Pentagon Rules Out Striking Iranian Cultural Sites, Contradicting Trump

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper sought to douse an international outcry on Monday by ruling out military attacks on cultural sites in Iran if the conflict with Tehran escalates further, despite President Trump’s threat to destroy some of the country’s treasured icons.

Mr. Esper acknowledged that striking cultural sites with no military value would be a war crime, putting him at odds with the president, who insisted such places would be legitimate targets. Mr. Trump’s threats generated condemnation at home and abroad while deeply discomfiting American military leaders who have made a career of upholding the laws of war.

“We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” Mr. Esper said at a news briefing at the Pentagon when asked if cultural sites would be targeted as the president had suggested over the weekend. When a reporter asked if that meant “no” because the laws of war prohibit targeting cultural sites, Mr. Esper agreed. “That’s the laws of armed conflict.”

The furor was a classic controversy of Mr. Trump’s creation, the apparent result of an impulsive threat and his refusal to back down in the face of criticism. When Mr. Trump declared on Saturday that the United States had identified 52 potential targets in Iran if it retaliates for the American drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, none of those targets qualified as cultural sites, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified correcting the president.

Nonetheless, when Mr. Trump casually said on Twitter that they included sites “very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture,” the resulting uproar only got his back up. Rather than simply say that cultural sites were not actually being targeted, the official said, he decided to double down the next day with reporters flying with him on Air Force One, scoffing at the idea that Iran could “kill our people” while “we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site,” saying, “It doesn’t work that way.”

Donald J. Trump


….hundreds of Iranian protesters. He was already attacking our Embassy, and preparing for additional hits in other locations. Iran has been nothing but problems for many years. Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have…..

Donald J. Trump


….targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!

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The comments drew protests from Iran and other American adversaries who said they showed that Mr. Trump is the aggressor — and not just against Iran’s government but against its people, its history and its very nationhood. Even some of America’s allies weighed in, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain breaking with Mr. Trump by issuing a statement through an aide warning against targeting antiquities.

Military leaders were left in the awkward position of trying to reaffirm their commitment to generations of war-fighting rules without angering a volatile commander in chief by contradicting him. Mr. Trump’s remarks unsettled even some of his allies, who considered them an unnecessary distraction at a time when the president should be focusing attention on Iran’s misdeeds rather than promising some of his own.

We’re not at war with the culture of the Iranian people,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and one of the president’s staunchest supporters in Congress, said on Monday. “We’re in a conflict with the theology, the ayatollah and his way of doing business.”

Mr. Graham, a retired military lawyer in the Air Force Reserve, said he delivered that message to Mr. Trump in a telephone call on Monday. “I think the president saying ‘we will hit you hard’ is the right message,” he said. “Cultural sites is not hitting them hard; it’s creating more problems. We’re trying to show solidarity with the Iranian people.”

Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Mr. Trump’s threats would only encourage despots of the world to target antiquities themselves.

“America is better than that, and President Trump is flat-out wrong to threaten attacks on historic places of cultural heritage,” said Mr. Reed, a former platoon leader in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. “Destroying some of these culturally significant Iranian sites wouldn’t be seen as just an attack against the regime in Tehran, it could be construed as an attack on history and humanity.”

Iran, home to one of humanity’s most storied ancient civilizations, has 22 cultural sites designated on the World Heritage List by UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization, including the ruins of Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid Empire later conquered by Alexander the Great. Others include Tchogha Zanbil, the remnants of the holy city of the Kingdom of Elam, and a series of Persian gardens that have their roots in the times of Cyrus the Great.

The United States is a signatory to a 1954 international agreement to protect cultural property in armed conflict and has been a leader in condemning rogue nations and groups that destroy antiquities, including the Islamic State’s destruction of sites in Mosul, Iraq, and Palmyra, Syria, and the Taliban’s demolition of the famed Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001.

Experts said that what Mr. Trump described would likewise violate international law. “We and others accused ISIS of war crimes when they did this,” said Jeh C. Johnson, a former secretary of homeland security under President Barack Obama who previously served as the top lawyer at the Pentagon. “Certainly, in aggravated circumstances, it should be considered a war crime.”

Mr. Johnson and others said there could be situations that are murkier, if the actual cultural value was less clear or it was being used as a military facility. Still, Mr. Johnson said, “my guess is his national security lawyers did not vet that tweet.

Indeed, the president’s advisers ever since have sought to deny that he was actually making a threat even though his initial tweet said the sites — including those of cultural importance — “WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD” if Iran responded to General Suleimani’s killing.

President Trump didn’t say he’d go after a cultural site,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted the next day on Fox News. “Read what he said very closely.”

