House Committee pulls a Dr. Strangelove

(Originally published here in the South China Morning Post on April 25, 2023)

I had to look at the tweet three times. “HAPPENING NOW: The fate of the Indo-Pacific hangs in the balance as members of the Select Committee engage in a fictional war game to decide the American response to the Chinese Communist Party’s 2027 invasion of Taiwan.”

At first glance, it appeared to be a post spoofing the House Select Committee on the CCP. The second one, after seeing the account was verified, was to look for signs that it was hacked. After all, Elon Musk didn’t seem to care too much about how firing large portions of Twitter’s staff would compromise account security. The third was to allow the message to sink in, which took a while.

Most of the committee’s members have no active military duty on their resumes, which gives this game of make-believe battlefield in front of the cameras a farcical tint. Representative Mike Gallagher, a Republican, and Democratic Representative Seth Moulton are former US Marines, which should only make us wonder how much respect they have for the Pentagon, where US government war gaming should be going on.

As General Charles Brown said earlier this year, speculation about when military conflict in the Taiwan Strait might break out “is not necessarily helpful”. Note to the committee: giving the Communist Party the US government’s operating assumptions undermines your mission.

The spectacle reminded me of a scene in the classic 1991 black comedy Barton Fink. After the outbreak of World War II, a self-absorbed Hollywood producer played by Michael Lerner dons a heavily medalled military uniform provided by his studio’s costume department to show his patriotism. Dr Strangelove also makes an easy comparison.

For all its comic value, the message appeared to be a fitting conclusion to a week of more than a dozen Congressional hearings about China or issues in which the country figured prominently. It should alert us that key messages which would be helpful in countering Beijing are getting lost. Outstanding witnesses often struggle to be heard amid the anti-China grandstanding by some committee members.

In one of them, two of the three witnesses in a House Oversight Committee hearing about the origins of Covid-19 offered an entirely reasonable justification for conclusions by some in the US intelligence community that the pathogen was the result of a lab leak, even if that conclusion could not be 100 per cent certain based on genetic evidence.

The more time that passes without finding the point at which the virus jumped to humans from another species, they argued, the more the circumstantial evidence that gain-of-function experimentation at the Wuhan Institute of Virology will appear to be the source.

Meanwhile, a third witness pointed out that, without DNA samples from Wuhan taken in late 2019 into early 2020, the intelligence community will never get 100 per cent certainty. That point hardly defends Beijing but it also fails to satisfy the biggest China hawks on the committee.

As is often the case with the Republican Party’s right flank, Democrats and other Americans not fully embracing their narratives are first in their firing line, ahead of the autocrats on whom they ought to be focused. Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of this group’s loudest voices, laid into the third witness, Dr Mark Lowenthal, who was invited by the committee’s Democrats.

“The intelligence community is able to figure out immediately who was leaking classified information in a Discord chat but yet still doesn’t want to say whether [Covid-19] came from the lab or didn’t come from the lab,” she said, referring to the Massachusetts Air National Guard employee arrested this month over the leak of highly classified military documents on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

It goes without saying that tracking content on social media is much easier for the US intelligence community than convincing Beijing to hand over DNA samples of its citizens. Lowenthal responded with exactly that retort, calling her analogy “entirely fallacious”.

Texas Representative Michael Cloud managed to top Greene with this throwback from the 1950s: “I’m not surprised that godless communist countries do bad things.” He followed that with an indictment of public health officials who pushed back against the lab leak theory in the early days of the pandemic – when everything about the new coronavirus was a mystery except for where it took hold – and before reports of sick researchers in Wuhan emerged.

With more than three months left before Congress breaks for its summer recess, we can expect to see more antics in the name of countering China that end up achieving the opposite. Hopefully some of the witness voices will carry above the spectacle.

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