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Entries in US foreign policy (197)

11:12AM

The tricky thing about Kim Jong Eun

Good WAPO piece about the ratcheting up of brinksmanship by NorKo, which has gotten so aggressive as of late that SouKo pols are discussing the nuclear option - as in, get some.

I was asked this last week in a speech in Nebraska (Lincoln), and my reply was, KJE has shown a distinct willingness to open things up internally, which is a very hopeful sign.  But, as with anybody in his position, he needs to show a lot of external aggression to: 1) prove himself as the new leader and 2) show his internal reforms won't result in any loss of international "stature."

The problem is, of course, that the external aggression becomes self-fulfilling, which is why the hardliners always demand it as a form of reform-snuffing activity.  

We don't know yet whether KJE has any real ambition to become a Deng-like transformative figure (China's dream).  We can only go off the evidence to date. And that evidence says, playing with reforms but also playing with aggression.

It's easy to go overboard in either direction, but the instinct of an authoritarian state/leader is always to err on the side of external aggression, which is why totalitarian regimes of this nature are almost impossible to reform from within.

The good upside?

It gets Korea back on the front burner and gives a rest from the growing China-v-everyone dynamic.  Plus it opens up the chance for cooperation with China on a shared burden.

But for now, it's the same old, same old with no clear path ahead.

9:32AM

American withdrawal: this time it is different

 

Eliot Cohen sounding very scared in the WSJ:

The arguments against far-flung American strategic commitments take many forms. So-called foreign policy realists, particularly in the academic world, believe that the competing interests of states tend automatically toward balance and require no statesmanlike action by the U.S. To them, the old language of force in international politics has become as obsolete as that of the "code duello," which regulated individual honor fights through the early 19th century. We hear that international institutions and agreements can replace national strength. It is also said—covertly but significantly—that the U.S. is too dumb and inept to play the role of security guarantor.

Perhaps the clever political scientists, complacent humanists, Spenglerian declinists, right and left neo-isolationists, and simple doubters that the U.S. can do anything right are correct. Perhaps the president should concentrate on nation-building at home while pressing abroad only for climate-change agreements, nuclear disarmament and an unfettered right to pick off bad guys (including Americans) as he sees fit.

But if history is any guide, foreign policy as a political-science field experiment or what-me-worryism will yield some ugly results. Syria is a harbinger of things to come. In that case, the dislocation, torture and death have first afflicted the locals. But it will not end there, as incidents on Syria's borders and rumors of the movement of chemical weapons suggest.

A world in which the U.S. abnegates its leadership will be a world of unrestricted self-help in which China sets the rules of politics and trade in Asia, mayhem and chaos is the order of the day in the Middle East, and timidity and appeasement paralyze the free European states. A world, in short, where the strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must, and those with an option hurry up and get nuclear weapons.

Not a pleasant thought.

But the point I would make is, this time history isn't a guide.

During WWII, the US made the conscious decision to seek to remake the world in its rule-set image, and it succeeded beyond its wildest dreams in the phenomenon we now label globalization.  That process was most definitely undergirded by a US security guarantee, which we generally provided to a wonderful degree with definite lapses in execution and - almost as importantly - explanation.

Now we live in a different world thanks to that world-reshaping effort. Plenty of European powers had their shot at this brass ring, and those eras all ended in large scale warfare and decimation of both conquered and conquering.

But notice how the world now enjoys more wealth-creation and order and peace than ever before in history. This is no coincidence.  People will claim all sorts of meaningless variables (like the UN - a true laugher if ever there was one), but the reality remains:  the US showed up, took charge, and we got this world.

But the success we experienced in this amazing venture (the greatest gift any power has ever given this planet and humanity) means we enter new territory.  So no, history isn't any guide.  What we do now in some measure of withdrawal is highly unlikely to unleash the tide of misery that Cohen predicts.  We've simply incentivized too much of humanity in preserving this global system, meaning it is self-maintaining on many levels (easy to join and hard to upset, as they say).  

So why do experts like Cohen keep putting it in such Manichean terms?

We got used to thinking of ourselves as the savior of the world, but that's a been there, done that dynamic now. We came, we saw, we rearranged the rules.  Now the system does just fine on its own - for the most part.  

