An Old Enemy: The Regressive Tendencies of American Foreign Policy
January 4, 2022 by Shannon Twiss
by Hunter Wiand, Staff Contributor
For years a CIA-linked think tank has covered Xinjiang. The current human rights crisis in the region may present a serendipitous moment for cynics in the American foreign policy establishment to pursue an old, familiar agenda.
Ask any true believer in the environmental movement, or any party to the discourse surrounding it, and its calls to action will of course have in their mind a litany of statistics and figures readily disposed of in service of their preferred viewpoint. 4°C, 1 meter of sea level rise, millions, if not billions, displaced. And of course, even an environmental neophyte will likely be aware of the relatively recent popular recognition of the fact that “the United States military is the single largest institutional emitter of greenhouse gasses.” We owe the entrance of this statistic into the discursive zeitgeist in large part to the work of Elizabeth Warren, and her 2020 presidential campaign that brought to bear a proposal aimed at “Greening the Military,” an admittedly admirable goal if there ever has been one. As a result, the problem has been framed as essentially a question of more efficient energy expenditures in service of the same missions that the American foreign policy establishment has deemed necessary over the past half century. Even this criticism, though, is lacking in novelty, with many progressive voices pointing out that “greening” the military is more akin to “greenwashing” the military, covering an otherwise concerning human rights record with a veneer of climate-forward policy, rather than an actual solution useful in resolving many of the more pressing concerns presented by American actions overseas: imperial missions, the breaching of international law, an unnecessary burden placed on the backs of American taxpayers. All of these concerns are valid, and of course should be dealt with in course. Yet, perhaps these criticisms could be bolstered by a further observation: elements in the American foreign policy establishment appear unwaveringly tied to a somewhat regressive agenda both as it regards environmental policy and human rights concerns abroad.
Fortunately, much of the American public is keen to rebuke any possibility of any more “oil wars” like those that so severely damaged the United States’ international reputation in the early aughts. Yet, a concern should be noted that America’s Obama-era turn towards a nominally human-rights-forward perspective on foreign policy may present an opportunity for bad faith actors to engage in the same plots and plans they have toiled away at for decades, simply with a new face. A prime example of such behavior may be found in the way certain far-right elements of America’s foreign policy machine appear to be exploiting what is arguably one of the most significant human rights crises of the modern world in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang is home to the Turkic Uyghurs, a minority ethnic group and longtime inhabitants of China’s western border region. Revelations over the past decade have laid bare a grim reality for the Uyghurs: historically persecuted by the Chinese government, recent crackdowns on the Uyghur people have taken the form of mass incarceration, re-education, and a near complete suspension of civil rights, carried out in the interest of “combatting terrorism.” More recent reports indicate that China seems to have taken steps towards mass extermination of the Uyghur people. The dire nature of the situation facing the Uyghurs cannot be understated. Yet, in approaching this crisis, any attempt by bad faith actors to misappropriate a genuine human rights concern towards their own ends must be averted at all costs.
While the situation in Xinjiang has been covered extensively by Western media, one particular non-media institution has been especially vocal on the issue in recent years. Born of the Cold War machinations of the CIA, the Jamestown Foundation has since established itself as a prominent critic of many US strategic opponents, with a particular emphasis placed on Russia and China. Founded with the help of CIA Director William J. Casey as a means to better manage Soviet defectors, in the years subsequent, its board room rolls have been graced by the likes of R. James Woolsey, a former CIA Director; Michael Vickers, a former member of the CIA’s Special Activities Division; Michael Hayden, a former CIA Director; Bruce Hoffman, a CIA-associated scholar, Robert Spalding; a retired Air Force General and adviser to Donald Trump on China; and of course, former Vice President Dick Cheney. Its bank of scholars has also included numerous former employees of Radio Free Europe, an organization notable as the brainchild of a CIA front organization headed by Allen Dulles. Over the years it has been the recipient of myriad donations from a number of neoconservative institutions, including the Earhart Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Carthage Foundation, and the Sarah Scaife Foundation, organizations that associated themselves with Exxon-Mobil and other oil industry giants through their policy work and donations. Suffice it to say, the Jamestown Foundation is not lacking in suspect bedfellows.
Some members of the overlapping spheres of influence inhabited by the neoconservative movement and the American intelligence community have a long history of dalliances in Xinjiang. Many of the biggest names in the oil industry have had their sights set on the region for decades. Since the 1990s, the CIA has conducted operations in Xinjiang, with the help of, amongs otherss, Turkish terrorist, contract killer and nationalist extremist Abdullah Çatlı. As a component of their work in Xinjiang, Agency assets such as Çatlı worked to organize insurgent groups in the region, riling up dissidents, all in service of the intelligence community’s broader blueprint for a Xinjiang severed from mainland China, with its natural resources opened up for exploitation by Western industry. This work continued up through the turn of the 20th century with the US government’s work to help establish the East Turkistan Government-in-Exile, an organization seeking to advocate for an independent Xinjiang.
While political intrigue is one thing, the geopolitical and strategic significance of Xinjiang can also not be understated. Home to both the Tarim and Junggar Basins, Xinjiang’s proverbial underbelly is littered with shale oil deposits, with recent exploratory missions indicating that the region may contain upwards of 20-25% of China’s total domestic supply, present in quantities that would make even a Gulf nation blush. Exxon-funded research noted these qualities in the 90s, while Hess and Shell have been reviewing options in the region since at least 2013. More recent reports indicate that further exploration in the Junggar Basin has led to the discovery of one of the world’s largest known oil reserves.
To lay it all out in clearer, and perhaps more conclusory terms, a possibility exists that the same groups that have had their eyes on Xinjiang and its natural resources for years have found in the strife of the Uyghur people, and the genuine sympathy it has garnered abroad, a serendipitous opportunity to continue old, familiar work. This article aims to explore the perverse incentives that exist in the realm of international politics, and in particular the concern that the actions of nation states may adversely affect the pursuit of justice in both a human rights context, and in the fight for environmental justice.
All that lies above is simply conjecture: the evidence of any concerted bad faith action is circumstantial at best, and conspiratorial if pejoratives are preferred. Yet, it cannot be forgotten that the same Uyghur groups the Jamestown Foundation now champions were discarded in 2002 by the Bush White House (the same administration that later oversaw the establishment of the East Turkistan Government in Exile) in an attempt to curry favor with the Chinese government in the lead up to the Iraq War. Cells in Guantanamo Bay detention center held innocent Uyghur dissidents for nearly a decade. And while the United States is a party to many international agreements governing both the use of force abroad and emissions controls, it’s no secret that these agreements are often flagrantly disregarded at moments of inconvenience. All of this is to say that while the good fight is being fought in many parts of Washington, D.C. on behalf of the Uyghur people, there may be an older, familiar conspiracy afoot.
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