The Honorable Profession of Spying?

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Americans love to hate lawyers, and I admit to having told a shark joke or two in my time. But many attorneys deserve our praise for their wisdom, their trust, and their integrity. James Donovan was one of them. Not only did he risk his own reputation to defend a despised Soviet spy, but he successfully negotiated the exchange of that spy for one of our own spies five years later, and then went on to negotiate the release of thousands of prisoners in Cuba after the Bay of Pigs disaster, exchanging them for food and medicine that would benefit the Cuban people rather than for money that would line Castro’s pockets. Bridge of Spies tells the story of his most famous exchange: convicted spy Rudolf Abel, a Soviet intelligence officer, for downed American pilot Francis Gary Powers.

The film opens on Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), quietly painting a self-portrait in his small Brooklyn apartment. Abel might be a dangerous Soviet spy, but in appearance he is a sad sack who suffers from post-nasal drip. His mouth seems permanently downturned in a frown, and he walks with a determined but plodding shuffle. He speaks only when absolutely necessary, and not at all for the first 15 minutes of the film, as we follow him to an information “drop.” Even when American agents storm through his door, he remains unruffled and quietly cleans his paint palette. Later, when Donovan observes, “You don’t seem worried,” Abel shrugs pragmatically, “Would it help?”

It is because of the ruling in Abel’s case that the US now maintains a prison on Cuban soil — in order to avoid giving “enemy combatants” those same rights to representation and a speedy trial.

Before continuing this review, I have to say a word about Rylance, whom many consider the most gifted stage actor today. I am one of them. Liberty readers may recognize him from the TV miniseries Wolf Hall, where he plays Thomas Cromwell. Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and a performer with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Rylance was the founding artistic director of the New Globe Theater and has eclipsed even Kenneth Branagh as the premier Shakespearean actor of our time. But he is also a master of comedy and modern plays. Over the last decade or so he has established a pattern of creating a role for the West End in London and then bringing it to Broadway for the following year. I have seen all those plays, some more than once. He is a brilliant stage actor.

But acting for the stage is different from acting for the screen. On stage, the actor is smaller than the audience; he has to “play large” in order to fill the theater and reach the balcony. Emotions are conveyed with exaggeration and with the whole body, not just the face or the eyes. By contrast, a movie screen is maybe 30 feet high and 70 feet wide. Every twitch of the finger and blink of the eye is magnified, so acting has to be subtle and nuanced. Rylance has not performed in many films, but not to worry. He makes the transition to screen brilliantly.

Several attorneys refuse to defend Abel, worried about how it might affect their reputations and their families’ safety. But Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) accepts the case. He believes that everyone in America, not just citizens, deserves the same protections under the Constitution, and that “American justice is on trial,” with the whole world watching to see how this foreign spy will be treated. Donovan’s nobility reminds me of Atticus Finch, defending the African-American Tom Robinson despite his community’s outrage and threats. “What makes us Americans?” Donovan asks Agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) rhetorically, when Hoffman expects Donovan to violate client-attorney privilege and tell the CIA what he knows. “It’s the rule book — the Constitution. That’s what makes us Americans.” He defends Abel all the way to the Supreme Court. Indeed, it is because of the ruling in Abel’s case that the US now maintains a prison on Cuban soil — in order to avoid giving “enemy combatants” those same rights to representation and a speedy trial.

To my mind, Donovan’s ethics deserve some scrutiny, however. For example, when a young boy asks him why he is defending the spy, he responds, “Because it’s my job,” as though that’s reason enough. But didn’t Nazi soldiers give the same excuse? Donovan also expresses admiration for Abel’s work ethic and steadfastness in not revealing any secrets, calling him “honorable.” And maybe he is. Such fortitude does reveal a strong character. But it also reduces spying to the level of a football game: just do your job, and do it with integrity, and we can all go home admiring one another. But defending a country, an ideology, and a way of life is not the same as defending a goal line, and an enemy is not the same as an opponent.

Meanwhile, the Americans have spies of their own, and they are flying over Russia, taking pictures from 70,000 feet above the earth, using secretly developed camera equipment and a new top-secret plane — the U2. The pilots are told that if they are attacked they must detonate the plane and kill themselves rather than allow the Russians to have the information. Nevertheless, pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) manages to get himself captured, and Donovan is asked to broker a deal to get him home. (For dramatic effect the film gives the impression that these events take place at the same time, but they were actually five years apart.) Donovan’s dogged determination to negotiate the deal so that everyone comes out alive fills the remainder of the film.

Defending a country, an ideology, and a way of life is not the same as defending a goal line, and an enemy is not the same as an opponent.

