Wednesday, November 01, 2006

On the elections and U.S./China

Two of my recent pieces from the Business Times of Singapore are pasted here:
Business Times - 01 Nov 2006

Will US polls end with a big bang?

A Democrat win won't mean Bush will change Iraq policy and withdraw troops


A VETERAN British political journalist who has covered all the US presidential races since 1992 is in Washington this week to report on the mid-term Congressional elections that will take place in less than 10 days.

'This is the first time in my career that my newspaper has assigned me to do stories on non-presidential elections in the US,' he told me over lunch in a restaurant on Capitol Hill.

'There is a feeling among my editors that although the elections on November 7th are basically of local nature, they could have a major impact on US foreign policy, and in particular on what's happening in Iraq,' he explained.

'My bosses seem to believe that if the Republicans end up receiving a major blow next month and lose their control of Congress, you could see the start of the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the beginning of the end of the neoconservative dominance in this city,' he continued. 'And if that happens, these elections could turn out to be a national referendum on the Iraq war and by extension on the Bush presidency, and that's a big, big story.'

The Republicans have controlled both chambers of Congress - the House of the Representatives and the Senate - since 1994 (except during a brief period when the Democrats held the Senate).

So the first question is whether the Democrats will actually succeed in taking over the House and the Senate.

Let's start with the current balance of power in the House of Representatives where the Republicans control 230 seats against 201 seats for the Democrats (two Republican seats and one Democratic seat are now vacant). Since elections for seats in the House take place every two years, all the 435 House seats are up for grabs this year.

So in order to win control of the House, the Democrats will need to pick up at least 15 seats, which most pundits say is not a mission impossible. In the Senate, where lawmakers run for (re)election every six years, the Republicans have 55 seats while the Democrats control 44 seats (there is one independent senator). There are 33 Senate races this year, with the Democrats defending 18 seats and the Republicans defending 15.

Do the arithmetic, and you will figure out that the Democrats will need to pick up six seats to take control of that chamber. The chances that that is going to happen are about 50-50.

There are also 36 races for governorships at stake this month, with the Democrats defending 14 seats and the Republicans defending 22. But since governors, unlike senators and House representatives, do not make decisions on national and foreign policy issues, these races for the governorships would have less of an impact on the fate of the Bush presidency.

Until recently, the conventional wisdom among pollsters and other political observers in Washington was that the Democrats would take control of the House with a very slim margin of about five to 10 seats and that the Republicans would maintain their control of the Senate.

Such a development would not have been considered as remarkable and, if anything, would fit with historical political trends of big losses for a president's party six years into his presidency (political analysts describe that as a 'six-year itch'.)

Hence in four elections falling on the second mid-term of a two-term presidency - 1938 (Franklin Roosevelt), 1958 (Dwight Eisenhower), 1966 (John Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson) and 1974 (Richard Nixon/Gerald Ford) - the average loss for the president's party was 53 House seats and seven Senate seats.

Hence from that perspective the expected loss of even 15 to 20 Republican seats in the House would have been spun by Bushies and the Republicans as a 'natural' political development - voters venting out their frustration - and not as repudiation of President George W Bush's foreign policy agenda, or for that matter, the Iraq war.

At the same time, the Republicans were already 'discounting' (to apply a term from the investment profession) a loss of the House and in a sense rejecting in advance the notion that such a development would signal voters' anger at the Bush administration's performance and politics and their disgust with the many scandals involving corruption and sex among Republican lawmakers.

In any case, Senate races have traditionally been seen as having more of a national dimension than elections to House seats which have been dominated by more parochial issues. And the expectation that the Republicans would retain their hold over the Senate suggested that the elections would mark neither the end of the Bush presidency nor the electoral death of the Republicans.

If anything, since the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the Bush administration and the Republicans seemed to have been gaining political momentum from their campaign aimed at accentuating the need to 'stay the course' in Iraq - allegedly a central arena in the fight against 'Islamo-Fascism' - and at portraying the Democrats as 'appeasers', as the advocates of a defeatist policy of 'cut and run' in Mesopotamia and against the 'terrorists'.

In a way, the Republicans were replaying the strategy of rally-behind the-president-against-the-terrorists that was developed by Karl Rove, the White House political wizard, and that worked for them in the 2004 presidential and Congressional elections. The message from the White House and the Republicans was that voting for the Democrats in November would make it difficult for the United States to 'finish the job' in Iraq and 'embolden' the terrorists. Hence, in the Republican view, voting for the Democrats would be like voting for Osama bin Laden.