Yes, put the world economy in extreme crisis like 2008 and Obama's role suddenly looms incredibly large. Honestly, I think he deserved the Nobel for that - simply doing his best to defeat the widespread expectation that the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression would result in massive instability and warfare - none of which appeared (proving the realists antiquated yet again).

So what do we do now?

We learn to manage the world with the risers - plain and simple.  They have the money and the need and the fear and the willingess to kill to protect their interests.  In normal terms, those attributes = a genuine ally versus the free-loaders.

The two key players going forward are China and India.  America needs to work that trilateral-global-order-in-the-making.  Everything else is ancillary - remembering my recent admonitions that positive co-evolution on progressivism is the way to go on the transatlantic relationship.

But our experts and leaders still have light years to travel on such understanding.  We still imagine it's our way or the WORLD OF CHAOS!  This fear-mongering is, of course, rather silly.

But this is the state of strategic debate in the US.

8:40AM

The long war: same as it ever was - same as it ever was

And you might find yourself in a beautiful dynamic (Arab Spring), with a beautiful ally (French) ...

And you may ask yourself, How did I get here?

The French did God's work in Mali:  cleared out the nutcases who went medieval on the north during their year of ruling dangerously.

But with the "clear" comes responsibility to "hold" (nay, even to "build") and now the locals naturally fear the return of the AQIM-affiliated types who imposed their version of 7th-century morality over the past year or so.

With France planning to start withdrawing its troops from Mali next month, Western and African officials are increasingly concerned that the African soldiers who will be relied on to continue the campaign against militants linked to Al Qaeda there do not have the training or equipment for the job.

The heaviest fighting so far, which has driven the militants out of the towns and cities of northeastern Mali, has been borne by French and Chadian forces, more or less alone. Those forces are now mostly conducting patrols in the north, while troops sent by Mali’s other regional allies, including Nigeria and Senegal, have been slow to arrive and have focused on peacekeeping rather than combat, prompting grumbles from Chad’s president, Idriss Déby Itno.

The outcome of the fighting in Mali carries major implications not only for France, but also for the Obama administration, which is worried that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other militant groups could retain a smaller but enduring haven in remote mountain redoubts in the Malian desert.

To help the French, the United States began flying unarmed surveillance drones over the region last month from a new base in Niger. And the administration has spent more than $550 million over the past four years to help train and equip West African armies to fight militants so that the Pentagon would not have to. But critics contend that the United States seems to have little to show for that effort. 

Turning Mali’s own fractured army into a cohesive and effective force would entail “a huge amount of work,” according to Brig. Gen. Francois Lecointre of France, who is leading the effort to retrain Mali’s Army. As if to underscore the point, a group of Malian troops briefly abandoned their posts recently and fired shots in the air to demand a deployment bonus.

Here in the southeastern corner of Mauritania, about 100 miles from the border with Mali, an exercise conducted this month by the United States military to train African armies to foil ambushes, raid militant hide-outs and win over local populations offered the administration more reasons for worry, as well as some encouraging signs.

The exercise offered a rare glimpse into the strengths and weaknesses of several of the African armies that are poised to help take over the mission in Mali. In a few weeks, the United Nations Security Council is expected to decide whether to authorize a peacekeeping force for Mali and how to compose it.

France, we are told, will leave behind a small unit of headhunters - counter-terror personnel.  And then there's always America's "limited regret" drones (the gun that's settling the Gap), but we all know that this is temporizing the situation (think back to Ignatius' latest lament on the lack of a SysAdmin-like force).  This is why I continue to rail (per my recent piece in Foreign Policy) against retreating to renewed fantasies of great power war as a means of denying the strategic reality still lying out there.

We can most definitely choose to low-ball our responses to such events; we just don't need to blame it on the Chinese, who are - oddly enough - most incentivized to likewise deal with such enduring instabilities.

11:02AM

Kerry not a fan of Asian "pivot"? I smell a plot!

