I spent much of the past week in Bangkok, Thailand, for a small roundtable exploring issues of radical Islamism in the Middle East and strategies to combat the problem in Southeast Asia. While the meetings did not focus on U.S. policy, criticism of the Obama administration’s strategic foresight and willingness to stand by allies was a constant refrain amongst policymakers and officials from across the region during coffee break chatter and in separate meetings.
Simply put, Thailand—like Morocco, Taiwan, Colombia, Israel, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, among others—has consistently oriented its policies in support of ties, friendship, and alliance with the United States only to feel that the United States looks at traditional allies with disinterest if not disdain.
Simply put, under President Obama, Thailand finds itself cast aside. And while China has courted Thailand assiduously in recent years, Thailand has so far stood firm despite its rude and often poor treatment at Obama administration hands.
Part of the problem grows out of Thailand’s increasing fractious politics. In September 2006, increasingly raucous street demonstrations led the Thai military to oust Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. His supporters took to wearing red shirts and calling themselves the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship. Those behind the demonstrations which led to Thaksin’s ouster wear yellow shirts and call themselves the People’s Alliance for Democracy. Many leftists, students, rural farmers, and some businessmen support the red shirts, while the urban middle class, royalists, and nationalists support the yellow shirts. (The BBC has a useful overview of the red shirt-yellow shirt fight.)
In recent years, the red shirts supported Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who won a landslide election victory in 2011. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that she had abused her power and, on May 7, 2014, ordered her to step down. She was ousted by a military coup the next day. The polarization between the red shirts and yellow shirts is quite incredible. Supporters of the two factions often do not speak to each other, and most Thais believe that further violence is inevitable. Picture the societal divisions that marked Turkey or South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, and Bangladesh or Egypt more recently.
Many Thais breathed a sigh of relief when the military stepped in to separate the two sides. They saw the intervention not as a power grab by ambitious generals, but absolutely necessary to separate those whose political spat threatened to unleash violence which might spiral out of control and destroy any foundation for democratic development in Thailand.
Enter the United States: Many Thais complain that the U.S. Embassy is isolated and disinterested. When the coup occurred, it and the State Department more broadly wagged its finger without any understanding or suggestions of other solutions for the precipice on which Thailand found itself. All coups are bad, the State Department seemed to argue, and so it would be better for Thailand to suffer thousands of casualties in mob violence than undertake a corrective, cooling off period in which the two sides might step back. And, as in Honduras, the Obama administration’s position seemed to support left-of-center leaders willing to defy their supreme courts, rather than accept that limited military intervention might actually be necessary to enforce the constitution when a crisis occurred.
The Thai military has promised to hold new elections in October 2015, and there is no reason to doubt their sincerity. After all, while not ideal, there is ample precedent in Thai history of the military briefly assuming power, but only briefly, and then returning power to the people in actively contested and very legitimate elections.
The Obama administration and State Department, however, seemingly ignorant of Thai history or the consequences of mob violence in Thailand’s incredibly diverse social fabric, continues to turn its back to Thailand, its requests for support, and a nearly 200-year-old Treaty of Friendship. Enter China: China is already Thailand’s largest trading partner, and Beijing is happy to seize advantage from Obama’s diplomatic temper-tantrum to increase both its activity and influence in Thailand, much of which will come at the expense of the United States.
Thailand might not be the stuff of headlines in Washington, but the United States is in no position to willfully rebuff another alliance, sacrificed upon the noxious mix of Obama’s arrogance and ignorance. China is playing chess; Obama might as well be playing with Play-doh.