With friends like the US State Department, who needs enemies?

Bruce Herschensohn, a former US presidential special assistant, argues the State Department constitutes one of the main threats to Taiwan's democracy


Sun, Apr 01, 2007 - Page 18

A great number of books have appeared in recent years focusing on relations between Taiwan and China. Most, if not all, have one thing in common: the narrative adopts a US-centric perspective. While the authors agree that Taiwan needs to be protected from Chinese political intrusion or military aggression, their exploration of the consequences of failure in the Strait usually focuses on Washington.

Bruce Herschensohn's new book, Taiwan: The Threatened Democracy, does not depart from this tradition. A deputy special assistant to disgraced former US president Richard Nixon, Herschensohn makes no attempt to conceal his political beliefs. Reflecting a right-of-center publisher that avowedly sees the world in Manichean, "good" versus "evil" terms, and sees capitalism and democratic republicanism as the means to protect the world from spreading evil, it is clear from the beginning that Taiwan is the good democracy and China the evil authoritarian regime.

But Herschensohn's cast of evil characters is not limited to Beijing: it also includes the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the US State Department, whose diplomats, he reminds us, "are not paid to be honest."

After skimming very briefly over the formation of the Republic of China and the KMT's defeat at the hands of the communists in 1949, the book uses as its point of departure Nixon's visit to China in February 1972 and the Shanghai Communique that emerged from his meeting with Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong (毛澤東).

In Herschensohn's opinion, not only was the communique intentionally misinterpreted by the US State Department, but the misinterpretation became the foundation of two subsequent communiques buttressing former US presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan's policies on China.

The initial communique, the author argues, did not explicitly state that the ROC was part of the People's Republic of China. The error, it seems, stemmed from a failure to include native Taiwanese in the equation and a perspective that only depicted the conflict in terms of the KMT in Taiwan and the PRC in China.

The communiques, followed by official recognition of Beijing by the Carter administration on Jan. 1, 1979, led to engagement, which Herschensohn claims was a failure, as continued repression and the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 starkly demonstrate. He omits, however, to describe what could have happened had there been no engagement.

Herschensohn then spends a great deal of time demonstrating, through numerous quotes from State Department officials, Foggy Bottom's deviousness over the years. The list of crimes is long: from careerism to obfuscation, avoidance and a failure to define the so-called "status quo," the author argues that, aside from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), no other entity has been more detrimental to Taiwanese liberty than the State Department, which, he argues, has gone from what it should be — adviser to the president — to policymaker. Of course, the motivations behind the State Department's lack of a moral stance are mostly predicated on the need to maintain the sacred "strategic stability" and — no surprise here — to encourage and facilitate trade.

Money talks, and business trumps human rights.

One of the more interesting sections in Herschensohn's book is perhaps his exploration of the slow erosion of human rights following Britain's handover of Hong Kong in 1997. The value in the otherwise dry laundry list is that it shows what could happen to Taiwan were it to become a Special Administrative Region like Hong Kong. For generations of Taiwanese who did not experience the hardships of life in China or the transgressions of a police state and who may, therefore, succumb to the temptation of China's market, the section presents a cogent warning.

Herschensohn rightly points out, as well, that a state is not independent if it must seek permission to set its own policies. Though a "free" nation, Taiwan isn't independent, and this is largely the result of years of ambiguity and moral equivalence in Washington and continued saber-rattling in Beijing.

Discarding all the critical thinking he reserves for the State Department, Herschensohn abjectly believes Bush's quixotic claims that the US, under his guidance, is on a historic quest to "liberate" the peoples of the earth. In fact, he does not shy from including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as part of that program. Bush's vision is therefore taken for granted and the reader is led to believe that Washington's policies on the Taiwan Strait would be all the more moral and constructive if only the State Department would be a team player and echo the president's views. Herschensohn should perhaps be reminded that the State Department reached one of its lowest point in years when US Secretary of State Colin Powell yielded to the pressure of the executive and delivered his Feb. 5, 2003, speech on Iraqi WMD at the UN Security Council, another reviled institution of Herschensohn's.

But Herschensohn has more to say about divisions. In fact, he sees Taiwanese disunity as hampering Taiwan's chances of success. Stunningly, Herschensohn moans about the fact that only the CCP is presenting a united front on Taiwan, while the US is divided, not only on the Taiwan Strait issue but also on the "war on terrorism."

The contradiction could not be any starker: in a book titled Taiwan: The Threatened Democracy, Herschensohn laments the divisions and multiplicity of voices emblematic of democracy and seems to say that the US would be better off if only all those dissenters in the US would shut up and rally behind the president.

Aside from failing to provide solutions, Herschensohn says it would be better if the "status quo" he so reviles could be maintained, at least until the US has won and rid itself of the distraction of the "war on terrorism." However precious Taiwan's democracy, Herschensohn respectfully requests that leaders in Beijing and Taipei refrain from acting in such a way as would precipitate a crisis. The problem with this argument, aside from the fact that it is the very kind of non-policy he spends 180 pages lamenting, is that the "war on terrorism" is an open-ended commitment with no end in sight, and perhaps none possible.

Taiwan and China will not wait. History does not stop while Washington wages its wars.