But just hours later, Mr. Trump made very clear that he thought cultural sites were in fact legitimate targets. “They’re allowed to kill our people,” he told the reporters on Air Force One as he flew back to Washington from his winter holiday in Florida. “They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”

By Monday, the White House was again denying that Mr. Trump actually made a threat. “He didn’t say he’s targeting cultural sites,” Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, told reporters. “He said that he was openly asking the question why in the world they’re allowed to maim people, put out roadside bombs, kill our people, torture our people.”

Bill Barr Thinks America Is Going to Hell

And he’s on a mission to use the “authority” of the executive branch to stop it.

Why would a seemingly respectable, semiretired lion of the Washington establishment undermine the institutions he is sworn to uphold, incinerate his own reputation, and appear to willfully misrepresent the reports of special prosecutors and inspectors general, all to defend one of the most lawless and corrupt presidents in American history? And why has this particular attorney general appeared at this pivotal moment in our Republic?

A deeper understanding of William Barr is emerging, and it reveals something profound and disturbing about the evolution of conservatism in 21st-century America.

Some people have held that Mr. Barr is simply a partisan hack — willing to do whatever it takes to advance the interests of his own political party and its leadership. This view finds ample support in Mr. Barr’s own words. In a Nov. 15 speech at the Federalist Society’s National Lawyers Convention in Washington, he accused President Trump’s political opponents of “unprecedented abuse” and said they were “engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law.”

It is hardly the first time Mr. Barr stepped outside of long-established norms for the behavior of attorneys general. In his earlier stint as attorney general, during the George H.W. Bush presidency, Mr. Barr took on the role of helping to disappear the case against Reagan administration officials involved in the Iran-contra affair. The situation demonstrated that “powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office,” according to Lawrence Walsh, the independent prosecutor in that case. According to some critics, Mr. Barr delivered the partisan goods then, as he is delivering them now.

Another view is that Mr. Barr is principally a defender of a certain interpretation of the Constitution that attributes maximum power to the executive. This view, too, finds ample support in Mr. Barr’s own words. In the speech to the Federalist Society, he said, “Since the mid-’60s, there has been a steady grinding down of the executive branch’s authority that accelerated after Watergate.” In July, when President Trump claimed, in remarks to a conservative student group, “I have an Article II where I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” it is reasonable to suppose this is his CliffsNotes version of Mr. Barr’s ideology.

Both of these views are accurate enough. But at least since Mr. Barr’s infamous speech at the University of Notre Dame Law School, in which he blamed “secularists” for “moral chaos” and “immense suffering, wreckage and misery,” it has become clear that no understanding of William Barr can be complete without taking into account his views on the role of religion in society. For that, it is illuminating to review how Mr. Barr has directed his Justice Department on matters concerning the First Amendment clause forbidding the establishment of a state religion.

In Maryland, the department rushed to defend taxpayer funding for a religious school that says same-sex marriage is wrong. In Maine, it is defending parents suing over a state law that bans religious schools from obtaining taxpayer funding to promote their own sectarian doctrines. At his Department of Justice, Mr. Barr told law students at Notre Dame, “We keep an eye out for cases or events around the country where states are misapplying the establishment clause in a way that discriminates against people of faith.”

In these and other cases, Mr. Barr has embraced wholesale the “religious liberty” rhetoric of today’s Christian nationalist movement. When religious nationalists invoke “religious freedom,” it is typically code for religious privilege. The freedom they have in mind is the freedom of people of certain conservative and authoritarian varieties of religion to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove or over whom they wish to exert power.

This form of “religious liberty” seeks to foment the sense of persecution and paranoia of a collection of conservative religious groups that see themselves as on the cusp of losing their rightful position of dominance over American culture. It always singles out groups that can be blamed for society’s ills, and that may be subject to state-sanctioned discrimination and belittlement — L.G.B.T. Americans, secularists and Muslims are the favored targets, but others are available. The purpose of this “religious liberty” rhetoric is not just to secure a place of privilege, but also to justify public funding for the right kind of religion.

Barr watchers will know that this is nothing new. In a 1995 article he wrote for The Catholic Lawyer, which, as Emily Bazelon recently pointed out, appears to be something of a blueprint for his speech at Notre Dame, he complained that “we live in an increasingly militant, secular age” and expressed his grave concern that the law might force landlords to rent to unmarried couples. He implied that the idea that universities might treat “homosexual activist groups like any other student group” was intolerable.

This form of “religious liberty” is not a mere side issue for Mr. Barr, or for the other religious nationalists who have come to dominate the Republican Party. Mr. Barr has made this clear. All the problems of modernity — “the wreckage of the family,” “record levels of depression and mental illness,” “drug addiction” and “senseless violence” — stem from the loss of a strict interpretation of the Christian religion.

