Commentary Magazine


Topic: China

What China Really Thinks of North Korea

As a kind of secretive hermit state, North Korea clings to its remaining ally in China. Yet the recent leaking of sensitive documents from the Chinese military to the Japanese media might suggest that China has just about had enough of its eccentric friends on the northern border. The documents in question are contingency plans for what is to be done in the event of a collapse of the regime in Pyongyang. Yet, as the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs scholar Jun Okumura told the Daily Telegraph, such plans have likely existed for years: their leakage now may be significant. After all, the People’s Liberation Army of China is a pretty tightly run ship, and would-be leakers might think twice about proceeding without a high-ranking green light. Are these contingency plans perhaps more prescriptive than predictive on China’s part?

The leaked documents may reveal more about China’s own outlook than about a likely trajectory of future events. Of course we know so little about what is really going on in North Korean society that these things are difficult to predict, but if a North Korean spring were to burst forth now, it is fair to say that most would be caught off guard. Still, the Chinese report seems to envisage that the regime might collapse on account of outside intervention of some kind, presumably on the part of the United States. If China really imagines that this could happen anytime soon then it is simply projecting its own paranoia. Ever since the West foolishly let the North Koreans pass the nuclear threshold in around 2003, America’s appetite for intervention there fell below the already non-existent levels seen prior to that point. And while the Obama administration may have spoken of pivoting toward Asia, a war with North Korea was surely not what the president had in mind.

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As a kind of secretive hermit state, North Korea clings to its remaining ally in China. Yet the recent leaking of sensitive documents from the Chinese military to the Japanese media might suggest that China has just about had enough of its eccentric friends on the northern border. The documents in question are contingency plans for what is to be done in the event of a collapse of the regime in Pyongyang. Yet, as the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs scholar Jun Okumura told the Daily Telegraph, such plans have likely existed for years: their leakage now may be significant. After all, the People’s Liberation Army of China is a pretty tightly run ship, and would-be leakers might think twice about proceeding without a high-ranking green light. Are these contingency plans perhaps more prescriptive than predictive on China’s part?

The leaked documents may reveal more about China’s own outlook than about a likely trajectory of future events. Of course we know so little about what is really going on in North Korean society that these things are difficult to predict, but if a North Korean spring were to burst forth now, it is fair to say that most would be caught off guard. Still, the Chinese report seems to envisage that the regime might collapse on account of outside intervention of some kind, presumably on the part of the United States. If China really imagines that this could happen anytime soon then it is simply projecting its own paranoia. Ever since the West foolishly let the North Koreans pass the nuclear threshold in around 2003, America’s appetite for intervention there fell below the already non-existent levels seen prior to that point. And while the Obama administration may have spoken of pivoting toward Asia, a war with North Korea was surely not what the president had in mind.

While China would no doubt fiercely resent any Western intervention in what it views as its sphere of influence, it may well be the case that the Chinese are also growing weary of the Kims and the weird brand of Stalinism-meets-Medieval-absolutist-monarchy that they keep ticking over in North Korea. If the North Koreans have now become too unpredictable and are viewed by Beijing as a likely source of instability in the region, then it could well be that these contingency plans are essentially wishful thinking on the part of a China just about ready to be rid of North Korea. Indeed, ahead of a widely anticipated nuclear test by the North Koreans, the Chinese have released a statement expressing a clear tone of disapproval. It has also been reported that China refused to transfer oil supplies to the North Koreans during the first three months of this year.

The contingency plans drawn up by the Chinese include the anticipation of large numbers of refugees fleeing over the North Korean border, but also preparations for creating some kind of internment camp for North Korea’s leadership. Hardly the most friendly of moves, although it would appear that such a plan is as much driven by concerns about preventing the country’s former rulers from falling into foreign hands as by the desire to ensure that the ruling clique couldn’t continue to wage long-term civil war Assad-style.

For the moment it seems that China is simply planning to monitor its border with North Korea still more closely than it already does. Regardless of whether or not the leaking of these contingency plans was instructed from higher up, they certainly provide a window into Chinese thinking on North Korea. A collapse of North Korea’s government may not appear quite imminent, nor is it so easy to imagine outside intervention in the way that the Chinese report would seem to. What these contingency plans do expose, however, is a growing Chinese disinterest in preserving the regime ruling North Korea at the present.

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The Philippines and the American Empire of Liberty

If you want to know the secret of American power, look no farther than the Philippines. 

The U.S. once had a sprawling infrastructure of military bases there including a massive naval facility at Subic Bay and a massive air force base at Clark Air Base. But with the end of the Cold War and with nationalism rising in the Philippines–a country that was an American colony for a half-century–the U.S. agreed to pull up stakes in 1992. 

Now, President Obama is visiting the Philippines on Monday to sign a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that will allow the U.S. Armed Forces regular access to Philippine military bases. This is not the same thing as getting permanent bases again–something prohibited by the Philippine constitution–but it is the next best thing, because it allows the U.S. to pre-position supplies and equipment in the Philippines.

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If you want to know the secret of American power, look no farther than the Philippines. 

The U.S. once had a sprawling infrastructure of military bases there including a massive naval facility at Subic Bay and a massive air force base at Clark Air Base. But with the end of the Cold War and with nationalism rising in the Philippines–a country that was an American colony for a half-century–the U.S. agreed to pull up stakes in 1992. 

Now, President Obama is visiting the Philippines on Monday to sign a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that will allow the U.S. Armed Forces regular access to Philippine military bases. This is not the same thing as getting permanent bases again–something prohibited by the Philippine constitution–but it is the next best thing, because it allows the U.S. to pre-position supplies and equipment in the Philippines.

This demonstrates, in different ways, why America is an empire of liberty–not an empire of coercion. It’s true that we have a military presence around the world, with more bases in foreign territories than any other power by far. But we never–except for rare and short instances at the conclusion of wars–impose bases by force. Even countries that were once conquered by the United States–as the Philippines was at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War–eventually win the right to kick us out if they so desire. 

But countries that exercise their privilege to proclaim “Yankee, go home” often find themselves regretting their nationalist impulse. Certainly many Iraqis must by now regret the departure of U.S. forces, which has allowed violence to surge back to 2008 levels and sectarian strife to get worse and worse. And many Filipinos are equally sorry they kicked out the U.S. now that they see a far bigger threat looming on the horizon: China, which is using its navy to assert its claim over a tiny island in the South China Sea also claimed by the Philippines.

China is not an empire of liberty–it is the old-fashioned kind of territorial empire that imposes its diktat by force on Tibet and Xingjiang, among others, and threatens to do the same with Taiwan and various islands in the South China Sea. Chinese aggression is scaring its neighbors–just as Russian aggression is now doing in Eastern Europe. In both cases the threatened countries are looking to America for protection because they know we are the No. 1 champion of freedom in the world.

Those who predict the demise of American power ignore this obvious reality–namely, that America remains powerful because of a silent referendum on the part of most of the world. However much others may enjoy engaging in anti-American rhetoric, when the chips are down, they know they can count on the United States to keep them free.

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So Much for Self-Determination in Crimea

Vladimir Putin has repeatedly justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea with an argument about ethnic solidarity. Just as Nazi Germany based citizenship on ethnicity rather than within which borders one happened to live and to whom one paid taxes, Putin argues effectively that Russians everywhere deserve autonomy if not unification with the homeland. That many Russian populations are not contiguous to Russia itself is not a problem because, after all, so long as Putin is concerned Russians are more equal than other peoples and if the Russian army needs to steamroll through territory that isn’t Russian, so be it.

The problem with precedent is what happens when others utilize it. Putin (and Obama) are lucky that China does not have a ruler as Machiavellian as Putin. After all, with resource-rich Siberia’s growing Chinese minority and declining ethnic Russian population, it really is ripe for the picking. So is much of Southeast Asia, should the Chinese set their sights on it.  

That may seem farfetched, so back to Crimea. A majority of Crimeans might speak Russian (according to this map derived from the 2001 Ukrainian census), but there are other populations in Crimea regardless of the language they speak. Before Josef Stalin, Soviet dictator and Putin idol, Crimea was home to an indigenous Tatar population. As a result of supposed (and actual) Nazi collaboration, Stalin ordered the deportation of almost 200,000 Tatars from Crimea, many of whom died during and as a result of their forcible relocation. Still, a small but growing number of Tatars remain in the Crimea today. Given their history of victimization at the hands of Moscow, it is not surprising that many Tatars preferred life in Ukraine rather than suddenly find themselves living back in Russia because of the wave of Putin’s magic wand.

