Tag Archives: Hillary Clinton’s pivot

Asian pivot needs oil


Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “pivot to Asia” hasn’t made the turn anticipated a strategic Obama Administration move to face up to China’s growing regional aggression.

Not only has it not been able to shake loose from the Mideast chaos which Pres. Obama has tried desperately avoid, but it faces a continued Beijing push toward Southeast Asia, the Koreas and Japan. The Southeast Asians, for their part, have shown skepticism about Obama’s commitment – especially in view of their growing Chinese commercial ties and their over-the-shoulder look Beijing’s growing naval thrust.

That’s why an American statement in Bangkok last week was such a clinker: “I don’t spend a lot of time, I don’t spend any time, saying to Washington here’s how we get Thailand back. We haven’t lost Thailand,” U.S. Ambassador to Bangkok, Glyn T. Davies told reporters. He added: “I think it’s a good thing for Thailand to have a good relationship with China.”

Davies, a veteran career Foreign Service officer, might have used more diplomatic language – if as we suspect, he hadn’t intended to be quoted. If Davies sounded defensive, it might just be because relations between Washington and Bangkok have soured since the May 2014 coup, one of a long history of military takeovers and the second in a decade. The resulting junta crackdown has strained U.S.-Thai relations but been embraced by Beijing. The Thais have reciprocated with gestures such as sending back to Beijing international recognized human rights exiles and joint military exercises.

Davies has been on a campaign – presumably on instructions from Washington – since he arrived two months ago. He has gone public with U.S.’ opposition to unusually stringent lèse-majesté laws with long sentences for alleged slander against Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. To curry popular favor, the junta has gone all out to support the 87-year-old monarch, whose his important unifying role is now jeopardized by poor health and the unpopularity of his son, the crown prince.

Commentators who just walked in are raising alarm over the competition to what has been a strong U.S.-Thai alliance since the early days of The Cold War and the conflict in Vietnam. But a longer view, which Davies surely has, is that the Thais have always balanced their act.

During the colonial period – when Siam was, admittedly, a quaint backwater, they played France against Britain to remain the only country in Southeast Asia to maintain independence. Later, with strong personal relations with Woodrow Wilson’s missionary family, its two revolutionaries who had overthrown the absolute monarchy in 1932, gave access to both asides up to and during World War II. One, Regent for the then minor king, Pridi Phamnamwong, was secretly in cahoots with the Americans. His nemesis, Phibun Songkram, was partisan of the European fascists, and headed an all-but Japanese puppet government.

So, Bangkok’s flirtation with Beijing can be seen as the 21st century version of an old game, playing both sides to maintain its independence. But it’s one much more difficult as Thailand has emerged as one of the strongest economies in Southeast Asia. There is new danger, too, in expanded communications – including rail and road access from China and neighboring Laos, new “geography” for a region once bound to heavy Chinese emigration only by sea. There was a time, too, when the Sino-Thai elite emphasized their “native” aspects, harder now when it is profitable in all ways to enhance Chinese ties.

We would suggest it is better for Washington and its representatives to bear that in mind, especially in a period when the U.S. with a “lead from behind” Administration is less skillful at its traditional regional role of supporting local nationalism and freedom of navigation.

sws-12-02-15

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Persian Thread


One thread runs through all the miasma of the tribal and ideological jungle of contemporary Mideast politics. Through it all is interwoven the power and influence of Iran.

With its 80 million people, its vast territory – the world’s 17th largest country, about the size of Alaska – and its abundant resources, Iran towers over all the other Mideastern territories [except Egypt and Turkey]. Despite its sudden cataclysmic downturn in fertility – a drop-off much deeper than Europe, Japan and China are also experiencing – Iran currently still has a young population that will reach 100 million by 2050.

But more than anything, Tehran is heir – unlike Egypt’s largely historical and tourist attractions – to the traditions of the ancient Persian empires dating from 500 years before Christ. Contrary to the primitive intolerance of the current regime, the Persians through the ages built remarkably strong political entities simultaneously using various ethnicities. [Again what a contrast to the neighboring puny Arab sheikhdoms, however endowed with petrodollars.] That thrust toward power is again a central issue in the region.

There is no dearth of evidence for Tehran’s aggressive ambitions beginning with worldwide terrorism that punctuated recent decades. Whether in the Beirut military barracks bombing of Americans and French troops [1983] or the attacks on Jewish targets in Buenos Aires [1994] or the bitter IED offensive against American forces during the Iraq war, Tehran’s gloved hand was there.

However vulnerable the ties, today Tehran has jumped the security fences first set up post-World War I by Britain and France, and then the U.S.. Its alliances extend to the Mediterranean with the Assad regime [if under siege] in Syria, Hezbollah that dominates ethnic-chaotic Lebanon, and even the scion of the bitterly anti-Shia Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas in Gaza.

