Commentary Magazine


Topic: Asia

Pivot on the Rocks

Max’s questions about why John Kerry is paying far less attention to helping tamp down the tension in Asia are echoed throughout the region. On Thursday, Kerry is leaving for his fifth visit to Asia since taking office last year. The State Department claims this is proof of his commitment to the administration’s pivot. Yet the White House continues to believe that merely showing up is 90 percent of success. This Woody Allen approach has worn thin with countries looking at Washington’s continuing refusal to confront China head-on over its increasingly coercive behavior. Nor were our partners in Asia appeased by once-regular statements that D.C. budget battles would not reduce the American presence in the Pacific.

Now they read comments by the commander of Pacific Air Forces, Gen. Hawk Carlisle, that “resources have not followed the … rebalance.” They see that U.S. Pacific Command has cut back on travel throughout the region and joint exercises, and that the U.S. Navy is planning on dropping down to just two carriers deployed globally. Far better than most in Washington, our friends and allies in Asia understand the immense distances separating the U.S. homeland from the areas in which it has rather daunting commitments.

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Max’s questions about why John Kerry is paying far less attention to helping tamp down the tension in Asia are echoed throughout the region. On Thursday, Kerry is leaving for his fifth visit to Asia since taking office last year. The State Department claims this is proof of his commitment to the administration’s pivot. Yet the White House continues to believe that merely showing up is 90 percent of success. This Woody Allen approach has worn thin with countries looking at Washington’s continuing refusal to confront China head-on over its increasingly coercive behavior. Nor were our partners in Asia appeased by once-regular statements that D.C. budget battles would not reduce the American presence in the Pacific.

Now they read comments by the commander of Pacific Air Forces, Gen. Hawk Carlisle, that “resources have not followed the … rebalance.” They see that U.S. Pacific Command has cut back on travel throughout the region and joint exercises, and that the U.S. Navy is planning on dropping down to just two carriers deployed globally. Far better than most in Washington, our friends and allies in Asia understand the immense distances separating the U.S. homeland from the areas in which it has rather daunting commitments.

The problem the administration faces is that Kerry, and President Obama for that matter, come to Asia bearing no gifts. There was a brief flurry a few years ago, after the announcement that we would rotate U.S. Marines through Darwin, Australia as well as a few other minor adjustments. All these were good moves, but they certainly did not add up to a major shift in American resources. Worse, the administration never explained just what the pivot was for: containing China, promoting democracy, forging a regional coalition of the willing?

Now, Washington is getting worried enough about the heated rhetoric in the region that it is telling our allies Japan and the Philippines to cool it and not provoke China over the territorial disputes each has with Beijing. The problem, of course, is that both Tokyo and Manila have been urging Washington for years to get more involved. They see little evidence that the Obama team is willing to stand up to China, except for more rhetoric, like that of NSC Asia head Evan Medieros last week, in which he said that another Chinese air defense identification zone would result in a change in U.S. posture in Asia. Such bravado is increasingly discounted, if not dismissed, in Asia.

The ultimate answer may well be the one the Asians already believe: the administration is afraid of provoking China and does not feel that the risks of countering Beijing’s moves are worth it. To me, the most interesting question is whether they are acting in this way because they feel militarily superior (and thus can give the Chinese space to “act out”), or because fear that they are not strong enough in depth in Asia to risk a clash that they could not control with our stretched forces. Either one is sending a signal to our allies and other nations that they increasingly are on their own.

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The Falafel –Tikka Alliance

I have written here before to highlight the work of my colleague Sadanand Dhume, who has also penned this important piece for COMMENTARY a few years back. Dhume’s most recent essay in Tablet, “Coalition of the Nerds” should also be a must-read. Dhume begins:

So, the conspiracy theorists were right: Indians and Israelis really have been plotting world domination. In a 20-day contest in Moscow that ended last week, 42-year-old Chennai native Viswanathan Anand and 43-year-old Israeli Boris Gelfand battled for the 2012 World Chess Championship. Anand, the defending world champion, held off his challenger, but not before being taken to a tie breaker.

Indians and Israelis ought to savor this rare moment of sporting glory. Not to put too fine a point on it, but try to imagine an Indian-Israeli final in any other sport.

Take soccer, the so-called beautiful game. India is ranked a lowly 158th in the world; Israel last qualified for the World Cup in 1970. Or how about the Olympics? In Bejing four years ago, Israel snagged a single bronze … for wind surfing. With one gold (shooting) and a pair of bronzes (wrestling and boxing), India didn’t exactly set the medals table alight either.

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I have written here before to highlight the work of my colleague Sadanand Dhume, who has also penned this important piece for COMMENTARY a few years back. Dhume’s most recent essay in Tablet, “Coalition of the Nerds” should also be a must-read. Dhume begins:

So, the conspiracy theorists were right: Indians and Israelis really have been plotting world domination. In a 20-day contest in Moscow that ended last week, 42-year-old Chennai native Viswanathan Anand and 43-year-old Israeli Boris Gelfand battled for the 2012 World Chess Championship. Anand, the defending world champion, held off his challenger, but not before being taken to a tie breaker.

Indians and Israelis ought to savor this rare moment of sporting glory. Not to put too fine a point on it, but try to imagine an Indian-Israeli final in any other sport.

Take soccer, the so-called beautiful game. India is ranked a lowly 158th in the world; Israel last qualified for the World Cup in 1970. Or how about the Olympics? In Bejing four years ago, Israel snagged a single bronze … for wind surfing. With one gold (shooting) and a pair of bronzes (wrestling and boxing), India didn’t exactly set the medals table alight either.

The whole article is worth reading. Dhume highlights the growing economic ties, as well as the two states’ mutual strategic interests. Both are democracies which battle the scourge of Islamist terrorism, but in which substantial Muslim minorities enjoy greater rights than their co-religionists do in many other countries in which they are the majority.

My own two cents: Colin Rubenstein at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) is right when he argues that for too long, Israeli politicians and diplomats ignored the importance of developing ties with Asia. There was too much hand-wringing in Israel about who let ties with Turkey collapse. Israeli officials’ belief that they might have done something differently was misguided. The simple fact was that Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would stop at nothing to unravel Turkey-Israel ties out of his sheer hatred for the Jewish state. But, rather than grieve at Turkey’s loss, Israel should be celebrating its new partners in Asia, especially those like India with which it shares pluralistic, democratic values.

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Good News and Bad News in Burma

Burma may very well play an outsized role in the success or failure of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia–the White House’s attempt to undo some of the damage it did earlier in its administration in places like India, South Korea, and Burma. Burma was an exception because unlike the others, it was not an ally and was oppressing its citizenry, so it obviously required a different approach.

The administration wisely recognized that Burma’s location, combined with the shifting of global economic focus eastward, gives the country a strategic relevance it has not had since World War II. Though it’s been ruled by a vicious military junta, new leader Thein Sein has begun a process of liberalization in return for the restoration of diplomatic ties to the United States–a step we took–along with the request that we relax economic sanctions, which is under consideration. In the last week, the administration received some good news and some bad news out of Burma. First, the bad news:

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Burma may very well play an outsized role in the success or failure of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia–the White House’s attempt to undo some of the damage it did earlier in its administration in places like India, South Korea, and Burma. Burma was an exception because unlike the others, it was not an ally and was oppressing its citizenry, so it obviously required a different approach.

The administration wisely recognized that Burma’s location, combined with the shifting of global economic focus eastward, gives the country a strategic relevance it has not had since World War II. Though it’s been ruled by a vicious military junta, new leader Thein Sein has begun a process of liberalization in return for the restoration of diplomatic ties to the United States–a step we took–along with the request that we relax economic sanctions, which is under consideration. In the last week, the administration received some good news and some bad news out of Burma. First, the bad news:

A prominent Burmese monk who was freed last month as part of a mass release of political prisoners was briefly detained again on Friday in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a group that tracks the plight of dissidents and democracy advocates in the country.

The monk, Ashin Gambira, was one of the organizers of the 2007 uprising against the military government that ruled Myanmar at the time. His arrest on Friday, after four weeks of freedom, appeared to demonstrate the limits of tolerance under Myanmar’s new civilian government.

[…]

Fighting continues between ethnic Kachin rebels and government troops in northern Myanmar, a longstanding conflict that was reignited last year and has resulted in a wave of refugees across the border into China. Separately, a cease-fire agreement signed last month with the Karen ethnic group appears to be fraying, with some Karen leaders denying that there even is an agreement.

Some of this was inevitable, and the clashes with upland peoples and minority groups are not necessarily proof that Burma’s rulers are unwilling to rein in the military. But it’s also important for the West to ensure that Burma’s leaders haven’t pulled a bait-and-switch scheme by releasing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the only Burmese dissident most people have heard of, while imprisoning those who have not had the opportunity to pose for photo ops with American officials.

Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made historic visits to Burma in recent months, and both were careful to stress that the challenges in Burma going forward are just as great as the opportunities. And on that front, the good news:

As Myanmar pursues dramatic reforms, its relationship with China — the Southeast Asian nation’s biggest investor and second-biggest trade partner — is changing. In some cases, long-festering resentment is flaring into the open.

During decades of isolation, the former Burma relied on China as its closest diplomatic and military ally. Wide-reaching Western sanctions put in place after a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 forced Myanmar to deepen economic ties with China.

But as Myanmar embarks on the road back to democracy, a once-muffled debate about China’s role is growing louder. The reforms are also taking place as the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China has sharpened since the Obama administration’s “pivot” toward Asia after preoccupation with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the past decade.

This is encouraging for the administration because it identifies–correctly–a desire among the Burmese population to look west. China has taken advantage of the lack of Western involvement in Burmese commerce by using parts of Burma accessible to China–which happens to include Burma’s former capital, Mandalay–as a backyard. In “Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia,” Thant Myint-U writes of returning to Burma to find that his parents’ countrymen (he was born in New York City but his parents are native Burmese) had not been lifted out of poverty, but Chinese immigrants and businessmen didn’t seem to be living in the same grim economic reality.

He tells of seeing a brightly lit cell phone store in Mandalay filled with Chinese customers while a Burmese woman was bathing in an outdoor well nearby, among a pack of stray dogs:

There was nothing intrinsically wrong with what the Chinese were doing. But the Chinese were entering a vacuum, and this once proud capital of a little kingdom, and later a city of British India, was being transformed into an outpost of the world’s biggest industrial revolution. They were helping create an unequal society. It wasn’t clear at all what the consequences might be.

There can be no doubt China understands grand strategy and Burma’s role in a new great game. But they are not at all concerned about the Burmese people, or the country itself. India is, and the U.S. should be as well. Smart American policy toward Burma–which seems to be what Clinton is carrying out, with McConnell’s support–can hopefully tip the scales in the right direction.

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Moynihan on Democracy

Yesterday I quoted Ronald Reagan on the central role freedom and human rights should play in American foreign policy. Today I want to follow up with a quote from the man Michael Barone called “the nation’s best thinker among politicians since Lincoln and its best politician among thinkers since Jefferson.”

Writing in the May 1974 issue of COMMENTARY (subscription required), Daniel Patrick Moynihan said this:

There will be no struggle for personal liberty (or national independence or national survival) anywhere in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America which will not affect American politics. In that circumstance, I would argue that there is only one course likely to make the internal strains of consequent conflict endurable, and that is for the United States deliberately and consistently to bring its influence to bear on behalf of those regimes which promise the largest degree of personal and national liberty. …. We stand for liberty, for the expansion of liberty. Anything else risks the contraction of liberty: our own included.

Moynihan went on to warn about those “who know too much to believe anything in particular and opt instead for accommodations of reasonableness and urbanity that drain our world position of moral purpose.”

I certainly didn’t agree with Moynihan on everything — but whenever I read him, even when I disagree with him, I’m reminded just how much we miss him.

Yesterday I quoted Ronald Reagan on the central role freedom and human rights should play in American foreign policy. Today I want to follow up with a quote from the man Michael Barone called “the nation’s best thinker among politicians since Lincoln and its best politician among thinkers since Jefferson.”

Writing in the May 1974 issue of COMMENTARY (subscription required), Daniel Patrick Moynihan said this:

There will be no struggle for personal liberty (or national independence or national survival) anywhere in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America which will not affect American politics. In that circumstance, I would argue that there is only one course likely to make the internal strains of consequent conflict endurable, and that is for the United States deliberately and consistently to bring its influence to bear on behalf of those regimes which promise the largest degree of personal and national liberty. …. We stand for liberty, for the expansion of liberty. Anything else risks the contraction of liberty: our own included.

Moynihan went on to warn about those “who know too much to believe anything in particular and opt instead for accommodations of reasonableness and urbanity that drain our world position of moral purpose.”

I certainly didn’t agree with Moynihan on everything — but whenever I read him, even when I disagree with him, I’m reminded just how much we miss him.

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Chipping Away at Global Security

Abe Greenwald unerringly fingers the new U.S.-Chinese nuclear-security center, announced by President Obama today, as a problematic idea. The proposed “Center of Excellence” (a 1990s-speak expression from the “reinventing government” era) will reportedly be opened to other countries in Asia, in the hope that “China can use its influence to improve nuclear security in the region.” A review of the other countries in the region suggests that this is, frankly, just silly. Russia, India, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea: these countries, whether nuclear armed or merely users of nuclear power, are hardly candidates for having their practices squared away by a “center of excellence” in China.

On the other hand, a nuclear-security center in China could well be opened to North Korea, Iran, Burma, or a host of Arab, Latin American, or sub-Saharan African nations, all in the name of engagement and responsibility. Besides giving China greater access to U.S. information, the joint venture will make China the potential middleman for technology transfers superior to those Russia can offer.

The idea for the center was reportedly suggested by Hu Jintao at Obama’s nuclear-security summit in April. The center of excellence is perfectly emblematic of the bureaucratic-engagement style of security policy that Team Obama likes to call “smart power.” The nuclear accord with China is supposed to mirror the one we have had with Russia for some years — but its superficial similarities on paper are overwhelmed by the profound differences in circumstances. Proliferation, not a superpower standoff, is the main security problem today. The past 40 years should have taught us that there is no nation — none — whose motivation to prevent dangerous nuclear proliferation is of the same order as ours. If there is any such nation, it certainly isn’t China.

But the Obama administration has a big appetite for paper activism in foreign policy, regardless of the consequences. The Center of Excellence in China has been announced on the heels of last week’s vote in the Russian Duma to advance the New START treaty to its third and final reading, which should assure ratification. The problem with this good-news story is that the Duma, like the U.S. Senate, has attached its own understandings to the instrument of ratification — and the Russians’ understandings directly contradict those of the U.S. Senate. The Senate specifies that New START does not constrain any U.S. missile-defense plans or any U.S. use of strategic delivery platforms for non-nuclear warheads. The Duma understands the opposite, characterizing its legislative understandings as a restoration of the treaty’s original, intended meaning.

On such shoals, “agreements” founder. New START represents no benefit to national security if neither side interprets the treaty to mean the same thing. (At NRO today, Keith B. Payne has another reason why it’s not a boon to U.S. security.) But, like the nuclear-security center in China, New START will have consequences. Treaties and nuclear-security centers shouldn’t be agreed to as if they are items on a peppy “good ideas” checklist. Team Obama too often comes off like a student seminar putting on a mock inter-agency working group. In the real world, poorly conceived joint ventures turn into throbbing security toothaches with alarming frequency.

Abe Greenwald unerringly fingers the new U.S.-Chinese nuclear-security center, announced by President Obama today, as a problematic idea. The proposed “Center of Excellence” (a 1990s-speak expression from the “reinventing government” era) will reportedly be opened to other countries in Asia, in the hope that “China can use its influence to improve nuclear security in the region.” A review of the other countries in the region suggests that this is, frankly, just silly. Russia, India, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea: these countries, whether nuclear armed or merely users of nuclear power, are hardly candidates for having their practices squared away by a “center of excellence” in China.

On the other hand, a nuclear-security center in China could well be opened to North Korea, Iran, Burma, or a host of Arab, Latin American, or sub-Saharan African nations, all in the name of engagement and responsibility. Besides giving China greater access to U.S. information, the joint venture will make China the potential middleman for technology transfers superior to those Russia can offer.

The idea for the center was reportedly suggested by Hu Jintao at Obama’s nuclear-security summit in April. The center of excellence is perfectly emblematic of the bureaucratic-engagement style of security policy that Team Obama likes to call “smart power.” The nuclear accord with China is supposed to mirror the one we have had with Russia for some years — but its superficial similarities on paper are overwhelmed by the profound differences in circumstances. Proliferation, not a superpower standoff, is the main security problem today. The past 40 years should have taught us that there is no nation — none — whose motivation to prevent dangerous nuclear proliferation is of the same order as ours. If there is any such nation, it certainly isn’t China.

But the Obama administration has a big appetite for paper activism in foreign policy, regardless of the consequences. The Center of Excellence in China has been announced on the heels of last week’s vote in the Russian Duma to advance the New START treaty to its third and final reading, which should assure ratification. The problem with this good-news story is that the Duma, like the U.S. Senate, has attached its own understandings to the instrument of ratification — and the Russians’ understandings directly contradict those of the U.S. Senate. The Senate specifies that New START does not constrain any U.S. missile-defense plans or any U.S. use of strategic delivery platforms for non-nuclear warheads. The Duma understands the opposite, characterizing its legislative understandings as a restoration of the treaty’s original, intended meaning.