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Vladimir Putin has repeatedly justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea with an argument about ethnic solidarity. Just as Nazi Germany based citizenship on ethnicity rather than within which borders one happened to live and to whom one paid taxes, Putin argues effectively that Russians everywhere deserve autonomy if not unification with the homeland. That many Russian populations are not contiguous to Russia itself is not a problem because, after all, so long as Putin is concerned Russians are more equal than other peoples and if the Russian army needs to steamroll through territory that isn’t Russian, so be it.

The problem with precedent is what happens when others utilize it. Putin (and Obama) are lucky that China does not have a ruler as Machiavellian as Putin. After all, with resource-rich Siberia’s growing Chinese minority and declining ethnic Russian population, it really is ripe for the picking. So is much of Southeast Asia, should the Chinese set their sights on it.  

That may seem farfetched, so back to Crimea. A majority of Crimeans might speak Russian (according to this map derived from the 2001 Ukrainian census), but there are other populations in Crimea regardless of the language they speak. Before Josef Stalin, Soviet dictator and Putin idol, Crimea was home to an indigenous Tatar population. As a result of supposed (and actual) Nazi collaboration, Stalin ordered the deportation of almost 200,000 Tatars from Crimea, many of whom died during and as a result of their forcible relocation. Still, a small but growing number of Tatars remain in the Crimea today. Given their history of victimization at the hands of Moscow, it is not surprising that many Tatars preferred life in Ukraine rather than suddenly find themselves living back in Russia because of the wave of Putin’s magic wand.

Now, Putin is waving his stick once again, signing a decree banning the leader of Crimea’s Tatars from his homeland for five years. Perhaps he was upset that the Tatars were taking a page from Putin’s own playbook and demanding a referendum for their own freedom from Russia. What’s good for the goose obviously isn’t good for the gander. Perhaps if Russia is unilaterally banning the Tatar leader from Crimea and its wonderful beaches, Europe should show solidarity and respond by banning members of Russia’s ruling “United Russia” party from their summers in the Riviera or the Algarve. The financial loss to business could be more than offset by a concerted advertising campaign to encourage Ukrainians and other Europeans to take their place. After all, many would be more than happy to enjoy the resorts absent the loud Russians who put the stereotype of the “Ugly Americans” to shame.

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Turkey to Take Press Crackdown to New Level?

When diplomats once called Turkey a model, they meant as a majority Muslim state that embraced democracy. Here is Hillary Clinton, for example, finding the same sort of hope in Turkey’s Islamist regime she once saw in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Bush administration, for its part, wasn’t any better, with the likes of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and even the president himself diminishing democracy by placing the adjective Islamic in front of it. That has nothing to do with the term Islamic; putting any modifier in front of democracy—Christian, Jewish, socialist, revolutionary, or any other adjective—necessarily constrains the democracy itself.

Alas, all the blind rhetoric of Turkey’s democracy on the part of American politicians—and here a special spotlight should be on the members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus—simply gave Turkey cover to continue its crackdown.

Turkey has, accordingly, plummeted in press freedom. But simply confiscating opponents’ newspapers is no longer enough for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Putin. As protestors rallied against him, he condemned and even banned Twitter. YouTube remains censored despite a court order. Earlier this weekend, Lütfi Elvan, Turkey’s minister of communications, proposed removing Turkey from the world wide web, and replacing the “www” with a “ttt,” in effect, a Turkish intranet. Even though his statement was made before numerous journalists, the Turkish government is now walking back the proposal. Still, Elvan’s sin appears to be in the timing of his comments rather than in their content. Make no mistake: Even considering such a ludicrous plan puts Turkey firmly in a club dominated by the likes of Iran, China, and North Korea.

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When diplomats once called Turkey a model, they meant as a majority Muslim state that embraced democracy. Here is Hillary Clinton, for example, finding the same sort of hope in Turkey’s Islamist regime she once saw in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Bush administration, for its part, wasn’t any better, with the likes of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and even the president himself diminishing democracy by placing the adjective Islamic in front of it. That has nothing to do with the term Islamic; putting any modifier in front of democracy—Christian, Jewish, socialist, revolutionary, or any other adjective—necessarily constrains the democracy itself.

Alas, all the blind rhetoric of Turkey’s democracy on the part of American politicians—and here a special spotlight should be on the members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus—simply gave Turkey cover to continue its crackdown.

Turkey has, accordingly, plummeted in press freedom. But simply confiscating opponents’ newspapers is no longer enough for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Putin. As protestors rallied against him, he condemned and even banned Twitter. YouTube remains censored despite a court order. Earlier this weekend, Lütfi Elvan, Turkey’s minister of communications, proposed removing Turkey from the world wide web, and replacing the “www” with a “ttt,” in effect, a Turkish intranet. Even though his statement was made before numerous journalists, the Turkish government is now walking back the proposal. Still, Elvan’s sin appears to be in the timing of his comments rather than in their content. Make no mistake: Even considering such a ludicrous plan puts Turkey firmly in a club dominated by the likes of Iran, China, and North Korea.

Erdoğan’s record reinforces the fact that Turkey belongs nowhere near Europe. Liberal Turks will never again be in the majority in their country, and Erdoğan believes that so long as his Anatolian constituency blindly supports him, he can be the sultan in reality that he always was in spirit. Turks and Kurds deserve better, but until and unless they stand up more forcefully for their rights or until Turkey fractures–which, with current demographic trends and the Kurdish national resurgence Turkey eventually will–liberal Turks will never again know freedom in their own country.

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The President Sees a Different Reality in Northeast Asia

Peter’s take on President Obama’s retreat from reality on the consequences of Russia’s annexation of Crimea is paralleled in Northeast Asia. On the plus side, the president’s team should be given lots of credit for getting Japan’s prime minister and South Korea’s president to sit down together for a trilateral meeting. America’s two closest allies in Asia have barely been on speaking terms the past year. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has consistently refused overtures from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to meet, claiming that until Tokyo fully owns up to its wartime atrocities, deals fully with the comfort women issue, and clamps down on revisionist textbooks, there is no reason for full-fledged talks. Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine last December put ties into the deep freeze, until this week.

In Brussels, the president managed to break through this reluctance, at least for one day. South Korea’s Park, in particular, may well have felt dragged into the meeting, while Japan’s Abe clearly saw it as a diplomatic victory. There was little substantive achievement from the trilateral gathering, at least based on media reports, but at this point, having Park and Abe actually sit in the same room was a big achievement.

Yet in the press conference afterwards, President Obama made an almost bizarre statement that redounds to Peter’s observation with regard to Russia. The president was quoted as saying, “Over the last five years, close coordination between our three countries succeeded in changing the game with North Korea…”

That is a completely different view of reality than most observers of Northeast Asia have. To be charitable, the president may merely have been talking about getting closer trilateral “response” in the event of future North Korean provocation, but even that was left completely undefined and vague.

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Peter’s take on President Obama’s retreat from reality on the consequences of Russia’s annexation of Crimea is paralleled in Northeast Asia. On the plus side, the president’s team should be given lots of credit for getting Japan’s prime minister and South Korea’s president to sit down together for a trilateral meeting. America’s two closest allies in Asia have barely been on speaking terms the past year. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has consistently refused overtures from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to meet, claiming that until Tokyo fully owns up to its wartime atrocities, deals fully with the comfort women issue, and clamps down on revisionist textbooks, there is no reason for full-fledged talks. Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine last December put ties into the deep freeze, until this week.

In Brussels, the president managed to break through this reluctance, at least for one day. South Korea’s Park, in particular, may well have felt dragged into the meeting, while Japan’s Abe clearly saw it as a diplomatic victory. There was little substantive achievement from the trilateral gathering, at least based on media reports, but at this point, having Park and Abe actually sit in the same room was a big achievement.

Yet in the press conference afterwards, President Obama made an almost bizarre statement that redounds to Peter’s observation with regard to Russia. The president was quoted as saying, “Over the last five years, close coordination between our three countries succeeded in changing the game with North Korea…”

That is a completely different view of reality than most observers of Northeast Asia have. To be charitable, the president may merely have been talking about getting closer trilateral “response” in the event of future North Korean provocation, but even that was left completely undefined and vague.

