But there was a problem. According to the Pentagon, no such consensus had been reached. Instead, the two sides had merely agreed that the possibility of such exchanges would be “revisited.”
The mix-up, as it turned out, had a likely explanation. According to The Far Eastern Economic Review, Rumsfeld, in a characteristic interdepartmental snub, had barred the State Department’s interpreter from the meeting. The man on whose language skills Rumsfeld had instead relied was not a professional interpreter but a Pentagon advisor and longtime Washington operator named Michael Pillsbury. With a proficiency (up to a point) in Mandarin, a doctorate in political science from Columbia University, and three decades of experience in dealing with the Chinese military, Pillsbury has emerged as a Defense Department favorite. That he may inadvertently have caused Hu to leave Washington with an overly conciliatory picture was also ironic: Pillsbury is one of Washington’s foremost China hawks, consistently warning that Beijing represents a more serious and rapidly growing military threat than other China experts believe.
The Wall Street Journal took notice of Pillsbury last year in a front-page story that described him as “one of the Pentagon’s most influential advisers on China, with a direct line to many of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s top aides.” The story observed that China, too, has been “keeping tabs on Mr. Pillsbury.” For good reason: Thanks in part to Pillsbury’s influence, the Pentagon’s 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR–the blueprint for future defense strategy and spending–identifies China as the nation with “the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States.” And the Pentagon’s most recent annual report to Congress on China’s military contains passages that appear to be lifted directly out of Pillsbury’s writings, including warnings of “asymmetric programs” in the works. This can get expensive. The Wall Street Journal recently reported “the Pentagon now cites China as justification for a range of proposed procurements, most notably a new, multibillion-dollar long-range bomber program.”
While Pillsbury has achieved prominence within the Defense Secretary’s office, many defense experts within the military, government agencies, and universities reject his scholarship as tendentious at best, and their professional distaste is heightened by personal dislike. “Brilliant” and “charming” are words frequently used by acquaintances to describe Pillsbury, but so are “combative,” “conspiratorial,” and “ruthless.” His career has been one of numerous short-lived jobs, at least three dismissals, and a revoked security clearance.
For hardliners in the Bush administration, however, having a combative, conspiratorial, or ruthless personality isn’t exactly a drawback. Rather, it is seen as a desirable quality in an administration that has been in an almost constant state of war with expert consensus, which it sees as a fortress of liberal bias and as a hindrance to bold action. Still, even if the White House might prefer to operate solely on instinct, administration officials need experts inside and outside of government to help them set strategy, to lace their speeches with supportive factoids, to win arguments in inner-agency battles with opponents, to produce studies purportedly showing that all the other experts are wrong (“Carbon dioxide: They call it pollution. We call it life.”), and to speak to journalists looking for “both sides” of a debate.
Prior to the invasion of Iraq, eccentric experts on the Middle East dominated administration thinking, but most are now back on the outside of policy. “The Middle East is just a blip,” explained a 2005 Atlantic Monthly article headlined “How We Would Fight China” by Robert D. Kaplan. China is the new long-term game, and Pillsbury is the neocons’ successor, the latest Cassandra with Rumsfeld’s ear. Unfortunately, this is a White House with an unenviable record of picking its Cassandras. The right ones (Eric Shinseki) have often been ignored in favor of the wrong ones (Ahmed Chalabi). And the consequences have been serious. But which Cassandra is Michael Pillsbury?
In person, Pillsbury, a blue-eyed, consciously polished figure in his early sixties, is a combination of charm and caginess. At a recent meeting at a Corner Bakery in downtown Washington, D.C., he sipped lowfat milk and genially fended off questions about his work. He attributes negative press such as the story about his mistranslation between Rumsfeld and Hu to rumors spread by “panda huggers” (a pejorative term for those who take a more benign view of Beijing). “I try to focus on a topic that no one focuses on,” he says, contrasting himself to his peers. “It’s mainly the future, more than five years ahead, sometimes 10 years ahead.”
Actually, scores of China experts within the military, the intelligence community, and the academy devote their lives precisely to assessing the Chinese military and its possible impact on U.S. interests over the next five or 10 years. Nearly all have arrived at the same conclusion: that China’s military is nowhere close to being a credible threat to the United States or its interests.
