Commentary Magazine


Topic: Japan

And You Think We’ve Got Troubles . . .

Two articles in today’s New York Times show just how much trouble Japan is in economically. On the front page is an article on how young Japanese are finding it increasingly difficult to find a good job. Only 56.7 percent of college students have a firm job offer when they graduate, an all-time low.

An aging population is clogging the nation’s economy with the vested interests of older generations, young people and social experts warn, making an already hierarchical society even more rigid and conservative. The result is that Japan is holding back and marginalizing its youth at a time when it actually needs them to help create the new products, companies and industries that a mature economy requires to grow.

With a population that is actually falling in numbers, a very low birth rate, virtually no immigration, and an ever-increasing life expectancy, Japan is a demographic time bomb as the average age of the population steadily increases. There are more and more recipients of old-age pensions and medical care and fewer and fewer young workers to fund them.

And Standard and Poor’s has lowered Japan’s credit rating, down to AA-. That’s three steps below the top grade of AAA. China has the same rating, but China is growing rapidly, and its debt is only about 15 percent of GDP. Japan’s debt this year will reach 203 percent. (The debt/GDP ratio of Greece last year when it nearly defaulted and had to be rescued by the European Union was 137 percent.)

Of all the major economic powers, Japan is by far in the worst shape, and its politicians seem unable to take the tough steps necessary to turn things around. It’s hard to imagine that only 25 years ago, there was a spate of chin-pulling books and articles on how Japan was poised to become the world’s leading economy.

Two articles in today’s New York Times show just how much trouble Japan is in economically. On the front page is an article on how young Japanese are finding it increasingly difficult to find a good job. Only 56.7 percent of college students have a firm job offer when they graduate, an all-time low.

An aging population is clogging the nation’s economy with the vested interests of older generations, young people and social experts warn, making an already hierarchical society even more rigid and conservative. The result is that Japan is holding back and marginalizing its youth at a time when it actually needs them to help create the new products, companies and industries that a mature economy requires to grow.

With a population that is actually falling in numbers, a very low birth rate, virtually no immigration, and an ever-increasing life expectancy, Japan is a demographic time bomb as the average age of the population steadily increases. There are more and more recipients of old-age pensions and medical care and fewer and fewer young workers to fund them.

And Standard and Poor’s has lowered Japan’s credit rating, down to AA-. That’s three steps below the top grade of AAA. China has the same rating, but China is growing rapidly, and its debt is only about 15 percent of GDP. Japan’s debt this year will reach 203 percent. (The debt/GDP ratio of Greece last year when it nearly defaulted and had to be rescued by the European Union was 137 percent.)

Of all the major economic powers, Japan is by far in the worst shape, and its politicians seem unable to take the tough steps necessary to turn things around. It’s hard to imagine that only 25 years ago, there was a spate of chin-pulling books and articles on how Japan was poised to become the world’s leading economy.

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Chipping Away at Global Security

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Time for Our Allies to Ante Up in Funding Afghan Security Forces

It’s good to hear that the Afghan government and the international community are signing off on a plan to increase the size of the Afghan Security Forces from today’s level of 266,000 soldiers and police up to 378,000 by October 2012. Such an increase is vital if Afghan forces are to have any hope of controlling their own territory. A good rule of thumb, laid out in the Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual, is that it takes one counterinsurgent per 50 civilians to defeat an insurgency. Given that Afghanistan has a population of 30 million, that suggests the need for 600,000 security personnel — a milestone that Iraq has already passed.

Even with 378,000 personnel, the Afghan security forces will still fall short, but remember that there are also 140,000 foreign troops in the country. Their presence (assuming that current force levels don’t fall) will bring the total to 518,000 — within shooting distance of the benchmark. That should be more than enough, at least for the time being, considering that the insurgency is isolated among the Pashtuns, who make up less than 50 percent of the population. Of course, if foreign force levels fall by the fall of 2012, the anti-Taliban coalition will find itself  hard-pressed to continue recent battlefield gains, which is another reason why it’s important that the administration and its allies not reduce their forces prematurely.

The gains in the size and effectiveness of the Afghan Security Forces are in large measure a tribute to U.S. Lt. Gen. Bill Caldwell and his superb team at the NATO Training Mission–Afghanistan. They have brought newfound vigor and skill to the “train and assist” mission that had been lagging, along with the rest of the war effort, in past years. Their work isn’t cheap, as the Times notes:

[T]he planned increase will mean billions more in spending to train and maintain the security forces, and 95 percent of that cost is borne by the United States. Between 2003 and 2009, the United States spent $20 billion to finance the Afghan Army and police. A growing force, pay increases that were intended to retain soldiers and police officers, and the costs of improved training and equipment drove the total to $9 billion in 2010, and $11.6 billion is budgeted for this year.

But that’s still a lot cheaper than sending more American troops into harm’s way. What irritates me about the whole situation is that it is the U.S. that has to pick up the tab. Our troops are already doing the bulk of the fighting. Why don’t our rich allies — e.g., Japan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, France, Italy, Germany, Britain — pay for more of the cost of training? Some of those countries have made sizable troop contributions; others haven’t. But the U.S. has done more than any of them in terms of fighting the Taliban directly. Why do we have to do so much more than the rest of them in financing the Afghan Security Forces too?

I should note that their failure to ante up should not be an excuse for us to walk away. This is not an act of altruism; it is very much in America’s national-security interest to have a functional and effective security force in Afghanistan to prevent a Taliban/al-Qaeda takeover. Our security perimeter runs right through the Hindu Kush. But that is also true for many of our allies who would also face severe repercussions from a Taliban takeover. They should be doing more to avert that catastrophe.

It’s good to hear that the Afghan government and the international community are signing off on a plan to increase the size of the Afghan Security Forces from today’s level of 266,000 soldiers and police up to 378,000 by October 2012. Such an increase is vital if Afghan forces are to have any hope of controlling their own territory. A good rule of thumb, laid out in the Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual, is that it takes one counterinsurgent per 50 civilians to defeat an insurgency. Given that Afghanistan has a population of 30 million, that suggests the need for 600,000 security personnel — a milestone that Iraq has already passed.

Even with 378,000 personnel, the Afghan security forces will still fall short, but remember that there are also 140,000 foreign troops in the country. Their presence (assuming that current force levels don’t fall) will bring the total to 518,000 — within shooting distance of the benchmark. That should be more than enough, at least for the time being, considering that the insurgency is isolated among the Pashtuns, who make up less than 50 percent of the population. Of course, if foreign force levels fall by the fall of 2012, the anti-Taliban coalition will find itself  hard-pressed to continue recent battlefield gains, which is another reason why it’s important that the administration and its allies not reduce their forces prematurely.

The gains in the size and effectiveness of the Afghan Security Forces are in large measure a tribute to U.S. Lt. Gen. Bill Caldwell and his superb team at the NATO Training Mission–Afghanistan. They have brought newfound vigor and skill to the “train and assist” mission that had been lagging, along with the rest of the war effort, in past years. Their work isn’t cheap, as the Times notes:

[T]he planned increase will mean billions more in spending to train and maintain the security forces, and 95 percent of that cost is borne by the United States. Between 2003 and 2009, the United States spent $20 billion to finance the Afghan Army and police. A growing force, pay increases that were intended to retain soldiers and police officers, and the costs of improved training and equipment drove the total to $9 billion in 2010, and $11.6 billion is budgeted for this year.

But that’s still a lot cheaper than sending more American troops into harm’s way. What irritates me about the whole situation is that it is the U.S. that has to pick up the tab. Our troops are already doing the bulk of the fighting. Why don’t our rich allies — e.g., Japan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, France, Italy, Germany, Britain — pay for more of the cost of training? Some of those countries have made sizable troop contributions; others haven’t. But the U.S. has done more than any of them in terms of fighting the Taliban directly. Why do we have to do so much more than the rest of them in financing the Afghan Security Forces too?

I should note that their failure to ante up should not be an excuse for us to walk away. This is not an act of altruism; it is very much in America’s national-security interest to have a functional and effective security force in Afghanistan to prevent a Taliban/al-Qaeda takeover. Our security perimeter runs right through the Hindu Kush. But that is also true for many of our allies who would also face severe repercussions from a Taliban takeover. They should be doing more to avert that catastrophe.