More directly, however, the president seems to be ignoring that young dictator Kim Jong-un appears to be even more unpredictable and uncontrollable than his late father. Kim has purged his father’s officials, executing the former No. 2 official, who also happened to be his uncle. While the president was speaking, Kim was firing off medium-range ballistic missiles. He has already conducted a nuclear test and tested a long-range ballistic missile, in addition to breaking his one agreement with the Obama administration. Pyongyang’s rhetoric is as bellicose as ever, if not more so. I defy the president to find one knowledgeable observer outside his administration who believes America has “changed the game” with North Korea since 2009.

The same can be said for the president’s continued belief that China is somehow a partner of the United States. After meeting with President Xi Jinping of China in Brussels, the president again stated that the two sides are creating a “new model” of relations between Washington and Beijing. The new model increasingly seems to be one where China tries to revise international norms, supports destabilizing actors, and coerces its neighbors, while the United States does its best to ignore such actions. That would include such things as declaring an intrusive air defense identification zone over part of the East China Sea, violating Japan’s territorial waters, preventing the Philippines from resupplying troops on claimed territory in the South China Sea, supporting North Korea, and preventing stronger action on Iran, among others.

Diplomacy often requires saying untrue things in service of a greater cause, but no cause is helped by pretending that things are what they are not. After five years, it would be more reassuring to see the president humbled and frustrated by his lack of progress in dealing with North Korea or in making China a more constructive actor on the world stage. Assertions of a parallel reality either are boilerplate to be ignored or reveal a worrisome lack of understanding of actual trends. In either case, they also abet the continued uncertainty and sense of insecurity that is increasing risk throughout East Asia.

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The Crimea Precedent

As of this writing the Russian stock market is up more than 4 percent today after a 3.7 percent bump up yesterday. At this rate the annexation of Crimea is going to spark a major rally for Russian stocks.

Wonder what the Communist leadership in Beijing is thinking now as they contemplate the possibility of making an armed grab for the Senkakus or some other piece of coveted real estate? Perhaps they’re thinking that the consequences of such a move would not be all that deleterious–a few days of bluster from the U.S. followed by sanctions on fewer than a dozen individuals. Why not go for it?

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As of this writing the Russian stock market is up more than 4 percent today after a 3.7 percent bump up yesterday. At this rate the annexation of Crimea is going to spark a major rally for Russian stocks.

Wonder what the Communist leadership in Beijing is thinking now as they contemplate the possibility of making an armed grab for the Senkakus or some other piece of coveted real estate? Perhaps they’re thinking that the consequences of such a move would not be all that deleterious–a few days of bluster from the U.S. followed by sanctions on fewer than a dozen individuals. Why not go for it?

It is imperative that President Obama not stop with the extremely mild sanctions announced Monday. He needs to go after the assets of major Kremlin powerbrokers and their oligarch allies–and he needs to send a shot across Putin’s bow by barring at least one Russian bank from conducting cross-border transactions, as suggested by Mark Dubowitz. That is the way to really hurt Putin–to go after his assets and those or his cronies and to prevent the financial institutions they operate from functioning as per normal. Obama should also be providing military aid to Ukraine, to make clear that further Russian aggression will meet a determined response.

That, however, runs the risk of Russian retaliation which the U.S. and EU so far have not been willing to run. So the Russian stock market continues to waft ever upward and Putin is no doubt congratulating himself for his successful bout of Realpolitik. Having transgressed all international norms, Putin has prudently signaled that he is not preparing to go any further at this time, that he will leave eastern Ukraine alone for the time being, causing Russia’s neighbors to breathe a palpable but premature sigh of relief.

Once again the tsar in the Kremlin appears to be running rings around the leaders of the West, who appear to be weak and confused by comparison. If he can do it twice (in Georgia and Ukraine) he can do it a third time and a fourth. That is a terrible precedent to be setting, and one that the entire world will be taking note of.

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George W. Bush, Still Living Rent-Free in Their Heads

Remember that time the George W. Bush administration simultaneously invaded Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea? Apparently, according to the New York Times report today on the Obama administration’s foreign-policy readjustment, a former national-security aide to Obama does. The Times’s article is an in-depth look at how the Obama administration’s naïve worldview has shattered on the rocks of reality. Only they don’t know what to replace it with, because they still seem to think they’re running against George Bush.

The guiding principle of Obama administration strategy, to try to figure out what Bush would do and then do the opposite all the while proclaiming moral superiority, has been a flop. But the fact that they still seem to be haunted by their obsession with him is troubling. And yet we get this, from the Times:

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Remember that time the George W. Bush administration simultaneously invaded Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea? Apparently, according to the New York Times report today on the Obama administration’s foreign-policy readjustment, a former national-security aide to Obama does. The Times’s article is an in-depth look at how the Obama administration’s naïve worldview has shattered on the rocks of reality. Only they don’t know what to replace it with, because they still seem to think they’re running against George Bush.

The guiding principle of Obama administration strategy, to try to figure out what Bush would do and then do the opposite all the while proclaiming moral superiority, has been a flop. But the fact that they still seem to be haunted by their obsession with him is troubling. And yet we get this, from the Times:

The White House was taken by surprise by Vladimir V. Putin’s decisions to invade Crimea, but also by China’s increasingly assertive declaration of exclusive rights to airspace and barren islands. Neither the economic pressure nor the cyberattacks that forced Iran to reconsider its approach have prevented North Korea’s stealthy revitalization of its nuclear and missile programs.

Followed by this:

“We’re seeing the ‘light footprint’ run out of gas,” said one of Mr. Obama’s former senior national security aides, who would not speak on the record about his ex-boss.

“No one is arguing for military action, for bringing back George Bush’s chest-thumping,” the former aide said. At the same time, he said, the president’s oft-repeated lines that those who violate international norms will be “isolated” and “pay a heavy price” over the long term have sounded “more like predictions over time, and less like imminent threats.”

I don’t know who the source is obviously; since it’s in the New York Times he or she is anonymous. (How long until Times bylines are also anonymous? And how much would this benefit Tom Friedman?) But I sincerely hope this person’s view isn’t too widely shared among the Obama inner circle.

It was understandable to run against Bush in 2008. He was the sitting president of the other party, and his approval numbers were low. Additionally, the GOP candidate that year, John McCain, was considered even more hawkish than Bush. At the very least, he was more closely associated with the successful “surge” in Iraq than pretty much anyone except the president himself. Obama (who made a prediction on the surge that turned out to be completely and totally wrong) ran on his opposition to the Iraq war. So the contrast between the two candidates was clear, and it made sense for Obama to play up those differences. He felt he was on the right side of public opinion on them.

But that stark contrast had more or less evaporated by Obama’s reelection in 2012. He ran against Mitt Romney, who was certainly tougher on Putin’s Russia (Obama turned out to be wrong there too, as a pattern emerges) but who was otherwise hesitant to run too far to Obama’s right. Obama even used their debates to taunt Romney for being insufficiently bloodthirsty and too hesitant to blow stuff up. Obama ran as the bold assassin. Bin Laden is dead, or haven’t you heard?

More revealing is the fact that Democrats still slamming Bush aren’t actually criticizing Bush, but instead taking aim at the version of Bush they seemed to invent for electoral purposes but ended up believing was real. The power of propaganda can sometimes be most acutely felt by the propagandist. Bush didn’t bomb Iran in response to its nuclear pursuit, or Russia in response to its invasion of Georgia, etc.

And it’s a testament to the incoherence of leftist foreign policy that we’re also reminded of that by the White House–such as when Bush is portrayed as being too naïve for looking into Putin’s eyes and seeing his soul. It’s no wonder the administration has no idea how to respond to the provocations of rogue states: if they want to do the opposite of Bush, but believe Bush is all over the map on policy, what space is left for them?

Not much. The Obama administration has boxed itself in by not giving up its long-stale and outdated campaign rhetoric. It’s disturbing to have to say this in 2014, but it’s time for Democrats still obsessed with Bush to just let it go.

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Putin’s Precedent: Give Siberia to China?

If Russian strongman Vladimir Putin wants to redraw the map of Russia to protect ethnic minorities, with tongue-in-cheek, perhaps it’s time that those revisions go both ways. Siberia is resource-rich and population-poor, but home to a growing Chinese minority, or at least a mixed Russian-Chinese minority. The reason is simple (and this isn’t tongue-in-cheek): Many Russian women are marrying Chinese men simply because they drink less and don’t beat them as much. Regardless, what happens in Crimea or, perhaps next, Kharkov, won’t stay in Crimea or Kharkov.