On such shoals, “agreements” founder. New START represents no benefit to national security if neither side interprets the treaty to mean the same thing. (At NRO today, Keith B. Payne has another reason why it’s not a boon to U.S. security.) But, like the nuclear-security center in China, New START will have consequences. Treaties and nuclear-security centers shouldn’t be agreed to as if they are items on a peppy “good ideas” checklist. Team Obama too often comes off like a student seminar putting on a mock inter-agency working group. In the real world, poorly conceived joint ventures turn into throbbing security toothaches with alarming frequency.

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Center of Obedience

Jake Tapper has the latest on what’s starting to look like a “reset” China policy:

Obama administration sources tell ABC News that President Obama later today announced an agreement between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China to establish a “Center of Excellence” in China to promote effective nuclear security and safeguards.

The Center of Excellence, to be jointly financed, will be a place where technical information can be shared, training courses can be offered, and collaborations can be promoted to “enhance nuclear security in China and throughout Asia,” the White House says. “It will also help meet the training needs for China’s expanding nuclear sector, and promote nuclear security best practices throughout the region.”

This deal is as creepy as the name “Center of Excellence.” Yesterday the press went on about how the administration was going to get tough on Beijing regarding trade, human rights, currency, and military aggression. Today the White House pledged to “jointly finance” a facility to train this non-democratic country — which is already violating sanctions aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear program — in nuclear know-how. That’s showing them who’s boss.

Jake Tapper has the latest on what’s starting to look like a “reset” China policy:

Obama administration sources tell ABC News that President Obama later today announced an agreement between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China to establish a “Center of Excellence” in China to promote effective nuclear security and safeguards.

The Center of Excellence, to be jointly financed, will be a place where technical information can be shared, training courses can be offered, and collaborations can be promoted to “enhance nuclear security in China and throughout Asia,” the White House says. “It will also help meet the training needs for China’s expanding nuclear sector, and promote nuclear security best practices throughout the region.”

This deal is as creepy as the name “Center of Excellence.” Yesterday the press went on about how the administration was going to get tough on Beijing regarding trade, human rights, currency, and military aggression. Today the White House pledged to “jointly finance” a facility to train this non-democratic country — which is already violating sanctions aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear program — in nuclear know-how. That’s showing them who’s boss.

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Saber-Rattling: The New Normal

Americans will have to get used to something in the coming years: we are not necessarily the main audience for foreign saber-rattling. When China unveiled its new “stealth” fighter last week, American defense experts were quick to point out that because its design is clunky and primitive, the U.S. need not be overly concerned about this minor triumph. But we would be wrong to imagine the Chinese don’t know that. From their perspective, demonstrating that they have already built a stealth aircraft is more important than impressing American analysts with its characteristics.

The reason for that is simple: an arms-and-power race has been emerging in the Eastern hemisphere — and it’s centered on Asia. The U.S. has had stealth aircraft for years. But Russia announced the prototype test of its first stealth fighter in January 2010, and Japan is pursuing an indigenously designed stealth fighter as well. The Japanese effort has accelerated with the U.S. rejection of Tokyo’s offer to buy the F-22 Raptor. (Secretary Gates reiterated his stance on that in Japan on Wednesday.) India, meanwhile, took delivery this week of its first homegrown fighter jet, billed as the world’s lightest supersonic jet.

There are too many such developments to mention in a brief post for general readers; the fielding of new fighter jets is merely one category. Beyond arms buildups, another category is defense agreements with political, balance-of-power implications, such as the pact now in prospect between South Korea and Japan, or Russia’s cooperation agreements with Vietnam. In a separate category are the territorial disputes heating up between Russia, China, and Japan. Additional factors include the predatory competition between Russia and China for fossil-fuel resources, as well as their competition for clients in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

The timing of the Chinese fighter’s first test flight, which coincided with Bob Gates’s visit, was obviously intentional. China wants to reach a U.S. audience with these signals — but not solely a U.S. audience. The theme that Chinese negotiation is backed by thoroughly modern force is intended as much for Asian consumption as for American. And regardless of the intended audience, there is no better “straight man” for that theme than the U.S. secretary of defense.

Falling behind the neighbors has historically had dreadful consequences for Asian nations; since 1945, even our enemies in the region have relied on America’s power and network of alliances to preserve stability. But the principles we have traditionally acted on in defense of that stability are increasingly in question. The Asian nations are already shifting from a posture of maneuvering around the U.S. to one of maneuvering around each other. Not everything is “about” us; American thinking needs to adjust to that emerging reality. But everything will affect us. If we are unwilling to maintain the order we have built over the past 70-odd years, we will have to learn again the ways of a world that operates without effective American leadership.

Americans will have to get used to something in the coming years: we are not necessarily the main audience for foreign saber-rattling. When China unveiled its new “stealth” fighter last week, American defense experts were quick to point out that because its design is clunky and primitive, the U.S. need not be overly concerned about this minor triumph. But we would be wrong to imagine the Chinese don’t know that. From their perspective, demonstrating that they have already built a stealth aircraft is more important than impressing American analysts with its characteristics.

The reason for that is simple: an arms-and-power race has been emerging in the Eastern hemisphere — and it’s centered on Asia. The U.S. has had stealth aircraft for years. But Russia announced the prototype test of its first stealth fighter in January 2010, and Japan is pursuing an indigenously designed stealth fighter as well. The Japanese effort has accelerated with the U.S. rejection of Tokyo’s offer to buy the F-22 Raptor. (Secretary Gates reiterated his stance on that in Japan on Wednesday.) India, meanwhile, took delivery this week of its first homegrown fighter jet, billed as the world’s lightest supersonic jet.

There are too many such developments to mention in a brief post for general readers; the fielding of new fighter jets is merely one category. Beyond arms buildups, another category is defense agreements with political, balance-of-power implications, such as the pact now in prospect between South Korea and Japan, or Russia’s cooperation agreements with Vietnam. In a separate category are the territorial disputes heating up between Russia, China, and Japan. Additional factors include the predatory competition between Russia and China for fossil-fuel resources, as well as their competition for clients in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

The timing of the Chinese fighter’s first test flight, which coincided with Bob Gates’s visit, was obviously intentional. China wants to reach a U.S. audience with these signals — but not solely a U.S. audience. The theme that Chinese negotiation is backed by thoroughly modern force is intended as much for Asian consumption as for American. And regardless of the intended audience, there is no better “straight man” for that theme than the U.S. secretary of defense.

Falling behind the neighbors has historically had dreadful consequences for Asian nations; since 1945, even our enemies in the region have relied on America’s power and network of alliances to preserve stability. But the principles we have traditionally acted on in defense of that stability are increasingly in question. The Asian nations are already shifting from a posture of maneuvering around the U.S. to one of maneuvering around each other. Not everything is “about” us; American thinking needs to adjust to that emerging reality. But everything will affect us. If we are unwilling to maintain the order we have built over the past 70-odd years, we will have to learn again the ways of a world that operates without effective American leadership.

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WEB EXCLUSIVE: The Never-Ending Worst Week Ever

Barack Obama is on an open-ended run of “worsts.” The New York Post’s Michael Goodwin opened his November 7 column thus: “He took a ‘shellacking,’ a 2012 poll shows him trailing two Republicans, and losing candidates in his own party are griping about his ‘tone deaf’ leadership. And the Mad Hatter, Nancy Pelosi, refuses to exit quietly. Welcome to Barack Obama’s worst week in the Oval Office.”

Days later, on November 12, Baruch College political scientist Doug Muzzio told the Daily News: “This certainly was the worst 10 days of [Obama’s] political life.” Commenting on the president’s failed Asia trip, Muzzio noted, “He came back with bupkis,” and said, “Given that he’s not going to be able to get any domestic achievements with the Republicans in control of the House … if he doesn’t do it in foreign policy that’s a big problem for him.”

To finish reading this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.

Barack Obama is on an open-ended run of “worsts.” The New York Post’s Michael Goodwin opened his November 7 column thus: “He took a ‘shellacking,’ a 2012 poll shows him trailing two Republicans, and losing candidates in his own party are griping about his ‘tone deaf’ leadership. And the Mad Hatter, Nancy Pelosi, refuses to exit quietly. Welcome to Barack Obama’s worst week in the Oval Office.”

