Aug 2, 2022

Nancy Pelosi's controversial Taiwan visit.

Nancy Pelosi's controversial Taiwan visit.

Plus, a question about the climate change book "Unsettled."

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

First time reading? Sign up here. Would you rather listen? You can find our podcast here.

Today's read: 12 minutes.

Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan. Plus, a question about the climate change book "Unsettled."

A screenshot of breaking news coverage from CBS after Pelosi landed in Ukraine.
A screenshot of breaking news coverage from CBS after Pelosi landed in Taiwan.

Quick hits.

  1. President Biden announced a successful drone strike in Afghanistan that killed top al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri, who was involved in the planning of 9/11. (The strike)
  2. Tim Kaine, Susan Collins, Kyrsten Sinema and Lisa Murkowski introduced a bipartisan bill called the "Reproductive Freedom For All Act" that attempts to codify Roe. (The bill)
  3. Guy Reffitt, a Texas man who attempted to storm the Capitol while armed with a gun and zip ties, was sentenced to 87 months in prison — the longest sentence yet in any case stemming from January 6. (The sentence)
  4. The U.S. will send another $550 million in arms to Ukraine, the White House said on Monday, increasing the total investment in the war to $8 billion. (The sale)
  5. Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington hold primary elections today. Kansas will also hold a vote on a proposed change to its constitution to allow stricter abortion laws. (The races)

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Today's topic.

Nancy Pelosi's Taiwan visit. The Democratic House Speaker began her trip to Asia on Monday with a stop in Singapore, and the three largest newspapers in Taiwan — The United Daily News, Liberty Times and China Times — reported that she will be visiting Taiwan on Tuesday night. That would make her the highest-ranking elected U.S. official to visit in more than 25 years. The reports of Pelosi's visit have ratcheted up tensions with China, who has repeatedly warned against any such visit.

Reminder: Taiwan is an island with 24 million people about 100 miles off the coast of mainland China. It broke away from China in 1949, but China has maintained that it is a Chinese territory that it intends to bring under its control. Taiwan has held democratic elections for decades, and its current President Tsai Ing-wen ran on a platform of total independence from China. Today, support for independence in Taiwan is more popular than reunification with China, though that hasn't always been the case. We've previously broken down the China-Taiwan history here and in May covered Biden's comments about the U.S. strategic ambiguity here.

“Pelosi would be likely to fly to Taipei on a U.S. military aircraft,” The New York Times reported on Monday. “Some analysts looking at Chinese denunciations of the proposed visit say that China could send aircraft to ‘escort’ her plane and prevent it from landing.”

President Biden had expressed worries about the trip, telling reporters that "the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now.”

On Tuesday, several Chinese warplanes flew close to the median line dividing the Taiwan strait, and several warships sailed close to the dividing line earlier this week, unusual moves that one U.S. source described to Reuters as "very provocative."

Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, a nation some global leaders don't even acknowledge in order to appease Chinese leaders, has created a slew of commentary. In past editions, we've included views from Taiwan, China and other foreign nations. Today, we're going to focus on this issue through the American lens.

Update: Shortly before publication of this newsletter, Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan, and published an opinion piece justifying her visit in The Washington Post.

Below, we'll take a look at some arguments from the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left have criticized the trip, warning that it could escalate tensions with China.
  • Others praise Pelosi's activism, but worry about what it may mean for Democrats at home.
  • Some say the visit could ultimately end up hurting Taiwan the most.

In The New York Times, Thomas Friedman called it "utterly reckless."

"I have a lot of respect for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi," Friedman said. "But if she does go ahead with a visit to Taiwan this week, against President Biden’s wishes, she will be doing something that is utterly reckless, dangerous and irresponsible. Nothing good will come of it. Taiwan will not be more secure or more prosperous as a result of this purely symbolic visit, and a lot of bad things could happen. These include a Chinese military response that could result in the U.S. being plunged into indirect conflicts with a nuclear-armed Russia and a nuclear-armed China at the same time... According to Chinese news reports, Xi told Biden on their phone call last week, alluding to U.S. involvement in Taiwan’s affairs, such as a possible Pelosi visit, 'whoever plays with fire will get burnt.'

"Biden’s national security team made clear to Pelosi, a longtime advocate for human rights in China, why she should not go to Taiwan now," he said. "But the president did not call her directly and ask her not to go, apparently worried he would look soft on China, leaving an opening for Republicans to attack him before the midterms. It is a measure of our political dysfunction that a Democratic president cannot deter a Democratic House speaker from engaging in a diplomatic maneuver that his entire national security team — from the C.I.A. director to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs — deemed unwise. To be sure, there is an argument that Biden should just call Xi’s bluff, back Pelosi to the hilt and tell Xi that if he threatens Taiwan in any way, it’s China that 'will get burnt.' That might work. It might even feel good for a day. It also might start World War III."

