During the run-up to the Iraq war, the Bush administration pressured intelligence agencies to support its preferred conclusion that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Since Iraq was a totalitarian state that had resisted international demands for transparency, its behavior provoked suspicion that both encouraged Bush administration officials to suspect the worst and made their manipulation of intelligence appear more plausible.
In keeping with its apparent commitment to repeating all the abuses and failures of the last Republican presidency, along with inventing many new ones, the Trump administration is running the same play, this time with China. The New York Times reports the administration is pressuring intelligence officials to find evidence that COVID-19 escaped from a lab in Wuhan.
The bulk of scientific evidence points to a different conclusion — that the coronavirus was transmitted from animals to humans. The lab theory remains theoretically possible but unlikely and difficult to prove. Conservatives have obsessed over the lab theory for strange reasons. It seems to fulfill an elemental impulse to recast the coronavirus as a moral struggle against communism — the kind of problem conservatives instinctively grasp and can use as a bludgeon against liberals — rather than as a matter of public-health management. Republicans have privately conceded that they need to deflect attention onto China because Trump’s record on handling the pandemic is literally indefensible.
But the campaign to blame China has always run into the problem of: What are you going to do about it? Suppose China did cause the coronavirus to escape through neglectful security protocol at a research lab. Heck, suppose the full Tom Cotton conspiracy is true and China manufactured the coronavirus as a bioweapon and then it escaped the lab. What recourse do we have?
The answer is, fortunately, much more ridiculous than it was under the Bush administration. Trump wants to “set the stage for holding China responsible” and is interested in suing China for damages. The Washington Post has a dedicated story on the administration’s plans to pursue a lawsuit or seek reparations.
The idea of suing China for damages has obvious intuitive appeal to Trump, a lifelong abuser of the legal system who is currently pursuing frivolous lawsuits against several media outlets and who just last week threatened to sue his own campaign manager for polls that show him losing the election. But in real international relations, you generally can’t just make other countries give you money.
The Post story runs through various options for getting paid by China being floated by Trump officials. The closest thing to a feasible option would be repudiating debt held by China, though the blowback to that move would be so enormous — other potential buyers of Treasury bills would be demanding higher interest rates forever — that this would be more like an act of financial self-harm than the collection of reparations. The reason you generally can’t collect money from other countries is that we don’t have a world government.
To the limited extent it is possible to force other countries to pay you back without invading and occupying them, it is through the enforcement of international bodies like the World Trade Organization. But Trump has ignored or weakened transnational authorities, and if any president is going to coax China into a global government strong enough to enforce repayments for the coronavirus, it certainly isn’t going to be Donald Trump.
The only discernible endgame here seems to be creating a predicate for Trump to publicly demand repayments from China as his solution to the crisis. If he could insist Mexico would pay for the wall, he can say China will pay for the coronavirus. The obvious fact that neither is going to happen is immaterial to their value as nationalistic campaign slogans. History is repeating itself, the first time as tragedy (the Iraq intelligence scandal) and second time as farce.