The great evildoers in the Notre Dame speech are nonbelievers who are apparently out on the streets ransacking everything that is good and holy. The solutions to society’s ills, Mr. Barr declared, come from faith. “Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct,” he said. “Religion helps frame moral culture within society that instills and reinforces moral discipline.” He added, “The fact is that no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion.”

Within this ideological framework, the ends justify the means. In this light, Mr. Barr’s hyperpartisanship is the symptom, not the malady. At Christian nationalist gatherings and strategy meetings, the Democratic Party and its supporters are routinely described as “demonic” and associated with “rulers of the darkness.” If you know that society is under dire existential threat from secularists, and you know that they have all found a home in the other party, every conceivable compromise with principles, every ethical breach, every back-room deal is not only justifiable but imperative. And as the vicious reaction to Christianity Today’s anti-Trump editorial demonstrates, any break with this partisan alignment will be instantly denounced as heresy.

It is equally clear that Mr. Barr’s maximalist interpretation of executive power in the Constitution is just an effect, rather than a cause, of his ideological commitments. In fact, it isn’t really an interpretation. It is simply an unfounded assertion that the president has what amount to monarchical powers. “George III would have loved it,” said Douglas Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine who once held Mr. Barr’s position as head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, of Mr. Barr’s theory. It’s almost beside the point to note, as the conservative lawyers group Checks & Balances recently wrote, that Mr. Barr’s view of history “has no factual basis.”

Mr. Barr’s constitutional interpretation is simply window dressing on his commitment to religious authoritarianism. And that, really, gets to the heart of the matter. If you know anything about America’s founders, you know they were passionately opposed to the idea of a religious monarchy. And this is the key to understanding the question, “What does Bill Barr want?”

The answer is that America’s conservative movement, having morphed into a religious nationalist movement, is on a collision course with the American constitutional system. Though conservatives have long claimed to be the true champions of the Constitution — remember all that chatter during previous Republican administrations about “originalism” and “judicial restraint” — the movement that now controls the Republican Party is committed to a suite of ideas that are fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution and the Republic that the founders created under its auspices.

Mr. Trump’s presidency was not the cause of this anti-democratic movement in American politics. It was the consequence. He is the chosen instrument, not of God, but of today’s Christian nationalists, their political allies and funders, and the movement’s legal apparatus. Mr. Barr did not emerge in order to serve this one particular leader. On the contrary, Mr. Trump serves a movement that will cynically praise the Constitution in order to destroy it, and of which Mr. Barr has made himself a hero.

Politics In America Has Changed And We Need A New Way To Talk About It

It’s time to rethink how we view the U.S. political spectrum.

The 2016 election and President Trump’s first term in office has transformed politics in this country. His election represented not only a radical change in policy but an assault on what we consider fundamental American values.

Going into the 2020 election, many on the left are thinking about the work that the next president and Congress will have to do to repair the damage done since 2016 and address the crises Trump has created and exacerbated. Protect Democracy, for example, has proposed a package of legislative reforms to prevent presidential abuse of power. However, some have argued that Democrats should adopt some of the tactics Trump has used and bend some rules to set the country back on the correct course.

This represents a big shift in the way we think about politics, and we need new terminology to accurately discuss what we believe in.

For most of my life, our political spectrum has run from the political left to the political right. People are socially liberal or socially conservative, economically liberal or economically conservative. Increasingly, this dichotomy fails to capture a new spectrum emerging in American politics — those committed to “liberal democracy” and those more willing to sacrifice it and live under a more authoritarian style of government in order to secure policy gains.

The emergence of this new political spectrum has come about through what has been called “the big sort,” where people’s identities are increasingly aligned with their political parties. Gone are the days when someone who shares your life experience across geography, age, race, and education may belong to either political party. Increasingly, if you know someone’s race, age and education level, you can guess their political affiliation. For example, as a 28-year-old non-white law school graduate, you can guess that I am a Democrat because 73% of non-white millennials lean Democrat as do 59% of voters with post-graduate experience.

Leaders from Modi in India to Trump in the United States to far-right populist movements in Europe are using the fact that our political opponents are often different from us across religion, race, age, and education level to make us fear and even hate them. Around the world, we have seen this suspicion of the “other” play out in political movements through a rise of would-be dictators using racism and a narrow view of national identity for their own political gain. In the United States, Americans increasingly view their political opponents as the enemy, saying that they’d oppose their child marrying someone of a different political belief. In 2018, in a perfect encapsulation of suspicion of the other party, we saw Republican voters wearing shirts saying, “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat”.

