Sunday, May 9, 2021

The end of strategic ambiguity? America has finally stopped pretending it would risk war with Russia over supposed ‘ally’ Ukraine


The end of strategic ambiguity? America has finally stopped pretending it would risk war with Russia over supposed ‘ally’ Ukraine

The end of strategic ambiguity? America has finally stopped pretending it would risk war with Russia over supposed ‘ally’ Ukraine
Would the US go to war with Russia over Ukraine? As tensions escalate between Moscow and Kiev, some have warned that the latter’s ‘alliance’ with Washington could spiral into a conflict between the two main nuclear superpowers.

Except, of course, there is no alliance between the US and Ukraine. This week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken effectively ended the notion that Ukraine has Western backers ready to step in at a moment’s notice if it finds itself under attack.

Pressed on whether American forces could be sent into battle against Russian troops to support Kiev in the event of war in an interview with MSNBC, he answered only that Washington is committed to “helping Ukraine defend itself.”

In other words, no. Indeed, with these words, Blinken backed up suspicions in Moscow that Washington stands ready to fight Moscow down to the very last Ukrainian, but would never risk its own troops.

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It is difficult to overstate the importance of the secretary of state’s response, which has effectively ended a calculated policy of strategic ambiguity over Ukraine. For years, the State Department has been reluctant to be drawn on just how far it would go for the Eastern European nation, and whether it would send its own soldiers into battle for its supposed ally.

The fact that mask has slipped now fundamentally changes the nature of the situation. It comes as the White House has also seemingly pivoted its foreign policy in the region by revising a section in an official transcript to play down the prospect of Ukraine joining the NATO military bloc. After turning to the West following the 2014 Maidan, Kiev has played up its credentials with the EU and US, emphasizing the importance of its ‘alliances’ and its role as a vanguard against supposed Russian aggression towards Central Europe. That argument is now based on less and less evidence.

The gamble of strategic ambiguity

Strategic ambiguity, neither confirming nor denying your red lines and potential responses, is often an ideal approach when it concerns the defense of an ally or partner such as Ukraine. Most notably, the US has applied a similar approach to Taiwan.

Suggesting that Washington may provide direct support intends to deter adversarial states like Russia and China, as the added uncertainty about the US response makes it hard to predict how a situation might escalate.

Strategic ambiguity is preferable to making firm commitments to defend its partners for two main reasons – first, the US would lose its credibility in the arena of global security if a war broke out and it decided at the last minute to not live up to its commitments. Second, offering firm promises of support could encourage states like Ukraine or Taiwan to pursue bolder and more aggressive strategies.

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With the support of the Americans, for example, Ukraine may be emboldened to attempt to attack and take back the Donbass region by force. Likewise, Taiwan could be emboldened to officially declare independence from China if it believed Washington had its back. Thus, there is the risk that the tail begins wagging the dog, as minor powers like Ukraine and Taiwan would suddenly be capable of influencing their supposed protectors.

For this reason, the US has avoided firm security guarantees towards both Ukraine and Taiwan since neither Russia nor China can be deterred in the event of escalating war scenarios. If Kiev were to attack the Donbass, it would be politically impossible for Russia to stand by, and any sign of weakness would likely embolden NATO to expand into Ukraine, which Moscow deems to be an existential threat. Similarly, it would be impossible for China to accept Taiwan’s secession, seeing it instead as a repetition of the so-called Century of Humiliation, with the subsequent intolerable domestic and international consequences that entailed.

The failure of strategic ambiguity in Ukraine

Strategic ambiguity failed in Ukraine because it created unrealistic expectations. The policy was not intended to deter a Russian invasion, but to enable Kiev to negotiate a more favorable political settlement to fighting in the Donbass, between its forces and those loyal to the two self-declared People’s Republics.

That negotiated settlement came in the form of the Minsk Agreement, which Kiev also signed. The agreement explicitly demands that Kiev establish direct diplomatic ties with the leaders in the breakaway regions to negotiate constitutional changes, including decentralizing power in order to grant the east of the country a degree of autonomy in a reunited Ukraine. However, years have passed and Kiev has been reluctant to honor its obligations and establish that dialogue with local leaders.

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Instead of fulfilling its role as required under the Minsk Agreement, Ukraine has aimed to renegotiate the entire agreement while changing the realities on the ground – rebuilding its military power, mobilizing support from Western powers, and intensifying sanctions against Russia.