WAPO story:  China is happy with John Kerry because it thinks he'll drop the 'pivot to Asia'

Obviously, you can be a strategic thinker and disagree with the transparency of the Obama administration's containment strategy on China.  You can also believe there's just as much - or more - work to be done right now in the Middle East (Spring, Iran's nukes, Palestine, Syria).

But this is a weird piece, because I don't think the Chinese are dumb enough to believe that Kerry can "drop" the pivot if he so chooses.

But the positive Chinese press pours in, apparently.

From the piece:

Kerry himself sort of predicted this when he said of the pivot during his confirmation hearings, “You know, the Chinese take a look at that and say, what’s the United States doing? They trying to circle us? What’s going on?”

The author Max Fisher's judgment is a bit simplistic:  if Kerry is just trying to make nice with China, then fine, but if he's serious and actually focuses on the Middle East, then China benefits!

Sounds to me like WAPO is trying to "out" Kerry on China in this sophomoric piece.  People on that paper have too much time on their hands and too little non-inside-the-Beltway stuff to cover.  WAPO is truly a small-town newspaper.  Always has been, always will.

9:57AM

Vali Nasr blasts Obama foreign policy (and team) in new book

Cohen talks about it in a recent NYT column.  Pretty brutal depiction.

Nasr, as you may know, is respected expert on Iran and he spent two years working for State.

“IT is not going too far to say that American foreign policy has become completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations.”

This stern verdict comes from Vali Nasr, who spent two years working for the Obama administration before becoming dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. In a book called “The Dispensable Nation,” to be published in April, Nasr delivers a devastating portrait of a first-term foreign policy that shunned the tough choices of real diplomacy, often descended into pettiness, and was controlled “by a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers.”

I have little doubt in the verdict, but frankly, this is what the American people voted for in both 2008 and 2012: focus on the economy and temporize on foreign affairs.

Cohen agrees:

Nasr was led to the reluctant conclusion that the principal aim of Obama’s policies “is not to make strategic decisions but to satisfy public opinion.”

In this sense the first-term Obama foreign policy was successful: He was re-elected. Americans wanted extrication from the big wars and a smaller global footprint: Obama, with some back and forth, delivered. But the price was high and opportunities lost.

Lots of material on how Nasr's boss Holbrooke was dissed and marginalized - material sure to elicit a yawn.

Real point is not the realignment.  Again, the public wanted that and Obama delivered.

Real point is total lack of care regarding how it went down.  Doesn't really cost anything to make a decent effort but it was not made, to the point of marginalizing Clinton as SECSTATE whenever possible.

You get the feeling that Obama is big on control and having himself recognized constantly as the guy in charge and the smartest guy by far, so if foreign policy doesn't matter (after all, he got a Nobel for just being sworn in the first time), then he prefers non-action to any action that isn't attributed solely to his genius.

Cohen uses the word "petty" a lot, which is a sad commentary on Obama.

But the larger truth remains:  as long as people feel bad or weak on the economy (and most still do), there's no thought given to foreign policy and Obama knows that.

11:06AM

Time's Battleland: TERRORISM - Minority Report has finally arrived

Read it and weep:  "Memo Cites Legal Basis for Killing U.S. Citizen in Al Qaeda."

As a U.S. citizen, the government can now kill you in advance of your actually committing a crime - simply by knowing that you are likely to act in a dangerous manner.

Read the entire post at Time's Battleland blog.

8:27AM

A heal-the-force national security team

Obama selecting Chuck Hagel as SECDEF and John Kerry as SECSTATE could not send a stronger signal: two Viet war vets with intimate knowledge of the hollowed-out force phenomenon of the later 1970s.

Look for both to do their best, now that Iraq is done for the US and Afghanistan is slated for closure next year, to avoid sending US forces anywhere if possible.

This will be portrayed as an "abandonment" of the world, but it's chickens coming home to roost.  Bush burned out the force, so Obama is tasked with "healing" it.  "Heal the force" is a Pentagon term of art.  It carries great meaning and is emotionally charged when it comes to the subject of actual servicemen and women and their families.  It is a different definition of patriotism, and, quite frankly, it fits the times.  America is on the verge of significant renewal (if the politicians could only get out of the way), and it needs to husband key resources.

