The central issue of the current campaign ought to be the nature and ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party — its reckless disregard for the world in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, its repression of Hong Kong, what may be genocidal treatment of the Uighurs and its plans to dominate not just the South China Sea but the international order for decades to come. The election of 2020, like that of 1984, ought to turn on which candidate is best equipped to deal with the country’s most significant adversary. Today, that is the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, also the president-for-life of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping.
The left has long liked to attack conservatives for a supposed lack of intelligence and sophistication, along with alleged warmongering and other crimes. One of my favorite novels, John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” is marred by this twitch. It was published in March 1989, an unfortunate mere eight months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is full of the then-conventional contempt for Reagan that accompanied the nuclear freeze movement, that condemned Reagan’s deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe, his embrace of strategic nuclear defense — derided as “Star Wars,” first by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and then everywhere on the left — and, of course, opposition to Reagan’s support for the contra rebels of Nicaragua, which reached hyper-pitch as Iran-contra scandal unfolded.
“The White House, that whole criminal mob, those arrogant goons who see themselves as justified to operate above the law — they disgrace democracy by claiming what they do, they do for democracy,” Irving has his narrator rail. “They should be in jail,” he huffs after labeling Reagan an “old geezer” and slamming him with the innuendo of Hollywood stupidity routinely traded in by anti-Reagan newspaper columnists in those days.
Now it is Trump taking the slings and arrows of the left, only with far more velocity and fervor, given the evolution of media. That unrelenting chorus of hatred doesn’t change the central question: Who best to deal with the CCP: Trump or former vice president Joe Biden? Trump has been accused of being both too hard and too soft on Xi, Biden of being simply absent or compromised.
The CCP uses loans and debt collection around the world the way the Soviets supported Cuban troops in Africa in the 1980s. Its military buildup is vast and rapid. The CCP’s relentless campaigns of espionage make the Soviets of John le Carré novels seem quaint. Who is better equipped by disposition and experience to deal with the Dragon the way that Reagan dealt with the Bear?
Trump’s record and approach here are broad and familiar, as are the praise and criticism of that record. How about Biden’s? Former secretary of defense Robert Gates famously wrote in 2014 that Biden “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
Gates was a guest recently on my radio show to discuss his new book, “Exercise of Power.” I asked him about Biden and specifically that comment. “Yeah, I stand by that statement,” Gates replied. “I will say, Hugh, it related mainly to things that had happened in the Cold War,” he added, and expanded on the theme:
“Biden voted against every single arms program, I think, that Ronald Reagan put up on the Hill. He voted for the Iraq war and so on. So I do have those policy differences with him. In the Obama administration, we did have a very deep disagreement on Afghanistan. And that was a big deal.”
Gates noted occasional agreement with Biden on matters, including President Barack Obama’s policies on Libya and Egypt, but he added:
“I also think that the vice president had some issues with the military. And I wrote in ‘Duty’ [Gates’s memoir] about how he would warn the president that he was being boxed in, that the military was trying to take away his options and so on. And he’d kind of rail at the generals. And that bothered me some. So you know, there are puts and takes with any presidential candidate. He brings a decency and an integrity and so on to the race, but I did have these issues with him.”
Those are the words of an individual trusted by presidents of both parties to be secretary of defense and whose long career of public service enjoys a rare bipartisan esteem.
For those focused on the central issue — the existential threat to the country and indeed the West — the choice of Trump is obvious. Gates did not say so, but if past is prologue, Biden would be to the CCP as President Jimmy Carter was to the U. S. S. R.: naive and paralyzed.