Customary accolades from fellow solons notwithstanding, Sen. John Kerry’s appointment as secretary of state is fraught. Following the debacle of Amb. Susan Rice’s withdrawal under the Benghazi cloud which now also dogs outgoing Sec. Hillary Clinton, Mr. Kerry’s lackadaisical demeanor seem less than adequate to meet growing multiple foreign policy crises.
Sen. Kerry also will have new tasks. Pres. Obama’s attempt to “pivot” to the growing long-term Communist China threat to peace and stability in what conventional wisdom holds is the new center of world economy is laudable. But implosion of the Obama Mideast policy is apparent. Benghazi was the touchstone even though the Administration has done everything it could to camouflage reality. Shaking Mideast tugs on its coattails will require more of the Obama Administration that slogans.
The vaunted Arab Spring has turned into a struggle where modernists are losing to a riptide of Islamic radicalism – most notably in Egypt. Al Qaeda franchises are blossoming throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Syria is turning into the sectarian hellhole anticipated as full-blown civil war erupts with the Assad regime hanging on with the kind of brutality all too characteristic of the Arab world. Not only is there evidence of strong participation of al Qaeda look-alikes among Syria’s opposition, but there’s growing circumstantial evidence Washington was so befuddled it lent them aid..
Still, initially, Sen. Kerry may luck out in Asia. Despite Washington trimming U.S. naval power for reasons of economy and with promises technology can substitute for numbers, a mobilization against an aggressive China is developing among Asian allies. South Korea has just reelected a conservative government which while making the usual overtures to their increasingly dangerous northern twin will cling to the U.S. alliance. Japan has thrown out the Democratic Party of Japan, that strange amalgam of leftwing socialists and opportunist conservatives.
Liberal Democratic Party Leader Mr. Shintaro Abe, prime minister-elect, may retreat from his hawkish campaign rhetoric, especially facing a forthcoming upper house election. But Mr. Abe’s tougher line toward China and North Korea and support for civilian nuclear power were campaign promises a Japanese electorate bought into.
One hopes the new South Korean president-elect, Ms. Park Geun-Hye, and Mr. Abe, could repeat the success of Ms. Park’s father, the formidable military dictator Park Chung Kee, and Mr. Abe’s grandfather, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who a couple of generations ago, took the first steps to heal their bitter feud. They initiated technology transfers and offshore procurement by Japanese companies boosting South Korea into the ranks of modern, industrialized nations. But the next step, a Japanese-Korean alliance, has not been cemented despite Washington’s half century effort. And in a world of relatively diminished American power, multilateral military as well as economic collaboration is more than ever critical.
Facing up to Chinese belligerency allied with its growing military power has to be on Mr. Kerry’s plate if not publicly acknowledged. Recent Beijing insistence its southern Hainan province has jurisdiction over outrageous South China Sea claims and asserting an option to interfere with traffic on one of the world’s most important nautical highways is probably a feint. But if and when it materializes, it cannot go unchallenged by a U.S. Navy committed to freedom of the seas. The same old noises from recent Beijing Communist Party theater leading to a new administration in March do not augur well.
Mr. Kerry also has the arduous task of putting flesh on the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, a visionary U.S. proposal to create a Pacific Basin common market – excluding China so long as it is unwilling to play by fair trade rules. The concept, however laudatory, faces enormous difficulties, especially the old monkey wrench of Japanese and Korean agricultural interests fearful of encroachment by cheaper North American and Australasian food.
As much as anything, Mr. Kerry needs full Presidential backing, generally not forthcoming from a White House which leads from behind. Obviously continuing slow revival of the American economy – victim of Mr. Obama’s anti-entrepreneurial and regulatory manias – will be a higher priority. But one can only hope innate American economic vitality and the good sense of our Asian allies who instinctively know the importance of U.S. leadership will fulfill German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s quip, “There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children and the United States of America.”