But Mr Rove's be-very-very-afraid strategy may not be working this time. In fact, against the backdrop of the growing violence in Iraq, it seems that public attitudes towards the war have reached a certain 'tipping point' and that the majority of Americans have concluded that the military adventure in the Middle East may be turning into a major disaster for the US. More important from the political perspective, voters think that the mess in Mesopotamia has worsened America's ability to conduct the anti-terrorism campaign as a direct result of the failed policies and mind-boggling Katrina-like mismanagement of the current White House occupant.

Indeed, one public opinion polls after another - including the McClatchy-MSNBC poll, the Washington Post/ABC News Poll, and the Opinion Research Corporation - highlighted the growing public disenchantment with Mr Bush and his performance and the rising opposition to the Iraq war among the Democrats, the independents and even the Republicans.

Around two-thirds of Americans are now opposed to the war in Iraq, believe that it damaged US position in the world, do not think that the US is winning it and want Washington to announce a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

Moreover, in a reflection of the erosion in Mr Bush's status as a 'War President', more Americans are now saying that the Democrats would do a better job than the Republicans in handling Iraq. Most pollsters seem to agree that the Iraq war has been responsible for the low public approval ratings of President Bush which remain in the mid to low 30s (37 per cent in a poll by Gallup for USA Today, 34 per cent in a survey by the New York Times and CBS News, and 33 per cent in a poll by Princeton Survey Research Associates released by Newsweek).

Only the Republican lawmakers in Congress seemed to be doing even worse than Mr Bush among voters, reflecting the impact of a series of scandals involving top Republicans on Capitol Hill: influential lobbyist Jack Abramoff admitted bribing members of Congress.

House Majority Leader Tom Delay was indicted on charges of illegal fund-raising. And Mark Foley, the chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, resigned after revelations that he sent sexually explicit email messages to Congressional pages (high-school age boys).

If Iraq as well as the failures to press North Korea and Iran to end their nuclear military programmes has made it difficult for the Republicans to accentuate their traditional strength on national security, the scandals have made a mockery of their pretensions to be the party of 'family values'.

So it is not surprising that aiming to break the Republicans' six-year grip on power of the legislative and executive branches, Democratic Party candidates are deploying the disliked Bush and his Iraq policy as weapons in their campaign advertisements.

In fact, while conservative and Republican pundits have started to question the rationale for and the management of the Iraq war, leading Republican candidates have even sought to distance themselves from the President as Iraq continues to stir up anti-Bush opposition in House and Senate races from coast to coast.

Four separate opinion polls show that Democratic candidates now have a big edge on the Republicans just a few days before Election Day. (They include a Gallup poll which puts the Democrats 23 points ahead and a Washington Post poll which gives them a 13-point lead).

The anti-Bush/Republican/Iraq mood has already affected the major Senate races in key battleground states, including Ohio and Virginia, where Republicans seemed to have had some advantage only a few months ago, suggesting that the Democrats could win control over both the House and the Senate.

Indeed, the latest Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll of five states with the most hotly contested Senate races shows the Democrats with the lead in Ohio, New Jersey, and Virginia as well as in the races for three Republican-held Senate seats - Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Montana. Republicans are ahead by a small lead in Tennessee and Missouri.

In all these contests, the margins were close enough that the advantage could change by Election Day. Pollsters say that the most significant development in the electoral advantage is that the Democrats are now holding in Ohio, a so-called Bellwether state, which Mr Bush had won by a small margin in the last presidential election.

In the Ohio Senate race, Representative Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, is ahead of Senator DeWine, the Republican incumbent. In Virginia, another watched Senate race, Democrat James Webb, a Vietnam veteran who served as President Ronald Reagan's Navy secretary, has a narrow lead over Senator George Allen, the Republican incumbent.

A victory by Mr Webb in Virginia, a conservative Republican state, would be a clear signal that Mr Bush and the Republicans are in big political trouble. But political observers caution that even if the Democrats control the House of the Senate after Nov 7, which would be interpreted as a political Big Bang, it would still not mean President Bush would be forced to change the course in Iraq and to start withdrawing US troops from there.

First, the Democrats have yet to propose a coherent strategy to replace Mr Bush's policy in the Middle East, while some conservative Democratic lawmakers continue to back the White House's policies.

