Commentary Magazine


Topic: China

Chinese Cyber Attack on OPM Goes Unpunished

So, the penetration of the Office of Personnel Management computer systems is even more pervasive than previously reported.

CNN reported yesterday: “The personal data of an estimated 18 million current, former and prospective federal employees were affected by a cyber breach at the Office of Personnel Management – more than four times the 4.2 million the agency has publicly acknowledged. The number is expected to grow, according to U.S. officials briefed on the investigation.” Read More

So, the penetration of the Office of Personnel Management computer systems is even more pervasive than previously reported.

CNN reported yesterday: “The personal data of an estimated 18 million current, former and prospective federal employees were affected by a cyber breach at the Office of Personnel Management – more than four times the 4.2 million the agency has publicly acknowledged. The number is expected to grow, according to U.S. officials briefed on the investigation.”

The hack is not only gigantic and appalling but also inexplicable. CNN also reported:

OPM’s internal auditors told a House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee last week that key databases housing sensitive national security data, including applications for background checks, had not met federal security standards.

“Not only was a large volume (11 out of 47 systems) of OPM’s IT systems operating without a valid Authorization, but several of these systems are among the most critical and sensitive applications owned by the agency,” Michael Esser, OPM’s assistant inspector general for audits, wrote in testimony prepared for committee.

Yet, faced with this terrible failure, which exposes the most intimate data of countless Americans (including pretty much all of our national security officials, past and present) to Chinese espionage, what has been the Obama administration response?

Yesterday an official identified only as “senior State Department official” was asked about the issue at a press conference — and specifically what the US is doing to redress this Chinese intrusion. Here is what he or she said:

So we have had discussions ongoing with the Chinese in multilateral fora, in bilateral fora about all of the various aspects about cyber security, the activity of IT companies in China, in the United States, et cetera. It’s a very wide-ranging, obviously, topic. It’s a fast-changing area, and it’s an ongoing topic of discussion. We’re the two biggest users of the internet. We both have huge global sort of interests in seeing the internet be secured. I understand that iPhone – more iPhones were sold in China last year than in the United States. So it’s a huge area of interest for both of our countries, and we have ongoing conversations about all aspects.

That’s weak even by State Department standards. The notion that the U.S. and China have shared interests on the Internet is farcical, since China has emerged as the No. 1 hacker of American computer systems for both commercial and national security advantage. Saying that Washington and Beijing have a shared interest in Internet security is like saying that a cop and a robber have a shared interest in law enforcement.

Little wonder that members of Congress, Democrats as well as Republicans, are frustrated with the administration attempts to minimize the size and severity of this breach. At a hearing last week in the House, Rep. Stephen Lynch (D., Mass.), told OPM chief Katherine Archuleta: “I wish that you were as strenuous and hardworking at keeping information out of the hands of hacker as are at keeping information out of the hands of Congress.”

What’s truly dismaying here is that this is hardly the first breach of cyber-security experienced by this administration. Recall that the massive breaches committed by Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning and Edward Snowden occurred since President Obama took office. That’s not to suggest that the president is personally to blame for this negligence, but he is certainly as much to blame for these failures as President George W. Bush was for failures to respond to Hurricane Katrina and to a growing insurgency in Iraq. Yet, so far, the Obama administration has largely managed to avoid the kind of censure and wrath that the Bush administration earned for its handling of Katrina and the Iraq War.

Granted, these cyber breaches have not resulted in massive casualties and catastrophes that can be seen in video footage and photos. But these are catastrophes nevertheless that have done great (if hidden) damage to American security, and it’s high time that the public took this more seriously and demanded that high-level officials be held to account. At least FEMA director Michael Brown was fired over Katrina and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was ultimately ousted over Iraq. Who, if anyone, is going to be held accountable for the massive cyber-breaches the government has been suffering of late?

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U.S. Must Respond to Chinese Cyber Attack

Information is still coming out about the damage done by  Chinese hackers who penetrated the networks of the White House Office of Personnel Management, thus potentially gaining access to confidential files on 14 million current and former federal employees and others. I would not go quite as far as Noah Rothman did to describe this as a  Pearl Harbor-type attack because it was not designed to inflict physical or even cyber-damage. But it was bad enough. This was a brazen intelligence-gathering operation that will in all probability give the Chinese intelligence service an unprecedented amount of information about people in positions of influence in the U.S. government—information that can only be used for nefarious purposes.