Furthermore, because of the “big sort,” we have increasingly little interaction with people of different political parties and, therefore, less opportunity to challenge these suspicions or narratives from opportunistic political leaders. For example, I had not knowingly interacted with a Republican until a year and a half ago, when I started at Protect Democracy, a non-partisan non-profit working to prevent the United States from declining into a more authoritarian form of government. Working with Republicans has caused me to challenge my idea that the GOP is the enemy and forced me to think about the extent of my tolerance and inclusion.

I have found myself surprised by my Republican colleagues’ indignation around racism and sexism. And then embarrassed by my surprise. I have found myself moved by their willingness to fight their own party, which for some of them has also meant a loss of close friends or family, because they believe in higher principles and a version of America that more closely aligns with mine than with the Trump-led GOP on race and gender. I’ve become less judgmental and more curious. I also have more trust in the intentions, if not the impact, of my fellow Americans’ political decision-making.

This is important, not only for me as an individual but for American democracy as a whole. We know from the research that “levels of personal trust tend to be linked with people’s broader views on institutions and civic life.” Put simply, if we don’t trust each other then we don’t trust our democratic process to deliver for us. To be sure, our processes are not neutral and often rooted in historic inequality and power disparities. However, if we are unwilling to engage in the project of improving the processes of liberal democracy and are instead focused solely on implementing policy we agree with at all costs, we may create more problems for ourselves in the future.

Democracy in the United States is not guaranteed, it’s an idea that each generation has to renew and redefine

For example, some Members of Congress have called for the next President to declare a national emergency to address the actual emergency of climate change. They would have the next President replicate the abuses of President Trump by bypassing Congress for the sake of policy expediency. While I deeply appreciate the urgency of the climate crisis, I also see the danger in a Democratic president legitimizing Trump’s abuse of the National Emergency Act — it could be abused yet again when someone I disagree with gets elected again.

Even as I look back on President Obama’s presidency, I can see the ways that President Obama — struggling with a Republican Senate that wouldn’t work with him — laid the groundwork for some of the abuses that we’re seeing under President Trump on appointments and executive orders. President Trump has taken that lesson and gone well beyond it. I fear what a president with similar inclinations to Trump, but more strategic wherewithal would do.

American politics is no longer split merely between left vs. right. We are in an era of American politics when some people recognize and value the frustrating moderating effects of the checks and balances of American democracy, whereas others view it as a hindrance to achieving their policy goals. Right now many think that it’s those in the opposing party who don’t care about democracy, but I am not convinced. We need a better way to discuss the precedents in decision-making the parties are cementing and the dangers they may be setting us up for.

We need an additional ideological spectrum to talk about politics in America today, one that places those who care about our democracy on one end, and those willing to live under a more authoritarian style of government for policy gains on the other.

As I watch the 2020 primary season play out, I find myself looking beyond a candidate’s policy preferences and paying attention to whether their plans for implementing their agenda will help or hurt our democracy. I believe it’s not enough to win. We have to think about the process and structures we’re leaving in place for the next person, whose policy views we may not agree with. I want to know what candidates will do to prevent the emergence of another president like Trump. How will they make sure our checks and balances work so that someone can’t blatantly disregard norms? How will they ensure elections are free, fair and accessible? What will they change to make sure the marginalized are protected and our right to dissent is maintained?

In order to solve the new problems we’ve been confronted with, we need new solutions. Democracy in the United States is not guaranteed, it’s an idea that each generation has to renew and redefine. By including this new political spectrum in our thinking, we can ensure that we work to preserve and perfect our democracy for future generations.

Eric X. Li: A tale of two political systems

It’s a standard assumption in the West: As a society progresses, it eventually becomes a capitalist, multi-party democracy. Right? Eric X. Li, a Chinese investor and political scientist, begs to differ. In this provocative, boundary-pushing talk, he asks his audience to consider that there’s more than one way to run a succesful modern nation.


Why democracy still wins: A critique of Eric X. Li’s “A tale of two political systems”

Earlier this year, economist Yasheng Huang (watch his 2011 TED Talk) sparred with Eric X. Li in the pages of Foreign Affairs on a similar topic to today’s TED Talk. The TED Blog asked Huang to expand on his argument in his ongoing conversation with Li.

Imagine confusing the following two statements from a cancer doctor: 1) “You may die from cancer” and 2) “I want you to die from cancer.” It is not hard to see a rudimentary difference between these two statements. The first statement is a prediction — it is saying that something may happen given certain conditions (in this case death conditional upon having cancer). The second statement is a preference, a desire, or a wish for a world to one’s particular liking.