'Are Democrats providing substantially different answers than those given by the Bush team?' asks Nicholas Gvosdev, editor of the National Interest magazine. 'No, they aren't,' he responds, adding: 'Simply compare the statements of Senator Hillary Clinton with those of Senator John McCain and you will see a nearly identical approach to world affairs.'

And with regard to Iraq, 'with the exception of the few calling for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal, most Democratic proposals seem like kinder, gentler versions of what the President is advocating'.

Hence, he concludes: 'Those expecting major changes should the Democrats take control of one or both houses of Congress in the US mid-term elections are waiting in vain.'

Americans may not support the war in Iraq, but both the Republicans and the Democrats are not ready to end it yet.

Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

Business Times - 27 Oct 2006

Washington's wrong bogeyman and wrong issues


CHINA bashing has become a common pursuit in Washington these days with members of the political right warning that Beijing is becoming America's most threatening geo-strategic rival while those on the political left are arguing the Chinese have been transformed into a major geo-economic peril.

Hence while conservatives - neo or otherwise - are proposing that the United States prepare itself for a cold - or even a hot war with China, liberals are calling for 'protecting' the US economy from Chinese products and investment.

But even those Americans who are urging US diplomatic and business engagement with China have yet to come up with a coherent strategy to advance their agenda, which explains why the China Bashers have succeeded in dominating the debate on the Sino-American relationship while the China Engagers find themselves frequently on the defensive. Indeed, at a time when the consensus among members of the US foreign policy establishment is that American long-term interests lie in enforcing global military and ideological dominance, it is not surprising perhaps that many Americans should view China with apprehension.

'With China returning to wealth and power, it does seem to be the only country that might have the ability, should it choose to do so, to dislodge us from our position as the greatest military and economic power,' explains former US diplomat Chas Freeman, who was the principal American interpreter during President Richard Nixon's historic 1972 visit to China and is currently the co-chair of the United States China Policy Foundation.

'The Chinese are thus our preferred cure for 'enemy deprivation syndrome', the sickening feeling of disorientation we experienced when our longstanding enemy irresponsibly dropped dead,' argues Freeman, who had served, among other things, as charge/deputy chief of mission at US embassies in Beijing and Bangkok; director, Chinese affairs, at the Department of State; and assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs.

Freeman, who spoke recently in Washington in a seminar organised by the Committee for the Republic, a foreign policy analysis group, is very concerned that more and more of his colleagues in Washington are seeing the Sino-American relationship as a zero-sum game, and believe that, like in the case of other troublesome foreigners, the only approach that would work with China is coercion: sanctions, followed up, when these fail - as they invariably do - by military assault.

He points to the recent proposal in the Senate to impose a contemporary version of the Smoot-Hawley tariff on China. Or as Freeman puts it: 'The signal, filtered through the roughly 2 per cent of our GDP accounted for by turnover at Wal-Mart, is: 'Surrender - or we'll blow your brains out!' ' And since US warplanes and nuclear submarines, though conceived for use against a different enemy in a completely different geopolitical and military context, obviously need new targets, where are such targets to be found, if not in China?

Facile judgments

'Threat analysis is the highest form of budget justification and China, faute de mieux (for want of something better), is the justification du jour,' according to Freeman. 'We have clearly arrived at a national consensus that the main challenges we face from China are bilateral and either employment-related or military in nature - or both.'

Freeman has been spending much of his time questioning these judgments which he considers to be 'too facile'. First, contrary to the narrative promoted by the protectionists on the political left, declining employment in manufacturing in the US - however potent a tool of demagoguery it may furnish - is not, as is widely believed, a case of China gaining jobs at US expense.

The fact is that China is also losing manufacturing jobs, and it's losing them both faster and on a much larger scale than the US economy, Freeman points out; between 1995 and 2002, for example, 2 million factory jobs disappeared in the US, while China lost 15 million.

Moreover, the losses in both countries have been in the very same industrial sectors. Over that period, for example, America lost 202,000 textile jobs; China lost 1.8 million. What is happening is that technology and capital are everywhere rapidly replacing labour in manufacturing, just as technology and capital earlier replaced labour in agriculture.

In 1980, about 20 per cent of the American workforce was in manufacturing; today, the figure is less than 10 per cent but US industrial production has more than doubled. 'Productivity gains, not foreign workers, are what is causing increasing numbers of Americans to leave the factory floor, much as their grandparents left the farm,' Freeman explains. 'Cluelessly blaming this on the Chinese may be a good political tactic, but it is not a strategy to cope with our problems.'