China’s military technology is widely considered to be about 20 years behind that of the United States, and its defense expenditures (even if its official numbers are tripled, which some say must be done to capture China’s full investment) are less than a fifth of those of the United States, which spends nearly half a trillion dollars per year. The defense budgets of South Korea and Japan are each bigger than that of China, too. To be sure, China, thanks to its growing economic might, has been modernizing its armed forces rapidly. But so has the United States, which currently spends $70 billion per year on defense R&D alone (higher than the defense R&D budgets of the rest of the world combined). As Admiral William Fallon, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, recently told The Wall Street Journal, “Technologically, we are far and away more sophisticated than they [the Chinese] are, and they know it.”
If China were to have any serious capacity to project power beyond its shores, it would need what any great power has: aircraft carriers. As Fred Kaplan points out in Slate, though, China has only two (used ones purchased from the U.S.S.R.), which are being used not as weapons platforms but, in the Pentagon’s own words, as “floating military theme parks.” Some experts think that China might have one combat-ready carrier by 2015.
When assessing threats, security experts look not only at capacity but also at intent. (Great Britain could incinerate U.S. cities with nuclear weapons, for example, but this has cost us little sleep.) Here, the debate becomes more heated. All agree that China harbors considerable nationalist sentiment, has its eyes on Taiwan, and has shown a willingness to behave mercilessly towards its dissidents, but they disagree over whether this translates into plans to challenge or outdo the United States militarily. Some, such as Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, take a sanguine view widely shared within the uniformed military. “There are lots of countries in the world that have the capacity to wage war,” Pace said in a 2005 press conference. “Very few have the intent to do so. And, clearly, we have a complex but good relationship with China. So there’s absolutely no reason for us to believe there’s any intent on their part.” Some take a darker view. And many simply say there’s no telling what China hopes to do and, for now, little point in trying. Many things can happen in twenty years. China may become the next Soviet Union. Or its economy might collapse. Or it might become a democracy. Convenient as it may be to lock in one’s enemies in advance, the world doesn’t work that way.
The debate over intent has led to different policymaking recommendations. Experts advocating a tougher stance argue that China is more likely to restrain itself in the decades ahead in response to overwhelming displays of force today. To that end, they support increased deployments of forces to the Pacific and more spending on weapons. They also press for a “hedging strategy” of building alliances with China’s neighbors, such as Japan and India, should relations with the Middle Kingdom go sour. This, for the most part, has been the approach of the Bush administration.
Those counseling restraint argue that China already has a keen sense of U.S. military superiority. An overtly aggressive posture against a potential long-term threat, they say, will only convince China to become hostile and make it less likely to cooperate on the real, immediate threats posed by Iran and North Korea. Many also warn against using China as an excuse to spend precious defense dollars on weapons we may not need, especially since the United States is, at least indirectly, borrowing money to build them from the Chinese.
On this spectrum of opinion, Pillsbury dwells on the far-hawkish end. Where others view China’s intentions as complicated, Pillsbury says that Beijing views the United States as an “inevitable foe.” (“He makes simple what is not simple,” says Mark Pratt, a former State Department official who has known Pillsbury for over 30 years.) Where others debate the merits of hedging, Pillsbury feels that things haven’t gone far enough. “The U.S. can do much more to hedge in the next few years if the Chinese do not end their excessive military secrecy and begin to reassure their neighbors,” he recently told The Wall Street Journal. And where nearly everyone agrees that China is far behind the United States in military capacity, Pillsbury has been among the first, and the few, to argue that Beijing is preparing for an asymmetric military conflict with the United States in which it would draw on secret “assassin’s mace” weapons. The term “assassin’s mace,” more commonly translated as “trump card” (shashoujian) is, according to Pillsbury, integral to a Chinese notion of “inferior defeats superior.” (The Pentagon’s most recent annual report to Congress on China’s military from May 2006 includes the term, mentioning Chinese efforts to exploit “perceived vulnerabilities of potential opponents–so-called Assassin’s Mace [sha shou jian] programs.”) An “assassin’s mace” might take the form of a computer application, for instance, that would take over an enemy information system, rendering a foe the victim of his own dependence on technology. In Pillsbury’s telling, China intends to leapfrog ahead in battle readiness by using assassin’s-mace weapons to find breaches in U.S. armor. Moreover, he implies, they could be ready at any time.