Washington has continuously signaled that it supports Kiev’s efforts to repudiate the treaty, while Western Europe has been unwilling to put any pressure on Ukraine to seek to implement the terms of the deal. Washington’s continuous references to Ukraine as an “ally” and promises of NATO membership undoubtedly gave Kiev the expectation of US support in its bid to scrap the Minsk Agreement, and potentially even if it attempts to resolve the conflict by force.

The recent mobilization of Ukrainian troops towards the contact line with Donbass was intended to be the pinnacle of pressure on Russia to renegotiate the settlement along terms more favorable to Kiev. However, the Russian military build-up along the border destroyed Kiev’s entire strategy. Moscow signaled clearly that it will uphold its red lines irrespective of the cost, for the simple reason that NATO’s continued expansion is considered an existential threat.

Unwilling to go to war against Russia, the G7 countries have since instead affirmed that the Minsk Agreement is the sole solution to the conflict. Without the possibility of renegotiating the pact, Ukraine is at a crossroads. An attack on the Donbass would almost certainly result in defeat and even potentially lead to the destruction of Ukraine as a state, while honoring the Minsk Agreement would make the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, vulnerable to the far-right nationalists that could topple him in another supposedly ‘democratic revolution’.

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Zelensky is in a difficult spot as he is being forced to withdraw with no real gains, and desperate times often call for desperate measures. By making it clear that it will not defend Ukraine, the US is discouraging Kiev and the right-wing militias from engaging in reckless actions. Furthermore, it also signals to Moscow that Washington is committed to de-escalation and Russia does not need to take unilateral actions to resolve the conflict.

What will Russia do? Returning to the revisionism versus status quo debate

What will happen now as Washington withdraws its strategic ambiguity by making it clear the US will not defend Ukraine? Will Russia invade or de-escalate?

A revisionist power is defined as one that seeks to change current circumstances to obtain a more favorable balance of power, while a status-quo power aims to preserve its existing position against the challenges of revisionists who want to reopen old conflicts.

The narrative that Russia is a revisionist power, spun by the Western political and media classes, infers that without a security guarantee from the US, Russia is free to conquer Ukraine and “restore the Soviet Empire.” However, that will be challenged if the US’ signals that it is no longer providing security guarantees result in Russia de-escalating, because the threat of an offensive in the east of the country and NATO expansion are minimized.

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The theory of an expansionist and revisionist Russia has repeatedly failed. It was argued that Russia would go on to invade Georgia when the country intervened in response to Tbilisi’s attack on South Ossetia in 2008. Instead, Moscow merely restored the status-quo by pushing the Georgian troops out of South Ossetia. In 2015, Russia intervened in Syria to prevent Western-backed regime change, and again to preserve the status quo. In Ukraine, Russia has similarly aimed to defend the local population in Donbass following the 2014 coup and prevent further NATO expansionism.

Are US security guarantees and NATO expansion instruments of revisionism in Europe or are they preserving the status quo? This question seems to have now been answered, as promises of military support and bloc membership are walked back, opening the door for a peaceful settlement in Ukraine.

Friday, January 15, 2021

How China Won Trump’s Trade War and Got Americans to Foot the Bill

Bloomberg News

January 11, 2021, 1:00 PM PST

*Chinese trade surplus, exports rose despite Trump’s rhetoric
*Biden administration likely to favor technology controls

Supply Lines is a daily newsletter that tracks Covid-19’s impact on trade. Sign up here, and subscribe to our Covid-19 podcast for the latest news and analysis on the pandemic.

U.S. President Donald Trump famously tweeted that “trade wars are good, and easy to win” in 2018 as he began to impose tariffs on about $360 billion of imports from China. Turns out he was wrong on both counts.

Even before the coronavirus infected millions of Americans and sparked the steepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, China was withstanding Trump’s tariff salvos, according to the very metrics he used to justify them. Once China got the virus under control, demand for medical equipment and work-from-home gear expanded its trade surplus with the U.S. despite the levies.

While trade tensions between the world’s two biggest economic powers didn’t start under Trump, he broadened the fight with the unprecedented tariffs and sanctions on technology companies. The tougher approach, according to the scorecard that follows, didn’t go as he hoped. But he’s leaving his successor Joe Biden a blueprint of what worked and what didn’t.