9:53AM

Big surprise: Asia wants a regional trade bloc that includes China

The Obama Administration's big idea was a Trans Pacific Partnership that magically excluded China.  It is the lynchpin, along with the "strategic pivot" of US military forces into East Asia, of his dreamt-of 21st century containment of China's rise.

The "pivot" idea is merely stupid, but the TPP was magnificently dumb.

We encouraged China's rise (after encouraging the tigers and before that South Korea and Japan) by playing regional military Leviathan and enabling their export driven growth by keeping our markets open.  The implicit deal:  take that trade surplus (now consolidated by assembler-of-last-resort China) and plow it back into US debt markets, keeping our dollar cheap and enabling more of the same (we import goods, we export security, everybody peacefully rises, and the world is a better place).

That transaction strategy, as I have called it, worked wonderfully for years and years.  But it came to its logical endpoint in the crash of 2008.  We simply can't sustain such a grand strategy any more and, frankly, we don't need to.  Asia is risen, it remains peaceful, and its logical regional integration now proceeds.

Can we still play Leviathan in this process?  At great cost, yes, but a Leviathan is not what is needed now. It is now longer a possible achievement, given China's rise, and attempting to maintain that status now only gets you unnecessary tensions and arms racing.  

Instead, the economic integration needs to be matched by suitable regional security arrangements.  Those arrangements tend to come via crises or hotspots like the South China Sea issue.  You either fix them or they fix you.

The new grouping is seen as a rival to a trade initiative of the Obama administration, the 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes many of the same countries but excludes China.

The announcement came as China was facing pressure to back down from its hard-line stance in its disputes with four Southeast Asian countries over ownership of islands in the South China Sea.

What ASEAN's proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership says is that, no matter the lingering tension on the islets issue, Asia's economic and trade and investment integration will proceed.  And no, it won't be held hostage to Obama's containment fantasies.

Some analysts in Asia describe the Obama administration’s trade initiative as one element in a policy to contain China, the world’s largest producer and exporter of manufactured goods.

“China’s exclusion is strange, given its huge economic presence in the Asia-Pacific” region, Amitendu Palit, a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, wrote in a recent edition of East Asia Forum. “This has given rise to views that the United States is driving the Trans-Pacific Partnership with the strategic objective of marginalizing China.”

There are plenty of Chinese behaviors that we need to work, but we're no longer in charge of how things unfold in Asia, and no amount of military hardware parked there is going to change that.

8:29AM

China's future captured in perfect lead paragraph/sentence

Here it is from a WSJ piece:

China's latest evidence of sputtering growth underlnes a dilemma for its incoming leaders: They can shore up the economy by doubling down on an exhausted growth model, or take a risky political bet on reforms that could worsen the slowdown in the short term.

That not only captures where China is today (as in, this quarter), it basically captures where China is for the next decade or so.  I mean, what happens to a "communist" party when the progressive era necessarily arrives?

Well, the first instinct is to try and run it yourself, maintaining single-party rule, but that's basically impossible. The pain meted out will create blowbacks, no matter whether you direct it at the "gilded age" elite or the increasingly demanding middle class or the decidedly put-upon working class.  Worse, in the end, you'll need to disappoint them all on some level, which is where that throw-the-bums-out dynamic comes in handy:  a party wins and does what is necessary, outlives its welcome, and then gets tossed.  But in a sustainable progressive era, the opposition party that then comes in also does its bit, just tackling a different segment until its welcome is worn out.  And so on.

That's how the US did it 1890 onward.  When the Dems or GOP won, they won big and ruled big and changed big, and we got a much better country for it. 

China lacks that ability due to the stultifying nature of single-party rule, which, contrary to our green-eyed fantasies, is NOT more agile or adept or bold or visionary in its leadership.  Instead, it is self-preserving in the extreme.  It's bread-and-circuses.  It rules by fear and in fear of its own public.  

The WSJ piece is all about giving more money to consumers and the "dangers" inherent to that process.  It's a proxy description of the coming democratization of China, because giving money to consumers is giving decision-making power to the average citizen, versus hoarding it within the elite.  It's the economic prelude to the democratic denouement.