Days later, on November 12, Baruch College political scientist Doug Muzzio told the Daily News: “This certainly was the worst 10 days of [Obama’s] political life.” Commenting on the president’s failed Asia trip, Muzzio noted, “He came back with bupkis,” and said, “Given that he’s not going to be able to get any domestic achievements with the Republicans in control of the House … if he doesn’t do it in foreign policy that’s a big problem for him.”

To finish reading this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.

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Obama’s Fall from Grace

“Campaigning is different than governing,” President Obama told reporters during his return flight from Asia this weekend. When asked about his meeting with GOP leaders later this week, Obama said: “They are flush with victory after a campaign of just saying ‘No.’ But I’m sure the American people did not vote for more gridlock.”

In fact, the exit polling shows the public did exactly what the president denies. The midterm elections were as close to a plebiscite as we have ever seen in a midterm election. It was, in large measure, a referendum on Obama and his policies — on Obamaism — and the public stood awthart history yelling, “Stop!”

As for the differences between campaigning and governing: that is precisely the distinction some of us warned Obama about in the immediate afterglow of his election. At the time, Obama’s supporters mocked the cautionary notes; governing would be a breeze once The One we had been waiting for took his throne. Mr. Obama himself is responsible in large measure for this. After all, he created almost mythological expectations of what he would achieve.

It has turned out to be quite a lot different, and quite a lot harder, than Mr. Obama ever imagined.

The world is an untidy place; problems are often more difficult and even more intractable than candidates imagine. Expressing intentions — like, say, closing down Guantanamo Bay, trying Khalid Sheik Mohammad in a civilian court, keeping unemployment below 8 percent, bending the health-care cost curve down while at the same time covering more people, convincing the Iranians to give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons, ushering in peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, even signing a free-trade agreement with South Korea — is different than actually implementing successful policies.

Republicans, to their credit, seem to have learned from Obama’s mistakes, as well as some of their own. There is no more talk about “revolutions.” Rather, there is a sober realization of the tasks that lie before them. This attitude doesn’t guarantee success, but it does show a level of maturity about politics and life, about their possibilities and limitations, that is a welcome thing to see.

Barack Obama’s stunning fall from grace has had an effect on him and on his opponents. The days of meaningless incantations like “hope and change,” of healing the planet and reversing the ocean tides, are gone with the wind. We are at least better for that.

“Campaigning is different than governing,” President Obama told reporters during his return flight from Asia this weekend. When asked about his meeting with GOP leaders later this week, Obama said: “They are flush with victory after a campaign of just saying ‘No.’ But I’m sure the American people did not vote for more gridlock.”

In fact, the exit polling shows the public did exactly what the president denies. The midterm elections were as close to a plebiscite as we have ever seen in a midterm election. It was, in large measure, a referendum on Obama and his policies — on Obamaism — and the public stood awthart history yelling, “Stop!”

As for the differences between campaigning and governing: that is precisely the distinction some of us warned Obama about in the immediate afterglow of his election. At the time, Obama’s supporters mocked the cautionary notes; governing would be a breeze once The One we had been waiting for took his throne. Mr. Obama himself is responsible in large measure for this. After all, he created almost mythological expectations of what he would achieve.

It has turned out to be quite a lot different, and quite a lot harder, than Mr. Obama ever imagined.

The world is an untidy place; problems are often more difficult and even more intractable than candidates imagine. Expressing intentions — like, say, closing down Guantanamo Bay, trying Khalid Sheik Mohammad in a civilian court, keeping unemployment below 8 percent, bending the health-care cost curve down while at the same time covering more people, convincing the Iranians to give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons, ushering in peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, even signing a free-trade agreement with South Korea — is different than actually implementing successful policies.

Republicans, to their credit, seem to have learned from Obama’s mistakes, as well as some of their own. There is no more talk about “revolutions.” Rather, there is a sober realization of the tasks that lie before them. This attitude doesn’t guarantee success, but it does show a level of maturity about politics and life, about their possibilities and limitations, that is a welcome thing to see.

Barack Obama’s stunning fall from grace has had an effect on him and on his opponents. The days of meaningless incantations like “hope and change,” of healing the planet and reversing the ocean tides, are gone with the wind. We are at least better for that.

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It’s the Everything, Stupid

A few weeks ago, we learned that the Obama administration granted get-out-of-ObamaCare waivers to 30 big-time employers. Now we find out that the number of organizations and businesses that have broken free of the job killing policy is at 111 and growing. The president who came to office proudly signing executive orders condemning his predecessor’s policies is now quietly signing hall passes exempting Americans from his own.

For the first 20 months of the Obama presidency, the world watched to see if the ambitious, progressive superstar who talked loftily about real change would actually confer some magical metamorphosis upon the country. Even those of us who doubted his superhuman abilities harbored a small fear that he had the talent and the polish to pull it off.  His campaign performance was brilliant and his election, by the time it happened, felt like a matter of national fate. But after he was sworn in, we watched his ideology and his increasingly evident incompetence duke it out for pride of place. We hoped that where he wanted to apply extreme liberal ideas, his ineptitude would trip him up. Read More

A few weeks ago, we learned that the Obama administration granted get-out-of-ObamaCare waivers to 30 big-time employers. Now we find out that the number of organizations and businesses that have broken free of the job killing policy is at 111 and growing. The president who came to office proudly signing executive orders condemning his predecessor’s policies is now quietly signing hall passes exempting Americans from his own.

For the first 20 months of the Obama presidency, the world watched to see if the ambitious, progressive superstar who talked loftily about real change would actually confer some magical metamorphosis upon the country. Even those of us who doubted his superhuman abilities harbored a small fear that he had the talent and the polish to pull it off.  His campaign performance was brilliant and his election, by the time it happened, felt like a matter of national fate. But after he was sworn in, we watched his ideology and his increasingly evident incompetence duke it out for pride of place. We hoped that where he wanted to apply extreme liberal ideas, his ineptitude would trip him up.

What happened could not have been predicted: the campus progressivism and the incompetence fused. Obama pushed through an enormous fiscal stimulus and a calamitous healthcare policy, both of which were not only unapologetically redistributive but structurally unsound as well. As Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron said of the stimulus, “even the components with a plausible justification were designed in the least productive and most redistributionist way possible.”  A labyrinthine bureaucratic architecture and a tangle of regulatory loose ends similarly doomed ObamaCare.

On foreign policy, the same thing happened. President Obama not only approached foreign provocateurs with harmful progressive notions of Western guilt and omni-directional empathy; his green foreign policy team bungled overtures and gambits, so that world leaders ceased to take America seriously, even as an apology nation.  While antagonists forged greater alliances, friends complained about the un-seriousness of American policy. The world took the measure of the commander in chief and pronounced him a lightweight.

Now, with the waiting game over and with the midterm elections having hemmed in the administration, we have a president who is, halfway into his term, ineffective. At this point, he’s likely to pivot to foreign affairs where he’s less constrained by the conservative realignment in Congress. But look at how that’s going. During a 10-day tour of Asia, Obama failed to secure a key trade agreement with South Korea and got nowhere with China on its harmful currency devaluation. At the same time, Obama’s ill-conceived personal request that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani step aside and allow Iyad Allawi to become Iraq’s new president was immediately rebuffed. Even as our troops make progress in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai tells the Washington Post, “The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan… to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life.” A burst of military success is not enough in Afghanistan. The U.S. needs to be in for the long haul, so that our allies don’t cut survival deals with our enemies. If we’re not staying long enough to keep Afghanistan on course, Karzai wants his waiver too. Many pundits are misinterpreting Obama’s foreign policy headaches. It’s not that world leaders are responding to Americans’ midterm disapproval; it’s that they too are unimpressed.

No American should be pleased about any of this. Those who were initially afraid of Obama’s power and his ideological designs now have a new concern of equal importance: his powerlessness.  Recently, Walter Russell Mead wrote at his American Interest blog, “No president in my lifetime has fallen from heaven to earth as rapidly as President Obama.” If he keeps falling, he takes us with him. Waivers are a start, but the enormous work of reversal and restoration has not yet properly begun. We’d all do well to hope for a little of that early executive determination and sense of purpose.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

“Soul-searching” at the White House? Not so much. “‘There isn’t going to be a reset button. That’s not their style,’ said a Democratic strategist who works with the White House on several issues. ‘They don’t like pivots, and they also believe they’re right.’”

Nancy Pelosi is the right leader to show the country that the Dems “get it”? Not so much, according to Heath Shuler: “Shuler believes that his party didn’t get the message on Election Day when voters kicked Democrats out of majority control of the House if his caucus keeps Pelosi at the top of their leadership team. ‘I hope that with so many members that we need to go in a different direction, that we have to be able to recruit or get back those members of Congress that lost, and I just don’t see that path happening if she’s at the top of the Democrats,’ Shuler said.” He says he’ll run against Pelosi, but maybe he’s in the wrong party.