In The Guardian, Lauren Gambino said there are "also domestic risks."

"The highly anticipated diplomatic mission caps a foreign policy career defined by what she views as an unwavering defense of human rights and democratic values abroad... It is a posture, sharpened over decades in Congress, that has made her a target of criticism in Beijing and, at times, put her at odds with leaders of both parties in Washington," Gambino wrote. "Pelosi’s party faces a difficult re-election in November with her gavel in the balance and Biden desperate to generate positive headlines about his economic agenda – not foreign trouble... Republicans are urging Pelosi to go, and ready to accuse Democrats of bowing to Beijing if she doesn’t. The focus on Pelosi’s travel, during the House’s autumn recess, also threatens to distract from a string of Democratic legislative victories at home.

"Pelosi has long been one of the most strident and outspoken critics of China, a position that has in the past allied her with conservatives," she added. "She opposed China’s bid to host the summer Olympics in 2008 and has pushed the US to leverage its economic power to improve human rights and labor protections in China. Her advocacy helped ensure oversight of China when it joined the World Trade Organization. During a visit to China in 2009, Pelosi hand-delivered a letter to the then president, Hu Jintao, demanding the release of political prisoners."

In The Los Angeles Times, Dennis Hickey said the visit could hurt Taiwan.

"Having already voiced disapproval over a possible Pelosi visit to Taiwan, China’s president is facing his own set of domestic and international political considerations," Hickey wrote. "China’s leaders and the Chinese public will likely view anything other than continued opposition to the trip as a national humiliation — yet another instance in the nation’s long history of caving in to foreign bullying. There is also widespread fear that any retreat from China’s recent declarations would embolden anti-China politicians in Taiwan as well as overseas. All of this comes as China’s Communist Party gears up for its most important political event in a decade — the 20th National Congress that will be held in the fall.

"The outcome of the meeting will likely determine the nation’s trajectory for years to come and whether Xi (as widely anticipated) will be selected for another five-year term as party leader," he said. "Caving in to this instance of American 'interference' in Taiwan might cast a shadow over this event. It is difficult to understand how a Pelosi trip would help Taiwan. If the dispute over Pelosi’s travel plans spirals out of control, the biggest loser will be Taiwan. Some might hope that a crisis over Pelosi’s visit will generate sympathy and support for the island while demonstrating American strength and resolve, but Taiwan will find itself on the front lines in any conflict."

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right support Pelosi, arguing that she must stand up to Beijing.
  • Some worry about the potential outcomes, and criticize the White House for not reining Pelosi in.
  • Others say Pelosi should go, but take measures to make the trip less provocative.

In National Review, Jim Geraghty said Pelosi is standing up to the bully in Beijing.

"As of this writing, it appears that House speaker Nancy Pelosi will travel to Taiwan. The issue of whether she should visit that country — and who are we kidding with our 'One China' policy; Taiwan is its own country — raises big and consequential questions about when and where the U.S. is willing to stand up to a bully," Geraghty said. "A lot of people in this world like to think that they’re brave, tough, and willing to act against injustice but start looking for excuses once the consequences of taking a stand get high enough... once the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives says she’s going to Taiwan, and the Chinese government demands that she cancel the visit, the speaker must go to Taiwan.

"Otherwise, backing down communicates to China that if it rattle[s] the saber enough, it can veto what our political leaders do," he added. "What happens when China demands that no other American officials travel to Taiwan? What happens when Beijing demands that the U.S. shut down our de facto embassy, the American Institute in Taiwan, or demands an end to commercial air travel between the U.S. and Taiwan? At what point do we say, 'Sorry, pal, but we’re a sovereign country and we make our own decisions'?... If Pelosi doesn’t go, then the United States will have backed down from a bully, and bullies are rarely satiated by one victory."

In Bloomberg, Niall Ferguson wrote about the "four mysteries" of Pelosi's Taiwan trip.

"Here’s the first part of the mystery. Why did the Pentagon take three months to figure out that a trip by the House speaker to Taiwan was 'not a good idea'? It’s not as if relations between the US and China took a turn for the worse only a week ago. Taiwan has been the key flashpoint of Cold War II — Berlin plus Cuba plus the Persian Gulf — since the Sino-American relationship decisively soured over four years ago," he wrote. "They must know what’s coming. In September 2020, when President Donald Trump’s administration sent Keith Krach, the under secretary of state for economic growth, to Taipei, China’s military retaliated by overstepping the median line that bisects the Taiwan Strait. Last November, when a US House delegation visited Taiwan, the PLA deployed two dozen aircraft to enter Taiwan’s southwest air-defense identification zone.