China has already reached the democratizing point.  I still believe it will muddle along with years before taking the plunge, in part because of that stultifying nature of single-party rule.  If we're lucky, Xi Jinping will be a real leader, but even if he is, we'll most likely have to wait a good 5-7 years to see that turn out.  That's how long it will take him to consolidate power as the evidence for the needed change piles up all around him.

And yes, those two dynamics are deeply intertwinned.

America's job?  Don't provide any stupid excuses for Beijing to avoid facing their own realities.

The "strategic pivot" is just such an excuse, which tells me Obama and Co. don't really understand China.

Sad to say, Romney's answers are beyond stupid and have no chance of being implemented (thank God).

9:49AM

Global inequality: before America ruled and when America ruled

No question we're heading for a globalized "progressive era" to match what America experienced at the end/turn of the 19th/20th centuries.  Been talking that one for about five years now, and it was THE major theme of "Great Powers" back in 2009.  Now the Economist joins in.

But this historical chart is interesting.  Note the rising inequality across Europe's long colonial age (let's say 1800 to 1950) and then look at what happens when US-style globalization kicks in (1950-now):  It slows, despite the ginormous wealth creation globally, and even flattens out and peaks across the period of its truest expression (1990-now).

To be sure, the 1% are slicing off too much wealth - just like during America's Gilded Age, thus my long-standing prediction of a necessary progressive era on a global scale led by coastal megacities (like NYC led ours and re-attempts to do so today with Bloomberg). But an interesting difference between how Europe ran the world and how we've managed to do it.

11:57AM

Good piece on US concerns: Libya v. Egypt

Appears in NYT.

The one thing that's been clear about the Arab Spring to date:  it is a process of Sunni empowerment that comes with a great deal of identity politics.  America is now experiencing some payback for all those decades of supporting dictators who kept a lid on that identity.  in the past, I felt we did that in deference to the volatility generated by similar dynamics among the Shia in the decades after the Iranian Revolution.  But that was a conundrum-like choice:  we deeply angered half of the Middle East out of fear of the other half.

Now the Shia half seems back on its heels.  We might have imagined a tipping point with the re-Shia-ization of Iraq, but that seems rather puny right now with Syria almost literally coming apart and Iran still in internal lockdown against domestic opposition and external lockdown over the nuke program (those dropping oil exports . . .).

Yes, we now get a chorus of experts saying, "Aha!  I told you the Arab Spring was a disaster!"  But it's like that quote I gave Esquire back when it started:  the Arab Spring is like a kidney stone.  Sure, it's no fun passing it, but if you think it's going to stay in that kidney forever, just getting bigger, that's no answer either.  So yeah, passing it will hurt, but what's the alternative to trying to get it done quickly?  Pretending it's never going to come?

But the major (for me, at least) theme remains:  globalization has arrived in the Middle East, and it has triggered a lot of social and political tumult.  Large chunks of the population (mostly young) do not see a future they like, while Africa is booming and Asia keeps getting richer and a middle class blossoms across Latin America.  The Arab world is still losing - dramatically - at globalization.  As the region ages demographically from a mean age of about 22 to 32 across this decade and the next, the lack of jobs will be magnificently destabilizing.  That youth bulge is not being served, and when you can't produce the jobs (the MB's real problem now), you - those who pretend to rule - have to indulge the anger.

That's what we're seeing now: the Sunni Islamists in power are no more clued in than the secular dictators who preceded.  They are, however, more willing to indulge the populism.  This can go on for a long while.  It just can't go anywhere in terms of progress, because global investors will want none of this uncertainty.  Frankly, it's why China greatly prefers Africa.

8:30AM

Split the difference on the S. China Sea disputes! Impossible! Only businesspeople are so naive!

I know the non-Tebowed Republicans like to ask, What would Reagan do?  But Reagan's example is mostly inappropriate now.

The real historical players to cite are our two best Dutch diplomats:  the Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin.  Both were perceived (incorrectly, I believe) as hostile to business when they were all about taming capitalism's worst instincts in a massive progressive era that stretched across their two seminal presidencies.

We are in the same territory now, replete with Teddy's multiple rising great powers following a huge expansion of the globalization of that era (the rather exploitative Euro version).  

