independence by Taiwan will mean certain war. No Chinese government, whether the current Communist regime or some future democratic administration, could survive the tidal wave of public outrage that would occasion a Taiwanese declaration of independence. Because independence would mean war and war leaves no good options for the U.S., the U.S. must tread VERY carefully in conducting Strait diplomacy.

Monday, April 04, 2005

The Next Pope

As the world mourns the passing of Pope John Paul II it is natural to speculate about who his successor might be. Reflection on John Paul II's legacy always occasions admiration for the prescience or serendipity that brought him, the first non-Italian pope in centuries, to the Vatican throne at the historical moment he arrived. John Paul II was nothing if not a man of his era, it would be difficult to imagine a pontiff better equipped to confront (and facilitate) the last decade of the Cold War and the fall of Communism.

As someone standing outside the Catholic church with a purely "academic" interest in the disputations of the College of Cardinals I am inclined to ask, "what type of pope could exert the same kind of historic influence as John Paul II?" Many have speculated that the next pope will be drawn from among the Catholic clergy of the world beyond Europe and North America. The ascension of an African, Asian, or Latin American pope would almost certainly create an impact that would influence the future long-term direction of world culture and society.

In my view, the boldest choice the Catholic leadership could make, one that would exert the same kind of profound shock to the larger global order as that of John Paul II, would be a pope of Chinese nationality. The state of Christianity in the People's Republic of China right now is one of intense dynamism and volatility. Statistics are very hard to assess, but all indications are that various Christian doctrines are more popular now than they have been at any previous time in Chinese history- as many as 80 million Chinese citizens may have joined various church groups throughout China. Many of these churches are doctrinally quite radical- one, for example, is led by a living Chinese woman who claims to be the current incarnation of Jesus Christ. I think that speculation about the imminent Christianization of China is premature, but it would seem obvious that many Chinese citizens are turning to Christianity out of some sort of intrinsic appeal, perhaps as an expression of discontent with the current social or political order in which they live.

The place and role of the Catholic church in this environment is one full of both peril and potential. As of now the Chinese government acknowledges a community of 5 million Catholics organized into 500 dioces throughout China. However, these "Catholic" congregations are not, by law, allowed to have contact with or take direction from the Vatican. The "openess" policies of the Chinese Communist Party are not yet elastic enough to allow the free and unimpeded operation of religious organizations, especially one with the ecumenical mission of the Catholic Church. Believing Catholics are placed in a precarious position in China, as to participate in the sacraments of China's official church is a violation of Catholic dogma, whereas to accept the ministrations of priests ordained by the Vatican is a political crime punishable, in many cases, by death. A "secret Church" of Vatican-ordained priests is known to shadow the official Church in China- its priests are among the groups most prone to execution under the PRC's penal law.

In this climate the selection of a Chinese pope would, I surmise, hit Beijing like an earthquake. It would pose a fundamental challenge to the structuring principles of PRC state and society, and would force (perhaps violently) a reworking of Beijing's relations not only with the Vatican but with the world at large. I could not say whether the ultimate outcome of such a crisis would be unequivocally positive, either for the people of China or the global Catholic community at large, and for this reason such an event is perhaps not likely. It is certain, however, that the ascension of a Chinese priest to the throne of St. Peter would have a historical impact equivalent to that of the late John Paul II. Perhaps such a papacy would only be possible once the world has changed sufficiently to "catch up with history."