Would Russ Feingold be a formidable primary challenger to Barack Obama? Not so much, says Mara Liasson: “There’d have to be a real anti-war movement in the country for Russ Feingold to try to capture and lead. But there’s not even that.”

Have the Obami learned anything about their Middle East policy failures? Not so much. The U.S. is goading Bibi to offer a 90-day freeze (why should this freeze produce a different result than the last one?), but the PA is already grousing. “Earlier on Sunday, Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat expressed strong reservations about the U.S. proposal, because it would only apply to the West Bank and not east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ hoped-for capital.”

Is Obama still the media’s darling? Not so much. “The Democratic president left for Asia just three days after his party suffered big defeats in mid-term elections at the hands of voters worried over the sputtering U.S. economy and unemployment stuck near 10 percent for more than a year. The trip was intended to counteract that frustration with a stress on opening new markets for American goods and improving the jobs picture, so the timing was especially tough. ‘The coverage has been quite negative. The dominant narrative is an embattled president representing a weakened nation,’ said William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. ‘All in all, not the kind of trip a president who has just suffered an electoral rebuff needs,’ he said.”

So the Obama team is going to be more transparent and connect more successfully with the American people? Not so much. “From the administration’s stance on a presidential commission’s controversial recommendations for Social Security and Medicare cuts, to Republican demands that Obama veto any bills containing earmarks, Axelrod offered few specifics on administration plans during interviews on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ and ‘Fox News Sunday.’” So why bother going on? It’s hard to solve the alleged “communication” problem if you don’t have anything to communicate.

Iran wants to negotiate about its nuclear program? Not so much. “They have yet to agree on venue, a length for the talks or even the subject. Iran says it is willing to talk about everything but its uranium enrichment program; the other countries – the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany – want to talk mostly about the entire nuclear program.”

“Soul-searching” at the White House? Not so much. “‘There isn’t going to be a reset button. That’s not their style,’ said a Democratic strategist who works with the White House on several issues. ‘They don’t like pivots, and they also believe they’re right.’”

Nancy Pelosi is the right leader to show the country that the Dems “get it”? Not so much, according to Heath Shuler: “Shuler believes that his party didn’t get the message on Election Day when voters kicked Democrats out of majority control of the House if his caucus keeps Pelosi at the top of their leadership team. ‘I hope that with so many members that we need to go in a different direction, that we have to be able to recruit or get back those members of Congress that lost, and I just don’t see that path happening if she’s at the top of the Democrats,’ Shuler said.” He says he’ll run against Pelosi, but maybe he’s in the wrong party.

Would Russ Feingold be a formidable primary challenger to Barack Obama? Not so much, says Mara Liasson: “There’d have to be a real anti-war movement in the country for Russ Feingold to try to capture and lead. But there’s not even that.”

Have the Obami learned anything about their Middle East policy failures? Not so much. The U.S. is goading Bibi to offer a 90-day freeze (why should this freeze produce a different result than the last one?), but the PA is already grousing. “Earlier on Sunday, Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat expressed strong reservations about the U.S. proposal, because it would only apply to the West Bank and not east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ hoped-for capital.”

Is Obama still the media’s darling? Not so much. “The Democratic president left for Asia just three days after his party suffered big defeats in mid-term elections at the hands of voters worried over the sputtering U.S. economy and unemployment stuck near 10 percent for more than a year. The trip was intended to counteract that frustration with a stress on opening new markets for American goods and improving the jobs picture, so the timing was especially tough. ‘The coverage has been quite negative. The dominant narrative is an embattled president representing a weakened nation,’ said William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. ‘All in all, not the kind of trip a president who has just suffered an electoral rebuff needs,’ he said.”

So the Obama team is going to be more transparent and connect more successfully with the American people? Not so much. “From the administration’s stance on a presidential commission’s controversial recommendations for Social Security and Medicare cuts, to Republican demands that Obama veto any bills containing earmarks, Axelrod offered few specifics on administration plans during interviews on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ and ‘Fox News Sunday.’” So why bother going on? It’s hard to solve the alleged “communication” problem if you don’t have anything to communicate.

Iran wants to negotiate about its nuclear program? Not so much. “They have yet to agree on venue, a length for the talks or even the subject. Iran says it is willing to talk about everything but its uranium enrichment program; the other countries – the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany – want to talk mostly about the entire nuclear program.”

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Looks Like Obama May Be Moving to the Center

In the New York Post, I explain that the combination of the possible deal to extend the Bush tax cuts, the direction of the recommendations of his budget commission, and his full-throttle defense of free trade during his trip to Asia all suggest that, rather unwillingly, Obama is moving to the center — or rather that he is being pulled there magnetically:

The pressure from democratic allies and his own budget commission might provide convenient cover for a move away from the Keynesian failures of his first two years.

The question is, can Obama sound in the least credible if he does follow the logic of the present moment? Does he possess the vocabulary to talk the talk even if he walks the walk?


In the New York Post, I explain that the combination of the possible deal to extend the Bush tax cuts, the direction of the recommendations of his budget commission, and his full-throttle defense of free trade during his trip to Asia all suggest that, rather unwillingly, Obama is moving to the center — or rather that he is being pulled there magnetically:

The pressure from democratic allies and his own budget commission might provide convenient cover for a move away from the Keynesian failures of his first two years.

The question is, can Obama sound in the least credible if he does follow the logic of the present moment? Does he possess the vocabulary to talk the talk even if he walks the walk?


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Bureaucracy 101

A college course could be built around the new UN report on North Korea’s continuing proliferation activities. The report, released on Friday, was ready for publication in May 2010 but was delayed for six months by China’s Security Council veto. That veto having been lifted, the report is now available to the public.

The news stories surrounding the report are focused on North Korea’s attempts to ship weapons and their components to Iran and Syria, in the months after the “tough” sanctions adopted by the UN in mid-2009. (Pyongyang’s underground nuclear test in May 2009 prompted the newest sanctions.) The UN report cites four instances of cargo being interdicted by other nations, including episodes in Thailand and the UAE that were widely reported in the Western media.

But the real story in this report is its dryly precise account of the implementation of sanctions. Read More

A college course could be built around the new UN report on North Korea’s continuing proliferation activities. The report, released on Friday, was ready for publication in May 2010 but was delayed for six months by China’s Security Council veto. That veto having been lifted, the report is now available to the public.

The news stories surrounding the report are focused on North Korea’s attempts to ship weapons and their components to Iran and Syria, in the months after the “tough” sanctions adopted by the UN in mid-2009. (Pyongyang’s underground nuclear test in May 2009 prompted the newest sanctions.) The UN report cites four instances of cargo being interdicted by other nations, including episodes in Thailand and the UAE that were widely reported in the Western media.

But the real story in this report is its dryly precise account of the implementation of sanctions. As of April 30, 2010, for example, the panel compiling the report found that only 48 UN member nations had submitted their “national implementation reports” for the provisions of the 2009 round of sanctions. The national reports, according to the panel, “vary considerably in content, detail, and format.” The panel acknowledges that this is at least partly because the original UN resolutions didn’t specify that certain significant measures be reported (e.g., withholding pier services from North Korean ships or refusing training to North Korean specialists).

The UN panel observes – without editorializing – that North Korea basically remains free to operate shell companies in a number of other nations. As outside investment in North Korea declines, however, Pyongyang’s economic reliance on China is growing. It’s evident from the incidents recounted in the report that the typical maritime shipment of prohibited cargo from North Korea makes its first stop in China – but the report doesn’t explicitly make that point.

It does, on the other hand, convey the good news that vigilant officials in Japan and Italy have been able to prevent the delivery of two yachts, four Mercedes-Benzes, and 37 pianos to North Korea. Unfortunately, these are rare instances; the UN panel states, on a regretful note, that the interdiction of luxury goods “continues to lag.” In general, successful interdiction of goods both into and out of North Korea is hampered, in the panel’s view, by a lack of uniformity in shipping documentation and the lack of a single, all-encompassing list of prohibited items. Apparently, member states have to consult multiple lists to determine what is prohibited.

The wonder here is that any cargo interdiction happens at all. The bottom line is something we knew already: G-8 governments are acting with some level of vigilance, but there are big, unplugged holes in the sanctions; China is an unacknowledged vulnerability; and there are large swaths of territory in Asia and Africa where no attempt at enforcement is being made. This is our approach, as a collective of nations, to preventing the proliferation of WMD.