Pillsbury wasn’t always a hardliner on China. As an undergraduate at Stanford in the 1960s, he was so taken with Chinese culture that he decided to make a career of it. In the 1970s, he enrolled as a graduate student at Columbia University and took a job at the Rand Corporation. His first moment of fame would come in 1975, when he published an article in Foreign Policy suggesting that China and the U.S. establish military-to-military relations as a counter to the Soviet Union. Many old-school anti-communists objected, but then-Governor Ronald Reagan was among those who were impressed. The Gipper even sent Pillsbury a handwritten letter of praise.
In 1978, Pillsbury went into government, taking a job as a Republican staff assistant to the Senate Budget Committee. He soon found allies among the Senate’s more conservative members, such as Jesse Helms and Orrin Hatch, but he also made enemies. Prior to his death this year, John Carbaugh, a former Senate staffer, told The Washington Monthly that he had been investigated for a leak in 1980 that had actually come from Pillsbury. “He went after me,” said Carbaugh. “I was just blind-sided.” (Pillsbury denies the story.)
Holding on to employment was something else. His first job ended after only five months, when Pillsbury traveled to Japan and told his hosts that the U.S. ambassador was “not in touch” with Congress. (“Not only did I not say it, but I took written notes at every meeting,” Pillsbury complained to AP after his firing.) By 1981, Pillsbury had managed to secure a spot as acting director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), but this post, too, lasted only a few months. (A Reagan official told the trade journal Aviation Week & Space Technology that Pillsbury had been a “loose cannon” who’d acted “contrary to Administration policy.”) In 1986, Pillsbury achieved his most prominent dismissal yet, when he was let go as assistant undersecretary of defense for leaking to reporters that the administration had begun to supply the resistance in Afghanistan and Angola with Stinger missiles. (Pillsbury denied the allegations.)
But Pillsbury kept coming back, amassing a record for recovery that would exhaust even the most diligent phoenix. Weeks after his 1986 firing, he was back working for four senators–Orrin Hatch, Jesse Helms, Gordon J. Humphrey, and Chic Hecht–as an advisor on foreign-policy issues.
The meltdown of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International in 1991 should probably have ended Pillsbury’s career. According to a report released by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1992, he had developed close ties to BCCI frontman Mohammed Hammoud, a Lebanese Shi’ite millionaire, meeting with him “ten to twenty times” in cities around the world and accepting money from him. The report explained:
By the late 1990s, though, BCCI was a dim memory, and Pillsbury a changed man–at least as far as China was concerned. A Sinophile no more, Pillsbury spoke of having been shocked by the Tiananmen killings in 1989 and appalled by anti-American sentiment among Chinese officials. His timing was good. Anti-China sentiment was running high in Washington, with Republican lawmakers depicting the White House as soft on Beijing and Regnery Publishing releasing books like Year of the Rat: How Bill Clinton Compromised American Security for Chinese Money. For Pillsbury, who’d spent the Clinton years bouncing in relative obscurity as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council of the United States and as an associate fellow at the National Defense University, knowing something about China represented a way to get back in the game.
Soon, he had emerged as part of an unofficial but powerful Washington group called the Blue Team. Composed of leading anti-China conservatives, the Blue Team (the name comes from a common code designation, red versus blue, for the sides in war games) was dedicated to persuading lawmakers on the Hill to take a harder line against China. And, meanwhile, Pillsbury, with the backing of long-time mentor Andrew Marshall, head of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, released two books: Chinese Views of Future Warfare, in 1997, and China Debates the Future Security Environment, in 2000. They painted a picture of a self-confident China eagerly anticipating the decline of U.S.
In Pillsbury’s view, the crucial attribute that separates him from his peers is an ability to think farther ahead. “What you find with my colleagues is they say they don’t need to worry about the future,” he says.
