All posts filed under: Foreign Policy

The ‘Lab Leak’ Inquiry at the State Department

The following essay was originally posted at the author’s Medium blog here. In both journalism and policymaking—if not always in politics, or in the sordid world of score-settling by unemployed, second-rate apparatchiks—facts matter, and intellectual integrity matters. In light of the remarkable quantity of errant nonsense that has been written in the last couple of weeks about squabbles inside the US State Department about how to look into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 in the closing weeks of the Trump Administration, I hope this essay will help set the record straight for those who still care about things such as facts. I write this because, to put it bluntly, I’m tired of being the butt of stupid and paranoid conspiracy theories being promulgated by those who know better. I recognize that some of these conspiracy narratives are, for any thoughtful person, self-refuting even on their face. (As someone who has been warning the policy community since at least 2007 about threats to the United States and the democratic world from the Chinese Communist Party’s geopolitical ambitions—including …

Could an Invisible Military Laser Steal Your Privacy?

In early 2006, I sat in the Pashtun tribal areas on the Af/Pak border. When not rinsing grit out of my teeth from the thick fog in the air, I awaited information from capricious “allies,” on whether their informant could identify a senior al Qaeda leader who I’ll call “The Moroccan.” At the time, he was al Qaeda’s regional operational commander and well worth removing from the board. I lusted for certainty on the whereabouts of the Moroccan. He remained stubbornly elusive, while I chafed with impatience aggravated by living conditions halfway between a prison and an armed bunker. I watched tantalizing video from “eyes in the sky” of vehicles associated with the Moroccan heading towards the funeral of a militant. The funeral was attended by hundreds of men, all sporting traditional bushy beards and the long, baggy shalwar-kameezs Pashtuns favored, topped by either a turban or pakol cap. Making a positive ID in that crowd was like locating a particular stalk of wheat in a bumper crop. Was the Moroccan there? Or in a …

Anti-Colonialism’s Bad History

Prevailing academic theories of race relations hold that wealth and power differences between groups of people arose from social, economic, and legal systems created to benefit one group of people over another. One of those systems, we are told, was colonialism. Hence the renewed interest in European imperialism and calls to “decolonize” everything from education and beauty to music and health. “Renewed” because this is, of course, not the first time that colonialism has been blamed for the vast wealth and power differences readily observable in the world today. The story starts with Karl Marx. Marx admired capitalism, which he credited with destroying feudalism and the “idiocy” of rural life. The fly in the capitalist ointment, as Marx saw it, was competition, which he thought would drive down profits. To remain profitable, he averred, capitalists would be compelled to squeeze laborers’ wages, thus “immiserating” the working class. The more rational economic system Marx envisaged would do away with competition and replace it with central planning. That was a big mistake, but not the only one. Between …

Fulton and the Case Against Normalcy

Whether they know it or not, Americans are in trouble. The world order from which they have drawn immense benefits—an order they once led the way in creating and for which they have borne the greatest burdens over three-quarters of a century—is at risk. Since Americans generally misunderstand their role in the world, the United States has developed an unfortunate habit of performing that role fitfully and poorly. A more mature understanding of their unique position and exceptional role in world affairs is required for Americans to better protect their interests and avert disaster in a dangerous world. A long-ago speech by a foreign dignitary may hold the key to recovering some lost wisdom about how America came into this role in the first place. Seventy-five years ago this month, Winston Churchill traveled to the American Midwest to deliver what he believed to be the most important speech of his career. At an obscure college in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill set himself two stark objectives: one general and the other specific. The general aim of “The …

Starvation and Ethnic Cleansing Stalk Ethiopia

“Forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten,” wrote eminent 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon of the “Aethiopians” as they “slept near a thousand years.” Ethiopia remains the only African country not colonised—its rugged mountainous terrain kept out intruders and helped to preserve one of Africa’s most unique cultures. The country is far more prominent on the global scene these days, in large part due to a terrible famine that seared images of its starving children into the world’s collective consciousness during the 1980s. But more recently, it has attracted attention due to its remarkable economic renaissance. The country was in the ascendant and its tourism industry was champing at the bit. A campaign was launched promoting Ethiopia as the Land of Origins—the cradle of humanity out of which the antecedents of modern humans set off from Africa around 185,000 years ago. But the world’s tendency toward forgetfulness has re-emerged since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the military into Tigray, the country’s most northern region, last November. This move has plunged Ethiopia into deepening …

