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Ross Douthat: What comes after the 9/11 era?

China’s bid for mastery in Asia is the 21st century’s most important threat. All other challenges are secondary.

(Lintao Zhang | AP pool photo) In this Dec. 4, 2013, photo, Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden as they pose for photos at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

When I moved to Washington, D.C., in 2002 we all lived in 9/11′s shadow. We waited for bombs in the Metro, for more anthrax envelopes, for a sequel to the previous autumn’s terror. We watched planes headed for Reagan Airport fly low over the Potomac, always half-expecting them to veer.

Everything in my profession revolved around the War on Terror. And everyone I knew who was even the least bit conservative (a category that included many Democrats) was ready to invade Iraq — and probably Syria and Iran for good measure.

Everyone except one college friend, Elbridge Colby, then newly planted at the State Department. His politics in those days were “severely conservative” (to borrow a phrase from the political taxonomist Mitt Romney), but he expected George W. Bush’s strategy to end in disaster. Nightly in our unkempt apartments he argued with the hawks — which is to say with all of us — channeling the realist foreign policy thinkers he admired, predicting quagmire, destabilization and defeat.

In almost every way, the rest of the post-9/11 era vindicated his arguments — not just in the Iraq War but also in our chaos-sowing Libya intervention and our failed attempt at nation-building in Afghanistan.

Still, a version of Bush-era hawkishness survived among Republicans not named Rand Paul. Even in 2015, it was still potent enough that Colby was reportedly blackballed from a job as foreign policy director for Jeb Bush’s campaign, because of his insufficient enthusiasm about a potential conflict with Iran.

A consensus can change slowly and then, under the right pressure, all at once, and for Republicans that pressure came from Donald Trump. No dove or systematizer, he still made realism and anti-interventionism respectable again — with immediate consequences for my friend. Two years after Team Jeb! declined his services, Colby was in Trump’s Pentagon helping devise the administration’s national defense strategy. And now he has a new book, “The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict,” making the case for a foreign policy that leaves the post-9/11 era decisively behind.

As the title suggests, this is a realist’s book, laser-focused on China’s bid for mastery in Asia as the 21st century’s most important threat. All other challenges are secondary: Terrorism can be managed with “smaller footprint operations,” the liberal Trump-era fixation on Vladimir Putin mistakes a sideshow for the main event and the long-standing Republican focus on rogue states like Iran and North Korea is equally misguided.

Only China threatens American interests in a profound way, through a consolidation of economic power in Asia that imperils our prosperity and a military defeat that could shatter our alliance system. Therefore American policy should be organized to deny Beijing regional hegemony and deter any military adventurism — first and foremost through a stronger commitment to defending the island of Taiwan.

“The Strategy of Denial” presents a particularly unsentimental version of what a lot of people bidding to shape a post-9/11-era foreign policy believe — and not just younger Republicans like Colby. The Biden White House has its share of softer-spoken China hawks, and its disentanglement from Afghanistan and relative dovishness toward Russia both reflect a desire to prioritize China policy more than, say, a Hillary Clinton administration might have done.

But this is a long way from being any kind of consensus. The establishment freakout over Biden’s Afghan withdrawal indicates the extent to which a focused, China-first foreign policy seems like retreat to Democrats and Republicans accustomed to more global and unlimited ambitions.

Meanwhile, a very different group of post-9/11-era thinkers regards China hawkishness as a dangerously self-fulfilling prophecy — a way to blunder, like the Bush-era neoconservatives Colby once critiqued, into an unnecessary and disastrous war. Rather than the old establishment’s maximalist, they prefer minimalism, an end even to the light-footprint forms of warcraft attacked by Samuel Moyn of Yale in his new book “Humane” — an interesting accompaniment and counterpoint to Colby’s — and a deliberate retreat from empire. (The idea that climate change requires conciliation with China also looms large for some in this group.)

The minimalist group has the least influence in Washington, but its skepticism about warmaking has a lot of popular support — including skepticism about war with China. Even with Beijing’s increased belligerence and its COVID cover-ups, a survey in the summer of 2020 found that only 41% of Americans favored fighting for Taiwan, a lack of enthusiasm confirmed in informal surveys of almost everyone I know.

But Beijing’s own choices will also shape our strategy. A China that retreats somewhat, post-COVID, from bellicosity and border skirmishes would defang the China-hawk argument quite a bit.

On the other hand, a China that looks at American disarray and its own window of opportunity and decides to move aggressively could leave my old friend in the same place the 9/11 era left his younger self — with his strategic analysis vindicated, unhappily, by an American defeat.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.

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