Precedent matters. Had the West not acted with such impotence in the wake of the Russian invasion and occupation of parts of Georgia, perhaps Putin would have thought twice before rehashing the same playbook in Ukraine. Certainly, the Baltic States have reason for concern given Latvia and Estonia’s Russian minorities; Lithuania’s is considerably smaller. So too does Moldova, where Russians almost equal the Moldovan population in the Transnistrian region.

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If Russian strongman Vladimir Putin wants to redraw the map of Russia to protect ethnic minorities, with tongue-in-cheek, perhaps it’s time that those revisions go both ways. Siberia is resource-rich and population-poor, but home to a growing Chinese minority, or at least a mixed Russian-Chinese minority. The reason is simple (and this isn’t tongue-in-cheek): Many Russian women are marrying Chinese men simply because they drink less and don’t beat them as much. Regardless, what happens in Crimea or, perhaps next, Kharkov, won’t stay in Crimea or Kharkov.

Precedent matters. Had the West not acted with such impotence in the wake of the Russian invasion and occupation of parts of Georgia, perhaps Putin would have thought twice before rehashing the same playbook in Ukraine. Certainly, the Baltic States have reason for concern given Latvia and Estonia’s Russian minorities; Lithuania’s is considerably smaller. So too does Moldova, where Russians almost equal the Moldovan population in the Transnistrian region.

Early in the Crimea crisis, Putin claimed Chinese support for Russian actions. Rather than two aspiring powers cooperating to checkmate American dominance, however, China may have played Putin by endorsing a doctrine that ultimately might justify a resurgent China’s territorial ambition.

It is too bad that the Obama doctrine continues to be one of empty redlines that the United States neither has the power nor the will to enforce, and U.S. public diplomacy emphasizes tweeting for the sake of tweeting, with absolutely no evidence that officials using twitter adds an iota of credibility or effectiveness to American diplomacy. Perhaps it is time to play hardball and suggest publicly and often that the United States respects the rights of minorities within the borders of Russia to independence or to join neighboring states if those minorities so choose.

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Not All Dissidents Are Heroes

Given the proclivity of dictators to label all of their domestic critics, no matter how non-violent, as “terrorists” it is understandable that there is not more outrage in the West over an attack by Uighur separatists in southern China who stabbed to death at least 29 people in a railroad station and wounded perhaps 100 more. That’s understandable, but wrong.

Let us grant that China’s policies in Xinjiang, the western province where the Uighurs live, are oppressive, even more so than in the case of the rest of the country. The Han Chinese who dominate the Chinese government have long discriminated against ethnic minorities such as the Uighurs and Tibetans. As the Washington Post notes:

Just as Chinese leaders try to control other religions, including Catholicism and evangelical Christianity, they have issued strict policies for Muslim Uighurs. They must use a state-approved Koran. The government manages mosques. And Uighur men who want government jobs have been forced to shave their beards; women are forbidden to wear headscarves.

When Uighurs try to protest such restrictions, or even agitate for independence for a new state of East Turkestan, the Chinese authorities react with the savagery typical of a police state, locking up dissidents. Little wonder, then, that some Uighurs are resorting to terrorism to fight back. But however understandable the reaction of the extremists, it is also unforgivable. The poor commuters slain in a railway station in Kunming are not responsible for their government’s polices; they are just innocent victims.

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Given the proclivity of dictators to label all of their domestic critics, no matter how non-violent, as “terrorists” it is understandable that there is not more outrage in the West over an attack by Uighur separatists in southern China who stabbed to death at least 29 people in a railroad station and wounded perhaps 100 more. That’s understandable, but wrong.

Let us grant that China’s policies in Xinjiang, the western province where the Uighurs live, are oppressive, even more so than in the case of the rest of the country. The Han Chinese who dominate the Chinese government have long discriminated against ethnic minorities such as the Uighurs and Tibetans. As the Washington Post notes:

Just as Chinese leaders try to control other religions, including Catholicism and evangelical Christianity, they have issued strict policies for Muslim Uighurs. They must use a state-approved Koran. The government manages mosques. And Uighur men who want government jobs have been forced to shave their beards; women are forbidden to wear headscarves.

When Uighurs try to protest such restrictions, or even agitate for independence for a new state of East Turkestan, the Chinese authorities react with the savagery typical of a police state, locking up dissidents. Little wonder, then, that some Uighurs are resorting to terrorism to fight back. But however understandable the reaction of the extremists, it is also unforgivable. The poor commuters slain in a railway station in Kunming are not responsible for their government’s polices; they are just innocent victims.

There is no cause to kill civilians to make the Uighurs’ case. They would be better off using non-violent protests even if such protests are likely to prove ineffectual against a one-party state. At least such protests will not result in violent retaliation against innocent Uighurs. This is one area where the U.S. can actually sympathize with China and foster better cooperation on what used to be known as the war on terror, while of course being aware of, and resistant to, Beijing’s desire to brand all dissidents with the “terrorist” label.

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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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A Good Time for that “Pacific Pivot”

I was struck by Michael Auslin’s item regarding the possibility of war breaking out between China and Japan–something that has been much discussed in recent weeks and that is no longer so unthinkable with nationalist politicians in power in both Beijing and Tokyo. Japan’s prime minister has compared the current situation to 1914 with Japan in the role of Britain and China that of Wilhelmine Germany. The president of the Philippines has cited a historical comparison of his own–to the 1930s with China in the role of Nazi Germany and his own country cast as Czechoslovakia, ripe for dismemberment.

Whatever one thinks of these historical analogies, there is no doubt that China is going on the offensive, using aggressive nationalism as a ruling ideology to replace defunct Communist dogma, and Japan is less and less inclined to be pushed around by its bigger neighbor: a potentially explosive combination.

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I was struck by Michael Auslin’s item regarding the possibility of war breaking out between China and Japan–something that has been much discussed in recent weeks and that is no longer so unthinkable with nationalist politicians in power in both Beijing and Tokyo. Japan’s prime minister has compared the current situation to 1914 with Japan in the role of Britain and China that of Wilhelmine Germany. The president of the Philippines has cited a historical comparison of his own–to the 1930s with China in the role of Nazi Germany and his own country cast as Czechoslovakia, ripe for dismemberment.

Whatever one thinks of these historical analogies, there is no doubt that China is going on the offensive, using aggressive nationalism as a ruling ideology to replace defunct Communist dogma, and Japan is less and less inclined to be pushed around by its bigger neighbor: a potentially explosive combination.

And yet where does Secretary of State John Kerry choose to devote his time? He has made clear that his primary objective is to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace, which seems to be as unlikely as ever. His secondary objectives seem to be focused on Iran and Syria, both important areas to be sure. But the Syria conflict, for one, does not appear to be amenable to diplomatic solution, as the failure of Geneva II should have made clear. The prospects are, admittedly, more promising in the case of Iran but only if the U.S. is willing to accept a lopsided deal that lifts a significant amount of the sanctions in return for a commitment to slow but not stop, much less dismantle, its nuclear program.

This leads one to wonder why Kerry isn’t devoting more time to Asian diplomacy? The explosive situation between China and Japan is hardly the only area of tension that cries out for amelioration. As the comments from Benigno Aquino of the Philippines quoted above make clear, China has dangerous relations with many of its neighbors who are offended by its expansive territorial claims.

Two U.S. allies–South Korea and Japan–also have poisonous relations that hinder efforts to contain both China and North Korea and could also be the subject of productive bridge-building work by an American secretary of state.

Finally, India remains a wild card in all of this–a major country on the other side of China that could be of crucial importance in containing the rise of Chinese power, playing the same role that Russia played in containing Germany in the two world wars. President George W. Bush made real progress in improving U.S.-India ties but more needs to be done, not only to bring the U.S. and India closer together but also to improve ties between India and other U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific region, from Australia to Japan.

There is, in short, ample work to be done here by a leading American diplomat and more potential for progress than in the Middle East. Yet Kerry is largely MIA in this crucial region. Whatever happened to the “Pacific pivot”?

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Year of the (War) Horse?

Given that this is the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, comparisons to pre-conflict Europe in 1914 are abounding. Most have little historical value and less predictive worth. However, when even foreign leaders start to repeat them, then we might start to worry about self-fulfilling prophecies.

The most notable comes from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who used his speech at the World Economic Forum meeting to claim that today, China and Japan resemble Britain and Germany in 1914. Despite their close economic ties, Abe noted, Berlin’s military buildup caused instability leading to war. Other reports out of Davos indicate the Chinese noted the same thing, with a confidence that they could achieve their immediate goal of taking over a group of contested islands located near Taiwan, the Senkakus, that Japan has controlled since 1894 (except for a period of American control from 1945 to 1972). Even Henry Kissinger has got into the act, warning that the two are close to war.