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Saber-Rattling: The New Normal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Whole World Is Watching

Hugh Hewitt conducted an hour-long interview yesterday with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the new chairman of the House Budget Committee, currently in his seventh term in Congress. It is an unusually candid conversation; the transcript is worth reading in its entirety.

Ryan covered the role of the Budget Committee in the rollback of ObamaCare, the broader budget battle coming this fall, the siren song of inflation as a solution, and the relationship of all this to the next election. Here’s an example:

HH: … Jerry Brown is already figuring out how to come with a tin cup to Washington, D.C. and beg for money. What’s the message to those governors in California, Illinois, New York, where they’re broke?

PR: … Look, and no offense to Californians, but those of us from more frugal states, we’re not interested in bailing out people from reckless states. You know, the moral hazard of bailing out states who fail to get their finances under control, why would we want to do that? … States need to clean up their own messes, their own acts, in my opinion. … All we would do is just buy delay, which is painful for everybody. Plus, Washington’s out of money. I mean, 41 cents on the dollar is borrowed here. 47% of that 41 cents on the dollar comes from other countries like China and Japan. We just can’t keep going the way we are. …

HH: Are you ready for the media assault, and I use that term advisedly, when they show children without milk at school. …

PR: Yes, that’s just going to happen. And look, I’ve been around these fights before, so it’s not as if this is the first rodeo for some of us. … It’s just the entire system we have could go down in a debt crisis. You know, we really do have a fiscal disaster coming. And if we blink to these forces of status quo, then it’s over with. The worst painful thing to have occur is us not to do anything, and just go down this path, and watch this debt crisis eat us alive. …

Ryan told Hewitt why he thought Congress would not be allowed to go on “porking the place up”:

What makes me feel better this time around, Hugh, is people pay attention. People are actually paying attention to what Congress is doing. The Internet has been a great equalizer. You can no longer go to Washington and do one thing, and then go home and say you’ve done another. Your words catch up with your actions, and that is a new day in Congress that a lot of people around here just don’t recognize.

It is a critical point, made yesterday in a similar analysis of a different issue, about the changed environment in which Congress is operating. The issues are no longer played out in hallways and backrooms; they are covered by an Internet propelled by the force-multipliers of blogs, portals, and social media. It creates a revolutionary situation, reminiscent of a slogan from the 60s.

Hugh Hewitt conducted an hour-long interview yesterday with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the new chairman of the House Budget Committee, currently in his seventh term in Congress. It is an unusually candid conversation; the transcript is worth reading in its entirety.

Ryan covered the role of the Budget Committee in the rollback of ObamaCare, the broader budget battle coming this fall, the siren song of inflation as a solution, and the relationship of all this to the next election. Here’s an example:

HH: … Jerry Brown is already figuring out how to come with a tin cup to Washington, D.C. and beg for money. What’s the message to those governors in California, Illinois, New York, where they’re broke?

PR: … Look, and no offense to Californians, but those of us from more frugal states, we’re not interested in bailing out people from reckless states. You know, the moral hazard of bailing out states who fail to get their finances under control, why would we want to do that? … States need to clean up their own messes, their own acts, in my opinion. … All we would do is just buy delay, which is painful for everybody. Plus, Washington’s out of money. I mean, 41 cents on the dollar is borrowed here. 47% of that 41 cents on the dollar comes from other countries like China and Japan. We just can’t keep going the way we are. …

HH: Are you ready for the media assault, and I use that term advisedly, when they show children without milk at school. …

PR: Yes, that’s just going to happen. And look, I’ve been around these fights before, so it’s not as if this is the first rodeo for some of us. … It’s just the entire system we have could go down in a debt crisis. You know, we really do have a fiscal disaster coming. And if we blink to these forces of status quo, then it’s over with. The worst painful thing to have occur is us not to do anything, and just go down this path, and watch this debt crisis eat us alive. …

Ryan told Hewitt why he thought Congress would not be allowed to go on “porking the place up”:

What makes me feel better this time around, Hugh, is people pay attention. People are actually paying attention to what Congress is doing. The Internet has been a great equalizer. You can no longer go to Washington and do one thing, and then go home and say you’ve done another. Your words catch up with your actions, and that is a new day in Congress that a lot of people around here just don’t recognize.

It is a critical point, made yesterday in a similar analysis of a different issue, about the changed environment in which Congress is operating. The issues are no longer played out in hallways and backrooms; they are covered by an Internet propelled by the force-multipliers of blogs, portals, and social media. It creates a revolutionary situation, reminiscent of a slogan from the 60s.

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Hot Times in the Far East

It’s getting harder to pick the most noteworthy headline among geopolitical events in East Asia. For the second time in two weeks, a high-ranking South Korean defense official has abruptly resigned (this time, the army chief of staff). His departure followed intelligence disclosures suggesting that North Korea has as many as four uranium-enrichment sites in operation, a level of activity previously unsuspected by the South Korean public. But are those developments more portentous than the most recent communications from Japan? And what about the Russian patrol aircraft that interrupted the U.S.-Japan naval exercise last week?

Japan’s announcements on defense this month figure collectively as the augury of a seminal shift. It’s not all that unusual for Tokyo to announce an increase in the size of the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF). But the reason invoked on this occasion amounts to a crack in the foundation of the U.S.-guaranteed security regime in the Far East. Japan plans to reorient its defense policy toward the emerging threat from China — and plans, in general, to defend its interests against Chinese and North Korean threats more proactively than at any time since 1945.

The Japanese will officially abandon the Cold War–era “basic defense doctrine,” which provided for territorial defense but not for the projection of military power beyond Japan’s recognized borders. Besides adding more submarines to the fleet, they will look at a military build-up in the southern chain of Japanese islands, near the Senkaku archipelago disputed with China. And on Sunday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan startled South Koreans by telling an audience that Japan would consider changing JSDF policy to allow for the deploying of troops to South Korea to rescue Japanese citizens.

The point here is not that any such move by Japan is suspicious. The point is that Japan perceives the need for a new, more active security posture. The tacit U.S. guarantee since World War II has been a balance in the Far East: the three great powers there — Russia, China, and Japan — held in check with a network of alliances and military presence. In the past two decades, however, the U.S. has failed to effectively counter what are arguably the most important threats to stability in the region: Chinese maritime aggression and the North Korean nuclear-weapons program. Against that backdrop, the Obama administration’s determined reliance on China to deal with North Korea looks — from the Asian side of the Pacific — like ceding China too much power. If America will not broker a balanced stasis, Russia and China will arm themselves for emerging opportunities, and everyone else will follow suit. Read More

It’s getting harder to pick the most noteworthy headline among geopolitical events in East Asia. For the second time in two weeks, a high-ranking South Korean defense official has abruptly resigned (this time, the army chief of staff). His departure followed intelligence disclosures suggesting that North Korea has as many as four uranium-enrichment sites in operation, a level of activity previously unsuspected by the South Korean public. But are those developments more portentous than the most recent communications from Japan? And what about the Russian patrol aircraft that interrupted the U.S.-Japan naval exercise last week?

Japan’s announcements on defense this month figure collectively as the augury of a seminal shift. It’s not all that unusual for Tokyo to announce an increase in the size of the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF). But the reason invoked on this occasion amounts to a crack in the foundation of the U.S.-guaranteed security regime in the Far East. Japan plans to reorient its defense policy toward the emerging threat from China — and plans, in general, to defend its interests against Chinese and North Korean threats more proactively than at any time since 1945.

The Japanese will officially abandon the Cold War–era “basic defense doctrine,” which provided for territorial defense but not for the projection of military power beyond Japan’s recognized borders. Besides adding more submarines to the fleet, they will look at a military build-up in the southern chain of Japanese islands, near the Senkaku archipelago disputed with China. And on Sunday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan startled South Koreans by telling an audience that Japan would consider changing JSDF policy to allow for the deploying of troops to South Korea to rescue Japanese citizens.

The point here is not that any such move by Japan is suspicious. The point is that Japan perceives the need for a new, more active security posture. The tacit U.S. guarantee since World War II has been a balance in the Far East: the three great powers there — Russia, China, and Japan — held in check with a network of alliances and military presence. In the past two decades, however, the U.S. has failed to effectively counter what are arguably the most important threats to stability in the region: Chinese maritime aggression and the North Korean nuclear-weapons program. Against that backdrop, the Obama administration’s determined reliance on China to deal with North Korea looks — from the Asian side of the Pacific — like ceding China too much power. If America will not broker a balanced stasis, Russia and China will arm themselves for emerging opportunities, and everyone else will follow suit.

