Representative Elaine Luria, a Democrat representing Virginia’s Second Congressional District, is in a hawkish mood. The former career naval officer wants the United States to gird itself for a showdown with China over Taiwan. Writing in The Washington Post, she proposes to “untie the hands of our president.” In the event of a prospective crisis involving Taiwan, Luria wants President Joe Biden to have “the necessary authorities” to use force without the hassle of seeking further congressional approval. In a nutshell, she proposes to confer on the present commander in chief—and presumably any successor—full authority to go to war with China, taking her congressional colleagues and all the rest of us along for the ride.
Allow me to nominate Luria for honorary membership in the Tonkin Gulf Chowder and Marching Society.
The original TGC&MS dates from August 1964, when Congress handed President Lyndon Baines Johnson a blank check to wage war in Vietnam. The House of Representatives approved the Tonkin Gulf Resolution unanimously. In the Senate, the tally was 88-2. Duly empowered, LBJ embarked upon a needless war, which doomed his ambitious domestic reform agenda, cost him his presidency, and inflicted incalculable damage on the nation as a whole.
In September 2001, the TGC&MS added a second cohort, as Congress authorized President George W. Bush to use force against just about anyone or anything that Bush labeled a “terrorist.” In the House, just a single member voted no, while the Senate gave its unanimous assent. Bush thereby embarked upon an ill-defined and open-ended Global War on Terrorism, which his several successors have continued.
As with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964, this broad grant of authority produced results other than those intended. For proof, we need to look no further than the abysmal conclusion of the Afghanistan War. Nor have the negative consequences been confined to war zones abroad. The advent of Trumpism derived, at least in part, from the military follies set in motion when Congress abdicated its war powers following 9/11.
With her boundless confidence in America’s armed forces—her website proclaims, “The United States has the finest military in the world”—Representative Luria appears oblivious to, or perhaps ignorant of, such past disappointments. Yet, before Congress greenlights a possible military showdown with China, that breezy claim of US military preeminence should be critically examined.
That US troops are well-resourced and battle-tested—who in recent decades has more frequently engaged in combat?—is unquestionably the case. It is equally true, however, that since Vietnam US forces have shown a troubling inability to win.
There is no simple explanation for why that is the case. But one contributing factor is surely this: Our adversaries have cared more than we do about the issue at hand, and have therefore demonstrated a greater willingness to sacrifice to achieve their objectives. When the United States intervenes in Southeast Asia or the Persian Gulf or Central Asia, it commits US forces to fight in a faraway place that most Americans don’t much care about. That the Vietnamese fighting to unify their country in the 1960s and ’70s were more committed to their cause than were the American soldiers is demonstrably the case. Much the same can be said of the Iraqis and Afghans who more recently fought to rid themselves of foreign occupiers. In war, enjoying a home court advantage confers incalculable benefits.
That rule of thumb applies in spades to any prospective military confrontation with China over the future of Taiwan, located some 100 miles from the mainland and over 6,500 miles from San Francisco. Luria’s district contains several large military installations. She would do well to consider how many of her constituents are willing to fight and die on the other side of the world for the cause of Taiwanese autonomy.
Rather than saber rattling, the situation regarding Taiwan calls for patience and cool deliberation. For these, Luria has little regard. “If the president’s hands remain legally tied,” she contends, a US war with China “is most certainly assured.” This is dangerous nonsense. Wars don’t just happen. They entail choice. To assume that any conflict is foreordained is to invite rashness and miscalculation—a TGC&M specialty.
While the existing relationship between China and Taiwan may less than perfect, cross-straits trade, investment, and travel have been robust. The status quo is unquestionably preferable to any plausible alternative involving the use of violence. Ultimately, of course, governments in Beijing and Taipei will decide whether that status quo is worth preserving. In the meantime, Washington should encourage all parties to appreciate the benefits of peaceful (or quasi-peaceful) coexistence—and the massive direct and indirect costs that reunification achieved through violence will inevitably entail.
Luria fancies that a new version of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution will enable the United States “to react in the time necessary to repel a Chinese invasion of Taiwan” and thereby “deter an all-out war.” The logic comes right out of the TGC&M playbook. How many chowderheads will she recruit to join her in giving it another try?