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Given that this is the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, comparisons to pre-conflict Europe in 1914 are abounding. Most have little historical value and less predictive worth. However, when even foreign leaders start to repeat them, then we might start to worry about self-fulfilling prophecies.

The most notable comes from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who used his speech at the World Economic Forum meeting to claim that today, China and Japan resemble Britain and Germany in 1914. Despite their close economic ties, Abe noted, Berlin’s military buildup caused instability leading to war. Other reports out of Davos indicate the Chinese noted the same thing, with a confidence that they could achieve their immediate goal of taking over a group of contested islands located near Taiwan, the Senkakus, that Japan has controlled since 1894 (except for a period of American control from 1945 to 1972). Even Henry Kissinger has got into the act, warning that the two are close to war.

Following close on these Davos disturbances were Chinese newspapers noting that this year, the Year of the Horse, is the same zodiacal year in which China and Japan fought their first war. The 1894 Sino-Japanese War broke out over Imperial Japan’s desire to control the Korean peninsula and end Chinese influence there. Of course, Japan defeated China by the following year and upended centuries of East Asian geopolitics.

There are major historical problems with both these analogies. With respect to 1914, Japan is no Britain, which was the de facto defender of the balance of power and open trading system. Instead, Japan has but slowly developed its military potential, while keeping both its capacity limited and being hamstrung by constitutional restrictions on the use of force. The 1914-style clash between reigning hegemon and rising challenger could only be between the United States and China, and there is as yet little reason to believe either is contemplating such a fight.

Further, no matter how much economic interplay there was between Britain and Germany back then, it is nothing like the interdependence of China and Japan, which are each other’s second-largest trading partners, where 10 million Chinese are employed by Japanese firms on the mainland, and where Chinese firms assemble billions of dollars worth of products using Japanese components or designed in Japan. There is no reason to expect that economic ties always trump political/military ones, but the bar has undoubtedly been raised particularly high in the Asian case.

As for 1894, again to use the Lloyd Bentsen analogy, the Senkaku Islands are no Korea. While the Senkakus are strategically useful to China, they are uninhabitable and largely derive their importance from nationalistic feelings that any territory once claimed by a state must be recovered. Korea, by comparison, was the crossroads of Northeast Asia, a fertile land to be controlled and used for further expansion. From that perspective, Korea may indeed have been worth fighting a war over, but no such claim could be made for the Senkakus.

The real danger is not a “guns of August” scenario whereby highly regulated mobilization timetables drag unprepared participants into conflict that spreads to halfhearted alliances. The danger rather falls into two distinct scenarios. The first is that years of war talk by both sides hardens diplomatic positions and inhibits any type of peaceful solution to the problem of a handful of uninhabited islands. Yes, Japan is deeply concerned about China’s seemingly inexorable rise once again to great-power status in Asia. It fears the future and feels its national honor is at stake in the Senkakus issue. As for Beijing, it appears to have adopted a position of pushing as far as it can and waiting to see what the response is; little opposition encourages more probing, while a firm response usually causes it to back down.

The second danger scenario is much more likely: accident or miscalculation leading to conflict. One would think that an accident, say two naval ships colliding, could be contained and prevented from escalating into full war. But here is where years of nationalism, distrust, and ambition could combine into a deadly brew. Neither side may want a real conflict, but each may feel they have drawn their lines too strongly to back down. The Year of the (War) Horse may come to haunt Asia.

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How China Undercuts International Order in East Asia

Since Beijing established its controversial air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over a large part of the East China Sea last November, the Obama administration has done everything possible to avoid a political confrontation. While U.S. military jets are reported to have ignored the ADIZ and continued regular flights, Vice President Biden very conspicuously refused during his December visit to Beijing to demand that China roll back the zone. Moreover, the State Department advised U.S. civilian airliners to comply with Beijing’s demands. Washington’s actions are part of a larger trend of failing to uphold international order in East Asia.

This week, America’s top commander in the Pacific, Admiral Samuel Locklear, told reporters that the Chinese military has been “acting professionally” in the skies near the disputed Senkaku Islands. Unfortunately, news reports provided little clarity as to just what the Chinese are doing, professionally or otherwise, and where and how often U.S. jets are flying. This is a problem because the Obama administration has consistently refused to explain just why China’s particular ADIZ both conflicts with international law and is highly destabilizing.

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Since Beijing established its controversial air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over a large part of the East China Sea last November, the Obama administration has done everything possible to avoid a political confrontation. While U.S. military jets are reported to have ignored the ADIZ and continued regular flights, Vice President Biden very conspicuously refused during his December visit to Beijing to demand that China roll back the zone. Moreover, the State Department advised U.S. civilian airliners to comply with Beijing’s demands. Washington’s actions are part of a larger trend of failing to uphold international order in East Asia.

This week, America’s top commander in the Pacific, Admiral Samuel Locklear, told reporters that the Chinese military has been “acting professionally” in the skies near the disputed Senkaku Islands. Unfortunately, news reports provided little clarity as to just what the Chinese are doing, professionally or otherwise, and where and how often U.S. jets are flying. This is a problem because the Obama administration has consistently refused to explain just why China’s particular ADIZ both conflicts with international law and is highly destabilizing.

First, China’s ADIZ is ostensibly applied to both civilian and military flights for purposes of identification, filing of flight plans, and the like. All other ADIZ’s, such as those of the United States, apply only to civilian flights, and only in the case that there is a valid concern that they are acting in a threatening manner towards U.S. territorial airspace. As pointed out by James Kraska, formerly of the U.S. Naval War College, among others, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China is a signatory, allows “freedom of overflight” on the high seas, including through exclusive economic zones (EEZ).

Beijing is thus trying to change the status quo by warping the commonly accepted definition of an ADIZ. The U.S. has never fully explained that only China is attempting to control the activities of both civilian and foreign military aircraft by expanding the scope of an air defense zone. This is a prime example of what analysts mean when they talk about international “norms” and the danger to them of revisionist states like China.

Second, China’s ADIZ conflicts with the 1947 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, which states that interception of civilian aircraft over sovereign territory is permissible only if “reasonable grounds” exist to assume that such flight was not innocent, and that states “must refrain from resorting to the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight.”

Yet in announcing its ADIZ, Beijing said that “emergency defensive measures” would be taken against any aircraft that did not comply with its demands for identification in the international airspace that happened to fall within the ADIZ, regardless of the innocence of the flight. Beijing is thus both conflating sovereign and international airspace and violating the spirit of international law by pre-justifying the use of force. A State Department full of lawyers might have enjoyed pounding this point home, but little if anything has been said about it.

In addition, Beijing is ignoring the fact that all airspace is already divided into “Flight Identification Regions” for the management of civilian flights and is agreed to through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Beijing’s demand that innocent civilian airliners provide information when traveling through its ADIZ violates air traffic practice established more than 50 years ago. Again, Washington has been silent on this point.

Third, Washington should have repeatedly pointed out that only China has established an ADIZ that overlaps with those of other countries. Indeed, a primary reason for China’s zone is to extend its ownership claims over the contested Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Japan. Thus, Beijing set up its ADIZ over Japan’s own zone, which was established decades ago. In addition, China overlapped territory claimed by South Korea. In response, Seoul also extended its ADIZ, so that the East China Sea now has three overlapping air defense zones.

The Obama administration has refused to provide the specifics about how destabilizing this is. Instead, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel merely lamented that what the U.S. was most concerned about was that China established its ADIZ in a precipitous manner without preconsultation. While U.S. military leaders have talked about the potential for accidental confrontation, the real dangers are much broader. In refusing to defend customary practice, international law, and common sense, the administration is playing its part in undermining all of them. It is a steep price to pay for not wanting to antagonize an already antagonistic competitor.

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Global Defense Spending Sharply Rises (Except in the West)

The defense budget debates in Washington over the past several years always took place in a vacuum: rarely, if ever, were discussions on how much to cut put into a global context. Few partisans of reduced military spending ever stopped to consider that the United States was not reducing its commitments around the world, only its ability to carry them out. Nor did they seem much exercised by the thought that other countries were not motionless, but would be pursuing their own interests regardless of what Washington did.