Despite our knowing the outcome in advance, the tension of the film is relentless, particularly in several exterior scenes set in East Berlin. The Wall is brand new and the German people are desperate to escape. Hungry young Germans surround Donovan like a pack of wolves, while others climb fences or drop from windows into the West in their eagerness to escape. These scenes belie the stance of moral equivalency that Donovan seems to adopt. All things are decidedly not equal between the two superpowers, no matter how honorably Abel conducts himself in maintaining his oath of secrecy.

Another powerful scene occurs as Abel’s trial begins, with a montage that leads from the bailiff’s “All rise” to school children rising to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the rising of a mushroom cloud in a schoolroom documentary about the atomic bomb. Spielberg has always been an artist, but in this film he surpasses himself. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who also worked with Spielberg in the award-winning WWII films Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, deserves credit for much of the film’s success.

Bridge of Spies is the first film Spielberg has made without John Williams providing the soundtrack since The Color Purple in 1985, and while I’m a fan of Williams’ distinctive style, I think Thomas Newman’s darker tones are more appropriate to this film’s story.

Bridge of Spies is the first of the serious Oscar contenders to be released this year. Hang onto your popcorn — I think it’s going to be a great season.


Editor's Note: Review of "Bridge of Spies," directed by Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks, Fox 2000, Reliant, 2015. 141 minutes.



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Imperium Sinarum Delendum Est

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On June 7 and 8 President Obama will meet Chinese president Xi Jinping at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, California. The meeting is being billed as an informal, “shirtsleeves” summit with a minimum of ceremonial distractions, allowing the two leaders to focus on the issues dividing their respective nations.

Make no mistake, this meeting of the uncrowned emperors of East and West is serious business. The world’s sole superpower and its up-and-coming rival are jockeying for prestige and influence around the globe. Remarkably, it is a mystery just which side asked for the meeting; neither wants to appear to be a supplicant. Yet for the moment at least it is we who are more in need of the other side’s help. Obama’s national security advisor, Tom Donilon, was in Beijing from May 26–28, laying the groundwork for the summit by speaking to Xi and the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (roughly equivalent to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), General Fan Chanlong. Donilon and the president are seeking Chinese cooperation to —

  1. Halt the People’s Liberation Army’s repeated hacking of US computer networks, and the theft of US intellectual property and government and industrial secrets.
  2. Persuade North Korea to cease its highly provocative behavior toward South Korea, Japan, and the US.
  3. Obtain a negotiated settlement to the Syrian civil war and the removal of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
  4. Further tighten the sanctions regime imposed on Iran because of its nuclear program.

That the Chinese are playing us on all these fronts is patent. After temporarily halting the cyberattacks when the US government went public about them in February, the PLA’s notorious Unit 61398 resumed operations (using somewhat different techniques) in May, on the very eve of Donilon’s visit. The Chinese then agreed to hold “talks” with us about hacking! (What’s to talk about? Stop the hacking!)

On North Korea, the Chinese are supposedly putting denuclearization of the Korean peninsula above their concerns for stability there. The Chinese have described this as a “big gift” to the US. In fact, the change has been merely rhetorical. North Korea depends upon China for its economic survival. China has the power to dictate to North Korea; it refuses to do so because it fears a collapse of the North Korean regime. China’s biggest concern is that a unified, democratic Korea will bring US troops and weaponry even closer to Northeast China. Verbiage aside, it prefers to leave the North Korean thorn in America’s flesh.

China has in reality been most unhelpful to us on every big issue affecting our bilateral relations. Nor should we expect any real changes.

As for Syria and Iran, China’s role has been anything but helpful. China has important economic and military ties with Syria, and supports the continuation of the Assad regime. And although it voted for the last round of United Nations sanctions against Iran, it continues to enjoy valuable economic relations with that country (particularly in the energy field), and will never put these in jeopardy. Two months ago its foreign ministry publicly deprecated the idea of “blind” (i.e., more comprehensive) sanctions.

China has in reality been most unhelpful to us on every big issue affecting our bilateral relations. Nor should we expect any real changes as a result of this summit. China, although wary of US military power and political influence, sees itself as ascending toward its rightful place as the world’s leading state, the Middle Kingdom reborn. Its economy will eventually surpass that of the US to become the largest in the world. Its military spending has been rising dramatically, though still far below that of the US. Its self-confidence is clearly growing. A recent New York Times article (“Chinese President to Seek New Relationship With U.S. in Talks,” May 28), contained the following paragraph:

It is a given, Chinese and American analysts say, that Mr. Xi and his advisors are referring to the historical problem of what happens when an established power and a rising power confront each other. The analysts said the Chinese were well aware of the example of the Peloponnesian War, which was caused, according to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, by the fear that a powerful Athens instilled in Sparta.

