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'Ditch Taiwan to save our economy' author responds

For last Friday's "Decline Watch" post, I highlighted a New York Times op-ed which made what I thought was a pretty bizarre argument calling for the U.S. to strike a grand bargain with Beijing under which it would end its military support for Taiwan in exchange for debt relief. A number of other blogs -- not to mention the Taiwanese media, seemed baffled by the piece as well. 

The author of the op-ed, Paul V. Kane, a Marine veteran of Iraq and a former fellow with the International Security Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School, has written in to clarify his point, which he says was intended in the spirit of Swiftian satire. 

Here's Kane's response:

Was the piece intended to stir the pot and provoke debate? Absolutely.  If a piece is not provocative, it doesn't get published, it doesn't get read, and it has no impact.

The primary point though of the piece is that our "economic security" is more important than our traditional view that military might trumps all.  You can't pay for military might without adequate economic security and a healthy economy. You can't support allies without a purse full of coins and a treasury filled with gold. Is it not true that senior U.S. military leaders have said and fretted aloud that the single greatest threat to the existence of the American Republic is our national debt and spend-like-a-drunken-sailor-on-leave ways? No offense to sailors intended.

As Leslie Gelb presciently said, "GDP matters more than force."

It was my intent to mix serious issues and facts with irony and Swiftian satire to engage readers and make my points. No apologies on that count. 

Isn't it ironic that nearly 40 years after Nixon went to Communist China, they own 8-9 percent of casino capitalist America's government debt? Isn't it ironic that we the American people fund the U.S. Navy, the chief instrument ensuring the global sea lanes are free and open for Chinese goods to flood the world?  Isn't it ironic that while we spend from our finite treasury to move military chess pieces around the Pacific, China is out buying all the bauxite rights in the Congo, and is acquiring energy and water assets that will feed their economy for a generation?

Could we do a deal with China for debt and resolution of Taiwan's status. Absolutely.  Should we?  If you put a gun to my head and asked me if I truly thought we should, I have small children, so I would have to answer you honestly.

No, that was a "modest proposal" along the lines of the master of satire Jonathan Swift's solution for poverty in Ireland. Satire is not a joke, it is an extremely useful way to provoke new, original thought and debate.  What is hilarious is that some academics in Taiwan and elsewhere stayed up late at night reading the piece literally and trying to build cases to refute its content, and castigating my logic and morals, and cooking-up deep financial analysis of how a deal would impact the U.S. Treasury Bill markets...   Take your wife out to dinner! Professor or Joe Blogger, it was time miss spent.

The New York Times is kind enough to host my writings every few years.  In 2009, I had a Times piece, "Up, Up and Out" about U.S. military reform that, again, included serious points and facts, humorous and ironic ones, and suggested "First, we should eliminate the Air Force..."  It was a month before the sonic boom F-18 overflights of our family home stopped...

Did I think that the Air Force should go away, literally? No.  But I did believe, as did many other military service members then, that the then Air Force was insufficiently martial, too corporate, and not pulling its weight in the wars."  Point made.  Did the Secretary of Defense read and get a chuckle out of that piece.  You bet. Impact.

Anyone who has served in combat will tell you that in that environment you see first-hand that life is brief and intense and filled with irony, terror, deadly seriousness and the deadly boring mundane, risk and joy, and yes, humor.  Combat makes you much more of an out-of-the-box thinker when facing issues in policy or in life.  You are able to freely ask, "Why are we doing this? What are we trying to accomplish here? Is there a better way to do this for the greater good?"

Many thanks to you, Josh, and your readers for taking time to read and consider my Op-Ed's points. 

Update: Kane seems to have sent the same letter to James Fallows at the Atlantic.  As Fallows notes, we were not aware that the same letter had been sent to multiple sources. 

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America has no stronger ally than [fill in the blank]

You know that classic trick of telling your only daughter that she's your favorite daughter? The U.S. appears to be employing similar linguistic cunning with its allies. America, you see, is rather promiscuous when it comes to professing best friendship.

On Wednesday, for example, as President Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (pictured above) finalized a deal to deploy American Marines to Australia's north coast, Obama declared that "the United States has no stronger ally" than Australia. Obama expressed similar sentiments in March after tossing an Australian football around with Gillard in the Oval Office, and prior to that in November 2010 after sitting down with Gillard for the first time (the Australian prime minister, for her part, said the two countries were "great mates").

But, alas, Gillard isn't America's only BFF. During a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the White House in January, President Obama enraged some Britons by proclaiming, "We don't have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy, and the French people." The statement "is by far the strongest indication yet that the current White House has little regard for the Special Relationship" with Britain," fumed Nile Gardiner, whose U.S.-based Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom seeks to advance that very relationship. "Quite what the French have done to merit this kind of high praise from the U.S. president is difficult to fathom." The Daily Mail‘s Tim Shipman warned that Obama "risked offending British troops in Afghanistan" and even speculated that Obama's attitude toward the British may "stem from his Kenyan family's history during colonial rule."

Yet Gardiner and Shipman would have found solace had they only cast their gaze back to the spring of 2010, when Obama declared on two separate occasions that the United States had "no closer friend and ally than the United Kingdom" and "no closer ally and no stronger partner than Great Britain." Or they could have traveled back to 2009, when Obama informed India that it had "no better friend and partner than the people of the United States" and told Canada that "we could not have a better friend and ally."

These diplomatic turns of phrase, of course, didn't start with Obama. President George W. Bush used similar language to describe countries such as Japan, Canada, Great Britain, and, yes, France. In 2006, the New York Times noted that then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had used the ''no better friend'' refrain with no less than Australia, Britain (and the United Kingdom as a whole), Greece, Italy, Japan, Jordan, and Singapore. 

While the "no stronger/closer/greater/better ally/friend" formulation has bred cynicism ("our strongest ally is the world leader visiting that day," National Review's Jim Geraghty scoffed in March), it's also a stroke of semantic genius. By avoiding superlatives like "strongest" or "greatest," U.S. leaders appear to shower their most-valued allies with favoritism without actually picking favorites. Or, as the Independent put it in the wake of the Sarkozy/Special Relationship flap, "President Obama merely put France into the Premier League -- or rather the National Basketball Association -- of America's friends. You the French, he said, are part of an ‘A-list' of America's pals, alongside -- but not necessarily ahead of -- Canada, Japan, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and Britain." In other words, it's a seven-way tie for first place.

If "no stronger" denotes the top echelon of American friends, one wonders whether the "one of" designation (as in "one of our best friends") is interchangeable or a kind of subtle diplomatic downgrade. Obama has bestowed the "one of our strongest allies" on a number of countries including Israel, Italy, Japan, Poland, and South Korea, but other government officials have used the "no stronger" language to describe some of these countries. When President Obama visited Germany in June, he praised Germany as "one of our strongest allies" and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as "one of my closest global partners." But Merkel went the more effusive route:

Mr. President, dear Barack, in Berlin in 2008, you spoke to more than 200,000 people. And in your address, you said America has no better partner than Europe. And now it's my turn to say Europe and Germany have no better partner than America.

Will America return the favor? If Germany saves Europe from its debt crisis, the U.S. very well might.

Rick Rycroft/Getty Images