China and the Question of Taiwan

There is no reasoning with someone who has built an entire worldview around the conviction that, as George Bernard Shaw put it, a particular country is the best in the world because they were born in it.1 Shaw’s stinging put-down was actually meant as a definition of patriotism, but it works just as well, or better, when applied to what Orwell once called “the great modern disease of nationalism.” No honest debate on world affairs is possible with an interlocutor who keeps switching into competitive mode, deciding in favour of their nation from the outset, and looking only for evidence to support that nation’s supposed superiority. In most situations, this is mildly frustrating; a benign disease. But when heads of state are suffering from the malignant version, then these failures of logic can become everyone’s problem. In modern-day China, nationalism is at its strongest when dealing with the idea—almost an article of religious faith—that the independent island nation of Taiwan is in fact a Chinese state and must be unified with the mainland as soon …

A Misremembered Day of Infamy

Nothing illustrates better the extraordinary changes in America’s political culture than the almost furtive way in which the anniversary of Pearl Harbor has been marked. The surprise attack by the Japanese imperial navy on America’s Pacific Fleet 79 years ago—on December 7th, 1941—was barely commemorated this year in a nation convulsed by a deadly pandemic and the unprecedented effort by its president to steal an election. The exception to this general insouciance came in the tally of the honored dead compared with the gruesome numbers still being inflicted daily by the COVID-19 virus. (What’s more, as of this writing, the number of American COVID fatalities almost equals its Second World War combat toll.) In the public imagination, Pearl Harbor has become little more than an occasion to contextualize national grieving, a historical calamity that serves as a measure against our present difficulties. This shallow use of a hinge event in history has become typical of a nation that has begun to lose its sense of itself. This is evident in Americans’ diminished standards of conduct at home …

Cuba’s Doomed War on Independent Art

There were seven police officers, all dressed as civilians. They arrived at the improvised Havana music studio on the morning of Monday, September 28th, kicked down the door and found their target—Maykel Castillo Pérez, a well-known Cuban rapper and human rights activist who was in the process of recording a new song. They beat Castillo (better known as El Osorbo), dragged him out of the house, and took him to the Castillo de la Estación de Policía—a colonial-era fortress that serves as the National Revolutionary Police headquarters. There, Osorbo was incarcerated in a tiny cell without being informed of the charges against him or given access to legal counsel. When news of Osorbo’s abduction spread, the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Osorbo’s wife, and a handful of other supporters went to the police station to demand the rapper’s release. “We told the officers that we wouldn’t leave until Maykel was freed, even if we had to sleep in jail, too,” Alcántara told me. But officers eventually apprehended these supporters, too, and dispersed them to other …

Making the World Safe for Autocracy

Hong Kong has long ceased to fit the description given it by an envoy of Queen Victoria as a “barren rock.” Since British gunboats secured its jagged shore in the Opium Wars, it has transformed into a vibrant commercial outpost and a premier international metropolis. After nearly two centuries, the city now has new claimants as colonial overlords, who will undoubtedly wreck the special achievements of the crown colony and set new standards of ruination and decline. Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” form of government autonomy received a lethal blow earlier this year when the annual session of China’s rubber-stamp legislature passed new national security laws that effectively prohibited dissent in the enclave. The draconian national security legislation allowed Beijing to bypass the territory’s own parliament and crack down on any activity it deems seditious. Hong Kong’s liberal culture and independent judiciary quickly began to suffocate under the weight of China’s rapacious interference. The Chinese Communist Party is now looking to crush the remnants of the old order. Beijing has announced that it will impose …

What Happened to America’s Soft Power?

For most Americans, the majority of whom will never leave North America, the issue of the US’s image abroad is an issue of tenuous concern at best. The notion that the US’s image abroad has a palpable effect on the efforts of the Central Intelligence Agency to penetrate the inner circles of our foreign adversaries is not something they take into consideration. Perhaps they should. As a former CIA case officer, I was truly alarmed to see a recent Pew poll headlined US Image Plummets Internationally. As the poll notes, “the share of the public with a favorable view of the U.S. is as low as it has been at any point since the Center began polling on this topic nearly two decades ago.” Some of the low standing can be attributed to the perception that the US has handled the COVID crisis poorly. But as much or more is that President Donald Trump is widely despised by our putative allies. The US Department of Defense has a concept, “Preparing the battlefield.” Before the first …