“China is too big and too important to the world economy to think that you can cut it out like a paper doll” said Mary Lovely, an economics professor at Syracuse University. “The Trump administration had a wake-up call.”
The U.S. Trade Deficit Grew

Trump vowed in his 2016 election year to very quickly “start reversing” the U.S. goods trade deficit with China, ignoring mainstream economists who downplay the importance of bilateral deficits. However, the deficit with China increased since then, hitting $287 billion in the 11 months to November last year, according to Chinese data.

China’s Trade Surplus with the U.S.

January-February 2020 is combined by source

Data: China’s General Administration of Customs

The deficit did fall year-on-year in 2019, as U.S. companies switched to imports from countries like Vietnam, but it remained higher than the $254 billion gap in 2016. That was partly because Beijing’s imposition of retaliatory tariffs on about $110 billion in goods reduced its imports of American products, and these only started recovering in the last few months of 2020.

As part of the phase-one trade deal signed a year ago, Beijing made an ambitious vow to import $172 billion worth of U.S. goods in specific categories in 2020, but through the end of November it had bought just 51% of that goal. The slump in energy prices amid the pandemic and the problems with Boeing Co.’s planes played a part in that failure.

The persistent deficit demonstrated how reliant companies are on China’s vast manufacturing capacity, which was highlighted again by the pandemic. China was the only country capable of increasing output on a big enough scale to meet surging demand for goods such as work-from-home computers and medical equipment.

President Xi Jinping expressed his confidence in China’s rise Monday, telling officials that “time and the situation are in our favor.” The Chinese leader said that he saw “opportunities in general outweighing challenges,” a marked shift from his sometimes dire-sounding warnings of recent months.
China’s Export Machine Rolls On

Trump repeatedly said that China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 caused its economy to take off like a “rocket ship,” a result he viewed as unfair. As it turned out, Trump’s trade war with China coincided with another expansion in Chinese exports. After shrinking for two straight years in 2015 and 2016, China’s total shipments grew each year after Trump took office, including in 2019 when exports to the U.S. fell.

China Exports

January-February 2020 is combined by source

Data: China’s General Administration of Customs

A group of 10 Southeast Asian nations replaced the U.S. as China’s second-largest trading partner in 2019. The shift to Asia is likely to continue as Southeast Asian economies are projected to grow faster than developed countries over the next decade. Those trade links will be further cemented by the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership pact signed late last year, which will see 15 regional economies gradually drop some tariffs on each others’ goods.

What Bloomberg Economics Says...

The fact that exports were little affected after four years of trade war speaks to the resilience of China’s manufacturing capacity. However the trade war has exposed China’s vulnerability in certain bottleneck sectors such as high tech.

-- Chang Shu, chief Asia economist
U.S. Companies Stay in China

Trump said that tariffs would encourage U.S. manufacturers to move production back home, and in a 2019 tweet he “ordered” them to “immediately start looking for an alternative to China.” But there is little evidence of any such shift taking place.

U.S. direct investment into China increased slightly from $12.9 billion in 2016 to $13.3 billion in 2019, according to Rhodium Group data.

Foreign Direct Investment

Data: Rhodium Group

More than three quarters of 200-plus U.S. manufacturers in and around Shanghai surveyed in September said they didn’t intend to move production out of China. U.S. companies regularly cite the rapid growth of China’s consumer market combined with its strong manufacturing capabilities as reasons for expanding there. “No matter how high the Trump administration raised any tariffs, it was going to be very difficult to dissuade US companies from investing,” said Ker Gibbs, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.
Economic Losses on Both Sides

Trump claimed that tariffs had boosted the U.S. economy, while causing China’s economy to have its “worst year in over 50” in 2019. However, direct economic impacts were small relative to the size of the two countries’ economies as the value of exports between them are tiny relative to gross domestic product.

China grew at or above 6% in both 2018 and 2019, with tariffs costing it about 0.3% of GDP over those years, according to Yang Zhou, an economist at the University of Minnesota. By her estimate, the trade war cost the U.S. 0.08% GDP over the same period. The clearest winner was Vietnam, where the tariffs boosted GDP by nearly 0.2 percentage point as companies relocated.
U.S. Consumer Foots the Bill

Trump repeatedly claimed that China was paying for the tariffs. Economists who crunched the numbers were surprised to find that Chinese exporters generally didn’t lower prices to keep their goods competitive after the tariffs were imposed. That meant U.S. duties were mostly paid by its own companies and consumers.