Meanwhile, Russia is probing and making shows of force wherever possible. The intrusion of Russian patrol aircraft in the naval exercise held by the U.S. and Japan last week was remarkable for the fact that it was an actual intrusion. Military aircraft monitor foreign exercises all the time, but usually from a distance. The Russian planes approached so closely last week that the exercise was suspended while fighters were scrambled to intercept them.

The Nixon administration concluded a 1972 agreement with Soviet Russia to avoid such provocations in air and naval activity. Indeed, it was Nixon who, during the same period, re-established relations with China, returned Okinawa to Japan, and signed landmark defense agreements with Thailand and the Philippines. He hoped that these measures, desirable in their own right, would contribute to an environment of stabilized tension in which the two Vietnams could coexist. Although the hopes for Vietnam were dashed, his larger arrangements have stood for nearly 40 years. But they will not last much longer. The older pattern that obtains in the absence of U.S. power is reasserting itself.

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NOW, We’re (Not) Talking

Perhaps the Obama administration has finally lost its infatuation with engagement. This marks a step in the right direction and a departure from the Bush administration and the first two years of this one:

The United States, South Korea and Japan are all balking at China’s request for emergency talks with North Korea over the crisis on the Korean Peninsula, as high-profile military exercises between South Korea and the United States in the Yellow Sea continued on Monday in a show of force.

Obama administration officials said that a return to the table with North Korea, as China sought this weekend, would be rewarding the North for provocative behavior over the past week, including its deadly artillery attack on a South Korean island and its disclosure of a uranium enrichment plant. Beijing called for emergency talks with North Korea, the United States, Japan, South Korea and Russia, participants in the six-party nuclear talks, which have been suspended indefinitely.

Finally. Now — what’s the rationale for talks with the mullahs? I substitute “Iran” for “North Korea” and you see the point:

“The United States and a host of others, I don’t think, are not interested in stabilizing the region through a series of P.R. activities,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman.

He said that the talks “without an understanding and agreement from the [Iranians] to both end their behavior … but also to come to the table with a seriousness of purpose on the denuclearization issue — without that seriousness of purpose, they’re just a P.R. activity.”

But back to North Korea. Step one is to stop doing unhelpful things — rewarding bad behavior by the North Koreans and indulging in the fantasy that if we are polite enough (and reticent enough when it comes to human rights), China will come to our aid. The good news is that there is, albeit quite belatedly, a recognition that China is of no help here. (“Rejecting the emergency talks amounts to a pointed rebuke to China. The United States wanted China to signal clearly that North Korea’s aggressive behavior would not be tolerated. Instead, Beijing remained neutral about who was responsible for the recent flare-up, and offered only to provide a venue for all sides to air their differences.”) The bad news is that the administration has yet to come up with an alternative.

It’s not only the WikiLeaks documents that are revealing the flawed assumptions of the Obama foreign policy approach. Every day, reality intrudes and tells us that the world is not as the administration imagines it to be.

Perhaps the Obama administration has finally lost its infatuation with engagement. This marks a step in the right direction and a departure from the Bush administration and the first two years of this one:

The United States, South Korea and Japan are all balking at China’s request for emergency talks with North Korea over the crisis on the Korean Peninsula, as high-profile military exercises between South Korea and the United States in the Yellow Sea continued on Monday in a show of force.

Obama administration officials said that a return to the table with North Korea, as China sought this weekend, would be rewarding the North for provocative behavior over the past week, including its deadly artillery attack on a South Korean island and its disclosure of a uranium enrichment plant. Beijing called for emergency talks with North Korea, the United States, Japan, South Korea and Russia, participants in the six-party nuclear talks, which have been suspended indefinitely.

Finally. Now — what’s the rationale for talks with the mullahs? I substitute “Iran” for “North Korea” and you see the point:

“The United States and a host of others, I don’t think, are not interested in stabilizing the region through a series of P.R. activities,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman.

He said that the talks “without an understanding and agreement from the [Iranians] to both end their behavior … but also to come to the table with a seriousness of purpose on the denuclearization issue — without that seriousness of purpose, they’re just a P.R. activity.”

But back to North Korea. Step one is to stop doing unhelpful things — rewarding bad behavior by the North Koreans and indulging in the fantasy that if we are polite enough (and reticent enough when it comes to human rights), China will come to our aid. The good news is that there is, albeit quite belatedly, a recognition that China is of no help here. (“Rejecting the emergency talks amounts to a pointed rebuke to China. The United States wanted China to signal clearly that North Korea’s aggressive behavior would not be tolerated. Instead, Beijing remained neutral about who was responsible for the recent flare-up, and offered only to provide a venue for all sides to air their differences.”) The bad news is that the administration has yet to come up with an alternative.

It’s not only the WikiLeaks documents that are revealing the flawed assumptions of the Obama foreign policy approach. Every day, reality intrudes and tells us that the world is not as the administration imagines it to be.

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Korea at Thanksgiving

Most veterans have spent a Thanksgiving on duty. Many have spent Thanksgiving overseas. Some — a growing number — have spent it on alert or in combat. Veterans the world over know what the troops in South Korea said to each other on Tuesday, when North Korea started shooting: “Well, there goes Thanksgiving.”

The timing is uncanny. On November 24, 1950, a month after the discovery of Chinese troops in the war, General Douglas MacArthur launched what became known as the “Home by Christmas” offensive with the U.S. Eighth Army and South Korean II Corps along the Ch’ongch’on River, deep in North Korea. In the previous months, U.S. forces had landed at Inchon and, with other coalition troops, recaptured Seoul. There had been some contact with the Chinese army in November, but the assessment was that the Chinese intended to demonstrate force and then withdraw across their border. MacArthur didn’t expect the fierce resistance his forces would encounter, nor was there any hint of it on the first day of the offensive. The Eighth Army troops had put together a Thanksgiving feast on November 23, and spirits were high.

Much of the battle lore of the Korean conflict comes from the bloody campaign that followed. It dragged into December and saw the fighting retreat of the Eighth Army and South Korean II Corps through North Korea, at the onset of the coldest winter in 100 years. U.S. troops were unprepared for the nights in which temperatures dropped to -30 degrees F. The carnage was punctuated by the slaughter of coalition troops in the “Gauntlet”: the valley through which ran the road to Sunchon. The Eighth Army lost more than 11,000 soldiers in the offensive, but an exact count could never be established. Records had been lost, and whole units destroyed, in the retreat.

On Thanksgiving Day 60 years later, I am thankful that America and South Korea came back from that retreat to fight again. There is a poignant oddity in a 57-year armistice; there are many things to say about failed policies, shaky political nerves, and wrong priorities. But as Kim Jong-il fires an artillery barrage at the South and issues hysterical threats, I am thankful that South Korea today is free, well-armed, and intensively drilled. I am thankful that we have 28,000 troops in South Korea, and plenty of Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps forces in Japan. These factors alone are Kim’s biggest deterrent. He knows they will perform well even if there is ambiguity in the policy governing their operations.

It’s Thanksgiving in Korea again, and our forces there are on alert. They are a dedicated volunteer force; they believe in their mission and purpose. They will keep faith with those who fought before them — and with all those who have missed many a Thanksgiving standing watch over American security in the years since the “Home for Christmas” campaign of 1950.

Most veterans have spent a Thanksgiving on duty. Many have spent Thanksgiving overseas. Some — a growing number — have spent it on alert or in combat. Veterans the world over know what the troops in South Korea said to each other on Tuesday, when North Korea started shooting: “Well, there goes Thanksgiving.”

The timing is uncanny. On November 24, 1950, a month after the discovery of Chinese troops in the war, General Douglas MacArthur launched what became known as the “Home by Christmas” offensive with the U.S. Eighth Army and South Korean II Corps along the Ch’ongch’on River, deep in North Korea. In the previous months, U.S. forces had landed at Inchon and, with other coalition troops, recaptured Seoul. There had been some contact with the Chinese army in November, but the assessment was that the Chinese intended to demonstrate force and then withdraw across their border. MacArthur didn’t expect the fierce resistance his forces would encounter, nor was there any hint of it on the first day of the offensive. The Eighth Army troops had put together a Thanksgiving feast on November 23, and spirits were high.

