Barney Frank: A dove’s case for defending Taiwan
In Congress I was a critic of excessive military spending and usually an opponent of military intervention, absent a physical threat to our safety. This column is an explanation of why — wholly consistent with these views — I believe strongly that Americans should make explicit our determination to defend Taiwan from any assault from China, including an invasion.
There are some important policy questions that I am proud that I “got” right away. I was shocked by the mutilation of Emmett Till by racists in Mississippi when he and I were both 14, and from that time I have made combating racism my highest priority.
But I also take pride that there are matters on which my views have evolved when the relevant evidence argued for rethinking. America’s role in the world is one of these.
Setting aside for now the economic aspects of this issue, there is the perennial, troubling question of whether we should intervene militarily — not in our own defense, but to protect others. From Harry Truman’s decision to defend South Korea up to Joe Biden’s dilemma about withdrawing from Afghanistan, every president has confronted this challenge, with results that were often substantively ambiguous — or worse — and usually politically costly.
My basic position was anti-intervention, unless there was an unambiguous case that fundamental human values were being massively assaulted (as opposed to the neocons’ advocacy of the use of our might on behalf of “stability”).
For a time, this seemed to me the way to reconcile the tension between the obvious benefits of peace and the moral imperative to protect the vulnerable.
But by the turn of this century, I realized that it wasn’t.
It greatly exaggerated the efficacy of outside military intervention as an antidote to internal anti-democratic forces. The protection of human rights is a necessary moral justification for sending our troops across an international border, but it has clearly proven to be an insufficient one.
When the problem is a dysfunctional society, held together only by brutal repression, liberation by invasion rarely works. The resultant brutal anarchy provides no justification of the loss of life from military conflict, no matter how well it was intended.
In contrast, where the people to be rescued by outside forces live in a coherent entity with functioning governance, even if undemocratic, and the source of the oppression is a foreign conqueror, the result may well be a gain for basic values.
My evolution on this subject is the result of two military interventions where the results were very different from what I had expected — and on which I consequently acknowledge having gotten the issues wrong.
The biggest mistake I made in my Congressional tenure was opposing George H.W. Bush’s liberation of Kuwait from Iraq. Kuwaitis are today much better off than they would have been had Saddam Hussein prevailed.
As a contrasting example, there is no evidence that the Libyan people have enjoyed an improved quality of life since the American-led overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi, which I enthusiastically approved.
My reconsideration of these two actions leads to my answering yes to one of the most fraught questions facing the nation — should the United States resolve now that we will commit our full military force to helping Taiwan repel a Chinese invasion?
The moral considerations could not be any more stark: One of the few nations that has gone from repression to freedom since World War II — in a part of the world where full-fledged democracy is rare — is being threatened with forcible absorption into an unashamedly brutal regime that exemplifies the denial of fundamental human rights.
Given the oppressor’s imperviousness to any other consideration, only the threat — or the use — of force can save 23 million Taiwanese from losing their basic human rights.
Only America can provide that.
The counter-argument is that we will damage our relations with China beyond repair if we convince them that we are irrevocably committed to this course. True, our economy would be hurt by a complete rupture, but this is a very unlikely outcome of our making such a pledge, and even if it occurs, it is a far smaller cost than what we would incur by failing to do so.
China has much more to lose than the U.S. from a complete breakdown in relations. Their economy as a whole — and their much poorer population as individuals — will feel the impact of this trauma far more than ours. The political implications for China’s rulers of seeing a significant slowing of the growth they need to complete the social transformation they have promised far outweigh the loss American officials will suffer from inflationary increases caused by the absence of Chinese products.
Second, only those who believe that continuing to allow slavery to flourish in America and watching Hitler spread genocidal tyranny to much of the world would have been morally preferable to the death and destruction that resulted from the successful efforts to put an end to those horrors should feel justified in abandoning 23 million free Taiwanese to oppressive Chinese rule.
Analogies to the failure to stop the Nazis at an early stage are common, but it wasn’t only Hitler’s aggression that was unchecked. Mussolini’s slaughter of Ethiopians was one of the worst examples in history of the world doing nothing as innocent people were murdered or enslaved. We will be guilty of a similar crime against humanity if we stand by and watch this happen to Taiwan.
Barney Frank represented Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 terms (1981-2013) and was chairman of the House Financial Services Committee from 2007 to 2011.