Two news stories today bring some more clarity to a situation that has been developing for some time. While the U.S. defense budget continues on a long-term downward trend (though spared from the worst of the congressionally-mandated sequestration cuts for now), China, Russia, and the Middle East are driving a new surge in military spending. Meanwhile, America and its liberal allies continue to pare their defensive capabilities, leading to an increasing imbalance around the globe.

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The defense budget debates in Washington over the past several years always took place in a vacuum: rarely, if ever, were discussions on how much to cut put into a global context. Few partisans of reduced military spending ever stopped to consider that the United States was not reducing its commitments around the world, only its ability to carry them out. Nor did they seem much exercised by the thought that other countries were not motionless, but would be pursuing their own interests regardless of what Washington did.

Two news stories today bring some more clarity to a situation that has been developing for some time. While the U.S. defense budget continues on a long-term downward trend (though spared from the worst of the congressionally-mandated sequestration cuts for now), China, Russia, and the Middle East are driving a new surge in military spending. Meanwhile, America and its liberal allies continue to pare their defensive capabilities, leading to an increasing imbalance around the globe.

According to the New York Times, China will spend more than Britain, France, and Germany combined, a total of $148 billion, though many experts believe it may be as much as double that. Just as worryingly, Bloomberg reports that in 2015 China and Russia alone will spend more on their militaries than the entire European Union. Those who dismiss Vladimir Putin’s regime as a paper tiger should update their assessment: Moscow now has the world’s third-largest military budget, and is increasing it by 44 percent. Meanwhile, China has just tested a hypersonic missile and has recently fielded new Predator-style drones, while investing in precision-guided cruise missiles, new bombers, an aircraft carrier, and a fifth-generation stealth fighter.

The political implications of the world’s largest authoritarian powers dramatically increasing their military budgets while the Western democracies reduce theirs seem unappreciated in Washington. It would be bad enough were a more confident China and Russia acting more coercively at their current levels of strength; a more powerful Beijing and Moscow, increasingly dismissive of their neighbors and acutely aware of regional military spending, will certainly be emboldened to push their interests in a more assertive fashion.

The response from the Obama administration is disheartening. It turns Syrian disarmament over to Russia and the U.N.; it refuses to confront China on its coercive behavior in the East and South China Seas; it embraces long-term personnel and modernization cuts in the U.S. military while ignoring other wasteful spending. The Obama White House may have the pulse of a war-weary American public, but it has completely misdiagnosed the global condition.

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Obama’s Disappearing Pacific Pivot

Talk about a disappearing agenda.

Back in the fall of 2011 and the early part of 2012, the Obama administration was busy announcing a “rebalancing” of American foreign policy from the Middle East to the Pacific region. In November 2011, Obama told the Australian parliament that he wanted to ensure that “the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region [the Asia-Pacific] and its future.”

In his 2014 State of the Union address the “pivot” to the Pacific had been relegated to one short paragraph near the end of the speech:

And we will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity and extend a hand to those devastated by disaster, as we did in the Philippines, when our Marines and civilians rushed to aid those battered by a typhoon, and were greeted with words like, “We will never forget your kindness” and “God bless America.”

The Asia-Pacific region, it must be noted, received less notice than Iran or Afghanistan, to say nothing of the president’s many domestic priorities.

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Talk about a disappearing agenda.

Back in the fall of 2011 and the early part of 2012, the Obama administration was busy announcing a “rebalancing” of American foreign policy from the Middle East to the Pacific region. In November 2011, Obama told the Australian parliament that he wanted to ensure that “the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region [the Asia-Pacific] and its future.”

In his 2014 State of the Union address the “pivot” to the Pacific had been relegated to one short paragraph near the end of the speech:

And we will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where we support our allies, shape a future of greater security and prosperity and extend a hand to those devastated by disaster, as we did in the Philippines, when our Marines and civilians rushed to aid those battered by a typhoon, and were greeted with words like, “We will never forget your kindness” and “God bless America.”

The Asia-Pacific region, it must be noted, received less notice than Iran or Afghanistan, to say nothing of the president’s many domestic priorities.

The relative unimportance of the “Pacific pivot” in his speech is matched by a lack of action to bulk up U.S. forces in the region, even as the U.S. downsizes in the Middle East–something that military officers and observers have been noticing. But then it’s hard to see how the U.S. can do more in the Pacific, or anywhere else, at a time when the defense budget is falling as fast as it is.

An increased U.S. commitment in the region is appropriate, especially coming at a time when delegates at Davos are buzzing about the possibility of conflict between China and Japan—a situation that Japan’s premier has compared to the relationship between Germany and Britain before 1914. But a U.S. commitment to the Pacific shouldn’t come at the expense of the U.S. commitment to the Middle East, which is in greater turmoil than ever.

In reality, the U.S. commitment to both regions is decreasing; it is just that the decline of U.S. power in the Middle East is happening faster than in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. will not be able to exert more power in either area until the president and Congress rethink their plans to shrink the defense budget and with it our military capability.

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Iran Gloats over Ashes of American Influence

Amidst Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic afterglow from his supposed breakthrough nuclear deal (never mind that it has yet to be implemented and Iran continues to enrich uranium well past levels and quantities needed to fuel its nuclear power plant at Bushehr), it is often useful to remember how the Islamic Republic views the region and how it sees the United States.

As such, on January 1, Fars News Agency published an essay gloating over America’s supposed downfall relative to Russia and China (both of whom it has previously praised for defending Iran at the nuclear negotiating table):

Pax Americana, the so-called American Peace, is dead. It was never much of a peace anyway. In context of the Middle East, the term itself signifies a period of US dominance that arose after the Second World War and reached its zenith in 1978. Then in 1979 came along the Iranian Revolution…

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Amidst Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic afterglow from his supposed breakthrough nuclear deal (never mind that it has yet to be implemented and Iran continues to enrich uranium well past levels and quantities needed to fuel its nuclear power plant at Bushehr), it is often useful to remember how the Islamic Republic views the region and how it sees the United States.

As such, on January 1, Fars News Agency published an essay gloating over America’s supposed downfall relative to Russia and China (both of whom it has previously praised for defending Iran at the nuclear negotiating table):

Pax Americana, the so-called American Peace, is dead. It was never much of a peace anyway. In context of the Middle East, the term itself signifies a period of US dominance that arose after the Second World War and reached its zenith in 1978. Then in 1979 came along the Iranian Revolution…

The essay continues to highlight American mistakes:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was so sure in 2006 that American domination in the broader Middle East would expand. She triumphantly declared amidst Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon that the map of the Middle East would forever change to the profit of the United States. It did not, and Israel lost the war too. US influence began eroding, while the influence of its rivals began increasing… In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s influence would increase dramatically. The March 14 Alliance, the Hariri-led Lebanese entity sponsored by the US and its allies against Hezbollah, has proven to be impotent in its task of neutralizing Hezbollah and its political allies in Lebanon’s March 8 Alliance.

And gloats over how U.S. influence has hemorrhaged as a result of President Obama’s policy of inaction in Syria, and Secretary of State Kerry’s desire for a deal—any deal not matter what its content—with Iran:

The US has not neutralized its two main adversaries in the Middle East. The objective of regime change in Damascus has failed and Washington did not unleash the might of the Pentagon on Syria. An interim nuclear deal was reached in the Swiss city of Geneva between America and Iran. The decisions by the United States not to go to war with Syria or to finally strike a deal with the Iranians are not the reasons for the unraveling of American power. American power was already on the decline. Washington struck deals involving Syria and Iran as a means of trying to maintain its influence in the broader Middle East and to actually slow the speed of its decline. Instead, America’s allies and clients are fuming and feeling scared. As a result of the declining power of the United States, Washington’s allies and clients are slowly diversifying their relationships. From Tel Aviv and Riyadh, the regional allies of the US realize that America’s imperial umbrella over them has begun to erode. They are looking for alternatives to the US patronage.

Alas, when it comes to U.S. influence and unraveling security and stability in the Middle East, there is something to the Iranian essay. But what the essay does not acknowledge is that behind every case of declining U.S. influence was a decision in Washington to compromise, force allies into concession, or to cut ill-advised deals.

Hezbollah started the 2006 war with Israel, but watching Israel do battle for a couple weeks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice exerted great pressure on Israel to curtail its operations short of its operational goal to eradicate Hezbollah’s military capacity. She helped broker a deal for enhanced international presence on the border, but UNIFIL is impotent and, as Hezbollah re-armed, neither they nor Iran faced consequences. She made matters worse in 2008 when, against the backdrop of Hezbollah threatening greater violence against Lebanon’s elected government, she blessed the 2008 Doha Accords which gave Hezbollah veto power over the Lebanese government. Much of the weakness of the March 14 movement was its own internal bickering, but rather than help push it into shape, Rice effectively pushed it over the precipice.