Much of the battle lore of the Korean conflict comes from the bloody campaign that followed. It dragged into December and saw the fighting retreat of the Eighth Army and South Korean II Corps through North Korea, at the onset of the coldest winter in 100 years. U.S. troops were unprepared for the nights in which temperatures dropped to -30 degrees F. The carnage was punctuated by the slaughter of coalition troops in the “Gauntlet”: the valley through which ran the road to Sunchon. The Eighth Army lost more than 11,000 soldiers in the offensive, but an exact count could never be established. Records had been lost, and whole units destroyed, in the retreat.

On Thanksgiving Day 60 years later, I am thankful that America and South Korea came back from that retreat to fight again. There is a poignant oddity in a 57-year armistice; there are many things to say about failed policies, shaky political nerves, and wrong priorities. But as Kim Jong-il fires an artillery barrage at the South and issues hysterical threats, I am thankful that South Korea today is free, well-armed, and intensively drilled. I am thankful that we have 28,000 troops in South Korea, and plenty of Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps forces in Japan. These factors alone are Kim’s biggest deterrent. He knows they will perform well even if there is ambiguity in the policy governing their operations.

It’s Thanksgiving in Korea again, and our forces there are on alert. They are a dedicated volunteer force; they believe in their mission and purpose. They will keep faith with those who fought before them — and with all those who have missed many a Thanksgiving standing watch over American security in the years since the “Home for Christmas” campaign of 1950.

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North Korea Playing the U.S. — Still

Try as he might, Obama can’t escape being a wartime president and foreign-policy-crisis manager. That’s the world in which we live, and it keeps intruding into his desired agenda:

North Korea’s deadly attack on a populated South Korean island dramatically escalated the conflict between the two countries, leaving Seoul and its allies hunting for a response that would stave off more attacks but stop short of sparking war.

Artillery fire from the North came out of clear skies Tuesday afternoon and pounded an island near a disputed maritime border for more than an hour. Yeonpyeong Island’s 1,200 civilians scattered as shells exploded and homes and buildings caught fire, witnesses said, with many residents hunkering down in bomb shelters or fleeing on boats.

This act of provocation was met with tough talk, but produced more questions than answers:

The United Nations, European Union, Japan and others condemned the attack, with Russia and China calling for a cooling of tensions on the peninsula. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Tuesday’s exchange “one of the gravest incidents since the end of the Korean War.”

President Barack Obama strongly affirmed the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea. Mr. Obama called Mr. Lee to say the U.S. stands “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the ally and would work with the international community to condemn the “outrageous” attack, the Associated Press reported.

But what do the flurry of words mean, and what is the value of a shoulder-to-shoulder commitment while South Korea’s ships are at risk and its territory is violated? One senses quite clearly that Obama is being tested. After all, what did he do when Syria violated the UN resolution? What has he done about the Russian occupation of Georgia? The proliferation of non-actions has emboldened the North Koreans, as it has all the rogue states. And now Obama has his hands full.

Before word of the attack, former ambassador and potential 2012 presidential candidate John R. Bolton wrote in reference to the newly discovered nuclear facility in Yongbyon that we’ve been “played” by North Korea ever since the Clinton administration. He does not spare the Bush administration either:

Worse, in President George W. Bush’s second term, an assertive group of deniers in the State Department and the intelligence community claimed or implied that North Korea did not have a substantial or ongoing uranium-enrichment program. They denied that the North Koreans had conceded as much in 2002 and that there was sufficient evidence of a continuing program. The intelligence community downgraded its confidence level in its earlier conclusion, not because of contradictory information but because it had not subsequently acquired significant new data. State Department negotiators scorned the idea that the North had a serious enrichment capability. …

The last thing Washington should do now is resurrect the failed six-party talks or start bilateral negotiations with the North. Instead, serious efforts need to be made with China on reunifying the Korean peninsula, a goal made ever more urgent by the clear transition of power now underway in Pyongyang as Kim Jong Il faces the actuarial tables. North Korea’s threat will only end when it does, and that day cannot come soon enough.

What is clear is that the North Koreans perceive no downside to acts of aggression against their neighbor. So long as Obama has only words in response, the barrages are not likely to end. And meanwhile, Iran and our other foes look on.

Try as he might, Obama can’t escape being a wartime president and foreign-policy-crisis manager. That’s the world in which we live, and it keeps intruding into his desired agenda:

North Korea’s deadly attack on a populated South Korean island dramatically escalated the conflict between the two countries, leaving Seoul and its allies hunting for a response that would stave off more attacks but stop short of sparking war.

Artillery fire from the North came out of clear skies Tuesday afternoon and pounded an island near a disputed maritime border for more than an hour. Yeonpyeong Island’s 1,200 civilians scattered as shells exploded and homes and buildings caught fire, witnesses said, with many residents hunkering down in bomb shelters or fleeing on boats.

This act of provocation was met with tough talk, but produced more questions than answers:

The United Nations, European Union, Japan and others condemned the attack, with Russia and China calling for a cooling of tensions on the peninsula. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Tuesday’s exchange “one of the gravest incidents since the end of the Korean War.”

President Barack Obama strongly affirmed the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea. Mr. Obama called Mr. Lee to say the U.S. stands “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the ally and would work with the international community to condemn the “outrageous” attack, the Associated Press reported.

But what do the flurry of words mean, and what is the value of a shoulder-to-shoulder commitment while South Korea’s ships are at risk and its territory is violated? One senses quite clearly that Obama is being tested. After all, what did he do when Syria violated the UN resolution? What has he done about the Russian occupation of Georgia? The proliferation of non-actions has emboldened the North Koreans, as it has all the rogue states. And now Obama has his hands full.

Before word of the attack, former ambassador and potential 2012 presidential candidate John R. Bolton wrote in reference to the newly discovered nuclear facility in Yongbyon that we’ve been “played” by North Korea ever since the Clinton administration. He does not spare the Bush administration either:

Worse, in President George W. Bush’s second term, an assertive group of deniers in the State Department and the intelligence community claimed or implied that North Korea did not have a substantial or ongoing uranium-enrichment program. They denied that the North Koreans had conceded as much in 2002 and that there was sufficient evidence of a continuing program. The intelligence community downgraded its confidence level in its earlier conclusion, not because of contradictory information but because it had not subsequently acquired significant new data. State Department negotiators scorned the idea that the North had a serious enrichment capability. …

The last thing Washington should do now is resurrect the failed six-party talks or start bilateral negotiations with the North. Instead, serious efforts need to be made with China on reunifying the Korean peninsula, a goal made ever more urgent by the clear transition of power now underway in Pyongyang as Kim Jong Il faces the actuarial tables. North Korea’s threat will only end when it does, and that day cannot come soon enough.

What is clear is that the North Koreans perceive no downside to acts of aggression against their neighbor. So long as Obama has only words in response, the barrages are not likely to end. And meanwhile, Iran and our other foes look on.

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RE: A Bad Deal All Around

Jennifer and Evelyn, between them, have covered pretty comprehensively the problems with latest settlement-freeze deal. I note, however, that the generally left-leaning Economist picked up on the aspect of the deal that concerns me the most and isn’t getting a lot of attention. Jennifer alludes to it with this passage:

And as for the promise to veto UN resolutions attacking Israel or declaring a Palestinian state, why should Israel have to give anything to Obama for simply adhering to past U.S. policy? My Israel guru remarks, “This shows the Obama mentality that we veto as a difficult favor for Israel, rather than out of principle.”

The Economist is blunter: “Is America bribing Bibi or blackmailing him?” One problem with the Obama administration’s action is that it can so easily be read as blackmail. It’s basic diplomatic competence to avoid creating such implications if they are unintended.

Independent of nations or circumstances, the U.S. posture should, on principle, oppose the peremptory creation of new nations against the will of UN member states. Making this principle conditional, for transient bargaining purposes, is a grave strategic error. A number of our own allies have ethnic-nationalist insurgencies, border disputes, or both – nations like Spain, Greece, Turkey, and Japan. Russia, China, and India have them as well. They are able to deal with their problems as ongoing but relatively minor nuisances largely because the momentum of global expectations is with the principles of national sovereignty and order.

The Obama deal offered to Israel contains too broad a hint that America’s commitment to those principles might be conditional. Perhaps Team Obama sees Israel as a case so special that nothing done in relation to it has meaning for the principles of international relations. But the rest of the world’s nations don’t share that view – nor do their insurgencies or their respective border antagonists. What they see is the trend of actions by the United States. This is a destabilizing move and a very ill-advised one.

