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.