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A Good Word for — and from — the White House

Obama’s chief economic adviser inside the White House, Austan Goolsbee — formerly a professor at the University of Chicago — offers a terrific three-minute explanation of the president’s trip to Asia and its macroeconomic purpose distributed over YouTube. Goolsbee, who once hosted a TV show about the economy on the History Channel, provides here an almost perfect example of the way policymakers can use the multimedia possibilities of the Internet to explain what they are seeking to accomplish.

Obama’s chief economic adviser inside the White House, Austan Goolsbee — formerly a professor at the University of Chicago — offers a terrific three-minute explanation of the president’s trip to Asia and its macroeconomic purpose distributed over YouTube. Goolsbee, who once hosted a TV show about the economy on the History Channel, provides here an almost perfect example of the way policymakers can use the multimedia possibilities of the Internet to explain what they are seeking to accomplish.

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Shifting Positions in the Far East?

While President Obama danced with Indian children and admired a moghul’s monument, our secretaries of state and defense were busy restructuring America’s security posture in Asia. It wasn’t clear before they went, as far as I can tell, that this is what they’d be doing. The Obama administration seems to keep finding major strategy shifts unexpectedly while rooting around in its pockets.

Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates have just concluded a successful visit to Australia during which they obtained agreements to significantly increase the use of Australian bases by the U.S. military. Now, I can attest that Townsville and Darwin, on Australia’s northern coast, are superb liberty ports. Working with our Australian allies is always a top-notch experience; count me a fan of having Oz on your “closest allies” list. But enlarging the U.S. military footprint anywhere is the kind of thing America does sparingly, for serious strategic reasons — and in the context of deliberate and announced policy. No such context is apparent with this move.

Speculation is rampant, however. The Australian media think we’re preparing for the likelihood that our major bases in Okinawa will have to close. The fate of the Marine Corps air forces stationed there does remain uncertain, but that difficult issue could be negotiated without sending a series of counterproductive signals during the process. There is no emergency demanding an immediate increase of U.S. forces in East Asia; under current conditions, shifting our basing scheme there can only be seen as a preemptive shift away from Japan. Read More

While President Obama danced with Indian children and admired a moghul’s monument, our secretaries of state and defense were busy restructuring America’s security posture in Asia. It wasn’t clear before they went, as far as I can tell, that this is what they’d be doing. The Obama administration seems to keep finding major strategy shifts unexpectedly while rooting around in its pockets.

Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates have just concluded a successful visit to Australia during which they obtained agreements to significantly increase the use of Australian bases by the U.S. military. Now, I can attest that Townsville and Darwin, on Australia’s northern coast, are superb liberty ports. Working with our Australian allies is always a top-notch experience; count me a fan of having Oz on your “closest allies” list. But enlarging the U.S. military footprint anywhere is the kind of thing America does sparingly, for serious strategic reasons — and in the context of deliberate and announced policy. No such context is apparent with this move.

Speculation is rampant, however. The Australian media think we’re preparing for the likelihood that our major bases in Okinawa will have to close. The fate of the Marine Corps air forces stationed there does remain uncertain, but that difficult issue could be negotiated without sending a series of counterproductive signals during the process. There is no emergency demanding an immediate increase of U.S. forces in East Asia; under current conditions, shifting our basing scheme there can only be seen as a preemptive shift away from Japan.

Rumors like this one, about a supposed drawdown of U.S. F-16s from Hokkaido, abound throughout Japan right now. Some Japanese suspect the U.S. is trying to wrest concessions from Tokyo with such drawdown threats. But I fervently hope we aren’t: if anything, at this moment, we should be strengthening and talking up our alliance with Japan. China and Russia have both made power moves against Japan in the past two months — moves involving history’s most common casus belli, disputed territory. By affirming a united front with Japan, we could induce them to step back. But sending random and confusing signals about our strategic intentions and true priorities is merely an accelerant to instability.

It’s not a policy-neutral act to shift our locus of military logistics away from Japan and toward Australia, Singapore, and Guam. Besides the politics, the distances involved are huge and significant to military operations. South Korea can be forgiven for doubting our commitment if we seem to be playing games with our bases in Japan. China, on the other hand, is justified in wondering what we have in mind, with this talk of a “military build-up” in Australia and Singapore. Neither venue is well suited to supporting a defense of Taiwan. There is an unpleasantly imperial ring to the proposition that we should ensure we can keep lots of forces in the theater regardless of any specific requirement for them.

That implication is especially discordant when the U.S. administration seems to be giving short shrift to the intrinsic importance of alliances. From the standpoint of American security, the single most significant factor in East Asia is our alliance with Japan. It is crude, mechanistic, and shortsighted to suppose that military force by itself can do the work of a key alliance. An alliance, however, can obviate much military force and many needless threats.

Bases in East Asia have been a benefit for us, but the alliance with Japan is the prize we need to tend. It does great harm to send the signal that we can’t wait for a political resolution with this longstanding ally before adjusting our military basing arrangements. If there is some emergency erupting in Southeast Asia that justifies ill-timed action in this regard, it would be nice if the Obama administration would clarify for the American people what it is.

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“And the Name of That Town Is Vanity”

In a story titled “The ego factor: Can Barack Obama change?” Politico highlights a passage from David Remnick’s Obama biography, The Bridge. Remnick quotes White House adviser and longtime friend Valerie Jarrett:

I think Barack knew that he had God-given talents that were extraordinary. He knows exactly how smart he is. … He knows how perceptive he is. He knows what a good reader of people he is. And he knows that he has the ability — the extraordinary, uncanny ability — to take a thousand different perspectives, digest them and make sense out of them, and I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually. … So, what I sensed in him was not just a restless spirit but somebody with such extraordinary talents that had to be really taxed in order for him to be happy. … He’s been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.

This quote is rather astonishing, even by ObamaLand standards.

On his trip to Asia, the president might consider pulling out a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress and reading about the dangers lurking in “a town before them, and the name of that town is Vanity.”

In a story titled “The ego factor: Can Barack Obama change?” Politico highlights a passage from David Remnick’s Obama biography, The Bridge. Remnick quotes White House adviser and longtime friend Valerie Jarrett:

I think Barack knew that he had God-given talents that were extraordinary. He knows exactly how smart he is. … He knows how perceptive he is. He knows what a good reader of people he is. And he knows that he has the ability — the extraordinary, uncanny ability — to take a thousand different perspectives, digest them and make sense out of them, and I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually. … So, what I sensed in him was not just a restless spirit but somebody with such extraordinary talents that had to be really taxed in order for him to be happy. … He’s been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.

This quote is rather astonishing, even by ObamaLand standards.

On his trip to Asia, the president might consider pulling out a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress and reading about the dangers lurking in “a town before them, and the name of that town is Vanity.”

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Block This Sale

The bad ideas just keep coming. A few bloggers and news outlets picked up this week on the report that a Russian company wants to acquire a 51 percent stake in a U.S. uranium-mining operation. Four congressmen have written to Timothy Geithner asking him to block the sale, pointing out that if it goes through, a Russian corporation will control 20 percent of America’s uranium resources.

The sale should be blocked. The congressmen fear – with reason – that Russia could deliver uranium from the Wyoming mine to Iran, but that’s not the only consideration. Russia acquiring a 51 percent interest in a natural-resources operation creates unnecessary vulnerabilities for the nations involved. Multiple rounds of natural-gas extortion in Europe have made that clear. Russia behaves badly in its natural-resources dealings, using them alternately to build leverage with the wealthy and to strong-arm the struggling.

Russia and China are competing vigorously to acquire control of natural resources in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Besides its gas and oil investments in the Caribbean, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, and Colombia, Russia has signed uranium-development agreements with Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador. The Russians are also prospecting for oil and gas off Cuba’s West coast in the Gulf of Mexico, an enterprise unaffected by President Obama’s moratorium on U.S. drilling. (See here for an extended treatment of Russia’s oil and gas acquisitions.) Between them, Russia and China are gradually narrowing the resource options of the U.S., the EU, and Japan; if geopolitical shifts drive us to seek new suppliers, we will find, wherever we look, that the Asian giants are already there. We certainly don’t need to collude in their strategy by handing our own resources over to their companies.

In turning markedly against Japan last week over the Kuril Islands issue – which carries major implications for undersea resources – the Putin-Medvedev regime sent a very clear signal about where it is headed. If we invite Russia to control the commercial destiny of a significant amount of our natural resources, we will be buying political problems for the future. Our current ability to stand up to extortion is no excuse for courting it unnecessarily. The Russia factor makes this sale an issue of national security; it is inherently political and should be decided for political reasons. The sale should be blocked.