Contemplate for a moment the bizarre notion of China, an authoritarian, reactionary, and (if truth be told) semi-barbarous state, comparing itself to Periclean Athens. The true historical paradigm for the current US-China relationship is the Anglo-German rivalry in the years leading up to World War I. Fortunately, our position vis-à-vis China is somewhat more favorable than the one Britain found itself in before 1914. But we are in danger of squandering the important advantages that accrue to us. We must, first and foremost, recognize the true nature of present-day China.

The Han Chinese empire is the last great colonial empire on earth. About 40% of its national territory is non-Chinese. Tibet and Xinjiang are truly captive nations, ruled from Beijing with an iron hand, exploited and colonized by Chinese carpetbaggers. But Chinese ambitions extend far beyond the current imperium. Already eastern Siberia is being quietly converted into a Chinese colony (on this, and also Tibet and Xinjiang, see Parag Khanna, The Second World, 71–84). China’s most important long-range task is not the recovery of Taiwan, but rather the conquest and colonization of sparsely populated and resource-rich Australia. This obvious objective for an overpopulated and resource-hungry China goes unmentioned in conventional diplomatic and media circles today because it remains a distant prospect, and a frightening one. But its logic is irrefutable.

We should be cutting defense for the sake of our own economic wellbeing. Victory without war is the goal, and it can be achieved.

Without question, China’s long-range goal is to dominate the area between Hawaii and Suez. Its economic penetration of Africa and Latin America continues apace. Ideally, from the Han point of view, the later 21st century will find Europe (geographically a mere peninsula extending from the Eurasian supercontinent) and North America isolated in an otherwise Chinese-dominated world. If China can achieve this, the fate of both Europe and America will, of course, be sealed.

Like those of all past would-be world dominators, China’s ambitions are fantastic and unlikely to be realized, assuming we take the steps necessary to prevent their realization. The Obama administration has made a good first move in the global chess game with its pivot to Asia. In ten years’ time most of the US Navy will be based in the Pacific. But much more needs to be done. I am not talking about war or even an arms race. War with China is the last thing we should want. Nor should we burden ourselves economically by trying to spend China into the ground, as Ronald Reagan did with the Soviet Union. Indeed, we should be cutting defense for the sake of our own economic wellbeing. Victory without war is the goal, and it can be achieved.

The following steps would constitute a rational program to contain China and, eventually, break up the Han empire:

  1. Recognize that the Middle East is of dwindling importance and that East Asia is now the focal point of world affairs.
  2. Tighten America’s military and economic bonds with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, Vietnam, and India with the objective of establishing a cordon sanitaire against Chinese expansionism.
  3. Apply economic pressures (naming China a currency manipulator, tariffs against dumping, etc.) designed to throw a wrench into the Chinese economic juggernaut.
  4. Initiate an active propaganda campaign designed to foster internal dissatisfaction with the Communist Party’s monopoly of political power, highlight corruption within the Party and the PLA, foster tensions between Han Chinese and other ethnicities, and encourage Muslim and other religious opposition to the atheist regime.
  5. Cyberwarfare should be reserved as an ultima ratio should the Chinese persist in their impertinent hacking.

While it would be going much too far to describe China as a giant with feet of clay, the Chinese state has its weak points. Corruption is rife and the rule of law mainly absent. The political class is inbred and largely divorced from the population. Economically, the state capitalist model that China is following, while superior to socialism, contains serious flaws and inefficiencies that would be periodically flushed out in a freer market. Environmental and other necessary regulatory regimes are in their infancy, or yet to be established, with consequences in terms of pollution, disease, and manmade disasters that dwarf anything seen in the West. Tensions between Han Chinese and the subject peoples are real, and probably growing. Centrifugal forces lie just beneath the surface of Chinese society. We should be working to bring these forces to life.

World politics in the so-called Modern Era (16th century to the present) has been marked by a series of political-economic-military struggles between the English-speaking peoples and a succession of powers seeking world domination. Spain, France, Germany, and Soviet Russia all failed in their efforts to master the world, foiled as much by the political aptitude and coalition-building of the English speakers as by the latter’s economic and military power. Until 1917 Britain bore the main weight of these struggles. In 1917 and 1941, when Germany proved too powerful for Britain to defeat, America weighed in with what proved decisive effect. In the Cold War against the USSR, America took the lead, with Britain a junior partner. Now, in the 21st century, the last in the line of would-be world dominators is reaching for global supremacy. This does not mean war is inevitable, or even likely. But a political and economic struggle is underway from which one side or the other will emerge triumphant.

What was practiced upon the Soviet Union must be practiced upon China as well. Containment combined with economic and political steps to weaken and finally break up the Han empire should be our policy in this struggle that will decide the fate of the world, probably for centuries to come. The idea that we can allow China — a corrupt, repressive, and brutal imperium, an evil empire whether we care to recognize it as such or not — to dominate the world, is unthinkable.