U.S. military aid to the Syrian opposition would be counterproductive given the triumph of the radicals within the opposition, although the secular, pro-Western Kurdish entity in western Syria, the very region whose government Kerry bizarrely excludes from the diplomatic process, deserves real support. That said, the apparent Syrian government use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburbs should have resulted in an immediate and punishing military strike. That it did not only lost whatever credibility Obama had left, but is now a source of Iranian gloating. And, of course, so is the nuclear deal which the Iranians describe not as an indication of bringing peace, but rather in terms of it being a death blow to U.S. allies in the region. It seems everyone—Chinese, Russians, Iranians, and Saudis—see themselves in a Great Game for influence in the region. The United States refuses to recognize reality and so, as far as both the Iranians and U.S. regional allies are concerned, is forfeiting everything that is at stake.

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Shinzo Abe’s Provocation

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is making predictable waves with his provocative visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan’s war dead–including a number of war criminals from World War II. He is trying, half-heartedly, to pass this off as a normal visit akin to a U.S. president visiting Arlington National Cemetery, but anyone who has ever been to Yasukuni knows that’s not the case. Right next to the shrine is a museum commemorating Japan’s 20th-century wars, which are presented from an imperialistic and militaristic slant in which the Rape of Nanking is not mentioned, the U.S. is blamed for provoking the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the kamikaze pilots are glorified for their devotion to the nation.

Abe knows all of this, and he knows how Japan’s neighbors perceive high-level visits to the Shrine–about the same way as a bull perceives a waving red cape. So what is he up to? The obvious explanation is that he is enhancing his domestic popularity, already high, by catering to his right-wing supporters. He may also feel that China and South Korea have shown little interest in rapprochement with Japan so he has nothing to lose by doing what he has wanted to do all along.

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is making predictable waves with his provocative visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors Japan’s war dead–including a number of war criminals from World War II. He is trying, half-heartedly, to pass this off as a normal visit akin to a U.S. president visiting Arlington National Cemetery, but anyone who has ever been to Yasukuni knows that’s not the case. Right next to the shrine is a museum commemorating Japan’s 20th-century wars, which are presented from an imperialistic and militaristic slant in which the Rape of Nanking is not mentioned, the U.S. is blamed for provoking the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the kamikaze pilots are glorified for their devotion to the nation.

Abe knows all of this, and he knows how Japan’s neighbors perceive high-level visits to the Shrine–about the same way as a bull perceives a waving red cape. So what is he up to? The obvious explanation is that he is enhancing his domestic popularity, already high, by catering to his right-wing supporters. He may also feel that China and South Korea have shown little interest in rapprochement with Japan so he has nothing to lose by doing what he has wanted to do all along.

Some Japan watchers posit a more conspiratorial explanation for his provocation: By visiting Yasukuni, Abe will enrage China, North Korea, and South Korea, among others, possibly prompting symbolic Chinese retaliation, thereby making the Japanese people feel threatened and making them more receptive to his agenda of rearming Japan and adopting a more aggressive posture in foreign and defense policy.

This sounds plausible to me, but it is also short-sighted on Abe’s part, because he is simply feeding Chinese nationalism and xenophobia–the greatest threats to East Asian security today. He is also making it harder, indeed nearly impossible, for Japan to work together more closely with South Korea on issues of mutual concern, such as the threat from North Korea. Japan and South Korea–both democracies closely aligned with the U.S.–ought to be natural allies, but for that to occur South Korea would have to overcome decades of bitterness over Japan’s imperialistic exploitation of their country. Abe’s visit to Yasukuni makes that nearly impossible.

Abe has the potential to be one of Japan’s greatest prime ministers. He has already achieved a great deal by turning around the Japanese economy, which is emerging from years of stagnation. He will also do much good if he succeeds in expanding Japan’s capacity and scope for military action. Japan is America’s closest ally in Northeast Asia and one that can do a good deal of good by checking the rise of Chinese power. The just-concluded agreement to keep a U.S. marine base on Okinawa by relocating it to a remote part of the island is an example of Abe at his best. The visit to Yasukuni, unfortunately, undermines this achievement and creates needless antagonism toward Japanese rearmament.

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Globalization and Democracy Can Coexist

Jackson Diehl writes today of a nagging problem for the twin efforts of globalization and democratization: they seem to often work against each other. Specifically, the economic growth that stems from a globalized economy creates winners and losers–and neither seems particularly keen on establishing true democracy. It’s a problem Joshua Kurlantzick writes about in his most recent book Democracy in Retreat. The subtitle of the book mentions the “revolt of the middle class,” the subject of Diehl’s piece today.

Both Kurlantzick and Diehl put the focus of their frustration on the “winners” of global commerce: these emerging middle classes. In reality, though, the categorizations aren’t so clear-cut. Who, for example, qualify as the “losers” of global economic expansion? They certainly exist, but analysts often disagree on who merits inclusion in this category much as umpires differ over the precise contours of the strike zone. In Diehl’s column, the “losers” seem to be those left behind–people who didn’t necessarily lose anything at all, but merely didn’t win.

That’s one of the obstacles to making sweeping generalizations, but nonetheless there is enough consistency to declare a trend. Diehl makes a slightly different argument than Kurlantzick, since Diehl has the advantage of writing one more cycle of “uprisings” later than Kurlantzick. But the basic premise is twofold: an unspoken implication that the poor have more reason to rise up, as well as a defensive middle class unnerved by populism on behalf of the poor. Here’s how Kurlantzick describes it:

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Jackson Diehl writes today of a nagging problem for the twin efforts of globalization and democratization: they seem to often work against each other. Specifically, the economic growth that stems from a globalized economy creates winners and losers–and neither seems particularly keen on establishing true democracy. It’s a problem Joshua Kurlantzick writes about in his most recent book Democracy in Retreat. The subtitle of the book mentions the “revolt of the middle class,” the subject of Diehl’s piece today.

Both Kurlantzick and Diehl put the focus of their frustration on the “winners” of global commerce: these emerging middle classes. In reality, though, the categorizations aren’t so clear-cut. Who, for example, qualify as the “losers” of global economic expansion? They certainly exist, but analysts often disagree on who merits inclusion in this category much as umpires differ over the precise contours of the strike zone. In Diehl’s column, the “losers” seem to be those left behind–people who didn’t necessarily lose anything at all, but merely didn’t win.

That’s one of the obstacles to making sweeping generalizations, but nonetheless there is enough consistency to declare a trend. Diehl makes a slightly different argument than Kurlantzick, since Diehl has the advantage of writing one more cycle of “uprisings” later than Kurlantzick. But the basic premise is twofold: an unspoken implication that the poor have more reason to rise up, as well as a defensive middle class unnerved by populism on behalf of the poor. Here’s how Kurlantzick describes it:

Despite the fact that militaries could hardly be called agents of reform, middle classes in many developing nations, both in the Middle East and in other parts of the world, often continued to support the armed forces as potential antidotes to popular democracy–democracy that might empower the poor, the religious, and the less educated. In this way, Egyptian liberals’ concerns about the fruits of democracy were not unique. Overall, in fact, an analysis of military coups in developing nations over the past twenty years, conducted by my research associate Daniel Silverman and myself, found that in nearly 50 percent of the cases, drawn from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East, middle-class men and women either agitated in advance for the coup or, in polls or prominent media coverage after the coup, expressed their support for the army takeover.

Kurlantzick’s expression “the fruits of democracy” captures well the fear of being, not to put too fine a point on it, looted. Diehl, who uses the term “elite revolt” to characterize the latest round of uprisings, puts it similarly:

So why are they rebelling? Because globalization is not merely an economic story. It is accompanied by the spread of freer and more inclusive elections to dozens of countries where they were previously banned or rigged. That has enabled the rise of populists who cater to globalization’s losers and who promise to crush the old establishment and even out the rewards. In country after country, they’ve succeeded in monopolizing the political system. Hence, the elite revolt.

Diehl offers up Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as a cautionary tale. And while the original framing of the issue puts more onus on the well-to-do (with great power comes great responsibility, and all that), this seems to even things out a bit. It’s understandable that a new middle class would be opposed to empowering the next Hugo Chavez.