Moving toward weapons of mass destruction with the help of other rogue states headed by North Korea and greedy merchants in Russia, Germany, Tehran’s mullahs are reaching for great power status. One suspects even their bitterest domestic enemies do not vouchsafe their country this role.

There is, indeed, growing evidence Iran may shortly be a “threshold” nuclear state, that is one able to produce nuclear weapons and their delivery systems in short order. Never mind its oft repeated threat to wipe out Israel, a bomb will give Tehran dominance in the region, possibly setting off a dangerous nuclear weapons race among the region’s inherently unstable regimes.

How is the world to cope with Iran as it again flexes its muscles in an effort to restore its ofttimes regional hegemony?

The U.S. once thought it could live with Iran as a regional super-power; Washington allied with Shah Reza Pahlevi, encouraged his stewardship of the area. He was seen as an important ally during the Cold War, blocking the old, old Russian ambition of reaching the warm waters. The U.S. was even prepared to tolerate Iran as a leader of the cabal to create an OPEC monopoly on world energy at higher prices. But in one of those moralistic flights of fancy. Amb. William Sullivan – who had already made his contribution to the debacle in Southeast Asia – helped pull the rug from under the Shah, buying into the false promises of the Muslim theocrats.

Looking back now, one could make the case that the seizure of Western oil in Iran and the Gulf states was the original sin. Their inability to efficiently absorb enormous wealth which flowed into their coffers was more than “a tax on the world economy” that the then Secretary of Treasury William Simon rationalized. Those dollars became the source of a major destabilization of the world order with huge surpluses in the hands of small backward populations led by tyrannical, shortsighted leaders. [One can only hope this aspect will perhaps to be tempered, finally, by the Americans’ shale revolution which is rapidly bringing down the real price of energy and defanging the Mideast’s hold on world oil and gas.].

But how to deal with this new set of chessmen continues to be a central problem of U.S. efforts to maintain world peace and stability. And perhaps the greatest unknown in the whole equation is trying to deduce what path the Obama Administration thinks it is pursuing.

There apparently is one train of thought with the career diplomats which sees U.S. benign neglect as the best answer to the Mideast problems. That would have been the inspiration for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement of a “pivot” from U.S. concentration on the Mideast to deal with the growing potential threat of a nascent China. That was soon grabbed by the White House speechwriters as an answer to the self-evident failures of Obama’s initial outreach to the Moslem world which elicited only scorn and the false hopes of “the Arab spring”. It soon became all too apparent that the tarbaby with which Washington has been ensnared could not be wished away. [The President has just announced new reinforcements for ground troops in Iraq which he said he wouldn’t commit.]

And so the mystery of what the Obama Administration thinks it is doing in the Middle East continues.

Its rejection of an alliance of minor powers as a counter to Iran’s growing power based on the bilateral U.S.-Israeli alliance is all too obvious, even before Jerusalem’s latest Hamas engagement. Now, of course, Washington finds a tacit alliance between Israel and Egypt and even the Gulf states against the Muslim Brotherhood with whom so many of Obama’s advisers were infatuated. It has had to double back to try to create an alliance to destroy one of the Brotherhood outgrowths, ISIL, and even toys with unacknowledged cooperation with Tehran to defeat it, if slowly.

Obama’s advisers earlier had rejected the possible option of Iranian regime change in 2009, even when a near revolution erupted after falsified elections brought out the old Persian values and young activists calling for American help. Obama’s much ballyhooed personal relationship with Turkey’s pretended strong man, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Persians’ old, traditional cultural and political competitor, collapsed in the face of Ankara’s pipedream of recreating a version of the old Ottoman Empire’s domination of the Arabs. Even when the Egyptian public turned against an elected Moslem Brotherhood administration, supporting a military coup, Obama found it impossible to abandon support for that Sunni ideological mother of so much Mideast violence.

So the No. 1 mystery of the region is not the constant shifting of loyalties and alliances but the intent of American policy.

Obama has publicly hinted that he could salve the thousand-year-old Sunni-Shia vendetta. That might be an expression of a strategy of building a balance of Shia Persia against the Egyptian-Turkey-Gulf states Sunnis. If that were the intent, the Obama seers have blown it with their naïve expectations of “the Arab spring”, their flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood, and subsequent antagonism of the Egyptian military and false hopes for Turkish leadership.

There is some circumstantial evidence on the other hand that the Obama Administration is thinking that there is an inevitability about the Iranian hegemony in the area, and that a deal can be struck with it. How else to explain the constant unrequited supplications to the mullahs [including the most recent “secret” personal letter from the President] and the refusal to support Iranian dissidents?