Some of Pillsbury’s supporters agree. “In Washington, at times, people are risk-averse and have groupthink,” says Randall Schriver, an East Asia specialist at the State Department until 2005. “But Pillsbury feels unbounded by conventional thinking. He thinks long-term, strategically.” Derek Leebaert, professor in the government department at Georgetown University, calls Pillsbury “one of the few serious scholars in national security,” adding that many others “at the top are barely qualified.”
But the true difference between most experts and Michael Pillsbury appears to lie somewhere else: namely, in the scholarship. With the exception of Chinese Views of Future Warfare, which is a straightforward compilation of translated essays, Pillsbury’s work over the past decade has become increasingly speculative and dubious. In particular, a close examination of his writings reveals a troubling approach to evidence and primary sources.
A case in point is Pillsbury’s paper “China’s Military Strategy Toward the U.S.: A View from Open Sources” from November of 2001. The piece names numerous Chinese military writings, including an article entitled “Twenty-first Century Naval Warfare” by Naval Captain Shen Zhongchang, Naval Lieutenant Commander Zhang Haiying, and Naval Lieutenant Zhou Xinsheng of the Chinese Navy Research Institute. According to Pillsbury, the article is written to show “how China could adopt several asymmetrical approaches to defeating a larger and more powerful navy,” and one of them “will be for China to attack American naval command and information systems.” (Underlined boldface Pillsbury’s.)
But Pillsbury’s footnotes lead to an essay that never discusses how China fits into future naval warfare, much less any sort of hypothetical attack on the United States. (The essay even appears in Pillsbury’s 1997 book, translated into English.)
But the original essay makes no reference to how China might defeat the United States. China, in fact, is never mentioned once in the essay, nor is the concept of defeating the United States.
Asked about these characterizations, Pillsbury said that, in China, “There seems to be a taboo from directly saying the United States. And these people use euphemism.” If that’s the inference, then why doesn’t the paper explain this? “Because sometimes when I turn in my first draft, somebody will say, ‘Be specific. Say what you mean.’”
Pillsbury also takes dramatic liberties with his translations. At one point in China Debates the Future Security Environment, for example, Pillsbury refers to an essay by one General Pan Junfeng that discusses the significance of the IT revolution for future warfare. He cites three sentences, placing them in direct quotation marks: “We can make the enemy’s command centers not work by changing their data system. We can cause the enemy’s headquarters to make incorrect judgments by sending disinformation. We can dominate the enemy’s banking system and even its entire social order.”
But Pan’s piece is worded quite differently. The original sentences–there are actually four, not three–appear in a section discussing the limitations of technological superiority, and they’re introduced by a topic sentence discussing how using computers to wage war might allow one side to cause the opposing side (no nationalities are named) “to sink into an information disaster.” Two Chinese speakers translating directly from a summer 1996 issue of China Military Science came up with nearly identical translations that read as follows:
Looking back at Pillsbury’s version of the above passage, then, it’s apparent that he’s taken Pan’s original sentences and added a non-existent “we,” thereby ascribing implicit nationalities to the parties where none is named, and has truncated the original sentences beyond normal conventions of translation.
Shown the different translations, Pillsbury, responding in an email, said, “I do not ascribe nationalities to the parties. [A]nd I remind you that it is a photo caption. I had no editorial control over the photo captions.” But the photo caption is taken directly from a passage in the body of the book. Pillsbury also claimed to have met personally with General Pan and to have been told “how to interpret his article.” But Pillsbury did not explain why he chose to write his interpretation directly into passages that appear in quotation marks.
The “photo caption” of General Pan, meanwhile, did not go unnoticed by the press. It was quoted, for instance, in a Washington Times article, “Pentagon Study Finds China Preparing for War with U.S.,” which used it to show that “China also plans electronic attacks on computer networks.”