So all this seems to suggest that maybe states like China have it all figured out: maybe the combination of democratization and globalization is too powerful for the two events to take place simultaneously. But this argument is missing an ingredient, and it’s one Kurlantzick glances at but doesn’t dwell on: stability. That’s clearest when looking at Russia’s Putin-era backsliding on democracy. Nobody’s wealth is safe without political stability.

But this, to me, is ultimately an argument in favor of globalization and democratization–as long as the term “democratization” means more than just elections, and globalization means more than just money. In April 2012, I quoted the Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer discussing the report that perhaps a majority of Chinese millionaires prefer to live in the United States to their home country, and it’s worth re-quoting here:

And yeah, it’s about quality of life. Yeah, it’s about the environment. Yeah, it’s about opportunities for their kids. It’s also about no rule of law in China and worrying about corruption and the sanctity of their assets over the long term. Your assets are okay tomorrow. The United States, we’re over-litigious. China doesn’t have that problem. You don’t have to worry about lawyers in China. You have to worry about someone ripping off your stuff or being forced out of the country or not being heard from again.

In some very real ways, it doesn’t matter how rich China gets if those with all the money will only park it in New York City. The same goes for Russia, though proximity to Europe seems to predispose that money toward London’s banks. But both New York and London are in the West, and both are in democracies (at least until the European Union gets its way). Because even the messiness of democracy–true democracy, with free institutions and the rule of law–provides more long-term stability than the arbitrary governance of autocracy.

Bremmer predicated his quote by saying we have to watch what people do with their money, not rely on what they say. And his point was that the elites in authoritarian countries are trying to protect their assets from their own country’s government–the very government that has enriched them and which speaks in their name. The “elite” can revolt all they want to protect themselves, but even when they successfully grab the reins of power, without the rule of law they still end up looking for a way out.

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China, the Philippines, and U.S. Influence

It’s good to hear Secretary of State John Kerry announce, on a visit to Manila, closer military cooperation with our longtime ally, the Philippines, including more U.S. military visits. It was good, too, to hear Kerry, at a press conference with the Philippine foreign minister, Albert del Rosario, denounce China’s new, self-declared air defense identification zone (ADIZ), which encroaches on Japanese and South Korean airspace. Kerry said that “the United States does not recognize that zone and does not accept it.”

The problem is that the administration has not been sending a consistent message to China in this regard. To its credit, the U.S. did fly a couple of unarmed B-52s through China’s ADIZ without notifying Chinese authorities. But then the U.S. seemed to send troubling signals that it was willing to accept the ADIZ after all. Foreign Policy noted on December 4 that the administration seems to be looking for “wiggle room” on the issue and “may be willing to accept the zone for now.”

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It’s good to hear Secretary of State John Kerry announce, on a visit to Manila, closer military cooperation with our longtime ally, the Philippines, including more U.S. military visits. It was good, too, to hear Kerry, at a press conference with the Philippine foreign minister, Albert del Rosario, denounce China’s new, self-declared air defense identification zone (ADIZ), which encroaches on Japanese and South Korean airspace. Kerry said that “the United States does not recognize that zone and does not accept it.”

The problem is that the administration has not been sending a consistent message to China in this regard. To its credit, the U.S. did fly a couple of unarmed B-52s through China’s ADIZ without notifying Chinese authorities. But then the U.S. seemed to send troubling signals that it was willing to accept the ADIZ after all. Foreign Policy noted on December 4 that the administration seems to be looking for “wiggle room” on the issue and “may be willing to accept the zone for now.”

For example, when Vice President Biden met in Beijing recently with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he didn’t mention the issue at all. Moreover, the Obama administration has infuriated our close allies in Tokyo by telling U.S. airliners to abide by the Chinese ADIZ, even as Japan is telling its own airlines to ignore it.

The lack of a strong, consistent message from the administration is deeply injurious to our relationships with allies and to overall efforts to limit Chinese expansion. The leadership in Beijing is smart and they are willing to play a long game. They are not going to achieve overnight their ultimate ambition of reasserting historic Chinese domination of its neighboring states and pushing the U.S. military beyond the “first island chain” off the Chinese shore–a designation which takes in everything from Taiwan to the Philippines. Instead, the Chinese are taking one small nibble after another, testing the American reaction, and then, if there is no reaction, proceeding onto the next bite.

So far, unfortunately, the U.S. has given China no reason to doubt that its assertion of an ADIZ was a success–which means that further aggressive moves are in store before long.

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It’s Time to Close the Camps

The last quarter century has been a time of great change across the globe, much of which has been for the better. The number of electoral democracies has grown from 69 in 1989 to 118 today. Despite Russia’s resurgence, the instability wrought by the Arab Spring, and the dangers posed by rogue regimes, the world remains far freer now than at any point in history.

How tragic it is, then, that so many tens of thousands remain effectively imprisoned in political concentration camps. North Korea, of course, is the world’s worst violator. According to the Guardian, the left’s flagship paper, up to 200,000 North Koreans remain imprisoned. CNN has detailed some of the ongoing horror in the six camps, and any report from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea is worth reading. The Hermit Kingdom is not alone, though.

For decades, China has also maintained a series of “re-education through labor” [laojiao] camps. And while the Chinese government has recently promised to dismantle its network, actions ultimately speak louder than words.

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The last quarter century has been a time of great change across the globe, much of which has been for the better. The number of electoral democracies has grown from 69 in 1989 to 118 today. Despite Russia’s resurgence, the instability wrought by the Arab Spring, and the dangers posed by rogue regimes, the world remains far freer now than at any point in history.

How tragic it is, then, that so many tens of thousands remain effectively imprisoned in political concentration camps. North Korea, of course, is the world’s worst violator. According to the Guardian, the left’s flagship paper, up to 200,000 North Koreans remain imprisoned. CNN has detailed some of the ongoing horror in the six camps, and any report from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea is worth reading. The Hermit Kingdom is not alone, though.

For decades, China has also maintained a series of “re-education through labor” [laojiao] camps. And while the Chinese government has recently promised to dismantle its network, actions ultimately speak louder than words.

The United States might have little leverage over China and North Korea, but low-hanging fruit which could be resolved with American diplomatic pressure does exist. The Mujahedin al-Khalq (MKO) is correct to castigate those who believe that the Iranian government or its militia proxies should enjoy an open season on group members. Opposing massacres is not synonymous with support for the group, however; it may no longer be a U.S.-designated terror group, but remains just as much an authoritarian cult. And while MKO spokesmen may castigate the Iraqi government and the Iranian regime, the real victims of the MKO lay within the group itself. Camp Liberty—the successor to Camp Ashraf—exists as much if not more to keep MKO members insulated from the real world and under the control of MKO leader Maryam Rajavi’s commissars than as a means of protection for group members.

Other camps exist in the Tindouf province of southwestern Algeria. Here, perhaps 40,000 residents of southern Morocco, Algeria, western Mali, and northern Mauritania languish in camps controlled by the once-Marxist Polisario Front, largely kept from returning home by the group’s political commissars and the Algerian government. During a recent visit to Dakhla, in Western Sahara, I had the opportunity to speak to former members who described not only their own escape from the camps, but the attempts by others who were forcibly returned to the camps, where Polisario authorities punished them for the audacity of seeking to return home rather than languish in camps 22 years after the war between Morocco and Algeria ended. Simply put, Polisario realizes that if the camps close, the gravy train of international assistance would end and the Polisario would lose its raison d’être.

The Polisario is not the only Cold War remnant stubbornly holding hostages. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia also engages in the practice, holding some prisoners for more than a decade. While some journalists parachute in and whitewash just what happens in FARC camps, it is hard to see “cultural programming” as anything other than an attempt at ideological re-education.

The Obama administration came into office seemingly committed to prioritizing human rights, never mind the debates about how best to guarantee rights, freedom, and liberty. The State Department became a revolving door not only for journalists, but for human-rights advocates, most notably Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski and writer Samantha Power. Increasingly, however, it seems such figures are either window dressing for an administration so disinterested in human rights that it is willing to sanction political concentration and re-education camps or, worse yet, that these figures are so permeated by moral equivalency and skewed in their understanding of what universal human rights are that they are willing to normalize with the regimes, sponsors, and groups which engage in such practices.

Concentration camps and slavery (discussed in a previous post) are two phenomena that simply should not exist in the 21st century. That they do is a sad testament to the reality of regimes like North Korea’s, China’s, Algeria’s, Venezuela’s, and Cuba’s, and the choices which successive U.S. administrations–both Democrat and Republican–have made to not let such issues be stumbling blocks to engaging with the United States on other issues.

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