The bad ideas just keep coming. A few bloggers and news outlets picked up this week on the report that a Russian company wants to acquire a 51 percent stake in a U.S. uranium-mining operation. Four congressmen have written to Timothy Geithner asking him to block the sale, pointing out that if it goes through, a Russian corporation will control 20 percent of America’s uranium resources.

The sale should be blocked. The congressmen fear – with reason – that Russia could deliver uranium from the Wyoming mine to Iran, but that’s not the only consideration. Russia acquiring a 51 percent interest in a natural-resources operation creates unnecessary vulnerabilities for the nations involved. Multiple rounds of natural-gas extortion in Europe have made that clear. Russia behaves badly in its natural-resources dealings, using them alternately to build leverage with the wealthy and to strong-arm the struggling.

Russia and China are competing vigorously to acquire control of natural resources in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Besides its gas and oil investments in the Caribbean, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, and Colombia, Russia has signed uranium-development agreements with Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador. The Russians are also prospecting for oil and gas off Cuba’s West coast in the Gulf of Mexico, an enterprise unaffected by President Obama’s moratorium on U.S. drilling. (See here for an extended treatment of Russia’s oil and gas acquisitions.) Between them, Russia and China are gradually narrowing the resource options of the U.S., the EU, and Japan; if geopolitical shifts drive us to seek new suppliers, we will find, wherever we look, that the Asian giants are already there. We certainly don’t need to collude in their strategy by handing our own resources over to their companies.

In turning markedly against Japan last week over the Kuril Islands issue – which carries major implications for undersea resources – the Putin-Medvedev regime sent a very clear signal about where it is headed. If we invite Russia to control the commercial destiny of a significant amount of our natural resources, we will be buying political problems for the future. Our current ability to stand up to extortion is no excuse for courting it unnecessarily. The Russia factor makes this sale an issue of national security; it is inherently political and should be decided for political reasons. The sale should be blocked.

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The Human Rights “Charm Offensive”

Fred Hiatt is hopeful — as so many observers have been during the Obama administration — that the president is “turning the corner” on his foreign policy, specifically in the area of human rights and democracy promotion. Hiatt recounts some of the administration’s failings:

The administration criticized the narrowing of freedom in Russia, but cooperation on Iran was a higher priority. It chided Hosni Mubarak for choking civil society in Egypt, but the autocrat’s cooperation on Israel-Palestine mattered more.

Sadly, in fact, it seemed fellow democracies often paid a higher price for real or supposed human-rights failings: Colombia, for example, where human rights was the excuse for not promoting a free-trade agreement.

But it’s worse than that, really. We stiffed the Green movement and cut funding to groups that monitor Iranian human rights abuses. We facilitated the egregious behavior of the UN Human Rights Council. Our Sudan policy has been widely condemned by the left and right. Our record on promotion of religious freedom has been shoddy. We acquiesced as Iran was placed on the UN Commission on the Status of Women. We turned a blind eye toward serial human rights atrocities in the Muslim World. We flattered and cajoled Assad in Syria with nary a concern for human rights. We told China that human rights wouldn’t stand in the way of relations between the countries. We’ve suggested that Fidel Castro might enjoy better relations and an influx of U.S. tourist dollars without any improvement in human rights. And the administration ludicrously sided with a lackey of Hugo Chavez against the democratic institutions of Honduras. The list goes on and on.

As I and other observers have noted, the Obama human rights policy has more often than not focused on America’s ills – supposed Islamophobia, homophobia, racism, and the like: “Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton have found some victims of rights-transgression who are of very great interest to them — indeed, since some of them are here at home, and sinned against by America herself!”

But Hiatt thinks Obama is turning over a new leaf: “[A]couple of weeks ago, in his second annual address to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama declared that ‘freedom, justice and peace in the lives of individual human beings’ are, for the United States, ‘a matter of moral and pragmatic necessity.’” Yes, but we’ve heard pretty words before. What makes Hiatt think that this time around Obama honestly means it? He concedes that the proof will be in what Obama actually does:

If Obama’s speech signals a genuine shift, we will see the administration insist on election monitors in Egypt or withhold aid if Mubarak says no. It will wield real tools — visa bans, bank account seizures — to sanction human-rights abusers in Russia and China. It will not only claim to support a U.N. inquiry into Burma’s crimes against humanity but will call in chits from friends in Thailand, Singapore or India to make such an inquiry happen.

And maybe the administration will stop sabotaging Obama’s message on his most active foreign policy front: the war in Afghanistan. There, in its almost aggressive insistence that the war is about protecting the U.S. homeland — and only about protecting the U.S. homeland — the administration undercuts its claim to be a champion of “universal values.”

You’ll excuse me if I’m skeptical, but we’ve been down this road before. And to really be serious about human rights, Obama would need to undo and revise his entire Muslim-outreach scheme. Instead of ingratiating himself with despots, he would need to challenge them. Instead of telling Muslim audiences in Cairo that the most significant women’s rights issue was “for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit — for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear,” he would need to start challenging regimes that countenance and promote violence against women, child marriages, stonings, lashings, honor killings, etc. He would likewise need to revisit systematically our “reset” with Russia and our indifference to Chavez’s shenanigans in this hemisphere. Is this president going to do all that?

It’s lovely that the president is planning a trip “through Asia designed in part to put meat on the bones of his new rhetoric … [where] he will announce grants for nongovernmental organizations that the administration hopes will flower into the kind of domestic lobbies that can push their own governments to promote democracy abroad.” But unless there is a fundamental rethinking and reworking of foreign policy, this will be simply another PR effort that does little for the oppressed souls around the world.

Fred Hiatt is hopeful — as so many observers have been during the Obama administration — that the president is “turning the corner” on his foreign policy, specifically in the area of human rights and democracy promotion. Hiatt recounts some of the administration’s failings:

The administration criticized the narrowing of freedom in Russia, but cooperation on Iran was a higher priority. It chided Hosni Mubarak for choking civil society in Egypt, but the autocrat’s cooperation on Israel-Palestine mattered more.

Sadly, in fact, it seemed fellow democracies often paid a higher price for real or supposed human-rights failings: Colombia, for example, where human rights was the excuse for not promoting a free-trade agreement.

But it’s worse than that, really. We stiffed the Green movement and cut funding to groups that monitor Iranian human rights abuses. We facilitated the egregious behavior of the UN Human Rights Council. Our Sudan policy has been widely condemned by the left and right. Our record on promotion of religious freedom has been shoddy. We acquiesced as Iran was placed on the UN Commission on the Status of Women. We turned a blind eye toward serial human rights atrocities in the Muslim World. We flattered and cajoled Assad in Syria with nary a concern for human rights. We told China that human rights wouldn’t stand in the way of relations between the countries. We’ve suggested that Fidel Castro might enjoy better relations and an influx of U.S. tourist dollars without any improvement in human rights. And the administration ludicrously sided with a lackey of Hugo Chavez against the democratic institutions of Honduras. The list goes on and on.

As I and other observers have noted, the Obama human rights policy has more often than not focused on America’s ills – supposed Islamophobia, homophobia, racism, and the like: “Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton have found some victims of rights-transgression who are of very great interest to them — indeed, since some of them are here at home, and sinned against by America herself!”

But Hiatt thinks Obama is turning over a new leaf: “[A]couple of weeks ago, in his second annual address to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama declared that ‘freedom, justice and peace in the lives of individual human beings’ are, for the United States, ‘a matter of moral and pragmatic necessity.’” Yes, but we’ve heard pretty words before. What makes Hiatt think that this time around Obama honestly means it? He concedes that the proof will be in what Obama actually does:

If Obama’s speech signals a genuine shift, we will see the administration insist on election monitors in Egypt or withhold aid if Mubarak says no. It will wield real tools — visa bans, bank account seizures — to sanction human-rights abusers in Russia and China. It will not only claim to support a U.N. inquiry into Burma’s crimes against humanity but will call in chits from friends in Thailand, Singapore or India to make such an inquiry happen.

And maybe the administration will stop sabotaging Obama’s message on his most active foreign policy front: the war in Afghanistan. There, in its almost aggressive insistence that the war is about protecting the U.S. homeland — and only about protecting the U.S. homeland — the administration undercuts its claim to be a champion of “universal values.”

You’ll excuse me if I’m skeptical, but we’ve been down this road before. And to really be serious about human rights, Obama would need to undo and revise his entire Muslim-outreach scheme. Instead of ingratiating himself with despots, he would need to challenge them. Instead of telling Muslim audiences in Cairo that the most significant women’s rights issue was “for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit — for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear,” he would need to start challenging regimes that countenance and promote violence against women, child marriages, stonings, lashings, honor killings, etc. He would likewise need to revisit systematically our “reset” with Russia and our indifference to Chavez’s shenanigans in this hemisphere. Is this president going to do all that?