And what about the “Assassin’s Mace,” one of Pillsbury’s major preoccupations? Here, Pillsbury appears to have taken a common Chinese term, shashoujian, and decided, based on his own unfamiliarity with it (“I first saw this unusual term in1995,” he writes in a 2003 article) that it indicates what he calls a “secret project.” In fact, though, the term has been around for centuries and has been revived in contemporary Chinese pop culture, a slangy phrase that appears in articles about everything from soccer to romance. Pillsbury cites public speeches by Chinese leaders and articles in Chinese newspapers that speak of developing “shashoujian” weapons, but he never explains how this adds up to evidence of a secret program. It’s as if a Chinese researcher, hearing a U.S. official speaking of a need for “kick-ass weapons,” were to become confused by the term “kick-ass” and conclude that there must be a secret “kick-ass weapons” program. In short, Pillsbury has identified a secret program that, by all indications, is literally no more than a figure of speech.
Pillsbury’s techniques of scholarship carry into his approach to self-promotion. Again, claims and evidence clash. The Wall Street Journal profile, for instance, wrote that “Mr. Pillsbury has never had to worry about steady employment. He’s a member of the Pillsbury flour family,” and a 1987 Washington Post article describes him as “related to the merchant-millionaire Pillsburys of Minneapolis.” In Washington, this is helpful: It brings access to powerful people, attracts invitations to the right parties, and conveys the impression of immunity from the conflicts of interest that might bedevil needier men. Pillsbury’s defenders often point to his wealth as an indication of his detachment from career urgencies.
A close examination of the Pillsbury flour fortune, however, shows no links to Michael Pillsbury. Asked about his ties to the family, Pillsbury is at first tentative: “It’s a matter of degree. I am in the Pillsbury family tree in America.” What about the flour fortune? “I don’t know where that phrase came from. It didn’t come from me.” Pillsbury speculates that journalists might indulge in “poetic license.”
Similarly, desirable professional affiliations attach themselves to him, but they’re often obsolete. Pillsbury continues to figure as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in articles, websites, and public appearances, even though he hasn’t been with the Council since 1996. He claims to correct such errors “constantly” and says that his rivals are trying to undermine him. “There is this bastard down at the Atlantic Council who is a policy opponent of mine,” Pillsbury explains. “He is the one that goes around accusing me of claiming to be a senior fellow when I am not. So, I called him directly. Stop doing this. He got really plucky.” And who is he? “I seem to have forgotten his name.”
Part of Pillsbury’s authority derives from steady appearances in the media, to which he appears to be drawn. (Back in the 1980s, The Washington Post described Pillsbury as “an acknowledged master of political machination,” and Time singled him out as one of “Washington’s Master Leakers.”) Today, Pillsbury makes frequent on-the-record appearances in a variety of sources, from The Wall Street Journal to Defense News, from The Washington Times to “Lou Dobbs Tonight” on CNN. Still, he says, “I don’t return most reporters’ phone calls,” adding, “I am not, generally speaking, allowed to talk to the press.”
Lately, a reliable ally has been Washington Times columnist Bill Gertz, with whom, according to an August 2002 article in the Oriental Economist, Pillsbury has regularly teamed up to derail nominations to key Asia-related jobs. This, too, Pillsbury denies: “I have occasionally, about five times, given Gertz on-the-record quotes for his stories.” Actually, Pillsbury’s name has appeared in 32 stories by Gertz since the late 1990s, of which at least 15 have contained on-the-record quotes.
Pillsbury’s maneuverings and string-pulling often resemble scenes out of a spy novel, so it’s no surprise that he’s written his own. Pillsbury says the book still awaits clearance. “There are certain security review authorities,” he explains. And he makes an offer: “I think I will put you in it. May have to have you killed off early in chapter one.”
In Washington, not many experts with such a record of self-sabotage would retain their influence at the top. But there’s a market for Pillsbury: There may be no other China expert with such hawkish views and a Ph.D. who has also served extensively in both the executive and legislative branches of government. More important, he gives his sponsors the research they want. China may turn into a serious enemy, or it may not. For now, we have chosen to assume the former, along with the costs. If the Bush administration has taught us anything, however, it’s that overestimating a threat can be as dangerous as underestimating one. Rumsfeld and Pillsbury, it appears, take a different view. But what those of us on the outside must decide, once again, is whether the experts the White House hawks are choosing for their particular insight are really experts at all–whether their specialty lies in facts or speculation, in scholarship or in advertising, in conclusions based on evidence or in evidence based on conclusions.