So we need to concern ourselves with, a la Clad and Manning in the FT, "What Roosevelt would do in the South China Sea."

Planting flags on islets, declaring cities where there are too few residents to fill a restaurant, and huffing and puffing over uninhabited rocks are acts more suited to a Gilbert and Sullivan farce than to nations in the 21st century.

Absurdities aside, the tensions in the South China Sea could shape the balance of power in Asia and put at risk the $18tn east Asian economy. However, a century-old diplomatic idea used by a former US president offers a solution to the crisis.

At present, things appear to be at an impasse. Legally, the overlapping territorial claims defy resolution – either through bilateral steps or through the Law of the Sea treaty. This treaty, to which China has acceded, rejects lodging “historically based” claims, which are precisely the type Beijing periodically asserts.

With the legal problems exacerbated by nationalist sentiment, practicable solutions are even harder to achieve. Yet tensions need not slide inexorably into entrenched hostility, or worse. We propose a way out that would allow step-by-step commercialisation while setting aside disputes over sovereignty.

The current surge of interest in the South China Sea is driven first, by China’s steady rise and second, by the perception (if not the reality) of oil and gas deposits that may be accessible using new technologies.

Even so, no company will invest the billions of dollars required to exploit these reserves without a stable political and legal environment. Competing nationalisms and Sino-American friction are simply adding new layers of risk to an already challenging environment.

This should present an opportunity for creative diplomacy. Chinese oil companies still need foreign partners; they lack offshore drilling technology to exploit resources that may be much less substantial than China reports. Even optimistic estimates fall far short of projected Asian demand over the next 20 years.

A creative diplomacy for the South China Sea needs, for starters, to rein in rivalry – as Hillary Clinton has this week sought to do in her tour of Asia . . . 

True enough on Hillary, but at the same time Obama pushes ahead with his "pivot," his AirSea Battle Concept (brought to you, the worse-off-than-four-years-ago-taxpayer by your friends in the Military Industrial Concept), his massive arms sales to the region, his promise to meet Chinese cyber theft with kinetic responses (the new cyber strategy), and mucho missiles in a transparent encirclement strategy.

The authors' answer?  "We might revive a type of split-the-difference US diplomacy last deployed after Russia and Japan fought a war in 1905."

Guess which sitting prez won a Nobel Peace Price (for actually doing something instead of just talking about it) for that?

Ah, but such perspectives are naive.  Instead, the region needs as much weaponry and hair-trigger warfighting strategies as possible.  

That will fix things.

10:43AM

Fascinating article on GM-SAIC partnership in China

From WSJ.

The USG could learn much from GM on this:  the Detroit automaker sought out SAIC about 15 years ago, which is when the US should have made its moves as well.  They embraced genuine partnership with the Chinese automaker, and worked hard to bring it up to global standards.  In the process, GM became the biggest foreign player in China's exploding auto market.

But yeah, now SAIC wants to go global with GM and somewhat on its own at the same time, and that's where the relationship gets trickier.

But my point is, GM has the right problems to manage right now, while the USG is still stuck in a host of aging issues with Beijing.

As the piece says, "SAIC wants more from its partnership with GM; GM has yet to decide how far it will go."

The great quote from GM chief exec Dan Akerson:

It's kind of like a marriage.  We have a good and viable relationship and partnership.  But to make it work, you have to have needs on both sides of the table, not just wants.

That, in a nutshell, is the big constraint on Washington's approach to Beijing:  we constantly focus on our wants and denigrate China's needs.

Would that national security strategists had the breadth of vision that GM has so ably demonstrated in this long-term engagement.

Again, that's where the US and China should be:  we facilitated China's rise and then got scared right when we should have moved closer in.

9:16AM

Some common sense on S. China Sea dispute, where US China hawks are losing all perspective

I've known Doug Paal for many years now (going back to my early Naval War College days), and he's an eminently sensible fellow with a huge background in Chinese affairs.