Who would make such a rudimentary mistake confusing these two types of statements? Many people, including Eric X. Li, in today’s TED Talk. The Marxian meta-narrative drilled into Li’s head — and mine in my childhood and youth in the 1960s and 1970s — is a normative statement. When Marx came up with his ideas about evolution of human societies, there was not a single country in the world that even remotely resembled the communist system he advocated. The communist system Marx had in mind had no private property or of ownership of any kind. Money was also absent in that system. The Marxian version of communism has never come to fruition and, most likely, never will. Marx based his “prediction” on deduction; his successors did so by imposing their wish, enforced by power and violence.

Eric X. Li: A tale of two political systemsEric X. Li: A tale of two political systems

By contrast, the narrative that was apparently fed to Li when he was a “Berkeley hippie” is based on the actual experience of human affairs. We have had hundreds of years of experience with democracy and hundreds of countries/years of democratic transitions and rule. The statement that countries transition to democracy as they get rich is a positive statement — it is a prediction based on data. In the 1960s, roughly 25 percent  of the world was democratic; today the proportion is 63 percent . There are far more instances of dictatorships transitioning to democracies  than the other way around. The rest of the world has clearly expressed a preference for democracy. As Minxin Pei has pointed out, of the 25 countries with a higher GDP per capita than China that are not free or partially free, 21 of them are sustained by natural resources. But these are exceptions that prove the rule — countries become democratic as they get richer. Today not a single country classified as the richest is a single-party authoritarian system. (Singapore is arguably a borderline case.) Whether Li likes it or not, they all seem to end up in the same place.

Are democracies more corrupt? Li thinks so. He cites the Transparency International (TI) index to support his view. The TI data show that China is ranked better than many democracies. Fair enough.

I have always thought that there is a touch of irony with using transparency data to defend a political system built on opacity. Irony aside, let’s keep in mind that TI index itself is a product of a political system that Li so disparages — democracy (German democracy to be exact). This underscores a basic point — we know far more about corruption in democracies than we do about corruption in authoritarian countries because democracies are, by definition, more transparent and they have more transparency data. While I trust comparisons of corruption among democratic countries, to mechanically compare corruption in China with that in democracies, as Li has done so repeatedly, is fundamentally flawed. His methodology confounds two effects — how transparent a country is and how corrupt a country is. I am not saying that democracies are necessarily cleaner than China; I am just saying that Li’s use of TI data is not the basis for drawing conclusions in either direction. The right way to reach a conclusion on this issue is to say that given the same level of transparency (and the same level of many other things, including income), China is — or is not — more corrupt than democracies.

Yasheng Huang: Does democracy stifle economic growth?Yasheng Huang: Does democracy stifle economic growth?

A simple example will suffice to illustrate this idea. In 2010, two Indian entrepreneurs founded a website called I Paid a Bribe. The website invited anonymous postings of instances in which Indian citizens had to pay a bribe. By August 2012 the website has recorded more than 20,000 reports of corruption. Some Chinese entrepreneurs tried to do the same thing: They created I Made a Bribe and But those websites were promptly shut down by the Chinese government. The right conclusion is not, as the logic of Li would suggest, that China is cleaner than India because it has zero postings of corrupt instances whereas India has some 20,000 posted instances of corruption.

With due respect to the good work at Transparency International, its data are very poor at handling this basic difference between perception of corruption and incidence of corruption. Democracies are more transparent — about its virtues and its vices — than authoritarian systems.  We know far more about Indian corruption in part because the Indian system is more transparent, and it has a noisy chattering class who are not afraid to challenge and criticize the government (and, in a few instances, to stick a video camera into a hotel room recording the transfer of cash to politicians). Also lower-level corruption is more observable than corruption at the top of the political hierarchy. The TI index is better at uncovering the corruption of a Barun the policeman in Chennai than a Bo Xilai the Politburo member from Chongqing. These factors, not corruption per se, are likely to explain most of the discrepancies between China and India in terms of TI rankings.

Li likes to point out, again using TI data, that the likes of Indonesia, Argentina and the Philippines are both democracies and notoriously corrupt. He often omits crucial factual details when he is addressing this issue. Yes, these countries are democracies, in 2013, but they were governed by ruthless military dictators for decades long before they transitioned to democracy. It was the autocracy of these countries that bred and fermented corruption. (Remember the 3,000 pairs of shoes of Mrs. Marcos?) Corruption is like cancer, metastatic and entrenched. While it is perfectly legitimate to criticize new democracies for not rooting out corruption in a timely fashion, confusing the difficulties of treating the entrenched corruption with its underlying cause is analogous to saying that a cancer patient got his cancer after he was admitted for chemotherapy.

The world league of the most egregious corruption offenders belongs exclusively to autocrats. The top three ruling looters as of 2004, according to a TI report, are Suharto, Marcos and Mobutu. These three dictators pillaged a combined $50 billion from their impoverished people. Democracies are certainly not immune to corruption, but I think that they have to work a lot harder before they can catch up with these autocrats.