That presumably would be the rationale for what looks like a negotiation to permit Iran to retain a capacity to enrich uranium, ostensibly for a nuclear power industry, but which would make them a “threshold” nuclear weapons state. For any but the most idealistic observer, it is hard to rationalize the past history of this fanatical Muslim regime’s secret nuclear efforts and any hope that it would abide by such an agreement, or, indeed, that UN or other surveillance would be more effective than in the past.

With the outlook for salvaging any of Obama’s domestic agenda poor what with not only a Republican-led Congress but a reinvigorated GOP, it could well be that Obama would turn to foreign policy in his two lame duck years of office. That is why the mystery of the Persian thread as it winds through the Obama Administration is a political conundrum of moment.

sws-11-09-14

Testing, testing, testing…


The horror of 298 innocents, oblivious to the warfare 33,000 feet below them, blown out of the sky by criminally negligent fanatics supported by Russian Vladimir Putin, forebodes greater catastrophes.

The incident is a part of a worldwide scene wherein Pres. Barack Hussein Obama’s strategy of withdrawal from what he — and a large part of the apolitical war-weary American people – sees as overreaching worldwide projection of U.S. power.

But Obama’s clumsy retreat has led to a continuing welter of probes by opponents – and even allies — of Pax Americana. Whatever the merit of arguments about a declining U.S., its power and influence on the rest of the contemporary world remains enormous. Obama’s withdrawal creates an international and regional power vacuum, setting up the kind of ambiguities that throughout history has led to misperceptions, and, often, major wars.

The classic example, often cited if by simplistic interpretation of a very complex episode, is Dean Acheson’s speech to the National Press Club on January 12, 1950. In what was considered a seminal statement, the secretary of state did not include the KoreanPeninsula in a statement of the all-important United States “defense perimeter”. Its omission was widely interpreted as a signal that Washington would not defend South Korea, a product of the division of the Peninsular at the 38th parallel at the end of a 50-year-Japanese Occupation on Tokyo’s World War II surrender.

With concentration on the postwar Soviet takeover of Eastern and Central Europe, the U.S. had absent-mindedly occupied the Peninsular with only a vague understanding of its potential threat to highly industrialized if decimated Japan. Into that vacuum, the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin, riding the full thrust of the developing Cold War, instigated his puppets, the well disciplined army led by Kim Il Sung, a former Soviet officer, to attack the South with the intention of reunifying the country as another Moscow satellite. The U.S. responded, if lamely in the beginning, but in force, and initially was victorious in threatening a complete reversal of the two superpowers’ goals.

But Mao Tse-tung, frightened by the prospect of a reunited Korea, an American ally on Communist China’s most important northeastern land frontier, hurled tens of thousands of former surrendered Nationalist troops as cannon fodder into the combat. Pres. Harry Truman, engaged on other European and Middle Eastern “fronts”, denied Gen. Douglas Macarthur his “all-out” strategy for a military victory even were it to bring on possible direct and perhaps nuclear conflict with Beijing, and the war ended in stalemate. “The Forgotten War” cost five million lives – including almost 40,000 U.S. soldiers — devastated the Peninsular, and left a festering international problem.

Today, looking around the world, there are too many places where just such complex unsolved geopolitical nodules present the same sort of potential.

In Europe, Obama cancelled anti-missile defense in Poland and Czechoslovakia.aimed at Tehran and Pyongyang’s potential for Intercontinental Ballistic warfare. The annulment as a concession to Moscow of an onerously arranged reinforcement of the Europeans’ spine only fed Putin’s growing fantasy of restoring the Tsarist/Soviet Empire. It also put into question effective American leadership of the always tenuous trans-Atlantic alliance.

Not even Russia’s partial dismemberment of pro-Western Georgia in 2008 brought an American response. Six years later, a “hot mike” revealed an obsequious American president trying to appease the all-but Russian dictator. Putin’s snatch of the disputed Crimea from Ukraine has been followed by a cat-and-mouse game to muscle Ukraine’s 50 millions back into the Russian orbit. Sec. of State John Kerry’s participation in trilateral talks aimed at deciding the future of the unstable Kyiv regime has inched toward just that sort of outcome. Other former Soviet appendages are next if Putin’s bluff – posturing because of his fragile economic and limited conventional forces despite his nuclear and ICBM armory – were accommodated again.

But were Moscow to move, for example, on the Baltic States with their accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, no American administration could remain aloof and conciliatory. That would be the case despite Obama’s habitual drawing of porous “red lines”. Such a thrust would have to be met, probably even moving the pampered and feckless Europeans.