Some key bits from a Diplomat piece just published:

The South China Sea presents complicated issues of evolving international law, historic but ill-defined claims, a rush to grab declining fish stocks, and competition to tap oil and gas reserves. Beijing’s much discussed “nine-dashed line,” that purports to give China a claim on about 80 percent of the South China Sea and its territories, used to be an eleven-dashed line. Two dashes separating Chinese and Vietnamese claims were resolved through bilateral negotiations years ago. This suggests that the remaining nine dashes are equally negotiable. But China rigidly refuses to clarify the basis for its claims, whether they are based on the accepted international law of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) or the less widely accepted historical assertions. Beijing’s refusal to choose suggests it wants to maximize its legal and political leverage, even as the growth of its military and maritime assets gains physical leverage over its weaker neighbors.

Beijing is not alone. Hanoi has leased oil exploration blocks in contested waters, and Manila is trying the same. Their colonial occupations left a discontinuous record of historic claims, inclining them to rely more on UNCLOS to manage disputed resources. They eagerly encourage American weight thrown onto their side of the competition with China for free.

This is where the United States needs to move with caution and only after thinking many steps ahead . . . 

Point being, while China is clearly strong-arming and pushing its claims even more so than others, it is not the only country rattling sabers and pushing boundaries.  

Now, by singling Beijing out for criticism, but not the others, Chinese observers believe the United States has taken sides against China. This has undermined the U.S. assertions of a principled approach based on international law by appearing not to be impartial.

U.S. direct interests in the South China Sea are not unlimited . . .

The Obama Administration has clearly decided to champion this cause as a means of "standing up" to China, thus raising the "losing of face" dynamics, which means, instead of our usual approach of trying to cool things down, we've decided to purposefully heat things up.  Why?  A lot of Washington political and budgetary interests are served by this choice - just like in Beijing.

Today, the South China Sea is not at the “Sudetenland” moment of the twenty-first century, which calls for standing up to aggression and the rejection of appeasement. China has not militarized its foreign policy and does not appear equipped to do so for a long time. Its neighbors are not supine, and they show on occasion, when needed, that they are able to coalesce against Chinese actions that they judge as going too far. At the same time, China and those neighbors have more going constructively in trade, investment, and other relations with each other than is at risk in this dispute.

This suggests the makings of a manageable situation, even if it remains impossible to resolve for years to come. Different Asian societies are quite accustomed to living with unresolved disputes, often for centuries.

No kidding.  There are numerous missing peace treaties in Asia, which is part of this problem of ill-defined territorial boundaries, but leapfrogging from that reality to a rerun of WWII is hyperbole of the worst (meaning unthinking) sort. Frankly, you know your counterparty in any argument has run out of ammo whenever they pull out Hitler.

A very sensible piece worth reading.  Might just keep you off the budgetary gravy train that is AirSea Battle Concept.

9:23AM

Fascinating achievement of US foreign policy: Iraq outcranks Iran on oil

You have to credit Bush the Elder on the northern NFZ after Desert Storm because that set in motion the KRG we know today.  You also credit Bush on the surge and Obama on the latest sanctions strategy, because it's collectively a significant restructuring of the correlation of forces in the region - a dynamic obviously driven by the ability to export oil (FT says Iran's exports = 1/2 gov revenue and 80% of total export value).  Iraq hasn't outproduced Iran since their mutual war in the late 1980s.

Iraq dreams of 12mb by 2017, but the industry pegs 4.5mb as more realistic, according to the article.

By December, analysts say, iraq will have earned more selling its oil than Iran for the first time since Saddam Huessein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

All this is to remind of Zhou Enlai's response to a question concerning his opinion of the French Revolution: "Too early to say."

11:47AM

Syria: When US inaction accelerates a radicalizing dynamic

Nice op-ed by Joe Lieberman, John McCain and Lindsey Graham in WAPO.

The core argument:

We are hopeful the rebels will ultimately prevail, but it remains a deeply unfair and brutal fight, and the speed and manner by which it is won matter enormously. All evidence suggests that, rather than peacefully surrendering power, Assad and his allies will fight to the bitter end, tearing apart the country in the process.

America’s disengagement from this conflict carries growing costs — for the Syrian people and for U.S. interests.