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Beware the Incredible Shrinking Deficit!

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As reported by the Congressional Budget Office, the federal budget deficit is shrinking – and fast. From a high of $1.4 trillion (10% of GDP) in fiscal 2009, it has shrunk to an expected $642 billion (4% of GDP) for fiscal 2013. In other words, the deficit has fallen by about 60% in only four years. Moreover, the CBO sees the deficit declining to about 2% of GDP by 2015. Good news, right? Well, let’s look a bit more deeply.

The brightened fiscal picture is the result of a recovering economy. In February the CBO estimated the deficit would be about $200 billion higher than it now projects. Better than expected revenues caused the CBO to revise its forecast in May. About $100 billion is accounted for by increased individual and corporate tax receipts. The other half comes from payments to the Treasury by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the result of an improving housing market. A continued slow to moderate expansion of the US economy, together with the tax increases and spending cuts enacted earlier this year, will, the CBO says, get us to a deficit that’s only 2% of GDP by 2015.

Obviously, an annual budget deficit equal to 2% of GDP is preferable to one that equals 10% of GDP. But we will still be borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars every year, even during a time that is expected to be relatively peaceful and prosperous. The CBO has trimmed some $600 billion dollars from its ten-year (2014–2023) deficit projection. Under this rosy scenario we will still be borrowing a total of over 6 trillion dollars to keep the federal government running. That’s on top of the 16 trillion or so of government debt (federal, state, and local) that we have already accumulated. All of it is money that our children and grandchildren will have to pay back.

Already voices can be heard crying out that fiscal restraint has gone too far; that there is in fact no deficit or debt crisis; that changes in entitlements are not required; that more public spending, not less, is needed.

Worse, the CBO sees the deficit growing in the latter part of the next decade, reaching 3.5% of GDP by 2023. Rising entitlements and higher interest rates (which make it more expensive for the government to borrow) will cause deficits to expand in the future. Indeed, the current low cost of borrowing is responsible for both the economic recovery (tepid though it is) and the government’s ability to continue living beyond its means. Even a modest increase in rates would likely snuff out the recovery and cause deficits to soar once again.

We are, so to speak, temporarily becalmed, with a fiscal tempest on the horizon. Yet already voices can be heard crying out that fiscal restraint has gone too far; that there is in fact no deficit or debt crisis; that changes in entitlements are not required; that more public spending, not less, is needed if America is to sail into a brighter future. These voices are coming from the port side of the ship, with the irrepressible scribbler Paul Krugman shouting loudest.

The Krugmanite argument is not merely a call for steady as she goes, but an appeal to stoke the fires and sail full speed ahead into that tempest on the horizon. Steady as she goes is probably a justifiable short-term policy, given the iffy nature of the recovery. But stoking the deficit fires is a course pointed at eventual shipwreck. The Krugmanites see government, and specifically government spending, as the solution to our economic and fiscal problems. More spending, not less, is their mantra. But in reality we need to free up the American economy to promote growth and innovation. And that can only be done by shrinking government.

I’m no anarchist. I believe there are certain functions that government must perform in a civilized society. Moreover, I’m not opposed to any and all government spending to stimulate economic activity. For example, I would favor major spending on infrastructure, a crucial and long-neglected component of our economy. But such spending should be offset by major reductions and restructuring elsewhere. Entire government departments (Energy, Commerce, and Education, for example), should be radically modified or abolished. Entitlements must be means-tested. The tax code requires thoroughgoing reform, with rates lowered for both individuals and corporations, deductions capped, and loopholes and accounting gimmicks abolished completely, or almost so.

Finally, while we should not simply retire within our own borders, we must shrink the warfare state. We currently have bases in over 100 countries, and account for three-quarters of the NATO alliance’s military spending. A minimum 25–30% reduction in the US Defense budget, implemented over a five to seven year period, with concomitant changes in outlook and mission, would be most desirable. We have managed to ignore the crisis in the Congo, where some 7 million people have died in a civil war that began in 1997. If we can ignore those millions, why should we be exercised about the Syrians or the Afghans? No, the time has come (indeed, is well past) to admit that we cannot right every wrong in the world, that interventionism is too expensive and only rarely successful.

To continue as we have will almost certainly lead to fiscal and economic ruin in the 2020s or 2030s. The short-term shrinking of the deficit is an unexpected gift that we must not squander. We are being given a brief span — a few years only — to correct the errors of the past half-century. If we listen to the Krugmanites we may not become Greece writ large, but we will doom our descendants to less prosperity and a burden of debt that they had no part in creating, and that may, eventually, crush them.




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