The tariffs led to an income loss for U.S. consumers of about $16.8 billion annually in 2018, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research paper.

Another own goal: Tariffs on imports from China tended to reduce U.S. exports. That was because globalized supply chains mean manufacturing is shared between countries, and the U.S. raised the costs of its own goods by levying duties on imports of Chinese components.

U.S. Export Value

Year-over-year change

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Bloomberg calculations

Companies which together account for 80% of U.S. exports had to pay higher prices for Chinese imports, according to analysis of confidential company data by researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve, reducing export growth.

The Rustbelt Stayed Rusty

Trump campaigned hard back in 2016 on pledges to revive the Rust Belt by taking on China and bringing the jobs back home. It didn’t happen.

Growth in U.S. manufacturing jobs flatlined in 2019, partly due to falling exports. Even regions home to industries such as steel, which received explicit protection from Trump’s tariffs saw declines in employment, according to research by New York University Stern School of Business economist Michael Waugh, suggesting that the trade war didn’t significantly alter the trajectory of U.S. manufacturing.

“That stuff is just naturally going to move offshore. The protection maybe delays it a little bit,” Waugh said. “There’s no evidence that the tariffs benefited workers.”

The pandemic’s disruption to the world economy in 2020 makes it difficult to estimate the effect of the tariffs on jobs and investment.
China Changed at Its Own Pace

The Trump administration claimed that tariffs provided leverage over the Chinese, which would force them to make reforms to benefit U.S. companies. “I love properly put-on tariffs, because they bring unfair competitors from foreign countries to do whatever you want them to do,” Trump said.

The biggest victory claimed by the administration as part of its trade deal were promises from Beijing to enhance intellectual property protections. But that was probably in China’s interests anyway.

Mark Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at the University of California Berkeley School of Law and Fordham University, said that while Beijing has made “tremendous legislative changes” to strengthen IP protection in the past two years, its own motivation to enhance innovation may have been a more important factor than U.S. pressure. The agreement didn’t “push the structural reforms in China that would make its system more systemically compatible with most of the world,” he added.

Chinese companies paid a record $7.9 billion in intellectual property payments to the U.S. in 2019, up from $6.6 billion in 2016, and its courts imposed some record-breaking fines on IP infringement involving U.S. companies. But that rate of increase was slower than for its IP payments to the whole world, according to World Bank data, showing the payments to the U.S. were part of a general trend.

China’s Payments for Use of U.S. Intellectual Property

Data: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

Washington was also not able to extract any significant commitments on reform of China’s state-owned enterprises, which were also cited as a justification for tariffs.
Trade War to Tech Wars

It’s now up to President-elect Biden to decide whether to keep up the trade war. In a recent interview, he said he wouldn’t remove the tariffs immediately and would instead review the phase one deal.

Washington was also not able to extract any significant commitments on reform of China’s state-owned enterprises, which were also cited as a justification for tariffs.
Trade War to Tech Wars

It’s now up to President-elect Biden to decide whether to keep up the trade war. In a recent interview, he said he wouldn’t remove the tariffs immediately and would instead review the phase one deal.

Compared with tariffs, an escalating conflict over technology is of more concern to China. Sanctions and export restrictions imposed by Washington have threatened the viability of leading technology companies such as Huawei Technologies Co. and microchip maker Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. That is an existential threat to Beijing’s plans for economic growth.

“If the U.S. continues to increase its technological blockade, China’s modernization towards the high-end of the global industrial chain will undoubtedly be affected,” two researchers at the official Communist Party school in the province of Jiangsu wrote in an article.

So far, the impact of U.S. actions has been to accelerate Beijing’s drive for technological self-sufficiency. The issue has rocketed up the Communist Party’s agenda, symbolized by a statement last month that increasing “strategic scientific and technological strength” is the most important economic task.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

A 'Very Real War' in Vietnam, and the Deep U.S. Commitment

Originally published in The New York Times, February 25, 1962.

SAIGON, Feb. 24 — The United States is involved in a war in Vietnam. American troops will stay until victory.

That is what Attorney General Robert Kennedy said here last week. He called it "war in a very real sense of the word." He said that President Kennedy had pledged that the United States would stand by South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem "until we win."