Li has a lot of faith in the Chinese system. He first argues that the system enjoys widespread support among the Chinese population. He cites a Financial Times survey that 93 percent of Chinese young people are optimistic about their future. I have seen these high approval ratings used by Li and others as evidence that the Chinese system is healthy and robust, but I am puzzled why Li should stop at 93 percent. Why not go further, to 100 percent ? In a country without free speech, asking people to directly evaluate performance of leaders is like asking people to take a single-choice exam. The poll numbers for Erich Honecker and Kim Jong-un would put Chinese leaders to shame.

(Let me also offer a cautionary footnote on how and how not to use Chinese survey data. I have done a lot of survey research in China, and I am always humbled by how tricky it is to interpret the survey findings. Apart from the political pressures that tend to channel answers in a particular direction, another problem is that Chinese respondents sometimes view taking a survey as similar to taking an exam. Chinese exams have standard answers, and sometimes Chinese respondents fill out surveys by trying to guess what the “standard” answer is rather than expressing their own views. I would caution against any naïve uses of Chinese survey data.)

Li also touts the adaptability of the Chinese political system. Let me quote:

“Now, most political scientists will tell us that a one-party system is inherently incapable of self-correction. It won’t last long because it cannot adapt. Now here are the facts. In 64 years of running the largest country in the world, the range of the party’s policies has been wider than any other country in recent memory, from radical land collectivization to the Great Leap Forward, then privatization of farmland, then the Cultural Revolution, then Deng Xiaoping’s market reform, then successor Jiang Zemin took the giant political step of opening up party membership to private businesspeople, something unimaginable during Mao’s rule. So the party self-corrects in rather dramatic fashion.”

Now imagine putting forward the following narrative celebrating, say, Russian “adaptability”: Russia, as a country or as a people, is highly adaptable. The range of its “policies has been wider than any other country in recent memory,” from gulags to Stalin’s red terror, then collectivization, then central planning, then glasnost and perestroika, then privatization, then crony capitalism, then the illiberal democracy under Putin, something unimaginable during Lenin’s rule. So the country “self-corrects in rather dramatic fashion.”

Let me be clear and explicit — Li’s reasoning on the adaptability of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is exactly identical to the one I offered on Russia. The only difference is that Li was referring to a political organization — the CCP — and I am referring to a sovereign state.

The TED audience greeted Li’s speech with applause — several times in fact. I doubt that had Li offered this Russian analogy the reception would have been as warm. The reason is simple: The TED audience is intimately familiar with the tumult, violence and astronomical human toll of the Soviet rule. Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, quoted the findings by other scholars that the Soviet regime killed 62 million of its own citizens. I guess the word “correction” somewhat understates the magnitude of the transformation from Stalin’s murderous, genocidal regime to the problematic, struggling but nonetheless democratic Russia today.

I do not know what a Berkeley hippie learned from his education, but in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I received my education and where I am a professor by profession, I learned — and teach — every day that words actually have meaning. To me, self-correction implies at least two things. First, a self-correction is, well, a correction by self. Yes, Mao’s policies were “corrected” or even reversed by his successors, as Li pointed out, but in what sense is this “a self-correction?” Mao’s utterly disastrous policies persisted during his waning days even while the chairman lay in a vegetative state and his successor — who came to power through a virtual coup — only dared to modify Mao’s policies after his physical expiration was certain. If this is an instance of self-correction, exactly what is not a self-correction? Almost every single policy change Li identified in his talk was made by the successor to the person who initiated the policy that got corrected. (In quite a few cases, not even by the immediate successor.) This is a bizarre definition of self-correction. Does it constitute a self-correction when the math errors I left uncorrected in my childhood are now being corrected by my children?

The second meaning of self-correction has to do with the circumstances in which the correction occurs, not just the identity of the person making the correction. A 10-year-old can correct her spelling or math error on her own volition, or she could have done so after her teacher registered a few harsh slaps on the back of her left hand. In both situations the identity of the corrector is the same — the 10-year-old student — but the circumstances of the correction are vastly different. One would normally associate the first situation with “self-correction,” the second situation with coercion, duress or, as in this case, violence. In other words, self-correction implies a degree of voluntariness on the part of the person making the correction, not forced or coerced, not out of lack of alternatives other than making the correction. The element of choice is a vital component of the definition of self-correction.