Because we have refused to provide the rebels the assistance that would tip the military balance decisively against Assad, the United States is increasingly seen across the Middle East as acquiescing to the continued slaughter of Arab and Muslim civilians. This reluctance to lead will, we fear — like our failure to stop the slaughter of the Kurds and Shiites under Saddam Hussein in Iraq or of the Tutsis in Rwanda — haunt our nation for years to come.

Our lack of active involvement on the ground in Syria also means that, when the Assad regime finally does fall, the Syrian people are likely to feel little goodwill toward the United States — in contrast to Libya, where profound gratitude for America’s help in the war against Moammar Gaddafi has laid the foundation for a bright new chapter in relations between our two countries.

We are being left behind by events.  When Al-Qaida makes this a bigger cause celebre than America does, we lose by definition - by our abscence.

We keep trying to wind ourselves up over the chem weapons depots, but we should be more concerned with registering the anti-Iranian win in a way that benefits Israel - if we're serious about wanting to avoid war with Iran.  That's the bigger fish here, not the lowest common threat inflator of chemical arms.

There are plenty of ways to ramp up our involvement without boots on the ground.  WAPO ran an editorial recently calling for the always handy no-fly-zone.

We have entered the R2P space (right to protect), and what we need to protect most here is our credibility and the region from outcomes that make it less stable over the Arab Spring's continued unfolding.

I have, in the past, noted that the Arab Spring has been kind enough to us to offer the one-damn-thing-after-another dynamic.  Well, now's the time when we seriously deal with the one damn thing called Syria.

The Syrian PM just defected.  What are we waiting for?

12:02AM

(WPR Feature) Skipping Out on the Bill: Obama's Cost-Free Drone Wars

Thanks to the Obama administration’s aggressive use of classified leaks to the press, we are encouraged to believe that President Barack Obama has engineered a revolutionary shift in both America’s geopolitical priorities and our military means of pursuing those ends. As re-election sales jobs go, it presses lukewarm-button issues, but it does so ably. But since foreign policy has never been the president’s focus, we should in turn recognize these maneuvers for what they truly are: an accommodation with inescapable domestic realities, one that at best postpones and at worst sabotages America’s needed geostrategic adjustment to a world co-managed with China and India.

Read the entire article at World Politics Review.

10:17AM

Chart of the Day: the oil sanctions are working on Iran

Arguably the primary reason why Israel holds off attacking - that and its modest satisfaction with the success of the combination strategy of cyber warfare attacks and assassinations of technical personnel.

You can see that the sanctions have taken about a million barrels a day - or about 40% of daily production denied in terms of sales.

That is significant - and a genuine success for Obama.

The hottest subject in oil deals today involves anybody who has been a regular buyer of Iran.  All of these states are looking to replace - now.

And no, they don't all go running to the Saudis.

This chart is a month old.  More recent news says roughly 50% drop in May-June alone.  Not sure I buy that. Lots of desperate deals happening out there involving Iran.  But clearly, the trend is downward and steep.

I honestly do believe that the Arab Spring is helping plenty.  With Syria on the ropes, the anti-Iran long knives are out.

11:20AM

Time's Battleland: CYBER U.S. Admits to Waging War Against Iran

Check out this New York Times story about President Obama speeding up waves of cyber attacks against Iran.  I personally have no problem with this, and prefer it to Israel’s imagined missile strikes.

But just remember this when next you hear about other countries’ “unprecedented offensive cyber attacks against the U.S.”

Read the entire post at Time's Battleland blog.


9:45AM

Time's Battleland: SYRIA When Military Intervention Makes Sense

Gideon Rachman at the Financial Times says that “diplomacy is still better than bombs” and that “moral outrage is just the starting point for a decision to intervene.”  He then goes through all the major powers in his piece Tuesday and cites reasons why each one is either holding back or holding things up. It’s one of those great ass-covering op-eds that’s supposed to make you look smart when the intervention does comes and it — gasp! — leads to more death and destruction.

Let me tell you why great powers intervene:  they don’t care about moral outrage and they don’t care about stopping the killing.  Moral outrage is a headline and nothing more, while the killing is either made faster or slower but never really “prevented.”

Great powers intervene when they can.  It’s as simple as that.  Good and bad don’t play into it.

Read the entire post at Time's Battleland blog.