At the moment the war isn't going badly for "our" side. There is a lull in Vietcong activities, and the South Vietnamese forces are both expanding and shaping up better as a fighting force. But all that is needed to precipitate a major war is for the Chinese Communists and Communist North Vietnam to react to a build-up of American forces.

American support to Vietnam has always been based on the fear that Communist control of this country would jeopardize all Southeast Asia. And it continues despite the fact that Diem's American critics — especially liberals repelled by the dictatorial aspects of his regime — have been predicting his imminent downfall.

Diem remains firmly in charge and Washington's support for his regime today seems more passionate and inflexible than ever.

U.S. Involvement

Actually, the United States has been deeply involved in the fate of Vietnam since 1949 when the decision was made to subsidize the continuation of French rule against the Communist Vietminh rebellion [see Times05/09/50]. The first United States Military Assistance Advisory Group (M.A.A.G.) arrived in 1951 to supervise the distribution of supplies. Thereafter the United States played an increasingly important role. To use a favorite Washington term, aid was "escalated" until today $2 billion has been sunk into Vietnam with no end to the outlay in sight.

This may sound more reckless than the best brinkmanship of John Foster Dulles' days, and perhaps it is. But the United States is on this particular faraway brink because the Kennedy Administration seems convinced that the Communists won't rise to the challenge of the American presence and assistance.

Forces and Strategy

The battle in Vietnam currently involves some 300,000 armed South Vietnamese and 3,000 American servicemen on one side, against 18,000 to 25,000 Vietcong Communist regulars operating as guerrillas.

The battle that is being fought is complex — in the nature of the fighting, in the internal political background and in its international implications.

The United States does not have any combat infantry troops in Vietnam as of now, but we are getting ready for that possibility. Marine Corps officers have completed ground reconnaissance in the central Vietnam highlands, a potential theater of large-scale action between American troops and Communist forces coming down from the north.

American combat troops are not likely to be thrown into Vietnam unless Communist North Vietnam moves across the seventeenth parallel or pushes large forces down through Laos into South Vietnam.

In that case the United States would have to move in fast. Forty miles below the frontier with North Vietnam and parallel to it is Highway 9. This road has high strategic importance. Not only is it one of the few adequate roads open across the mountains to the Laotian border but it extends across Laos to Savannakhet on the Mekong River frontier with Thailand. If Highway 9 could be held from the Mekong to the sea by American, Vietnamese, Laotian and Thai forces, South Vietnam might be saved.

The situation right now is far more stable than it was last September, when the Communists were attacking in battalion strength and were even able to seize and hold a provincial capital, Phuoc Vinh, for a few hours [see Times09/19/61]. The September action seemed a prelude to an all-out Communist drive to overturn the Diem Government. It precipitated the present flood of American military advisors and service troops.

Today American warships are helping the embryonic Vietnamese Navy to guard the sea frontier against infiltration from North Vietnam and U.S. Navy servicemen presently will arrive to help clean out guerrillas from the maze of tidal waterways in the Mekong River Delta. The U.S. Army helicopter crews have come under fire taking Vietnamese combat troops into guerrilla zones or carrying pigs and other livestock to hungry outposts surrounded by hostile country. U.S. Air Force pilots have flown with Vietnamese pilots on bombing missions against reported enemy concentrations and against two frontier forts recently evacuated by the Vietnamese Army.

So far our contribution in blood has been small. One American sergeant has been killed by enemy action and another is missing and presumed captured. Inevitably our casualties will grow.

It has not been easy to change from conventional warfare, in which the Vietnamese were trained so many years by M.A.A.G., to unconventional counter-guerrilla warfare. Under French influence, the Vietnamese had developed two tendencies difficult to erase: first, the habit of staying inside forts designed for the troops' protection rather than for the security of the populace; second, the habit of good living — a leisurely lunch followed by a siesta.

Hard Living

But counter-guerilla warfare demands hard living. Troops must live in the jungle just as the guerrillas do and eschew the comforts of barracks life.

There are some minor difficulties: most Vietnamese recruits are from the densely populated lowlands — rice paddy boys who have a fear of the jungles, not merely fear of snakes and tigers but fear of getting lost. They move fearfully, with the instinct of a herd, tending to bunch up and thus present fat targets for a Vietcong ambush.

The Vietcong guerrillas also were former rice paddy boys, but they became inured to hardship by on-the-job training in the jungle. Further, the Vietnamese are somewhat smaller than Americans, so they get weary toting eleven-pound M1 rifles and pine for the lighter French weapons they were formerly equipped with.

