21 January 2020   Leave a comment

David Gioe has written a short essay on the failure of the publication of what has come to be known as the “Afghanistan Papers” to arouse public sentiment. Gioe notes that the publication of those papers by The Washington Post did not have the same effect as the publication of the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam War in 1971. I wrote earlier about the publication of those documents and how they demonstrated that US policy makers had very little sense of any meaningful objectives in prosecuting the war in Afghanistan. Gioe makes three essential points about the differences between the Vietnam and Afghanistan Wars.

“First, there is little at stake for the overwhelming majority of the U.S. population with respect to the ongoing Afghan war. The war in Afghanistan is dragging on into its 19th year, but this would not be obvious from the media coverage, congressional hearings, Pentagon briefings or public activism. As one journalist put it, “From a political point of view, this war is about as important as storms on Saturn.” In contrast to the white-hot issue of the Vietnam War, especially on college campuses where widespread anti-war marches and protests were the norm, most Americans seem to have lost interest in what happens in Afghanistan.

“Unfortunately, apathy may be an entirely rational response. The American people have, broadly speaking, not been asked to serve in Afghanistan. They certainly have not been reluctantly drafted into service, nor asked to pay any sort of special or supplemental tax to cover the staggering cost of the war. The total bill of more than $2 trillion and the lives of more than 2,301 American service personnel seem ever more distant—although 16 U.S. service members died in Afghanistan in 2019. This is actually part of a larger trend that is marked by American uninterest in foreign policy more generally, with some studies revealing that at least 95 percent of Americans have little or no interest in foreign policy.”

Gioe’s second point was that the Afghanistan Papers did not reveal anything that an analyst who studied closely US actions in Afghanistan did not already know: “One need not read all of the SIGAR reports or other scholarship to plainly see that the Afghanistan mission was not going as military and civilian leaders were saying it was. As Jason Lyall noted in the Washington Post, ‘[N]one of these revelations are surprising. … In short, if you’re surprised by the Afghanistan Papers, you haven’t been paying attention.'” Gioe’s third point is that the Afghanistan Papers were released through a very mundane procedure known as the Freedom of Information Act. The release lacked the drama of Daniel Ellsberg’s heroic leaks which ultimately went to the Supreme Court.

Gioe is unquestionably correct in his analysis. But it is a sad commentary on the lack of public interest in a war that has lasted 19 years with little or not oversight or public input.

Marvin Ott has written a very good analysis of the current situation in the South China Sea and the Chinese efforts to claim sovereignty over a very large part of that sea. The Chinese claim (known as the “Nine Dash Line which is outlined in red in the map below) conflicts with virtually every other state that has claims on the Sea. Ott explains the significance of the “Nine Dash Line”:

“The South China Sea first becomes a factor in Chinese policy when a cartographer working for the Republic of China (ROC) government created a map with a broken line encompassing almost the entire South China Sea. The map was produced at a moment late in World War II when the allied powers were starting to position themselves for a postwar settlement – including new state boundaries. The line was never explained by the ROC (which had far greater concerns fighting for survival against Mao’s Peoples Liberation Army). When the PRC was established, it simply reproduced the same maps with the same dashed line, again with no explanation. In subsequent years, there were occasional attempts by journalists and scholars to obtain some clarification as to the line’s meaning – to little avail. As a result, the line was almost universally ignored. This was understandable, but a mistake, nevertheless. There were, in fact, a number of reasons to believe that the “nine-dash line” was intended to demarcate the maritime boundary of China. One of them – almost universally overlooked – was that the same line also encompassed Taiwan – which everyone knew China claimed as part of its sovereign territory. China’s official (and nonofficial) silence on this score was best understood in terms of a traditional, and very ancient, Chinese aphorism often cited by Deng: “Bide your time; conceal your capabilities; until you are ready to act.” China might intend to assert sovereign possession of the South China Sea, but in the thirty years following Deng’s accession, China lacked the power to enforce such an assertion. Until that changed, China best keep a low profile on the issue.”

The point is extremely important. There is no way to disentangle the issue of maritime sovereignty from the territorial issue of Taiwan. The US has taken a strong position on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and has challenged the Chinese on the basis of international law. But that perspective ignores what is likely a more important issue for the Chinese–the status of what it regards as a rogue Chinese province.

Posted January 21, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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