At the same time, while one can understand the utility of inventing bogeymen to justify continuing investments in advanced weaponry and tactics, China is simply not up to the role of peer competitor that officials and analysts in Washington have assigned to it, 'even if it were interested in such a role - which it shows no sign of being', Freeman insists, adding: 'We need to keep China's large but relatively backward and defensively deployed military in perspective.'

Even if one agrees with the US government estimate that China is spending twice as much as its stated defence budget on its military - US$70 billion, or around 2.8 per cent of its GDP - one should also note that in the past fiscal year, the US defence budget was about US$441.5 billion and 3.7 per cent of GDP, which doesn't include about US$120 billion in combat operations in Afghanistan and Iran, which are provided outside the budget through 'supplementals'; the benefits for veterans, another US$70 billion or so; nuclear weapons, which are in the Department of Energy budget; the Coast Guard and other homeland security programmes; and the various military-related programmes in space.

'US military spending now is not - as our media commonly states - US$441.5 billion but more like US$750 billion, which is about 6.2 per cent of GDP, not the published 3.7 per cent,' Freeman explains, concluding that US military spending has been rising as a percentage of its national budget, and this has been happening 'despite the fact that, by startling contrast with China, we have no great powers or traditional enemies on our borders, no territories in dispute with foreign powers, and no enemy fleets or air forces probing our defences'.

As Freeman sees it: 'China hasn't designated us as its enemy and, in most respects, doesn't behave as if we were.' But branding China an enemy could prove to be a case of self-fulfilling paranoia, Freeman warns. And if that happens, 'much as some in our military-industrial complex would like to fight the Cold War all over again, we aren't going to get to do this if we make an enemy of China', since the 'Chinese would be a vastly more formidable peer competitor than the late, unlamented USSR'. War with China would likely be hot, rather than cold, and it could involve many battles and last a very long time.

Freeman, who travels to China and Taiwan quite frequently, believes that the one real casus belli between the US and China - the Taiwan issue - has been managed peacefully by the two governments and publics, including through establishment of party-to-party ties between Taiwan's major opposition parties and the Chinese Communist Party, and their joint inauguration of a partial cross-Strait political entente that has reversed the trend towards war in the Taiwan Strait.

'Cross-Strait interaction is replacing Taiwan separatism with a process of political integration that parallels the economic integration and cultural rapprochement that have been under way for more than a decade,' according to Freeman.

Meanwhile, Taiwan's political establishment has rejected massive purchases of US weapons on three occasions, after concluding that they could not win an arms race with 1.3 billion Chinese across the Strait. The leadership in Beijing, for its part, now sees peaceful reunification as the likely result of trends that are increasingly well established.

'Renewed confidence that time is on the side of reunification has enabled China to resume its default position, which - as demonstrated in its approach to the peaceful recovery of Hong Kong and Macau - is to be patient and forbearing,' Freeman says.

From that perspective, American concerns about Chinese aggressiveness in the Taiwan Strait seem 'increasingly delusional', he argues. Freeman maintains that instead of worrying about bilateral challenges from China, Americans should pay more attention to the challenge that the Chinese are presenting to US global economic, scientific and technological leadership.

More specifically, a very different world monetary system is emerging in which Europe and China are bound to play roles commensurate with their economic clout and in which Americans no longer enjoy the privileges of economic dominance but must share financial power with others.

Challenge to US dominance

Moreover, China's drive to excel in science and technology (S&T), and become an innovation leader poses a serious challenge to US dominance in S&T.

And the third challenge to US supremacy is in the realm of global political leadership. 'Alarming numbers of foreigners now hate our country, not because they have ceased to admire our traditional values but because they believe we are repudiating them or at least failing to honour them,' Freeman notes.

'With a few important exceptions - like our own country and Germany - China has everywhere displaced the United States as the country that people most admire.'

Ironically, in the face of Washington's international conduct, China has now emerged as a stalwart defender of the international order.

'As China's global influence continues to grow, I wouldn't bet on Washington's current radicalism prevailing over Beijing's conservatism,' Freeman concludes.

'The east wind may indeed prevail over the west, not in a sudden squall of revolution but as a steady breeze forcing a return to norms of international law and comity we once championed but now repudiate.'

Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.