Let me supply a few missing details to those who applauded Li’s characterization of 64 years of China’s one-party system as one of serial self-corrections. Between 1949 and 2012, there have been six top leaders of the CCP. Of these six, two were abruptly and unceremoniously forced out of power (and one of the two was dismissed without any due process even according to CCP’s own procedures). A third leader fell from power and was put under house arrest for 15 years until his death. That is 3 strikes out of 6 who did not exit power on their intended terms. Two of Mao’s anointed successors died on the job, one in a fiery plane crash when he tried to escape to the Soviet Union and the other tortured to death and buried with a fake name. Oh, did I mention that 30 million people were estimated to have died from Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, and probably millions of people died from the violence of the Cultural Revolution? Also, do you know that Mao not only persisted in but accelerated his Great Leap Forward policies after the evidence of the extent of famine became crystal-clear?

Li calls the policy changes after these wrenching tumults “self-corrections.” His reasoning is that an entity called the CCP, but not anybody else, introduced these policy changes. First of all, doesn’t that have something to do with the fact that nobody else was allowed a chance to make those policy changes? Secondly, this fixation on who made the policy changes rather than on the circumstances under which the policy changes were made is surely problematic. Let’s extend Li’s logic a little bit further. Shall we rephrase the

  • American Independence Movement as a self-correction by the British? Or maybe the ceding of the
  • British imperial authority over India as another British self-correcting act? Shall we re-label the
  • Japanese surrender to end the Second World War a self-correction by the Japanese? Yes, there were two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and all of that, but didn’t the representatives of Emperor Hirohito sign the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on the battleship of USS Missouri?

To a hammer, everything is a nail. Li sees ills of democracies everywhere — financial crises in Europe and the United States, money politics and corruption. I readily agree that money politics in America is a huge problem and that it is indeed making the system utterly dysfunctional. But let’s be very clear about exactly how and why money politics is dysfunctional. It is dysfunctional precisely because it is fundamentally antithetical to democracy.  Money politics is a perversion of democracy. It undermines and invalidates a canonical pillar of democracy — one person, one vote. To be logically consistent, Li should celebrate money politics because it is moving the United States in the direction of the authoritarian way of politics that he is so enamored of.

This may be a shocking revelation to Li, but US and European democracies did not patent financial crisis. Many authoritarian regimes experienced catastrophic financial and economic crises. Think of Indonesia in 1997 and the multiple junta regimes in Latin America in the 1970s and the 1980s. The only authoritarian regimes that go without suffering an explicit financial crisis are centrally planned economies, such as Romania and East Germany. But this is entirely because they failed to meet a minimum condition for having a financial crisis — having a financial system. The consequences for this defect are well-known — in lieu of sharp cyclical ups and downs, these countries produced long-term economic stagnations. A venture capitalist would not fare well in that system.

Li claims that he has studied the ability of democracies to deliver performance. At least in his talk, the evidence that he has done so is not compelling. There is no evidence that countries pay an economic price for being democratic. (It is also important to note that there is no compelling global evidence that democracies necessarily outperform autocracies in economic growth either. Some do and some do not. The conclusion is case by case.) But in the areas of public services, the evidence is in favor of democracies. Two academics, David Lake and Matthew Baum, show that democracies are superior to authoritarian countries in providing public services, such as health and education. Not just established democracies do a better job; countries that transitioned to democracies experienced an immediate improvement in the provision of these public services, and countries that reverted back to authoritarianism typically suffered a setback.

Li blames low growth in Europe and in the United States on democracy. I can understand why he has this view, because this is a common mistake often made by casual observers — China is growing at 8 or 9 percent and the US is growing at 1 or 2 percent . He is mistaking a mathematical effect of lower growth due to high base with a political effect of democracies suppressing growth. Because democratic countries are typically richer and have much higher per-capita GDP, it is much harder for them to grow at the same rate as poor — and authoritarian — countries with a lower level of per-capita GDP. Let me provide an analogy. A 15-year-old boy is probably more likely to go to see a movie or hang out with his friends on his own than a 10-year-old because he is older and more mature. It is also likely that he will not grow as fast as a 10-year-old because he is nearer to the plateau of human height. It would be foolish to claim, as Li’s logic basically did, that the 15-year-old is growing more slowly because he is going to movies on his own.

Li is very clear that he dislikes democracy, more than about the reasons why he dislikes democracy. Li rejects democracy on cultural grounds. In his speech, he asserts that democracy is an alien concept for Chinese culture. This view is almost amusing if not for its consequential implications. Last time I checked, venture capital is a foreign concept but that apparently has not stopped Li from practicing and prospering from it. (And I presume “Eric” to be foreign in origin? I may be wrong on this.) Conversely, would Li insist on adhering to every and each precept of Chinese culture and tradition? Would Li object to abolishing the practice of bound feet of Chinese women?

The simple fact is that the Chinese have accepted many foreign concepts and practices already. (Just a reminder: Marxism to the Chinese is as Western as Adam Smith.) It is a perfectly legitimate debate about which foreign ideas and practices China ought to accept, adopt or adapt, but this debate is about which ideas China should adopt, not whether China should adopt any foreign ideas and practices at all.