At a higher level, United States advisors, besides trying to eliminate political manipulation of troops, are attempting to dissuade the Vietnamese from launching large-scale operations based on sketchy intelligence. They see no justification for such operations until a more adequate intelligence system is developed and greater tactical mobility achieved.

Intelligence will improve only when the Government is able to break the grip of fear with which the Vietcong muzzles the rural population. Greater mobility is being provided by American helicopter companies, but this is a costly and dangerous way to move troops.

President Diem

The man who is at the center of the Vietnamese effort and who is also a center of controversy — President Diem- is something of an enigma. He is a mandarin (an aristocrat) and a devout Catholic. So there are two strikes against him at the start, for mandarins were regarded by the masses as greedy and corrupt, and Catholics as an unpopular minority.

Diem, however, has proved incorruptible. Rumors of personal enrichment of members of his family have never been proved. And Diem has been careful not to arouse Buddhist hostility. He is a man of great personal courage, but he is suspicious and mistrustful. The creation of a central intelligence agency here was delayed for months until Diem found a director he could trust.

Diem, a 66-year-old bachelor, often has been accused of withdrawing inside his narrow family clique and divorcing himself from reality. Critics say he distrusts everyone except the family and takes advice only from his brothers, particularly Ngo Dinh Nhu, his political advisor. His brother Nhu and his attractive, influential wife, are leaders, according to critics, of a palace camarilla which tries to isolate the President from the people.

As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Diem keeps close tabs on military operations. His personal representative on the General Staff is Brig. Gen. Nguyen Khanh who has appalled Americans by taking general reserve troops on quick one-shot operations without coordinating with the area commander. Khanh is young, vigorous and driving but, according to his critics, lacking balance and experience.

Lieut. Gen. Le Ven Ty is Chief of the General Staff but he is in his 60's and lacks vigor. Consequently, much of the military direction comes from the President through Khanh.

It is well to remember that Diem has been right and the United States wrong on some crucial issues. In 1955, for example, Diem wanted to crush the powerful Binh Xuyen gangster sect that controlled both the police and the gambling dens and brothels and made a mockery of government authority. President Eisenhower's special ambassador, Gen. Lawton Collins, opposed Diem's plan, fearing civil war. Diem coolly proceeded to assert his power and used loyal troops to crush the Binh Xuyen in sharp fighting in Saigon's streets [see Times04/29/55].

Denied Request

More recently the United States resisted Diem's urgent requests for aid in the creation of the civil guard and self-defense corps. The United States insisted that a 19,000-man regular army was all Diem needed for national defense. Diem went ahead and organized the two forces, arming them with antiquated French rifles. Finally, after alarm bells were ringing to the widespread revival of Communist guerrilla activity and vast sections of the countryside were lost to the Vietcong, the Americans conceded Diem's point. Last year the United States started training and equipping the civil guard.

It is now generally agreed that the civil guard and the self-defense corps are absolutely vital. For until these reserve forces are ready to take over the defense of villages, railroads, harbors, airports, provincial capitals and so on, the army will be so tied down to static defense duties that it will not have the manpower to chase guerrillas.

Last week, in another apparent concession to Diem's wisdom, the United States agreed that any relaxation of tight political controls would be dangerous now. In a speech cleared with the State Department, Ambassador Frederick E. Nolting Jr. urged Diem's critics to cease carping and try to improve the government from within.

Just how serious the criticism is is not clear and there seems to be no agreement among observers whether the President's popularity is rising or falling. One former Diem adviser said he was shocked by the loss of support among the people in the past two years. He blamed this on the fact that Government seemed to grope from crisis to crisis without a clear policy: "It's just anti-Communist and not pro anything."

But another qualified observer, perhaps less biased, cautioned against underrating Diem. Increased guerrilla activity had not been matched, he said, by a corresponding rise in popular discontent and this failure to respond must have depressed the Communists.

Most villages, he added, were like a leaf in the wind: "When the Vietcong enters, the population turns pro-Communist; when the Government troops arrive, sentiment shifts to the Government." But generally the village people would settle for the Government side, he said, not because they admired the Government but because they wanted peace.

Consequently the Government has a great advantage. He estimated that of the 30 percent tending to the Vietcong, only a third were hard-core, another third would adhere to the Communists under adversity, while the remaining third would break off under pressure.

