Fallows@Large February 2007

Dear Vice President Cheney

Go home, and shut up.

The Chinese military’s destruction of one of China’s own satellites last month was an unexpected, disruptive, and potentially very alarming event. Was the People’s Liberation Army beating its chest and showing its potential? Was there confusion within the Chinese government — as suggested by the several-day delay before the Foreign Ministry began answering questions about what had happened? Was this some ill-advised reverse-backflip attempt to force the United States to reenter negotiations for a treaty banning space warfare? Was this the most ominous step the Chinese government has taken in a long time? Or the most foolish? Both? No one outside the Chinese government knows at this point, and perhaps very few people inside it.

What is clear is that the worst-positioned person to scold China about its behavior is the one who just did: Vice President Dick Cheney. In his speech yesterday in Australia, the Vice President helpfully observed that the satellite test, plus the buildup of China’s military (with a budget still a tiny fraction of America’s) was “not consistent with China’s stated goal of a peaceful rise.”

Let’s assume, for argument, that China intends to convert its growing economic power into military strength. Let’s assume that its strategic and territorial ambitions are at odds with America’s. Let’s assume that it intends to upset the international order in countless ways. Let’s assume a lot of other things that I don’t think are true.

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Even if all those things were true, there could be no less effective spokesman for American concern or for the interests of international order than Cheney. This is the man who has refused to answer to his own public for — well, for anything. For his insistence that everything has gone just as planned in Iraq. For his claim before the war that “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” For his claim after the war that the Iraqi insurgency was in its “last throes.” For his role, as described in prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s closing statement, as the central, unindicted malefactor in the Scooter Libby case. Even for shooting his friend in the face. Say what you will about Al Gore’s wooden “no controlling legal authority” rationalization when he was asked to explain campaign donations he received. At least he acknowledged some duty to explain things to the American public.

Dick Cheney, the man who is accountable for nothing, is the person who will tell other countries what is “consistent” with a peaceful image in the world?

If you haven’t spent a lot of time outside the United States recently, you may not have been made aware in a painful, humiliating way of how grievously America’s moral standing has suffered because of Guantanamo, Abu Grahib, and the general carnage in Iraq. It’s hard in general to get non-Americans to listen to lectures about seemly behavior these days. It’s hardest of all when the lectures come from the man who, to the rest of the world, personifies America’s squandering of the qualities that made it special.

Dear Mr. Vice President: there may be valuable things you can do. But telling anyone else how to cultivate a peaceful image is not one of them. Go home, and shut up.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent at The Atlantic. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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