If the issue is about which ideas or which practices to adopt or reject, then, unlike Li, I do not feel confident enough to know exactly which foreign ideas and practices 1.3 billion Chinese people want to embrace or want to reject. A cultural argument against democracy does not logically lead to making democracy unavailable to the Chinese but to a course of actions for the Chinese people themselves to decide on the merits or the demerits of democracy. Furthermore, if the Chinese themselves reject democracy on their own, isn’t it redundant to expend massive resources to fight and suppress democracy? Aren’t there better ways to spend this money?

So far this debate has not occurred in China, because having this debate in the first place requires some democracy. But it has occurred in other Chinese environments, and the outcome of those debates is that there is nothing fundamentally incompatible between Chinese culture and democracy. Hong Kong, although without an electoral democratic system, has press freedom and rule of law, and there is no evidence that the place has fallen into chaos and anarchy. Taiwan today has a vibrant democracy, and many mainland travelers to Taiwan often marvel that Taiwanese society is not only democratic but also far more adherent to Chinese traditions than mainland China. (I have always felt that those who believe that democracy and Chinese culture are incompatible are closet supporters of Taiwanese independence. They exclude Taiwanese as Chinese.)

Indeed Li himself has accepted quite a few political reforms that are normally considered as “Western.” NGOs are okay and even some press freedom is okay. He also endorses some intra-party democracy. These are all sensible steps toward making the Chinese system more democratic than the Maoist system, and I am all for them. The difference is that I see freedom to vote and multi-party competition as natural and logical extensions of these initial reforms, whereas Li draws a sharp line in the sand between the political reforms that have already occurred and the potential political reforms that some of us have advocated. As much as I tried, I fail to see any differences in principle between these partial reforms and the more complete reforms encompassing democracy.

There is a very curious way Li objects to democracy: He objects to many of the mechanics of democracy. In particular, he has a thing against voting. But the problem is that voting is simply a way to implement the practice of democracy, and even Li endorses some democracy. For example, he favors intra-party democracy. Fine, I do too; but how do you implement intra-party democracy without voting? This is a bit like praising tennis as a sport but condemning the use of a racket to play it.

Li has not provided a coherent and logical argument for his positions on democracy. I suspect, although I do not have any direct evidence, that there is a simple modus operandi — endorsing reforms the CCP has endorsed and opposing reforms that CCP has opposed. This is fine as far as posturing goes but it is not a principled argument of anything.

That said, I believe it is perfectly healthy and indeed essential to have a rigorous debate on democracy — but that debate ought to be based on data, facts, logic and reasoning. By this criterion, Li’s talk does not start that debate.

In this aspect, however, democracy and autocracy are not symmetrical. In a democracy, we can debate and challenge democracy and autocracy alike, as Li did when he put down George W. Bush (which I greatly enjoyed) and as I do here. But those in an autocracy can challenge democracy only. (Brezhnev, upon being informed that there were protesters shouting “Down with Reagan” in front of the White House and that the US government could not do anything to them, reportedly told Reagan, “There are people shouting ‘Down with Reagan’ on Red Square and I am not doing anything to them.”) I have no troubles with people challenging people in power and being skeptical about democracy. In fact, the ability to do so in a democracy is the very strength of democracy, and a vital source of human progress. Copernicus was Copernicus because he overturned, not because he re-created, Ptolemaic astronomy. But by the same criterion, I do have troubles with people who do not see the merit of extending the same freedom they have to those who currently do not have it.

Like Li, I do not like the messianic tone some have invoked to support democracy. I support democracy on pragmatic grounds. The single most important benefit of democracy is its ability to tame violence. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker provided these startling statistics: During the 20th century, totalitarian regimes were responsible for 138 million deaths, of which 110 million occurred in communist countries. Authoritarian regimes caused another 28 million deaths. Democracies killed 2 million, mainly in their colonies as well as with food blockades and civilian bombings during the wars. Democracies, as Pinker pointed out, have trouble even bringing themselves to execute serial murderers. Democracies, Pinker argued, have “a tangle of institutional restraints, so a leader can’t just mobilize armies and militias on a whim to fan out over the country and start killing massive numbers of citizens.”

Contrary to what he was apparently told when he was a Berkeley hippie, the idea of democracy is not that it leads to a nirvana but that it can help prevent a living hell. Democracy has many, many problems. This insurance function of democracy — of mitigating against disasters — is often forgotten or taken for granted, but it is the single most important reason why democracy is superior to every other political system so far invented by human beings. Maybe one day there will be a better system than democracy, but the Chinese political system, in Li’s rendition, is not one of them.