Jennifer and Evelyn, between them, have covered pretty comprehensively the problems with latest settlement-freeze deal. I note, however, that the generally left-leaning Economist picked up on the aspect of the deal that concerns me the most and isn’t getting a lot of attention. Jennifer alludes to it with this passage:

And as for the promise to veto UN resolutions attacking Israel or declaring a Palestinian state, why should Israel have to give anything to Obama for simply adhering to past U.S. policy? My Israel guru remarks, “This shows the Obama mentality that we veto as a difficult favor for Israel, rather than out of principle.”

The Economist is blunter: “Is America bribing Bibi or blackmailing him?” One problem with the Obama administration’s action is that it can so easily be read as blackmail. It’s basic diplomatic competence to avoid creating such implications if they are unintended.

Independent of nations or circumstances, the U.S. posture should, on principle, oppose the peremptory creation of new nations against the will of UN member states. Making this principle conditional, for transient bargaining purposes, is a grave strategic error. A number of our own allies have ethnic-nationalist insurgencies, border disputes, or both – nations like Spain, Greece, Turkey, and Japan. Russia, China, and India have them as well. They are able to deal with their problems as ongoing but relatively minor nuisances largely because the momentum of global expectations is with the principles of national sovereignty and order.

The Obama deal offered to Israel contains too broad a hint that America’s commitment to those principles might be conditional. Perhaps Team Obama sees Israel as a case so special that nothing done in relation to it has meaning for the principles of international relations. But the rest of the world’s nations don’t share that view – nor do their insurgencies or their respective border antagonists. What they see is the trend of actions by the United States. This is a destabilizing move and a very ill-advised one.

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Bureaucracy 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Plus Ça Change

A poignant development illustrates the disintegration of the rarefied post-Cold War order we have inhabited since the early 1990s. Against the backdrop of shocks to that order over the past year and half, this little event may seem minor. But it is emblematic of the actions our strategic opponents no longer fear to take openly.

President Obama, currently in Indonesia, will attend the G-20 summit in Seoul on Nov. 11-12. Dmitry Medvedev arrives in Seoul today for a state visit and will hold bilateral talks with South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak prior to the summit. These discussions – in which Korean security and global economic policy are expected to be major topics – continue the theme of Medvedev’s summit with Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel in October. Each case involves the Russian president talking over the biggest of global and regional issues with key American allies, in advance of the general summits to be held this month (the G-20 meeting in Seoul and the NATO summit in Lisbon).

But that’s not the most telling aspect of Russia’s posture for the G-20 summit in Seoul. That aspect is to be observed down the road in Inchon, from the pier where the flagship of the Russian Pacific Fleet, the missile cruiser Varyag, will be moored throughout the summit. The unambiguous signal from this visit is underscored by the report that South Korea will turn over to Varyag a set of artifacts Russia has been requesting for years: a battle flag and remnants of weapons from Varyag’s namesake, which participated in the Russo-Japanese War more than a century ago.

The earlier Varyag, attacked in Inchon in 1904 by a Japanese task force, was scuttled by the captain rather than being surrendered to the more powerful Japanese flotilla. Artifacts recovered from it by the Japanese have been stored in Inchon for decades – and each year since 1996, the modern cruiser Varyag has visited Inchon in February to commemorate the battle. Besides the latent bellicosity of bringing a warship to a G-20 summit, Russia is dealing a symbolic slap to Japan: occupying, under the aegis of a U.S. ally and an international body, the position in which a Japanese force once inflicted defeat on Russian ships.

To the American mind, the era before World War I seems to have existed across an unbridgeable historical divide. In a geopolitical sense, in particular, we have believed for decades that we inhabit a different order now. The old territorial resentments seem antique and irrelevant for global technological powers; we think of these obsessions as the province of benighted tribal cultures. But it shouldn’t surprise us to see Russia reverting to this age-old pattern. What we have to understand – but probably don’t today – is that this isn’t a meaningless gesture from Russia: it’s a marking of territory. This is how Russia operates. It all matters.

A poignant development illustrates the disintegration of the rarefied post-Cold War order we have inhabited since the early 1990s. Against the backdrop of shocks to that order over the past year and half, this little event may seem minor. But it is emblematic of the actions our strategic opponents no longer fear to take openly.

President Obama, currently in Indonesia, will attend the G-20 summit in Seoul on Nov. 11-12. Dmitry Medvedev arrives in Seoul today for a state visit and will hold bilateral talks with South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak prior to the summit. These discussions – in which Korean security and global economic policy are expected to be major topics – continue the theme of Medvedev’s summit with Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel in October. Each case involves the Russian president talking over the biggest of global and regional issues with key American allies, in advance of the general summits to be held this month (the G-20 meeting in Seoul and the NATO summit in Lisbon).

But that’s not the most telling aspect of Russia’s posture for the G-20 summit in Seoul. That aspect is to be observed down the road in Inchon, from the pier where the flagship of the Russian Pacific Fleet, the missile cruiser Varyag, will be moored throughout the summit. The unambiguous signal from this visit is underscored by the report that South Korea will turn over to Varyag a set of artifacts Russia has been requesting for years: a battle flag and remnants of weapons from Varyag’s namesake, which participated in the Russo-Japanese War more than a century ago.

The earlier Varyag, attacked in Inchon in 1904 by a Japanese task force, was scuttled by the captain rather than being surrendered to the more powerful Japanese flotilla. Artifacts recovered from it by the Japanese have been stored in Inchon for decades – and each year since 1996, the modern cruiser Varyag has visited Inchon in February to commemorate the battle. Besides the latent bellicosity of bringing a warship to a G-20 summit, Russia is dealing a symbolic slap to Japan: occupying, under the aegis of a U.S. ally and an international body, the position in which a Japanese force once inflicted defeat on Russian ships.

To the American mind, the era before World War I seems to have existed across an unbridgeable historical divide. In a geopolitical sense, in particular, we have believed for decades that we inhabit a different order now. The old territorial resentments seem antique and irrelevant for global technological powers; we think of these obsessions as the province of benighted tribal cultures. But it shouldn’t surprise us to see Russia reverting to this age-old pattern. What we have to understand – but probably don’t today – is that this isn’t a meaningless gesture from Russia: it’s a marking of territory. This is how Russia operates. It all matters.

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RE: Fed’s Plan to Rev Up Printing Press Gets Thumbs Down

The overwhelmingly negative response to the Fed decision to print up $600B to buy bonds is intensifying as Russia and China joined European nations in slamming the move. This report explains:

Mr. Obama returned fire in the growing confrontation over trade and currencies Monday in a joint news conference with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, taking the unusual step of publicly backing the Fed’s decision to buy $600 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds—a move that has come under withering international criticism for weakening the U.S. dollar.

Gold topped $1,400 an ounce on fears of inflation as investors voted thumbs down on Ben Bernanke’s plan. And the number of critics is growing, leaving the U.S. isolated:

Germany’s criticism echoes that from other countries, including Brazil and Japan, which have complained about potential spillover from the Fed’s action. Printing more dollars, or cutting U.S. interest rates, tends to weaken the dollar and makes U.S. exports more attractive. The accompanying rise in the value of other countries’ currencies tends to damp their exports and can fuel inflation or asset bubbles, as emerging-market officials note. U.S. officials maintain the Fed’s action is about stimulating domestic demand, and that a weaker dollar is a consequence, not an objective.

On Monday, China’s Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao said the U.S. isn’t living up to its responsibility as an issuer of a global reserve currency. …

The top economic aide to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia will insist at the G-20 summit that the Fed consult with other countries ahead of major policy decisions.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who is chairman of the euro-zone finance ministers, also weighed in on the Fed move, saying: “I don’t think it’s a good decision. You’re fighting debt with more debt.”

These concerns are entirely justified. Moreover, one can’t help but appreciate the irony: the “cowboy” George W. Bush was lambasted for “going it alone” and making the U.S. a pariah in the world. But worldwide resentment over the U.S. is surging as Obama is forced to lamely defend his moves as “pro-growth” (which speaks volumes about the administration’s economic illiteracy, for not even his defenders would claim that currency devaluation=growth). We hear that the “blunt criticism of U.S. policy is in large part payback for a longstanding stance by Washington policy makers that the American economy should serve as a model for others. The heated rhetoric also stems from fears that the U.S. may be looking for a back-door way to set exchange-rate policy in a way that favors the U.S.”