Freedom from dictatorship and freedom from foreign domination are major propaganda lines for the Vietcong. Americans in uniform have now been seen by the peasants in virtually all sections of the country. This has given the Communists a chance to raise the bogey of foreign military domination.

Problems and Prospects

The lack of trained troops to keep the Vietcong under relentless pressure probably will continue to handicap the military command throughout 1962, because at least a year must elapse before the self-defense units will be really capable of defending their villages.

Whether because the Army is beginning to take the initiative and is penetrating secret areas of Vietcong concentrations or because the Vietcong has abated its activities in order to recruit and train, the fact remains that security seems better in most parts of Vietnam.

In peaceful, booming Saigon there is much speculation on how the Vietcong will react to an American build-up. Senior American officers have been studying an enemy guide book to guerrilla warfare searching avidly for clues, as though this modest work were the Vietcong's "Mein Kampf."

There will never be enough troops to seal off the frontiers. There aren't even enough troops to ring Vietcong enclaves near Saigon. Not before summer, when the civil guard and self-defense units are slated to take over the burden of defending their villages will enough troops be freed for a counter-guerrilla offensive. Then, instead of a conventional setpiece offensive of limited duration, a counter-guerrilla drive will seek to keep Vietcong units on the run at all times, tire them out by constant pressure and force them into less hospitable country where food supplies are scarce.

The offensive cannot succeed unless the Government is able to mobilize positive popular support. This will be difficult, for the Government is just beginning to develop grass roots political cadres.

Need Modification

Meanwhile something more than narrowly anti-Communist goals must be offered Saigon intellectuals, who are now scorned by both Diem and the Americans. This group may be permanently alienated unless there is promise of democratic reforms. Without pressure from Washington, there is not likely to be any relaxation of Diem's personal dictatorship. The struggle will go on at least 10 years, in the opinion of some observers, and severely test American patience.

The United States seems inextricably committed to a long, inconclusive war. The Communists can prolong it for years. Even without large-scale intervention from the north, which would lead to "another Korea," what may be achieved at best is only restoration of a tolerable security similar to that achieved in Malaya after years of fighting. But it is too late to disengage; our prestige has been committed. Washington says we will stay until the finish.

Copyright © 1962 by The New York Times Co.

Monday, January 11, 2021

To find Capitol perpetrators, U.S. ruling class should look in the mirror

 January 11, 2021 9:14 AM CST  BY IAN GOODRUM

I don’t need to tell you what happened at the U.S. Capitol last week.

Videos and pictures do a good enough job of that. We all saw the angry crowds massing in support of lame-duck President Donald Trump in Washington. We saw them break into the halls of Congress to overturn the certification of last November’s election, and we saw them ransacking offices to their hearts’ content. Though five were killed in the melee, we also saw most of them getting politely escorted out by Capitol Police.

That lax level of security was a far cry from the militarized phalanxes present during the Black Lives Matter protests in the city last summer, raising a heap of questions about why one of the most secure buildings in the world was supposedly taken by surprise. Since the details of this were in the planning for months, these questions are well worth asking. For my part, it isn’t too difficult to connect the dots—especially after it was revealed how many of the rioters were off-duty police and military.

Nonetheless, many breathed a sigh of relief when the vandals were vacated. No doubt some will consider the inauguration of Joe Biden on Jan. 20 the end of a protracted national crisis. Trump will be written off as an aberration, his term nothing more than a bad dream, an “undigested bit of beef” as Dickens would have it.

But that’s a dangerously simple outlook. This didn’t begin with Trump, and it won’t end with him either. Too easily we forget the U.S. is a country built on slavery, with land forcibly taken from Indigenous populations. The first draft of the U.S. Constitution—right below high-minded passages about “a more perfect union”—deemed Africans property, three-fifths of a whole human being. That’s not a legacy that can be shaken off easily, and near-impossible when so many in power deny its significance.

This might seem an odd tangent, but what happened on Capitol Hill makes broader context even more essential. After a traumatic moment like this, there’s an understandable desire to return to normalcy—but that’s a risky thing to do. Any doctor will tell you it’s pointless to treat symptoms without curing the underlying condition.

I’m tired of the oft-repeated refrain of “this is not who we are” from Americans in denial of their own country’s history. The hordes who attacked Congress are the people who jeered students attending integrated schools. They’re the people who formed lynch mobs. MAGA and QAnon are just the John Birchers and Klansmen of yesteryear. Make no mistake: This is an old, abiding hatred with a fresh coat of paint.