It’s lovely that the president is planning a trip “through Asia designed in part to put meat on the bones of his new rhetoric … [where] he will announce grants for nongovernmental organizations that the administration hopes will flower into the kind of domestic lobbies that can push their own governments to promote democracy abroad.” But unless there is a fundamental rethinking and reworking of foreign policy, this will be simply another PR effort that does little for the oppressed souls around the world.

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Whining About Whining

As the President and Vice President whine about the whining of their shrinking “base,” as being insufficiently appreciative of the superhuman efforts to confront our problems, they might remember the old saying that “in times like these, we should remember there have always been times like these.” Victor Davis Hanson writes that the problems Obama has faced have not, in fact, been worse than those that other presidents confronted as they entered the presidency:

A recession and 9/11 were not easy in 2001. And 18% interest, 18% inflation, 7% unemployment, and gas lines by 1981 greeted Reagan. Truman took over with a war … a wrecked Asia and Europe, a groundswell of communism, a climate of panic at home, and a soon to be nuclear Soviet Union … capped off soon by a war in Korea.

The President and Vice President might also reflect on the answer of the prior president, in his last press conference on January 12, 2009, when asked as to when Obama would feel the full impact of the presidency. Bush’s answer was “the minute he walks in the Oval Office,” but that:

… the phrase “burdens of the office” is overstated. You know, it’s kind of like, why me? Oh, the burdens, you know. Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch? It’s just — it’s pathetic, isn’t it, self-pity. And I don’t believe that President-Elect Obama will be full of self-pity. He will find — you know, your — the people that don’t like you, the critics, they’re pretty predictable. Sometimes the biggest disappointments will come from your so-called friends. And there will be disappointments, I promise you. He’ll be disappointed. On the other hand, the job is so exciting and so profound …

In Wisconsin yesterday, Obama repeated his constant refrain that he had arrived in Washington to “confront the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression” and blamed his current problems on an “opposition party … determined from the start to let us deal with the mess that they had done so much to create.”

And they figured, if we just sit on the sidelines and just say no and just throw bombs and let Obama and the Democrats deal with everything, they figured they might be able to prosper at the polls.

When politicians start whining about their fate and begin referring to themselves in the third person, it is a sign the campaign is not going well. Just ask Bob Dole, as Bob Dole might say.

As the President and Vice President whine about the whining of their shrinking “base,” as being insufficiently appreciative of the superhuman efforts to confront our problems, they might remember the old saying that “in times like these, we should remember there have always been times like these.” Victor Davis Hanson writes that the problems Obama has faced have not, in fact, been worse than those that other presidents confronted as they entered the presidency:

A recession and 9/11 were not easy in 2001. And 18% interest, 18% inflation, 7% unemployment, and gas lines by 1981 greeted Reagan. Truman took over with a war … a wrecked Asia and Europe, a groundswell of communism, a climate of panic at home, and a soon to be nuclear Soviet Union … capped off soon by a war in Korea.

The President and Vice President might also reflect on the answer of the prior president, in his last press conference on January 12, 2009, when asked as to when Obama would feel the full impact of the presidency. Bush’s answer was “the minute he walks in the Oval Office,” but that:

… the phrase “burdens of the office” is overstated. You know, it’s kind of like, why me? Oh, the burdens, you know. Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch? It’s just — it’s pathetic, isn’t it, self-pity. And I don’t believe that President-Elect Obama will be full of self-pity. He will find — you know, your — the people that don’t like you, the critics, they’re pretty predictable. Sometimes the biggest disappointments will come from your so-called friends. And there will be disappointments, I promise you. He’ll be disappointed. On the other hand, the job is so exciting and so profound …

In Wisconsin yesterday, Obama repeated his constant refrain that he had arrived in Washington to “confront the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression” and blamed his current problems on an “opposition party … determined from the start to let us deal with the mess that they had done so much to create.”

And they figured, if we just sit on the sidelines and just say no and just throw bombs and let Obama and the Democrats deal with everything, they figured they might be able to prosper at the polls.

When politicians start whining about their fate and begin referring to themselves in the third person, it is a sign the campaign is not going well. Just ask Bob Dole, as Bob Dole might say.

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Flashpoint Senkakus

There is reason to be concerned about the spat between China and Japan, which erupted over a Chinese fishing trawler that entered the disputed waters of the Senkaku Island chain on September 7 and then proceeded to collide with two Japanese coastguard ships. The Japanese arrested the trawler’s master, releasing him finally on Friday after a mounting series of threats from China. Beijing cut off shipments of rare earth minerals to Japan — a blow to the Japanese auto and high-tech industries — and is now reportedly subjecting 90 percent of Japan-bound commercial shipments to bureaucratic inspections.

China is apparently doubling down on its confrontational posture, in ways that make it harder for both sides to revert to the status quo ante. This weekend the Chinese demanded an apology and monetary restitution from Japan. On Monday the Naoto Kan government in Tokyo, stung by editorial opposition to its release of the Chinese fishing captain last week, countered with a demand for compensation from China for the damage to its coastguard ships.

Difficult as such positions can be for Asian nations to draw back from, it’s China’s prosecution of a material stake in the disputed economic zone off the Senkaku Islands that may keep both sides in confrontation. Japan has reportedly identified Chinese drilling equipment in the disputed area and suspects that Beijing is preparing to drill for natural gas there. Oil and gas exploration by both nations goes back to 2004; Japan has already stated concerns that drilling performed within China’s acknowledged economic zone could tap gas reserves in the area claimed by Tokyo. Taiwan is another claimant to economic rights in the area, a factor that serves to complicate relations among the parties.

China has assumed a position it cannot back off from gracefully — and one involving its most important economic interests. The outcome of this confrontation will be a point of no return in one way or another. Neither China nor Japan will rest if it loses this face-off. More than economic assets are at stake; this is about power relations and the future of Asia. Of greatest concern in all of this is the basic fact that China was emboldened to pick this fight. Beijing apparently calculates that the U.S. will acquiesce in whatever de facto diplomatic triumph China’s leaders can achieve over Japan.

Japan is unlikely to back down, however. The outcome of this incident matters too greatly to its national future. It’s trite to talk about being at a crossroads, but that’s because the metaphor usually fits. Americans are faced with a choice of our own in this situation: either we are relevant to its resolution — a resolution involving one of our closest allies — or we are not. If we’re not, the status quo of the “Pax Americana” will not last much longer.

There is reason to be concerned about the spat between China and Japan, which erupted over a Chinese fishing trawler that entered the disputed waters of the Senkaku Island chain on September 7 and then proceeded to collide with two Japanese coastguard ships. The Japanese arrested the trawler’s master, releasing him finally on Friday after a mounting series of threats from China. Beijing cut off shipments of rare earth minerals to Japan — a blow to the Japanese auto and high-tech industries — and is now reportedly subjecting 90 percent of Japan-bound commercial shipments to bureaucratic inspections.

China is apparently doubling down on its confrontational posture, in ways that make it harder for both sides to revert to the status quo ante. This weekend the Chinese demanded an apology and monetary restitution from Japan. On Monday the Naoto Kan government in Tokyo, stung by editorial opposition to its release of the Chinese fishing captain last week, countered with a demand for compensation from China for the damage to its coastguard ships.

Difficult as such positions can be for Asian nations to draw back from, it’s China’s prosecution of a material stake in the disputed economic zone off the Senkaku Islands that may keep both sides in confrontation. Japan has reportedly identified Chinese drilling equipment in the disputed area and suspects that Beijing is preparing to drill for natural gas there. Oil and gas exploration by both nations goes back to 2004; Japan has already stated concerns that drilling performed within China’s acknowledged economic zone could tap gas reserves in the area claimed by Tokyo. Taiwan is another claimant to economic rights in the area, a factor that serves to complicate relations among the parties.

China has assumed a position it cannot back off from gracefully — and one involving its most important economic interests. The outcome of this confrontation will be a point of no return in one way or another. Neither China nor Japan will rest if it loses this face-off. More than economic assets are at stake; this is about power relations and the future of Asia. Of greatest concern in all of this is the basic fact that China was emboldened to pick this fight. Beijing apparently calculates that the U.S. will acquiesce in whatever de facto diplomatic triumph China’s leaders can achieve over Japan.

Japan is unlikely to back down, however. The outcome of this incident matters too greatly to its national future. It’s trite to talk about being at a crossroads, but that’s because the metaphor usually fits. Americans are faced with a choice of our own in this situation: either we are relevant to its resolution — a resolution involving one of our closest allies — or we are not. If we’re not, the status quo of the “Pax Americana” will not last much longer.

Read Less




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