When it comes to his business deals, Donald Trump is the most secretive American president ever, hiding his tax returns and the commercial transactions he’s making even as he sits in the White House. But at least in his motives, Trump is nakedly transparent. Few public figures have been so up-front about their baser nature or so willing to give vent to emotions like spite, jealousy, and vindictiveness. One sure heuristic for figuring out what Trump is up to is the psychological principle of projection. He loves to accuse others of what he himself wants to do.
In the past, Trump has been quick to accuse other presidents of using military conflict for political advantage. On November 29, 2011, Trump tweeted, “In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran.” The following October, he returned to this theme, tweeting, “Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in tailspin—watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.”
With the Covid-19 pandemic killing more than 80,000 Americans and sending the global economy into a tailspin, Trump is the desperate one. He is all the more dangerous because he is running for reelection in the fall. Could Trump act out the scenario he attributed to Obama and launch a “wag the dog” war?
There are already signs that the Trump White House is ramping up conflict with two long-standing rivals, China and Iran. Both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have asserted, contrary to the overwhelming scientific consensus, that the Covid-19 virus was developed in a Chinese lab. The efforts to label this a “Chinese virus” are clearly part of a reckless escalation in hostility.
The administration also appears to be opening up cyberspace as a new front in this war. The New York Times reported on Sunday, “The F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security are preparing to issue a warning that China’s most skilled hackers and spies are working to steal American research in the crash effort to develop vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus. The efforts are part of a surge in cybertheft and attacks by nations seeking advantage in the pandemic.” In retaliation, the United States, the article claims, could “mount proportional counterattacks” by attacking China’s Internet infrastructure.
The report added, “The warning comes as Israeli officials accuse Iran of mounting an effort in late April to cripple water supplies as Israelis were confined to their houses, though the government has offered no evidence to back its claim.”
The Israeli government isn’t the only one making claims without evidence. Read closely, the claims of the American government as reported in the article seem a classic example of threat inflation. If China is engaged in more hacking, then so are governments that are either allied with the United States (South Korea) or otherwise not seen as major threats (Vietnam and Nigeria).
The surge in hacking, if it is real, is occurring for two reasons: First, the chaos created by the pandemic is causing governments and private citizens to seek out more information. Second, many more private citizens are staying at home and have more time to engage in cyber pranks. In other words, this is not a national security crisis but rather a social problem produced by the pandemic.
The push for a more hawkish foreign policy toward China is based on flimsy evidence and poor logic. Even if it is true that the pandemic originated in China’s wet markets and the Chinese government was too slow to notify the world, these are problems that can’t be solved by military posturing. They require a more direct engagement with China, not a belligerent ramping up of conflict.
The same is true of the other issues the United States has with China, notably human rights and trade. Unfortunately, the push in Washington is not for more diplomacy but rather for a new Cold War, complete with an arms race, increased spying, and threats of cyberattacks.
In an op-ed in The New York Times, Rachel Esplin Odell and Stephen Wertheim, both foreign policy scholars affiliated with the Quincy Institute, noted:
In recent years, China hawks have cited a cocktail of geopolitical fears, economic grievances and human rights violations as causes for alarm, leading some Obama administration veterans to arrive at the expansive conclusion that engagement with Beijing had failed. While balking at Mr. Trump’s trade war, much of the bipartisan establishment embraced his administration’s notion, laid out in the 2017 National Security Strategy, that China is a threat requiring a strategy of full-spectrum competition.
As in the original Cold War, the likely scenario is that Democrats and Republicans will compete to outdo each other in hawkishness. Joe Biden has already run an ad accusing Donald Trump of being weak on China, reminiscent of John F. Kennedy’s accusation in 1960 that Richard Nixon was soft on Cuba.
Politically, hawkishness could pay off for Biden, as it did for Kennedy. The problem is in the realm of policy. Once you accept the logic of hawkishness, you can easily drift into conflicts motivated by nothing more than the need to project an image of toughness. That was the trap Kennedy fell into that led to the disasters in Cuba and Vietnam. Biden has already proven that he’s a sucker for this sort of bipartisan bluster with his 2003 support of the Iraq War.
Odell and Wertheim argue that “Biden now has the opportunity to show he learned from past mistakes by speaking out against an unnecessary cold war with a power strong enough to endanger Americans’ security and well-being.” This is a worthy aspiration—but not very likely.
Even at the peak of his political agility, Biden didn’t possess the farsightedness to challenge a foreign policy consensus. Now, in his twilight, Biden will continue to bang the drum about the need to confront China. As with Trump, President Biden is likely to find China a useful scapegoat for America’s intractable domestic problems.