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Will the Next American War Be with China?

The images from Afghanistan circulating in Washington this week have been of collapse and evacuation: the interior of a military cargo plane, filled with more than six hundred Afghan evacuees sitting on the floor and grasping straps; a little girl with a pink backpack being handed over a wall, with hopes of escaping; hundreds of Afghans chasing a departing cargo plane on the runway at Hamid Karzai International Airport, as if they might grab hold of it and be lifted away. “Please don’t leave us behind,” an Afghan Air Force pilot pleaded, via the news network the Bulwark, speaking on behalf of many who were undeniably being left behind. “We will be great Americans.” In the U.S., some of the deepest lamentations came from people who had poured themselves into this project. “We were overly optimistic and largely made things up as we went along,” Mike Jason, a retired Army colonel who trained Afghan police, wrote in The Atlantic last week. “We didn’t like oversight or tough questions from Washington, and no one really bothered to hold us accountable anyway.” The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, anticipating that the lamentations might grow even deeper and more catastrophic, sent out a suicide-prevention blast: “Veterans may question the meaning of their service or whether it was worth the sacrifices they made. They may feel more moral distress.” These feelings, the V.A. noted, were normal. “You are not alone.”

That so many in Washington were seeing the same images, and reacting in many of the same ways, had a strange-bedfellows effect on politics this week. This past Sunday, on MSNBC, Representative Barbara Lee, of Oakland, the only member of Congress who voted against the Authorization for Use of Military Force, in September, 2001, explained what this week’s events proved to her. “There is no military solution, unfortunately, in Afghanistan,” she said. “We have been there twenty years. We have spent over a trillion dollars. And we have trained over three hundred thousand of the Afghan forces.” On Twitter, you could find a very similar sentiment coming from a former senior Trump defense official, Elbridge Colby, who wrote, “We Americans are just not good at imperialism. Many of the same pathologies characterized our effort in Vietnam.”

Colby, a fortysomething graduate of Yale Law School, was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development in the Trump Administration. Amid many people saying roughly the same thing about the now-ending generational conflict over Islamic extremism, Colby is distinguished by a vision of the generational conflict to come. In his view, idealism and Afghanistan are both sideshows to the real military, economic, and diplomatic action—all of which concerns China. I spoke to Colby by Zoom last week, as the Taliban captured Kandahar and Herat. He was in Brazil, where, it turned out, his family has spent the pandemic. “Get out of the Middle East,” he said, when I asked how the U.S. should reprioritize its resources. “More significantly, I think we’re going to have to reduce in Europe. Basically, my view is, if you’re in the U.S. military and you’re not working on China”—he paused for a moment to acknowledge a couple of lesser but still worthy projects, nuclear deterrence and “a cost-effective” approach to counterterrorism—“get yourself a new job.”

Elbridge Colby goes by Bridge. To his patrician name, add a patrician face (long nose, side-parted sandy hair) and a patrician legacy: his grandfather, William Colby, was Nixon’s C.I.A. director, and his father, Jonathan Colby, is a senior adviser in the Carlyle Group, the defense-friendly private-equity giant. Bridge nearly overlapped at Harvard College with Tom Cotton, and at Yale Law School with Josh Hawley. He was considered for a role as a foreign-policy adviser to Jeb Bush in 2015; according to the Wall Street Journal, campaign operatives torpedoed his chance to be Bush’s foreign-policy director by raising concerns that he was insufficiently hawkish about Iran. Colby arrived at Trump’s Pentagon as an aide to the President’s first Secretary of Defense, General Jim Mattis. Mattis aside, the Administration’s skepticism of neoconservative idealism suited him (as Colby put it, “a nice version of ‘What’s in it for us?’ ”), as did Trump’s emphasis on China-baiting. Following Trump’s lead, many elected Republicans of Colby’s generation, Cotton and Hawley among them, have increasingly described China as an omni-villain, a prime source of economic competition and a national-security threat for a generation to come. In this context, Colby has found his star on the rise. This fall, he will publish his first book, “The Strategy of Denial,” which offers a military strategy for how to deal with China. As advance copies circulated this summer, Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, pronounced it “brilliant” and said that it would be “constantly referred to as we grapple with this challenge”—a suggestion, if one were needed, that many conservatives believe that this conflict is here to stay.

Colby’s book is clinical and ominous. He wants the American people prepared to go to war with China over Taiwan, both because that might deter China from invading the island and because, if deterrence fails, he thinks that American military intervention will be the only way to keep Taiwan free. He notes the Chinese leadership’s decades-long insistence that Taiwan is part of China, and documents the steady Chinese military buildup: around ten-per-cent annual increases in its budget for a quarter century; he also pointed out that China has a Navy that exceeds America’s in the number of boats, if not yet tonnage, as well as missiles that can reach U.S. bases around Asia and as far as Honolulu. All of this is pointing, Colby argues, to an invasion of Taiwan, an event he sees as likely and whose consequences he believes could be disastrous. His concerns in the book do not include human rights; they are instead almost entirely strategic—a successful invasion would send an unmistakable message to all other countries in Asia about who is the dominant power in the region and who gets to write the rules of the economic order.

