Taiwan’s AmericaDon’t be misled by the Islamo-obsessiveness that’s currently sweeping the U.S. The America that Taiwan’s next leader will encounter will be sober, responsible and fully committed to maintaining the U.S. stake in the western Pacific
At the risk of stating the obvious, no country is more important to Taiwan than the U.S. Not only does Washington have Taiwan’s back diplomatically — at least within the context of its one-China policy — but it is also its only reliable military partner, supplying it with a reasonably sophisticated array of defensive weaponry, and holding open the possibility that it will come to Taiwan’s aid in the event that China attacks it with impunity. Nothing illustrates this better that last week’s notification to Congress by the Obama administration that it will sell Taiwan US$1.83 billion worth of new armaments. According to the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the armaments will consist of two excess frigates; 201 Javelin shoulder-fired anti-armor missiles; 769 TOW 2B anti-armor missiles; 36 AAV-7 Amphibious Assault Vehicles; minesweepers; 13 Phalanx ship defense systems; and 250 shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Also included in the package is a no-cost lease for Taiwan to hook into the Bilateral Network System, which will link its military to the U.S. Pacific Command.
Given the U.S.’ importance in bolstering Taiwan’s security, it is probably legitimate to wonder what is going on now in the U.S., which more than at any other time since the McCarthy period in the early 1950s, seems to be going off the rails, this time amid an unprecedented wave of terrorist-generated Islamo-phobia. Following the Islamic State attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and the deaths of another 14 in southern California just a few weeks later, almost all of the Republican Party presidential candidates have been working overtime to convince the American public that it is facing imminent death and destruction at the hands of omnipotent Islamic terrorists. Leading the denizens of fear has been front-runner Donald Trump, the New York-based real estate developer who never met an outrageous sound bite he didn’t like. Hot on the heels of having obscenely characterized Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” he turned his fire on foreign Muslims, declaring that at least until the American government got a handle on who they were and what they really wanted, they should all be barred from entering the U.S.
Seeing how effective his strategy was, Trump’s Republican rivals soon came up with far-reaching anti-Muslim programs of their own, all of which were based on the demonstrably ridiculous presumption that the U.S. — the richest country in the world, and one possessed of the most formidable military arsenal ever known to man — was involved in a life and death struggle with an Islamic fundamentalist movement whose only real claim to fame was its hideous ability to apply kitchen knives to the throats of its captives, and disseminate the resulting images on the internet. Rather than seeing the Islamic State for what it really is — a bunch of primitive thugs massaging social media from their isolated base in the Mesopotamian desert — the Republican candidates made it out instead as if it were the second coming of the Nazi SS. “We’re at war folks,” opined South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, a usually measured Republican also ran during last week’s Republican debate. “They’re not trying to steal your car; they’re trying to kill us all.” Not wanting to be outdone, fellow also-ran Chris Christie shot back with some blood-curdling Islamo-phobic rhetoric of his own: “We have people across this country who are scared to death. Because, I could tell you this, as a former federal prosecutor, if a center for the developmentally disabled in San Bernardino, California, is now a target for terrorists, that means everywhere in America is a target for these terrorists.”
Graham and Christie aside, the real anti-Muslim action rests primarily with the Republican front-runners, not only Trump himself, but also Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who advocates “carpet-bombing” Islamic State strongholds in Syria and Iraq, albeit without simultaneously causing civilian casualties, which given the fact that Islamic State terrorists cling to civilian areas, might be a formidable feat. But even if Cruz’s rhetoric lacks any logic, it still sounds good to his audience of Republican loyalists, who have been so traumatized by the fearmongering of the Republican commetariat, that they ultimately don’t know whether they’re coming or going. And it’s not just the Republican commetariat either. The CNN moderators of this week’s Republican presidential debate went through their entire program without once raising the issue of the recent international agreement on climate change, which without putting too fine a point on it, will likely be remembered as a seminal event in international politics long after the Islamic State is reduced to the ignominy it so roundly deserves.