But I also want to correct another irritating myth that’s been making the rounds. For too long the U.S. media have portrayed Trump’s most militant and unhinged advocates as members of an aggrieved working class, or rural people “left behind” by globalization. While there are certainly pockets of support in those communities, the data show by and large they opt out of elections completely—and after multiple administrations and little material benefit to show for it, who would be shocked?

No, the majority of Trump’s base is financially comfortable enough to care about the phony culture war propagated on news outlets and social platforms; they could, after all, take time off to come to Washington, book hotel rooms, and deck themselves out in high-priced weaponry and tactical gear. Safe to say someone working low-paying jobs with no benefits—now risking their lives every time they leave the house, thanks to the U.S.’ criminally negligent pandemic response—has more important things to worry about.

So while Trump’s cult-like base has, for the most part, a greater degree of security than the wage laborers they look down on, it’s still not the ironclad stability the truly powerful enjoy. They make enough to feel invested in the system through property ownership and some expensive baubles, but not where they have any say in their own futures. Due to this “in-between” status, they identify strongly with their exploiters while blaming those below for hampering their success.

That bubbling rage manifests itself in furious resistance to any hint of social progress. To them, life is a zero-sum game, where if someone else wins they must by definition lose. Any concessions granted to an “other”—like, say, Black Americans who want their basic rights—is territory lost on an imagined battlefield.  Trump, with his constant tirades against immigrants and minorities, was their protector. They want him in office, no matter the cost, because they believe the alternative is a far-left Marxist regime under Biden. As appealing as that sounds, the truth is far more boring: Biden is, at best, a moderate who will continue the U.S.’ slow, bipartisan march through neoliberal austerity.

Which will only make things worse. All the trends that led us here, building as they have for countless decades, were turbocharged by the consolidation of capital and the monopolistic control of information through enormous tech companies. With users’ worst impulses aggravated by an infinite-growth model of engagement at any cost, insulated, self-selected fiefdoms formed. The more outlandish and incendiary the posts, the better the numbers—and the greater the algorithmic rewards.

This goes double for the corporate media, the self-styled purveyors of “real news.” For years they regarded Trump as a curiosity, a surefire source for ratings. They invited him on late night talk shows and hung on his every word, and their bottom lines soared. The bonanza paid such fat dividends that not even the 2016 election gave them pause. Instead of much-needed soul-searching, they engaged in the bankrupt practice of “both-sides-ism,” which treats monstrous political views as identical to their exact opposite.

Even more offensive was the language they used to describe the attack. Everywhere you looked, you’d see some newscaster or commentator throw around terms like “Third World” or “banana republic” when talking about the violence. The implication is clear: This sort of thing can only happen in faraway, uncivilized places. Putting aside the racist connotations of such remarks, brutal force has been administered on workers and oppressed minorities for centuries, whether by mobs or the state itself. Think of the Tulsa and Colfax massacres. Wounded Knee. The Haymarket affair. Kent State. And that’s only a small sampling. Pretending this wasn’t a homegrown phenomenon is an act of shameful denial.

It’s particularly ironic to use “banana republic” to deflect because the term comes from U.S.-backed corporate coups! The “banana republics” had their governments overthrown by conglomerates like the United Fruit Company to maximize profits and maintain a sphere of influence. In their rush to deny U.S. culpability in this insurrection—and, by extension, their own—media outlets invoke the violence it perpetrated.

That’s hardly coincidental. For decades, the U.S. has fomented insurgencies around the world to achieve its political and economic aims, planting the seeds of color revolution to punish anyone who didn’t toe the line. Invasions and bombing campaigns were just the tip of the iceberg; even if outright regime change efforts didn’t work, endorsing and funding turmoil across the globe would at least destabilize any dissenters. Well, the chickens have come home to roost. The Contras are at the door.

By cultivating a base of paranoiacs and providing wink-wink nudge-nudge approval for their conspiracies, the right wing and their corporate backers laid the groundwork for this attack. They throw up their hands and ask for peace—but only now when their personal safety is under threat. Up to that point, they were perfectly happy to stoke the flames of hatred and resentment to further their own agendas.

So if they want to know who’s responsible for this sad state of affairs, they don’t need an FBI investigation.

They need a mirror.