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The Bunker: Ready to Die for Taiwan?

The Bunker, delivered to our subscribers Wednesdays at 7 a.m., is a newsletter from the desk of National Security Analyst Mark Thompson. Sign up here to receive it first thing, or check back Wednesday afternoon for the online version.


This week in The Bunker: Political blather about war with China over Taiwan is dangerous bluster well beyond the public’s current mood; baby steps in the right direction when it comes to war and weapons; Pentagon data MIA; and more.

IS TAIWAN WORTH DYING FOR?

Better to decide now than stumble into war

Of course it’s too early to wonder whether young Americans are ready to fight and die for Taiwan if China tries to take the renegade province by force of arms.

But if the nation shuns that debate when it’s too early, history tells us it will be too late.

Over the weekend, Beijing launched three days of military exercises around Taiwan following President Tsai Ing-wen’s April 5 meeting with U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California. China is “ready to fight at all times and can fight at any time to resolutely smash any form of ‘Taiwan independence’ and foreign interference attempts,” the Chinese military said April 10.

War drums are getting louder. For 40 years, the U.S. tried to deter a Chinese move against the island by brandishing “strategic ambiguity” — resolutely refusing to declare if the U.S. military would join Taiwan in beating back a Chinese invasion. But President Biden has repeatedly said that the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s aid if China attacks. “There’s a lot of rhetoric in China, and a lot of rhetoric elsewhere, to include the United States, that could create the perception that war is right around the corner,” Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said March 31. “It’s not impossible. But I don’t think at this point I would put it in the likely category.”

That’s hardly reassuring. “If Washington policymakers are determined to defend Taiwan, they must be prepared to back their promises with Americans’ lives,” Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute wrote April 6. “Any conflict would be terrible at best and most likely catastrophic, setting East Asia aflame, triggering decades of strife, roiling the global economy, and endangering the U.S. homeland.”

Taiwan is the fulcrum on a seesaw with Beijing and Washington sitting at opposite ends. Distance matters — both in a playground and on the Pacific. Taiwan is 100 miles off China’s coast, but nearly 7,000 miles off America’s. “The rationale for fighting a war in defense of Taiwan has not been made clear to either the U.S. armed forces or the public,” Ben Connable (apt name, considering the topic), has pointed out. “There is no treaty requiring the defense of Taiwan, an island that the United States does not formally recognize as an independent state.”

There are good reasons for the U.S. to defend Taiwan against aggression from mainland China. But if U.S. deterrence fails, young Americans — as usual — will pay the price under orders from their elders. You increasingly hear the will-we-or-won’t-we debate in national-security circles. It’s time for the rest of us — troops and taxpayers — to weigh in, too, before the balloon goes up (sorry). 

STATUS QUO ANTE

Back to the way it was…

In this line of work, progress is often measured by stopping bad things instead of creating good ones. Sort of like a hockey goalie. By that rancid scorecard, there’s a couple of recent events moving U.S. national security, no matter how timidly, in the right direction. One takes a step toward returning Congress to its rightful role in deciding when, or if, the nation should go to war. The second is a Pentagon plea for lawmakers to scrap their vexing requirement that the military services send annual “unfunded requirements lists” to Congress that gives pork a glistening sheen of military utility. Defense Secretary Robert Gates cracked down on the practice more than a decade ago. That ultimately led Congress to pass a law (PDF) requiring it.

Status quo ante is Latin for the way things were before, and it became shorthand for kicking Iraq out of Kuwait after Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of his southern neighbor. It’s long past time for Congress to return to the status quo ante when it comes to declaring war and shunning bacon. As the defense budget soars toward $1 trillion a year, can anyone seriously argue that there are unfunded military priorities that require congressional add-ons every year?

It’s pathetic how Congress thinks it right to legislate such lardy lists while ignoring its constitutional obligation to declare war. A cynic might think a lawmaker’s role is more about bringing home the bacon than ensuring the nation wages the right wars for the right reasons.

SEARCHABLE DATABASES

What a concept!

The Navy wants to digitize newsletters dating back to the 1930s “for quick research via searchable database.” This captured The Bunker’s eye because for years he has grumbled about the Pentagon’s lack of just such a searchable database. Go to the transcripts section on the Defense Department website and see what happens when you type in, to coin a challenging search phrase, “Rumsfeld.” You get all of 11 hits where the late former defense secretary Don Rumsfeld’s name cropped up. His famous 2002 “known knowns” quote about the hunt for Saddam Hussein’s WMD is MIA on the Pentagon website even though he uttered the phrase during an official Pentagon briefing from an official Pentagon podium inside the Pentagon’s official briefing room.

Same thing’s true for Pentagon announcements, press releases, reports, and the like. It seems that every time the Pentagon upgrades its website, all that came before either vanishes or becomes impossible to find, which is the same thing. It’s almost like the Pentagon has automated amnesia, forgetting the past so it can repeat its mistakes in the future. Granted, collecting, saving, and making searchable all the effluvia the Pentagon churns out may be challenging. But it should be a piece of cake for an enterprise that says it can knock down incoming missiles aimed at the U.S.

WHAT WE’RE READING

Here’s what has caught The Bunker’s eye recently

Waist deep in the Big Dnieper

Leaked Pentagon documents reveal Russia’s military struggles in Ukraine and how much the U.S. spies on its allies, the New York Times reported April 8. (The Defense Department’s response, such as it is.)

Inertia

Julia Gledhill here at the Project On Government Oversight whacks Congress for not taking needed action now on acquisition reform in favor of — how’d you guess? — waiting for yet another tome plumbing the problem. 

Red flag

Francis P. Sempa cites a pair of military-savvy presidents on the danger of sliding deeper into the Russo-Ukrainian war at Real Clear Defense April 8.

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