None of this of course is to suggest that radical Islamic terrorism offers no threat whatsoever to the American people. On the contrary, the threat is real. The point is, however, that it is also very limited. Rightly or wrongly, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks led to the development of an intelligence infrastructure so comprehensive in its scope that it can neutralize all but the most anonymous (or well hidden) terrorist plots. The loss of 14 lives in San Bernardino, California, was obviously a tragedy, but it was not (as Senator Graham had it) a compelling indication that the U.S. is at war. Among others, President Obama understands the nature of this truth, which is why he once described the Islamic State as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee” squad, rather than some bunch of super-human flesh eaters. He also recognizes the considerable virtue of putting the terrorism problem in its proper perspective and so marginalizing the kind of racist fear the Republicans have so dishonorably come to thrive on. Unlike them, he is not a racist demagogue, but a responsible political leader. His sobriety speaks for itself.
The question now is, what comes next politically in the U.S., which elects a president in only 11 months’ time. At least on the basis of current polling, Trump and Cruz are increasingly looking like the favorites for the Republican nomination, while Hillary Clinton seems to have a lock on the Democratic nomination, despite the formidable challenge she is facing from leftwing favorite Bernie Sanders. Looking several months ahead, it is difficult to see Clinton losing out either to Sanders or to whomever the Republicans ultimately run against her, not least because of her deft command of the issues and her intrinsic mental toughness. She may be a little slippery on matters of personal propriety, but at least she inhabits a reality-based universe, which in this election cycle is a very considerable advantage, particularly in light of the many phlegmatic excesses of her Republican rivals.
Assuming she does win the election in November, Clinton will almost certainly put the kibosh on the anti-Muslim hysteria currently circulating in the U.S. Much like Obama before her, she will portray the Islamic State in its proper political perspective, which is as one of a series of extremist Islamic movements so frustrated by the failure of Islamic civilization to deal effectively with the modern era that it feels compelled to try to destroy everything in its path in the name of religious piety. This is admittedly a major problem in western Europe, where disenfranchised Muslims are an all too common phenomenon, but in the U.S. it is hardly a problem at all, not only for reasons of geography (the Atlantic Ocean is obviously a formidable barrier against Middle Eastern extremism), but also because the American Muslim community is relatively well integrated into American society at large. The Republicans are obviously doing their best to change this, but always assuming that Clinton is elected president in November, their efforts will fail and they will be compelled to crawl back in their racist holes for another four years at least.
Given Clinton’s approach, she will almost certainly concentrate her foreign policy efforts on those areas that really matter most to the U.S. These include Iran, Russia, and above all China, which at least on the basis of her strong human rights credentials and the critical statements she has made about the Chinese posture in the South China Sea, she clearly views with skepticism. To be sure, China has recently improved its image in the United States by adopting a relatively helpful stance at the global climate talks in Paris. That having been said, however, it remains on the outside looking in, even if it does maintain a powerful American lobby. It will not become a new American ally nor will it morph into the kind of global condominium partner that people like Henry Kissinger have long been pressing for. It is far too aggressive for that.
Clinton’s reality-based foreign policy will undoubtedly be a boon to the future leader of Taiwan, always providing that she avoids making unnecessary waves in the Taiwan Strait and that she heeds the calls from powerful voices in the Congress to make a greater commitment to Taiwanese military readiness, among other things, by raising defense spending to three percent of GDP from the current figure of two. That the Chinese might view this step as provocative goes without saying, but given their own defense spending munificence, few people in Washington will take their complaints very seriously. That is one of the advantages of seeing the world for what it really is, rather than twisting it into one of the politically expedient constructions that the Republican presidential candidates currently favor. It is one more reason to hope that when sanity ultimately prevails in the U.S., Taiwan will be among the first countries to gain from it.
Peter Enav was head of The Associated Press bureau in Taiwan from April 2005 to April 2014.