In Asia, despite Sec. of State Hillary Clinton’s “pivot” to Asia, Obama Administration policies have produced similar results. Bending to American business by refusing to name China as a currency manipulator – albeit a policy relic of the Bush Administration – Beijing’s grasp for regional and Pacific power led by a subsidized economic campaign has run amuck. Increasing bellicosity of Chinese military in public statements, matched in private conversations, is wished away with U.S. offers of military exchanges. Dangerous Chinese forays over their home islands air space forces incessant Japanese fighterplane scrambles. Exaggerated claims on East China Sea atolls – with their possible subterranean oil and gas reserves — and even more outrageous South China Sea map aggression establishes a Chinese pattern. All have been met with little more than U.S. diplomaticese and as yet largely unfulfilled promises of security collaboration with the frightened Southeast Asians

Washington’s cool relations with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinto Abe in his efforts to restore “normality” to Japan as the world’s third economy and a potentially powerful military player have deepened suspicions in Tokyo. In riposte, Abe’s effort to diffuse the issue of North Korean kidnapping of Japanese citizens in the 70s and 80s with concessions to Pyongyang’s desperate need for economic aid is fracturing the effort to contain North Korea’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. But Abe may not ignore the one foreign policy issue that has aroused domestic concern now that the American alliance has become acceptable even to Japan’s leftwing cliques and media. But at some point, Tokyo may question the reliability of its American shield and join its neighbors in a nuclear arms race.

A similar pattern has developed in the Mideast where the Obama Administration’s relations with Israel, its only dependable regional ally, are fraught with personal antagonism to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel’s acceptance at face value of Tehran’s threats of annihilation is endemic to Jewish history. That threat is enhanced by Tehran’s network of Shia allies in Damascus, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and even Sunni Hamas on Israel’s southern border. It is leading to a major war of preemption by the Israelis.

In Iraq the Obama Administration’s abandonment of the always difficult negotiations for a status of forces agreement to protect a residual American military on the U.S. withdrawal has led to disaster. Tehran has more influence with a rump Baghdad regime than Washington. With the country literally falling apart, an additional threat of international Sunni fundamentalist terrorists’ redoubt and sanctuary out of Syria’s civil war has arisen in the strategic center of the Arab world.

Abandoning partial sanctions in all but name, the Obama Administration seems dedicated to a continued pause – at best – in Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons with a four-month extension of negotiations and handing Iran some $4.6 billion in frozen assets.. Furthermore, there is a growing suspicion that the Obama Administration would settle for “nuclear threshold”, that is, the ability of Tehran to produce nuclear weapons but a self-imposed restraint to be policed by a UN organization that for 17 years did not know the Persian were in the enriched nuclear business. Removing the threat – despite table-thumping declarations to the contrary – of U.S./Israeli military strikes to destroy its nuclear capacities, creates the kind of climate that could only encourage a fanatical theocratic regime to nibble further toward its goal of regional hegemony.

In its own always neglected Western Hemisphere, the Obama Administration’s flirtation with a Communist regime in Cuba now on the ropes mobilizes its followers for a lifting of the economic embargo. Whether Putin’s just concluded Habana visit really represents an attempt to renew the Soviet-Cuban Cold War alliance [given the Russian economy’s crippled state] remains to be seen.[It could mean at least “swaps” again of Russian for Mexican oil as the Cuban’s recent bankroller in Venezuela collapses.] Moscow has denied leaks from Russian security echelons it intends to restore the massive Lourdes monitoring of American domestic communications, perhaps not even at this stage technically necessary. Meanwhile, a North Korean merchant ship – much like one the Panamanians recently captured carrying arms – skulks around the Caribbean, and, theoretically, could even be carrying short-range missiles.

The assault on the southern border by an avalanche of Central American youths – no small number of whom are late teenagers with gang and drug cartel connections – is met only with humanitarian consideration. Never mind that even Administration surveys show the motivation was not as the kept media contends chaotic conditions in the region but the widespread belief that illegals would be welcomed. Overarching is the Mexican collaboration in facilitating the thousand mile journey over its territory. Turning away from the violence incurred by the fight against and between the drug cartels, Mexican Pres. Enrique Peña Nieto is invited by U.S. Attorney-General Eric Holder to join in the federal government’s constitutional challenge of Arizona’s more stringent laws against illegal entrants as amicus juris, friend of the court, an historic precedent.

Any of these probes could, of course, become another dramatic incident further unsettling the world scene. But it is in their totality they suggest the amateurishness of the Obama Administration’s statecraft, its ideological weakness and its incompetence even judged from its own pronouncements and political self interest.

Already in a dangerous and volatile period, these continuing largely unmet tests of American resolve add to world insecurity and could be leading to new general war.

sws-07-19-14