"If Pelosi’s trip goes ahead, we can expect more in this vein, but on a larger scale. In addition to flyovers, there could be maritime militia operations around Taiwan," Ferguson wrote. "Beijing could also test its latest ballistic missile, the DF-26 (the so-called Guam Killer, capable of reaching the US base on that Pacific island). Presumably, the calculation in the White House remains, as in the 2020 election, that being tough on China is a vote-winner — or, to put it differently, that doing anything the Republicans can portray as 'weak on China' is a vote-loser. Yet it is hard to believe that this calculation would hold if the result were a new international crisis, with all its potential economic consequences."

In The Washington Examiner, Tom Rogan said Pelosi has every right to make the trip — but should fly commercial, not in a military aircraft.

"For a start, it is nearly impossible to underestimate the degree to which Xi Jinping and the powerful Communist Party Standing Committee view Taiwan through the prism of destiny," Rogan said. "Securing Taiwan's return to the nominal motherland would, to the party elites, physically formalize their destiny of global hegemony. The Taiwan issue cuts to the very credibility of Xi's rule, and he knows it. Most U.S. intelligence and military analysts believe China is likely to conduct a military operation to subjugate Taiwan forcibly by 2030. Contrary to widespread assumptions of U.S. military superiority, any U.S. effort to support Taiwan's defense might well lead to a U.S. military defeat — especially given the misplaced priorities of pork-minded members of Congress.

"The symbolism of a U.S. military aircraft carrying the second-in-line to the U.S. presidency to Taiwan would be a very big deal for Beijing. It would stoke China's rapidly growing paranoia in a manner that Pelosi's use of a commercial airliner would not," he wrote. "Indeed, the use of a military aircraft will likely encourage Xi Jinping to believe he was cornered and had to react in a major way... While China would be unlikely to shoot down Pelosi's aircraft, a People's Liberation Army intercept is absolutely possible. The very threat of this possibility would make it necessary for Pelosi's aircraft to receive either a U.S. or a Taiwanese fighter escort. That would only increase Xi's sense of needing to make a public show of confronting the visit. The risks of escalation and miscalculation would be high."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

This is a genuine high-stakes moment.

It's Tuesday morning as I write this, so I have to say I feel quite a bit of trepidation about taking any particular stance that could age poorly in a matter of just 24 hours (say, if Pelosi lands in Taiwan with zero repercussions; or conversely, if the worst case scenario of some kind of military interaction takes place).

I think there are a few things here that are non-negotiable for me: One, Taiwan is an independent, democratic country, and if it wants to welcome in a U.S. leader, that cannot be grounds for a shooting war or attack. Period. You don't have to be a geopolitical expert to grasp the absurdity of China's position and its threats. We're talking about a leader from America visiting another country. The fact that China has so expertly made this such a risky visit indicates how effective their propaganda and global power have become.

Two, Pelosi's intentions seem well-placed. I was impressed by the number of conservative writers and politicians who acknowledged that this isn't some new pet project for her. She has decades of human rights activism in the region under her belt, and it appears she is willing to risk her own well-being (and perhaps that of her friends in Taiwan) in order to make a statement here. I'm not going to simply broad brush Taiwan as good and China as bad (the situation is far more complicated), but it is commendable that Pelosi is taking a non-negotiable position on Taiwan's autonomy — which the people of Taiwan have, for the most part, chosen.

Three, Pelosi's decision to advertise this trip ahead of time has left no great options on the table. Back down, as many conservative writers note, and you look like you just buckled under the saber rattling. Go through with it despite the warnings, and you bear at least some responsibility for whatever comes next. Neither of these are great positions to be in.

With all that out of the way, my biggest concern about any potential visit is actually the impact it could have on the war in Ukraine. I don't think it's particularly likely that China responds to this visit by invading Taiwan, shooting down Pelosi's plane or "escorting" it anywhere. I think it is much more likely, as other writers have pointed out, that they will respond by actively trying to undermine America's interests in Ukraine by aiding Russia.

So far, President Xi has stayed out of it, and Biden has managed to navigate the China-Russia relationship deftly. But if China wants to retaliate without initiating an invasion of Taiwan or interfering with Pelosi’s plane, one easy answer would be to start supplying drones, weapons and other military support to Russia — which would be perfect timing given how devastating the war has been for Putin. The two nations already have plenty of economic reasons to work together, the most obvious being Russia’s need for a new non-European customer for its gas and China’s need for more energy to fuel its economy.

I support Pelosi's intent here, and I think conservatives are much more realistic than liberals about China and the necessity for American leaders to demonstrate strength. It's critical that our leaders acknowledge Taiwan's independence, the 24 million citizens there, and our longstanding allegiance with its government. But if Pelosi's trip spirals into an international conflict, or thrusts China into the war in Ukraine, all without any meaningful benefit for the people of Taiwan, it's going to be very hard to justify in retrospect.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I just finished reading a book called "Unsettled: What climate science tells us, what it doesn't, and why it matters." It argues that climate models are too uncertain to be very useful, extreme weather trend data is being deliberately misrepresented, and that the economic impacts of climate change will be almost negligible, among other claims. However, a quick Google search pulls up this Scientific American article criticizing the book.

I have always been a strong advocate of addressing the dangers of climate change, so how should I think about evaluating this book? It's written by someone who seems relatively qualified, and on my first reading he seems to make some good points (along with some bad ones), so I don't want to just dismiss everything blindly, but his claims certainly seem at odds with my understanding of the current consensus, and he is basically saying the consensus is wrong anyways.

— Ben, Idaho Falls, Idaho

Tangle: So, first off, I haven't read the book yet. It's been suggested to me many times, and I actually bought it on kindle and read the first 20 pages or so, but it's (now) about 7th on my reading list with a few others in front of it. When it came out, I did read many of the criticisms of it, which I found pretty convincing — but, of course, I am pretty convinced about the science on climate change and so those criticisms are playing to my preconceived notions.

All that being said: I can't give some kind of response to the book in an intellectually honest way without having read it, which I plan to do. But I’ll address the summation of the book's arguments you listed, starting with the idea that some uncertainty exists in climate models. That claim is not particularly controversial. The idea that extreme weather trend data can be deliberately misrepresented to advance a narrative is also, of course, true. However, the idea that the economic impacts of climate change will be almost negligible seems beyond fanciful to me. We are seeing that damage in real-time right now. Natural disasters are very costly and can permanently alter the trajectory of a community.

For whatever it's worth, Koonin (the author) says clearly in the opening pages I read that "it’s true that the globe is warming, and that humans are exerting a warming influence upon it.”

So, I think you should read the book with an open mind, and as an exercise in understanding that climate change — like most big issues we face — is complex, and efforts to fully comprehend its nuances should be embraced. I'd never argue that someone should shield themselves from these kinds of contradictory or heterodox views. Best as I can tell, Koonin's book is one addition to the debate about how to navigate what he accepts is the very real issue of a warming planet. Heterodox voices are good, as long as they are read with appropriate skepticism, and I'm certainly looking forward to reading it in full.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

A story that matters.  

U.S. job openings are easing from historic highs amid a broader economic slowdown, according to a new Labor Department report. There were 11 million job openings in June, down from the record of 11.9 million in March, but still historically high. 5.9 million people are unemployed and looking for work. "The labor market is showing other signs of slowing, however," The Wall Street Journal reported. "Hiring eased in June from higher totals earlier in the year. And initial jobless claims, a proxy for layoffs, in July reached their highest level since November."


  • Two. The number of "one-in-1,000 year” storms we've had in the last week.
  • 37. The death toll from floods in Kentucky, where hundreds are still missing.
  • 39%. The percentage of all electric vehicles registered nationwide that are in California.
  • 2%. The percentage of vehicles in California that are electric vehicles.
  • 70%. The percentage of Americans who, in a 2021 survey, said we should promote human rights in China even if it harms economic relations.
  • 55%. The percent who said they supported limiting the number of Chinese students allowed to study in the U.S.

Have a nice day.

A dog that was lost in the woods of Minnesota for 29 days has been returned to his owner "against all odds." The six-year-old dog, named Luigi, was lured from his owners on the first day of a camping trip last month. The owner, Zane Brunette, believes another set of campers wanted the dog, and took him with them as they hiked through the woods. Brunette spent days camping out, posting fliers in the woods, and calling for Luigi before finally giving up. But weeks later, he got a call from a resort owner who spotted the dog 45 miles from where he was last seen. Brunette said he called Luigi and he came running right away — with no physical issues aside from being about 15 pounds underweight. "He's like the friendliest dog I've ever seen my entire life," said Brunette. "He's just very, very special." KARE11 has the story.

❤️  Enjoy this newsletter?

💵  Drop some love in our tip jar.

📫  Forward this to a friend and let them know where they can subscribe (hint: it's here).

📣  Share Tangle on Twitter here, Facebook here, or LinkedIn here.

🎧  Rather listen? Check out our podcast here.

🛍  Love clothes, stickers and mugs? Go to our merch store!

Subscribe to Tangle

Join 100,000+ people getting Tangle directly to their inbox!

Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.