Combined with the incessant shin-kicking of our allies (e.g., Eastern Europe, Israel, Honduras, Britain), this latest move certainly strengthens Obama’s critics here and abroad. They contend that through a combination of ill-conceived policies and rank incompetence, Obama is rendering the U.S. less influential and less respected, which is increasing instability in the world. All and all, it is a textbook example of the perils of deploying liberal statism at home and shrinking America’s stature overseas. Unfortunately, this is not a graduate course at Harvard or a symposium at the New America Foundation. It is all too real, and unless we arrest the panoply of bad policies, America and its allies will be poorer and less safe. We already are.

The overwhelmingly negative response to the Fed decision to print up $600B to buy bonds is intensifying as Russia and China joined European nations in slamming the move. This report explains:

Mr. Obama returned fire in the growing confrontation over trade and currencies Monday in a joint news conference with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, taking the unusual step of publicly backing the Fed’s decision to buy $600 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds—a move that has come under withering international criticism for weakening the U.S. dollar.

Gold topped $1,400 an ounce on fears of inflation as investors voted thumbs down on Ben Bernanke’s plan. And the number of critics is growing, leaving the U.S. isolated:

Germany’s criticism echoes that from other countries, including Brazil and Japan, which have complained about potential spillover from the Fed’s action. Printing more dollars, or cutting U.S. interest rates, tends to weaken the dollar and makes U.S. exports more attractive. The accompanying rise in the value of other countries’ currencies tends to damp their exports and can fuel inflation or asset bubbles, as emerging-market officials note. U.S. officials maintain the Fed’s action is about stimulating domestic demand, and that a weaker dollar is a consequence, not an objective.

On Monday, China’s Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao said the U.S. isn’t living up to its responsibility as an issuer of a global reserve currency. …

The top economic aide to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia will insist at the G-20 summit that the Fed consult with other countries ahead of major policy decisions.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who is chairman of the euro-zone finance ministers, also weighed in on the Fed move, saying: “I don’t think it’s a good decision. You’re fighting debt with more debt.”

These concerns are entirely justified. Moreover, one can’t help but appreciate the irony: the “cowboy” George W. Bush was lambasted for “going it alone” and making the U.S. a pariah in the world. But worldwide resentment over the U.S. is surging as Obama is forced to lamely defend his moves as “pro-growth” (which speaks volumes about the administration’s economic illiteracy, for not even his defenders would claim that currency devaluation=growth). We hear that the “blunt criticism of U.S. policy is in large part payback for a longstanding stance by Washington policy makers that the American economy should serve as a model for others. The heated rhetoric also stems from fears that the U.S. may be looking for a back-door way to set exchange-rate policy in a way that favors the U.S.”

Combined with the incessant shin-kicking of our allies (e.g., Eastern Europe, Israel, Honduras, Britain), this latest move certainly strengthens Obama’s critics here and abroad. They contend that through a combination of ill-conceived policies and rank incompetence, Obama is rendering the U.S. less influential and less respected, which is increasing instability in the world. All and all, it is a textbook example of the perils of deploying liberal statism at home and shrinking America’s stature overseas. Unfortunately, this is not a graduate course at Harvard or a symposium at the New America Foundation. It is all too real, and unless we arrest the panoply of bad policies, America and its allies will be poorer and less safe. We already are.

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Shifting Positions in the Far East?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is ABC Becoming MSNBC?

This Week is a sort of media car wreck. It is invariably a display of terrible journalism — so much so that you can’t help but stop and gawk. On Sunday, Christiane Amanpour badgered Senator-elect Rand Paul on what cuts he would favor to address the debt. He repeatedly answered that he’d favor across-the-board cuts, including defense and entitlements. You might not agree, but it was his answer. The following ensued:

AMANPOUR: Give me one specific cut, Senator-elect.

PAUL: All across the board.

AMANPOUR: One significant one. No, but you can’t just keep saying all across the board.

PAUL: Well, no, I can, because I’m going to look at every program, every program. But I would freeze federal hiring. I would maybe reduce federal employees by 10 percent. I’d probably reduce their wages by 10 percent. The average federal employee makes $120,000 a year. The average private employee makes $60,000 a year. Let’s get them more in line, and let’s find savings. Let’s hire no new federal workers.

AMANPOUR: Pay for soldiers? Would you cut that? Read More

This Week is a sort of media car wreck. It is invariably a display of terrible journalism — so much so that you can’t help but stop and gawk. On Sunday, Christiane Amanpour badgered Senator-elect Rand Paul on what cuts he would favor to address the debt. He repeatedly answered that he’d favor across-the-board cuts, including defense and entitlements. You might not agree, but it was his answer. The following ensued:

AMANPOUR: Give me one specific cut, Senator-elect.

PAUL: All across the board.

AMANPOUR: One significant one. No, but you can’t just keep saying all across the board.

PAUL: Well, no, I can, because I’m going to look at every program, every program. But I would freeze federal hiring. I would maybe reduce federal employees by 10 percent. I’d probably reduce their wages by 10 percent. The average federal employee makes $120,000 a year. The average private employee makes $60,000 a year. Let’s get them more in line, and let’s find savings. Let’s hire no new federal workers.

AMANPOUR: Pay for soldiers? Would you cut that?

PAUL: Right. I think that soldiers have to be paid. Now, can we say that gradually we don’t need as large of an Army if we’re not in two wars? Yes, I think you can say that. You can save money there. You can bring some troops home or have Europe pay more for their defense and Japan pay more and Korea pay more for their defense or bring those troops home and have savings there. . .

AMANPOUR: So, again, to talk about the debt and to talk about taxes, there seems to be, again, just so much sort of generalities, for want of a better word.

PAUL: Right.

AMANPOUR: And, for instance, there are many people…

PAUL: Well, the thing is that you can call it a generality, but what if — what if I were president and I said to you, “Tomorrow, we’re going to have a 5 percent cut across the board in everything”? That’s not a generality, but there are thousands of programs. If you say, “Well, what are all the specifics?” There are books written on all the specifics.

Is she so wedded to her script that she’s not listening to the answers? Or is she simply there to argue with her conservative guests while lobbing softballs at those with whom she is in ideological agreement? She ends with an inappropriate snipe at her guest: “Well, we hope to have you back, and we’ll get more details from you next time.” I suspect he won’t be back anytime soon.

There are a couple of problems with her approach. For starters, it’s not very enlightening. Paul repeatedly answered Amanpour’s question, but we didn’t learn much beyond that. (Do other Republicans share his position? How do we cut defense while fighting a war?) She was so busy arguing with his answer that she never followed up on the answer he gave.

Second, she is so obviously playing the role of partisan advocate that her interviews take on a lopsided, cheerleading quality for her invariably liberal positions. In the interview with David Stockman and Mike Pence that followed, all her probing “You can’t really mean that?” questions were directed at Pence, while she all but applauded Stockman for his insistence that we needed to raise taxes.

The faux interview format in which hosts use guests not to elicit information but to push their own agenda works for Keith Olbermann on MSNBC and Glenn Beck on Fox, but is that the approach ABC News, which hasn’t gone the partisan route, now wants to adopt? So far, Amanpour is a ratings loser and a journalistic embarrassment. The ABC execs will have to decide whether it’s worth risking their brand for no apparent financial gain.

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Bill O’Reilly Isn’t a Bigot. But He Is Wrong.

Bill O’Reilly appeared on The View yesterday, and the conversation turned to the effort to build a mosque near Ground Zero. In the course of the discussion, O’Reilly, who opposes building the mosque at this location, pointed out that 70 percent of the public (68 percent according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll) sides with him on this matter. When pressed as to why that’s the case, O’Reilly said, “Because Muslims killed us on 9/11!” This turned an acrimonious debate into an explosive one, with co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar walking off the set.

The whole thing was something of an embarrassment for everyone involved. Perhaps predictably, though, Mr. O’Reilly devoted much of his show, The O’Reilly Factor, to this issue (see here and here). O’Reilly’s basic argument is that everyone knows, or should know, that he’s not an anti-Muslim bigot. Rather, he sees himself as an intrepid truth-teller (“I tell it like it is” and “I’m not in the business of sugar-coating harsh realities”). Everyone by now knows the distinction between radical Muslims and moderate Muslims, O’Reilly argues, so the distinction is unnecessary. Those who are criticizing him are part of the PC police. And it’s commonplace to say that the Japanese attacked us in World War II, so why shouldn’t we say Muslims attacked us on 9/11? Read More

Bill O’Reilly appeared on The View yesterday, and the conversation turned to the effort to build a mosque near Ground Zero. In the course of the discussion, O’Reilly, who opposes building the mosque at this location, pointed out that 70 percent of the public (68 percent according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll) sides with him on this matter. When pressed as to why that’s the case, O’Reilly said, “Because Muslims killed us on 9/11!” This turned an acrimonious debate into an explosive one, with co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar walking off the set.

