What do Vietnam, the US-China trade war, Brexit and Lantau reclamation all have in common? They show what happens when leaders need to look tough

  • Philip Bowring says that from Iran to Vietnam and now China, US leaders keep making bad decisions rather than looking weak. But the US isn’t alone: Britain’s Brexiteers and Carrie Lam’s artificial island scheme show signs of the same malady
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 November, 2018, 3:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 November, 2018, 6:33pm

Forty-three years after the Vietnam war, the history and origins of that tragedy have been retold with the perspective of time by British journalist and historian Max Hastings in Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975. Although it was the seminal global event of my early years as a journalist, only now have I come to realise how, from 1963, few of those politicians and generals who led the United States ever deeper into that mire really believed they could win.

The fear of being seen, at home and abroad, as weak was ever-present. Short-term goals ruled. Escalation avoided, for the time being, retreating. 

The US’ next refusal to admit reality came after the overthrow of its pet autocrat, the shah of Iran, whose 1953 coup against the government of Mohammad Mossadegh was organised by the CIA. The overthrow eventually led to the 1979 Tehran hostage crisis and desert humiliation, and then to US support of Iraq’s invasion of Iran, a war which enabled the mullahs to tighten their grip on Iran at the expense of secularists.

Despite itself having two wars against Iraq, the US still cannot get over its failure in Iran, hence the latest sanctions retreat from the nuclear accord. This is obviously against US global strategic interests: alienating its European allies and India, and providing opportunities for Russia and China to advance their interests in the region and in the Indian Ocean.

The main beneficiaries of this preference for focusing on old “villains” and not today’s realities are two undeserving allies: Saudi Arabia, global purveyor of medieval, desert Islam and scourge of Shiites; and an Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu dedicated to expansion, colonial settlement and ever-more racist laws, but given diplomatic cover by US President Donald Trump.

Why would Kim trust Trump now he’s ripped up Iran’s nuke deal?

The US was once a conciliator in that region, stamping out the 1956 Anglo-French-Israeli seizure of the Suez Canal and brokering the withdrawal from Sinai, along with the Egypt-Israel accord following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. But humiliation in Vietnam contributed to its response to the overthrow of the Shah and hence its subsequent succession of expensive and mostly unsuccessful wars and failed strategies (most recently Syria) in the Middle East.

Reality has often been glimpsed by diplomats, generals and the media – and by former president Barack Obama. But acting in the face of cries of “weakness” has been too big a challenge.

As for trade and related issues with China, the concern of Americans and Asians affected by further escalation should be that China has a clearer idea of its national interest than the US. This is not just about tariffs, intellectual property or investment access, on which the US has real grievances.

It is also about wider geopolitical interests. The failure to grasp this was evident in Trump’s no-show at last week’s Apec summit in Papua New Guinea. Vice-President Mike Pence’s China-bashing might have been well received in Peoria, Illinois, but it scarcely accords with the purpose of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation grouping, woolly though that may be. There are better ways of exploiting other nations’ fears of China.

China and the US need each other more than they realise

But let us not suppose that only the US suffers from putting short-term and political interests ahead of perceivable national interests. Look at the members of the UK Parliament. The majority are known to believe that Brexit is a huge national mistake, even in the hole-filled form so far negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May.

But these supposed representatives of the people lack the courage to vote accordingly, doing the bidding of party “whips”, Conservative and Labour, who themselves are motivated mainly by the need to keep their respective extremist wings from plots and resignations. The lack of honesty and leadership is pitiful. Cowardice and short-termism rule, taking refuge in the supposed “will of the people” in a referendum which was only advisory, the margin small and with millions of citizens excluded from the vote.

Carrie Lam’s policies reveal her disdain for Hong Kong people

Hong Kong’s version of cowardly fleeing from reality is equally obvious. The ills of house prices and poverty need no explanation. Nor are solutions lacking if the government has the will to confront the major landowners (which include itself) and also divert more income from uneconomic infrastructure and vanity projects to health and social issues. But no.

It is easier to divert attention by bringing onto centre stage its plan to create a new island, which will somehow refill the coffers that are emptied with the cost of construction. Whether any of this is ever built is irrelevant to today’s problems. The “Lantau Tomorrow Vision” is an excuse to avoid decisions today. So, to prove how tough she is, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor resorts to penal measures against those, such as the umbrella movement participants, who challenge unelected authority. And the developers continue to laugh all the way to the bank.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator