The Obama Administration is trying to turn an historical page.
The president’s current Pacific tour is promoted as “a return to Asia”, an acknowledgement of its rapidly growing economies, and, of course, recognition of China as a world power. History has a way of dictating its own terms, however. [When asked what next in his agenda, Britain’s Prime Minister Harold Macmillan reminded a young inquirer, “Events, my dear boy, events!”]
As much as the Administration stages in a too long neglected legitimate theater, it’s also an attempt on the eve of a presidential campaign to shuck emphasis on the continuing dismal Middle East scenarios – where Barack Hussein Obama plunged with such enthusiasm only a little over two years ago.
Massive PR only partly obscures how far Washington can escape the Mideast – even with a much publicized exit from Iraq [with an intermediate stop in Kuwait] and a devil-take-the-hindmost Afghanistan withdrawal. The Arab Spring is turning as feckless as its 1968 Prague Spring namesake, offering little resolution of fundamentals — e.g., jobs for the world’s largest demographic bulge. Syria, where wish has betrayed realism in American policy, ticks ominously. Mr. Obama’s repeated profitless overtures to Tehran’s mullahs are concluding with an eminent threat of Iranian nuclear weapons. NATO’s vaunted southwestern tentpeg, Turkey, lurches from one contradictory foreign initiative to another with an overblown economic bubble about to burst.
Furthermore, the President’s company of players including speechwriters cavalierly promoted to geopolitician will encounter a host of equally difficult – many no less pressing — issues. Meetings with an alphabet soup of Asia-Pacific organizations and brief encounters with national leaders won’t resolve outstanding strategic issues Washington long has had on backburner.
Taking precedence is Japan, cornerstone of all U.S. Asian strategies, after this Administration too often has given it short shrift. But Washington will have to continue dealing with a Japanese administration holding on to power by its geta hana-oh. Unresolved is Okinawa military redeployment, with this current Tokyo government more beholden than former conservative administrations to rapacious locals threatening invaluable U.S. regional bases. And now Washington has handed Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda another piece of hot tofu: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed nine-nation free-trade pact from Chile through the U.S. and Japan to Singapore. Tokyo’s highly subsidized and politically powerful agricultural lobby sees a threat to protected food markets at a time commercial and political relations with China – not included in this party round — are Tokyo’s overriding concern. The North Korean ghost haunts from offstage: a juvenile delinquent holding weapons of mass destruction to neighbors’ heads, a trading and technological partner to every other world pariah with its own only alternative strategic prospect anarchic implosion.
Realists would ask more seminal questions: Will Mr. Obama’s one-on-one in Hawaii with outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao smooth the unequal bilateral trade playing field, not a small cause of current world currency and fiscal imbalances? It’s not likely Chinese manipulated currency and intellectual property theft will be remedied. Complicating negotiating these Chinese practices will be Beijing’s ultra-mercantilism becoming a louder and louder wild card in coming American presidential debate. In Beijing, itself, a Communist generational switch – perhaps not going as smoothly as thought a few months ago – struggles with Party dogma attempting to finesse restraining inflation while simultaneously spurring super rapid growth, so long seen as the only card the regime holds as civil dissidence rises.
Thus the combination of Mr. Obama’s continued denigration of America’s historic role, the Washington domestic economic policy tangle, the increasingly aggressive Chinese menace, all challenge the Obama Administration’s modeling a new American Pacific presence.
In fact, it’s a call historically as inaccurate as Mr. Obama’s earlier Istanbul and Cairo speeches summoning myth rather than history for an accommodation with Islam. America’s Asian role always has loomed large since the late 19th century. But alas! Mr. Obama did not take a leaf from Pres. Ronald Reagan’s economic strategy: The Gipper used his “stimulus” in part to rebuild American defenses to face down the Soviets. A new call now to American Pacific destiny rings hollow as the U.S. Navy’s decades-old hegemonic East Asian role erodes in the face of a rapid Chinese buildup with an American fleet soon smaller than any since pre-World War II — however revolutionary its new technologies.
Careful! That trumpet call could sound tinhorn.