The whole thing was something of an embarrassment for everyone involved. Perhaps predictably, though, Mr. O’Reilly devoted much of his show, The O’Reilly Factor, to this issue (see here and here). O’Reilly’s basic argument is that everyone knows, or should know, that he’s not an anti-Muslim bigot. Rather, he sees himself as an intrepid truth-teller (“I tell it like it is” and “I’m not in the business of sugar-coating harsh realities”). Everyone by now knows the distinction between radical Muslims and moderate Muslims, O’Reilly argues, so the distinction is unnecessary. Those who are criticizing him are part of the PC police. And it’s commonplace to say that the Japanese attacked us in World War II, so why shouldn’t we say Muslims attacked us on 9/11?

I happen to agree with O’Reilly on the mosque/Ground Zero issue. But his analogy is flawed. With Japan, we were dealing with a nation-state; with al-Qaeda, we are dealing with a small percentage of militants in a faith that includes more than 1.5 billion people in more than 200 countries.

Moreover, O’Reilly’s claim is unfair – and O’Reilly should understand why. Here’s an illustration that might help clarify things. Assume that Sam Harris went on The O’Reilly Factor and, based on the child-abuse scandals that tarnished the reputation of the Catholic Church, made the sweeping claim that “Catholics are child molesters.” My guess is that O’Reilly would (rightly) respond, “No. Some priests molested children, and it was a horrific thing. But you can’t indict an entire faith based on the sins of a relatively few number of priests.”

We shouldn’t kid ourselves; there is a not-insignificant strand of people in the Muslim world who align themselves with the ideology of al-Qaeda – and an even larger number who more or less accept its narrative of history. The condemnations by more moderate Muslims against its militant strand could certainly be more muscular. At the same time, the militant Islamists who attacked us on 9/11 don’t represent the vast majority of Muslims in the world – and certainly not the views of most Muslim Americans.

I understand that in the midst of a passionate debate on television, you can say things in imprecise and offensive ways; we have to leave some room for that to happen in our public discourse. We’re all fallible, and we all, from time to time, say things we wish we could take back. Words that wound shouldn’t necessarily be a hanging offense. Still, I do wish that, on reflection, Mr. O’Reilly, rather than defending his comments, had simply said that in thinking over his statement, he made a mistake. His comment was far too sweeping. It was, in fact, an unfair indictment against all Muslims. And the distinction between radical Islamists and the wider Muslim world (including, of course, Muslim Americans) is important to maintain.

The offense most people might take to what O’Reilly said isn’t based on political correctness, I don’t think; it is based on a deep understanding of what it means to hold and to share the title American citizen. To be an American means, at least in part, to avoid creating unnecessary divisions over matters of faith. This view was central to America’s founding. Comity, tolerance, and respect for people who hold views different from your own is a sign of civility, not weakness.

In his letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, President Washington wrote these beautiful words:

May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

I certainly don’t think Bill O’Reilly is a bigot. But I do believe that, in this instance, what he said was wrong. He should say so.

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Block This Sale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mario Vargas Llosa, Nobel Laureate

The Nobel Prize for Literature, given to as many horrible writers as worthy ones, is now of value only for two reasons: It makes its recipient rich (now up to $1.5 million), and it causes people to take account of the careers of some notable authors. Such is the case with this year’s Laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa. He achieved a broad international reputation in the 1980s and 1990s–indeed, for a time, he was probably one of the world’s best-known writers–but that has faded somewhat over the past decade. He is, quite simply, wonderful–a novelist and essayist of great wit, range, sagacity, playfulness, and high seriousness.

He first came to prominence in the United States with the late-1970s translation of his hilarious, joyful, and wildly original blend of novel and memoir, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, a study of the unique circumstances that led to his first marriage to a much older distant cousin; he draws a comic parallel between his life and the crazed plots devised by Peru’s leading soap-opera writer, a monastic lunatic who seems nonetheless to embody the creative process itself. The next work of his to appear in English was extraordinarily different and extraordinary in every sense of the word: The War for the End of the World, a highly realistic historical novel about a millenarian cult in fin-de-siecle Brazil. It offered a portrait, unparalleled in our time, of the way in which radical ideas can seize hold of ordinary people and drive them to suicidal madness.

This was the first of his novels to reveal Vargas Llosa’s mature world view: Almost alone among Latin American intellectuals of his time, he had become a liberal in the classic sense of the word, a believer in and advocate for Western-style free speech, free markets, and free inquiry. This was the result of an ideological journey not unlike the one taken by neoconservatives in the United States, except that in Vargas Llosa’s case it was even more remarkable given the lack of any kind of liberal culture in South America and especially in the world of Latin novelists, who were, to a man, radical Leftists either aligned with or entirely joined at the hip with Marxist-Leninist-Castroist activism. He made his decisive spiritual break with the Left plain with a short novel called The Real Life of Alejandro Meyta, which specifically linked radical Leftist thinking to the impulse to terrorism.

The same year he published that book, he became head of a commission in Peru examining the devastation wrought by a terrorist group called the Shining Path. He wrote one of the great essays of our time for the New York Times Magazine on the matter, called “Inquest in the Andes.” Alas, it appears to be unavailable on the Times website, suggesting Vargas Llosa withheld rights to its electronic distribution. That is a shame, but you can read the astounding essay he wrote for the same magazine entitled “My Son the Rastafarian,” about grappling with his teenager’s rebellion and the horror of being a judge at the Cannes Film Festival. (That son, Alvaro Vargas Llosa, became the editorial-page editor of the Spanish language edition of the Miami Herald and an even greater rarity among South Americans, a libertarian.)

It is important to note that Vargas Llosa really is a liberal, not a conservative in any sense of the word. His work is often frankly libertine, as his powerful erotic novel In Praise of the Stepmother demonstrates. He doesn’t have a populist bone in him, and suffered from his inability to connect with ordinary people when he ran for president of Peru — offering sensible austerity measures that caused him to lose to a dangerous populist named Alberto Fujimori who drove the country into chaos and then fled to Japan ahead of corruption charges. Imagine Saul Bellow as president of the United States and you get some sense of what it might have meant for Vargas Llosa actually to have won his race. He wrote a remarkable book about that too, called A Fish in the Water.

He is one of the most interesting men of our time and I’m glad he got the Nobel money. Doesn’t wash the Nobel clean by any means, but at least the proceeds will be spent by someone who deserves it. Vargas Llosa wrote a visionary essay for COMMENTARY in 1992 called “The Miami Model,” which we’re making available from our archives today. Sample:

This profession of faith—hatred for the United States disguised as anti-imperialism—nowadays is actually a rather subtle form of neocolonialism. By adopting it, the Latin American intellectual does and says what the cultural establishment of the United States (and by extension, elsewhere in the West) expects of him. His proclamations, condemnations, and manifestoes, with all their grace notes and glissandos, serve to confirm all the stereotypes of the Latin American universe cherished by much of the North American cultural community.

It’s an honor to have published it, and a pleasure to congratulate our contributor on his award.

The Nobel Prize for Literature, given to as many horrible writers as worthy ones, is now of value only for two reasons: It makes its recipient rich (now up to $1.5 million), and it causes people to take account of the careers of some notable authors. Such is the case with this year’s Laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa. He achieved a broad international reputation in the 1980s and 1990s–indeed, for a time, he was probably one of the world’s best-known writers–but that has faded somewhat over the past decade. He is, quite simply, wonderful–a novelist and essayist of great wit, range, sagacity, playfulness, and high seriousness.

He first came to prominence in the United States with the late-1970s translation of his hilarious, joyful, and wildly original blend of novel and memoir, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, a study of the unique circumstances that led to his first marriage to a much older distant cousin; he draws a comic parallel between his life and the crazed plots devised by Peru’s leading soap-opera writer, a monastic lunatic who seems nonetheless to embody the creative process itself. The next work of his to appear in English was extraordinarily different and extraordinary in every sense of the word: The War for the End of the World, a highly realistic historical novel about a millenarian cult in fin-de-siecle Brazil. It offered a portrait, unparalleled in our time, of the way in which radical ideas can seize hold of ordinary people and drive them to suicidal madness.

