Gary Hart, Lynne Cheney, and War with China

I mentioned this yesterday in the (somewhat-insiderish) realm of the Atlantic's "Aspen Ideas Festival" blog, but the point seemed worth repeating in this marginally more public venue. The item appears after the jump, or at this link. It concerns the war that some public officials tried to prevent, and the war that at least one official tried to foment:

I have a lot of time for Gary Hart, long-time senator from Colorado and for a while a possible president of the United States. By which I mean, I have a lot of respect for his persistence and prescience on the national security front. The first time I ever heard of the "military reform movement" -- and of the very influential military thinker John Boyd, and of the insightful Pentagon budget analyst Chuck Spinney -- was when I visited Hart's ofice in the Senate in 1979 and talked with his eccentric-but-brilliant staff assistant Bill Lind. Actually, eccentric-but-brilliant would apply to Spinney and Boyd as well; but Lind was the only one of the three to have posters of Mussolini on his office wall while working at the U.S. Capitol.


I don't know any other major political figure who has been as right about as many national-security matters, as consistently, and as early, as Gary Hart has been. I'm thinking about his role in creating and leading the Congressional "military reform caucus" in the 1980s. But I know that the most famous illustration in most people's minds is his role as co-chair of the "U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century," aka the Hart-Rudman Commission.


Early in 2001, the commission presented a report to the incoming G.W. Bush administration warning that terrorism would be the nation's greatest national security problem, and saying that unless the United States took proper protective measures a terrorist attack was likely within its borders. Neither the president nor the vice president nor any other senior official from the new administration took time to meet with the commission members or hear about their findings.


The commission had 14 members, split 7-7, Republican and Democrat, as is de rigeur for bodies of this type. Today Hart told me that in the first few meetings, commission members would go around the room and volunteer their ideas about the nation's greatest vulnerabilities, most urgent needs, and so on.


At the first meeting, one Republican woman on the commission said that the overwhelming threat was from China. Sooner or later the U.S. would end up in a military showdown with the Chinese Communists. There was no avoiding it, and we would only make ourselves weaker by waiting. No one else spoke up in support.


The same thing happened at the second meeting -- discussion from other commissioners about terrorism, nuclear proliferation, anarchy of failed states, etc, and then this one woman warning about the looming Chinese menace. And the third meeting too. Perhaps more.


Finally, in frustration, this woman left the commission.


"Her name was Lynne Cheney," Hart said. "I am convinced that if it had not been for 9/11, we would be in a military showdown with China today." Not because of what China was doing, threatening, or intending, he made clear, but because of the assumptions the Administration brought with it when taking office. (My impression is that Chinese leaders know this too, which is why there are relatively few complaints from China about the Iraq war. They know that it got the U.S. off China's back!)


Lee Hamilton, who had also been on the commission, was sitting at the same lunch table and backed up Hart's story. Another chapter in the annals of missed opportunities in recent years.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. 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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