Military strategists come with all kinds of personalities—Colby is a worrier. He argues that Chinese aspirations and military buildup suggest a specific danger: a series of focussed, regional wars, likely to begin with Taiwan, and he sketches out scenarios for how the U.S. would need to defend or retake the island. As Afghanistan fell to the Taliban this week, the Global Times, a state-affiliated Chinese media outlet, published an editorial arguing, “From what happened in Afghanistan, those in Taiwan should perceive that once a war breaks out in the Straits, the island’s defense will collapse in hours and U.S. military won’t come to help.” Colby told me, “My gut says, ‘Bridge, maybe you’re exaggerating,’ but my mind says, ‘Holy shit!’ ” He added, “Excuse my language.” His book, which takes something of a chess-game view of grand strategy in the Far East, argues that, if China loses a military campaign for Taiwan, it will be forced to confront the “burden of escalation”—of broadening a conflict that it’s losing—and will likely retreat, but that if Taiwan’s allies lose a limited war they will either have to retake the country from China or concede Chinese supremacy in the Far East. Colby said, “The situation’s already bad now, and it’s going to get worse—to the point where they could win a fight over Taiwan and they might pull the trigger. And Taiwan’s not going to be the end.”

When Colby and I spoke, he seemed anxious to emphasize that his warning is not intended for a conservative audience but for a broad one. He worries that Americans have been too persuaded by post-Cold War propaganda to understand that, in any conflict with China, Washington will need to partner with Asian nations (Vietnam, perhaps, or Malaysia, or Indonesia) whose modes of governance we may not love. And he is troubled by whether most Americans will see Taiwan as of sufficient interest to them. Colby said that he wrote his book largely to make a “brass tacks” case to ordinary Americans about why they should care enough to defend Taiwan and “other exposed Asian partners.” “Great powers create market areas,” he said. “And that’s what China’s trying to do. And, if the Chinese have a trade area over which they’re ascendant that comprises fifty per cent of global G.D.P. or more, you can bet that Americans are going to suffer.” Last November, he pointed out, the Chinese government had sent Australia a list of fourteen grievances, ranging from the Australian government’s regulation of Chinese companies to criticisms of the Chinese government made by Australian M.P.s. Chinese strength has been building for a quarter century, he said. “The problem is coming due in this decade.”

I asked Colby how well he thought Americans had been prepped for this potential conflict by their leaders. “Great question,” Colby said. “The state is terrible.”

A smart liberal’s reply to Colby might be: Is this for real? Americans have spent much of the past two decades trying to find some way through the disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan that political hawks urged on them. Now that the full depth of the latter debacle has become so impossible to deny that the V.A. is issuing suicide-awareness bulletins for former soldiers suffering from “moral distress,” the hawks want to urge another generation-defining conflict on Americans?

Colby’s response is to try to sever the transformational vision of the forever wars from his own hawkishness—to argue that those were neoconservative adventures, intent on democratizing foreign countries, and that his own realist camp does not envision regime change and does not aspire to remake China. “What really makes me angry, frankly, is the aggressive kind of neoconservatives and liberal hawks. They are the ones that used up that gas tank of will,” Colby told me. “Now the American people are tired. They are skeptical. And they”—the neoconservatives—“said, ‘Oh, we’re going to fight Islamofascism because otherwise we’re going to turn into the Caliphate,’ or whatever. And it’s like, no, that’s not what’s going to happen.” But the Afghanistan experience, recounted in the news this week, suggests that the original ideological design of a national-security encounter—whether “realist” or “idealist”—doesn’t matter for very long: any conflict is quickly defined by the decisions made in its midst. What matters most of all is whether that conflict is brought into existence.

Among Republicans, it hasn’t been hard to detect warlike notes against China: Hawley has denounced Big Tech for its alleged willingness to sell out to the Chinese government, Marco Rubio has focussed on China’s persecution of the Uyghur Muslims, and Cotton has promoted a “targeted decoupling” from China’s economy, insisting that the two great powers will find themselves in a “protracted twilight struggle that will determine the fate of the world.” As the Chinese government’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims has worsened and its pressure on Hong Kong has mounted, plenty of liberals have been alarmed, too, for reasons that are sometimes the same and sometimes different. “The two nations represent systems of governance that are diametrically opposed,” George Soros wrote last week, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. “Relations between China and the U.S. are rapidly deteriorating and may lead to war.”

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