This was the first of his novels to reveal Vargas Llosa’s mature world view: Almost alone among Latin American intellectuals of his time, he had become a liberal in the classic sense of the word, a believer in and advocate for Western-style free speech, free markets, and free inquiry. This was the result of an ideological journey not unlike the one taken by neoconservatives in the United States, except that in Vargas Llosa’s case it was even more remarkable given the lack of any kind of liberal culture in South America and especially in the world of Latin novelists, who were, to a man, radical Leftists either aligned with or entirely joined at the hip with Marxist-Leninist-Castroist activism. He made his decisive spiritual break with the Left plain with a short novel called The Real Life of Alejandro Meyta, which specifically linked radical Leftist thinking to the impulse to terrorism.

The same year he published that book, he became head of a commission in Peru examining the devastation wrought by a terrorist group called the Shining Path. He wrote one of the great essays of our time for the New York Times Magazine on the matter, called “Inquest in the Andes.” Alas, it appears to be unavailable on the Times website, suggesting Vargas Llosa withheld rights to its electronic distribution. That is a shame, but you can read the astounding essay he wrote for the same magazine entitled “My Son the Rastafarian,” about grappling with his teenager’s rebellion and the horror of being a judge at the Cannes Film Festival. (That son, Alvaro Vargas Llosa, became the editorial-page editor of the Spanish language edition of the Miami Herald and an even greater rarity among South Americans, a libertarian.)

It is important to note that Vargas Llosa really is a liberal, not a conservative in any sense of the word. His work is often frankly libertine, as his powerful erotic novel In Praise of the Stepmother demonstrates. He doesn’t have a populist bone in him, and suffered from his inability to connect with ordinary people when he ran for president of Peru — offering sensible austerity measures that caused him to lose to a dangerous populist named Alberto Fujimori who drove the country into chaos and then fled to Japan ahead of corruption charges. Imagine Saul Bellow as president of the United States and you get some sense of what it might have meant for Vargas Llosa actually to have won his race. He wrote a remarkable book about that too, called A Fish in the Water.

He is one of the most interesting men of our time and I’m glad he got the Nobel money. Doesn’t wash the Nobel clean by any means, but at least the proceeds will be spent by someone who deserves it. Vargas Llosa wrote a visionary essay for COMMENTARY in 1992 called “The Miami Model,” which we’re making available from our archives today. Sample:

This profession of faith—hatred for the United States disguised as anti-imperialism—nowadays is actually a rather subtle form of neocolonialism. By adopting it, the Latin American intellectual does and says what the cultural establishment of the United States (and by extension, elsewhere in the West) expects of him. His proclamations, condemnations, and manifestoes, with all their grace notes and glissandos, serve to confirm all the stereotypes of the Latin American universe cherished by much of the North American cultural community.

It’s an honor to have published it, and a pleasure to congratulate our contributor on his award.

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Japan: Russia Piling On

As Americans turn their attention inward, China and Russia are beginning to make geopolitical moves that evoke nothing so much as the environment of the 1930s. I have written elsewhere about China’s dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands and Beijing’s resort to a direct confrontation over them in September. Russia added to Japan’s troubles last week, when Dmitry Medvedev planned to make an unprecedented visit to the Kuril Islands in the north, which have been disputed by Japan and Russia since the end of World War II.

Medvedev’s trip was curtailed by bad weather on this occasion (a verifiable excuse, incidentally). But his government has affirmed that he will visit the islands in the near future. In fact, it has doubled down by calling Japan’s claims to the Kurils a “dead end” and flatly warning Japan against complaining about the visit.

Seen as a signal, this uncompromising Russian attitude is very different from the attitude shown by the same government almost exactly a year ago. In late September 2009, Medvedev was shaking hands with then-Prime Minister Hatoyama and vowing solemnly to “work together” to resolve the question of the Kuril Islands. Indeed, there was speculation at the time that Russia was wooing Japan, hoping to weaken Tokyo’s ties with the U.S. As with the Senkakus dispute, the one over the Kurils involves economic claims. But Russia and Japan have set a standard for cooperative development in exploiting the natural gas of Russia’s nearby Sakhalin Island. The ugly face shown by Russia in the past few days is a new one, at least where Japan is concerned.

Its significance cannot be overemphasized. In approaching this confrontation, Russia is effectively treating Japan — a G-8 nation, economic powerhouse, and U.S. ally — the way it treated Georgia in the months leading up to the 2008 invasion. The dispute is over tangible territory, and Russia is pressing its claims coincident with China’s confrontational campaign to the south. Unless the U.S. steps in to prevent the extortion of Japan, the Kan government in Tokyo is faced with a choice between evils. To gain the support of either Moscow or Beijing, Japan would — at the very least — have to cede effective control of the islands in question. In all likelihood, Japan might see both island chains occupied by the other claimants.

Japan’s other option is to assert its claims with military force. This is not infeasible if the Japanese choose their tactics carefully, but it would infuriate and galvanize Russia and China. Only one outcome can avert an onset of instability in the Far East: America enforcing Japan’s position that the disputes over the islands must be resolved peacefully and not through extortion. Uttering sympathetic bromides will not suffice in this case. China and Russia have already proved that they are prepared to breach the conditions of good-faith resolutions. Direct assertion of a U.S. security interest is the only thing that will work — and the U.S posture must not be subverted by Russia or China turning this issue into a perpetual bargaining chip in larger, unrelated negotiations.

This is a bad trend that will not right itself. Either Obama stops it before it gets started, or all our security problems are about to get much harder.

As Americans turn their attention inward, China and Russia are beginning to make geopolitical moves that evoke nothing so much as the environment of the 1930s. I have written elsewhere about China’s dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands and Beijing’s resort to a direct confrontation over them in September. Russia added to Japan’s troubles last week, when Dmitry Medvedev planned to make an unprecedented visit to the Kuril Islands in the north, which have been disputed by Japan and Russia since the end of World War II.

Medvedev’s trip was curtailed by bad weather on this occasion (a verifiable excuse, incidentally). But his government has affirmed that he will visit the islands in the near future. In fact, it has doubled down by calling Japan’s claims to the Kurils a “dead end” and flatly warning Japan against complaining about the visit.

Seen as a signal, this uncompromising Russian attitude is very different from the attitude shown by the same government almost exactly a year ago. In late September 2009, Medvedev was shaking hands with then-Prime Minister Hatoyama and vowing solemnly to “work together” to resolve the question of the Kuril Islands. Indeed, there was speculation at the time that Russia was wooing Japan, hoping to weaken Tokyo’s ties with the U.S. As with the Senkakus dispute, the one over the Kurils involves economic claims. But Russia and Japan have set a standard for cooperative development in exploiting the natural gas of Russia’s nearby Sakhalin Island. The ugly face shown by Russia in the past few days is a new one, at least where Japan is concerned.

Its significance cannot be overemphasized. In approaching this confrontation, Russia is effectively treating Japan — a G-8 nation, economic powerhouse, and U.S. ally — the way it treated Georgia in the months leading up to the 2008 invasion. The dispute is over tangible territory, and Russia is pressing its claims coincident with China’s confrontational campaign to the south. Unless the U.S. steps in to prevent the extortion of Japan, the Kan government in Tokyo is faced with a choice between evils. To gain the support of either Moscow or Beijing, Japan would — at the very least — have to cede effective control of the islands in question. In all likelihood, Japan might see both island chains occupied by the other claimants.

Japan’s other option is to assert its claims with military force. This is not infeasible if the Japanese choose their tactics carefully, but it would infuriate and galvanize Russia and China. Only one outcome can avert an onset of instability in the Far East: America enforcing Japan’s position that the disputes over the islands must be resolved peacefully and not through extortion. Uttering sympathetic bromides will not suffice in this case. China and Russia have already proved that they are prepared to breach the conditions of good-faith resolutions. Direct assertion of a U.S. security interest is the only thing that will work — and the U.S posture must not be subverted by Russia or China turning this issue into a perpetual bargaining chip in larger, unrelated negotiations.

This is a bad trend that will not right itself. Either Obama stops it before it gets started, or all our security problems are about to get much harder.

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Flashpoint Senkakus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less