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Information is still coming out about the damage done by  Chinese hackers who penetrated the networks of the White House Office of Personnel Management, thus potentially gaining access to confidential files on 14 million current and former federal employees and others. I would not go quite as far as Noah Rothman did to describe this as a  Pearl Harbor-type attack because it was not designed to inflict physical or even cyber-damage. But it was bad enough. This was a brazen intelligence-gathering operation that will in all probability give the Chinese intelligence service an unprecedented amount of information about people in positions of influence in the U.S. government—information that can only be used for nefarious purposes.

Lawmakers are predictably and rightly giving OPM representatives a hard time for not doing a better job of protecting their systems. But of course the problem goes well beyond one federal office. There are few American institutions, public or private, that have been immune from cyber attacks, and the threat is only getting worse. Potentially one day we could even see a true “cyber Pearl Harbor” if an enemy captures or crashes vital computer networks needed for such functions as air traffic control or banking.

 

The problem is that the threat has thus far exceeded the response. As with most security threats there has to be both a defensive and an offensive response. Yet we have no gotten serious about either side of the cyber equation.

When it comes to cyber defense, Congress has bowed to lobbying from private firms that are loathe to share any information with the federal government, and especially with the military’s Cyber Command and NSA, which have the most sophisticated computer capabilities in the government. The only way that we will improve our defenses, both for the government and the for vital civilian infrastructure, is by giving our top cyber-warriors more access to networks that need to be defended. This will outrage Edward Snowden and his ilk, but it is no more offensive or any less necessary than the security measures we agree to endure as the price of flying. Some loss of liberty is necessary for security, whether in the “real” world or the virtual world. That doesn’t mean losing all privacy but certainly we need to give the government more ability to safeguard important networks. We should be more worried about intrusions from lawless Russian or Chinese hackers than from the NSA’s cyber-warriors who operate under tight safeguards within the rule of law.

No defense is ever going to be perfect, however, whether in protecting against missiles or viruses. We can’t count on missile defense to be foolproof; that’s why we developed the doctrine of mutual assured destruction to deter Soviet nuclear attack. There is a similar need for enhanced deterrence in the cybersphere. Quite simply, as this 2013 Council on Foreign Relations Task Force suggested, “offensive capabilities are required to deter attacks, and, if deterrence fails, to impose costs on the attackers.”

President Obama has recently recognized the need for greater deterrence by signing an executive order that gives the federal government the ability to impose financial and other sanctions on individuals and entities that are judged responsible for the worst cyber-attacks. This is a good start, although much will depend on the willingness of the administration to use this tool—and odds are the U.S. won’t be imposing economic sanctions on the government of China anytime soon in response to cyber-attacks. Heck we haven’t even imposed sanctions on North Korea following the attack on Sony Pictures late last year.

A more proportionate and low-profile response could well be more feasible: If the Chinese attack our networks, we should attack theirs, thereby raising the cost of their actions and forcing them to think twice about whether this is a profitable activity to engage in. As the Stuxnet virus should have shown, U.S. capabilities in offensive cyber operations, although veiled, are second to none. If we are willing to retaliate for cyber attacks in kind, there is certainly a risk of unwelcome fallout. But there is a risk in any kind of action. That should not prevent us from acting. The greatest risk of all is to continue doing little, allowing our enemies to attack our computer networks with impunity.

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The Terrible Scale of the Chinese Cyber-Pearl Harbor Attack

The scale of a massive cyber-attack on America’s governmental infrastructure that was revealed last week is still coming to light. As is the case with virtually all preemptive strikes, hackers believed to be linked to the People’s Republic of China have executed an attack so comprehensive and sophisticated that it could only have one aim: the preventative neutering of America’s defensive capabilities. Along with others, I dubbed this the nation’s cyber-Pearl Harbor last week, and that characterization looks only more apt today. In concert with the debilitating effect of Edward Snowden’s revelations while in Russian custody, this attack may seriously hinder America’s ability to secure and respond to more conventional threats to its interests. Read More

The scale of a massive cyber-attack on America’s governmental infrastructure that was revealed last week is still coming to light. As is the case with virtually all preemptive strikes, hackers believed to be linked to the People’s Republic of China have executed an attack so comprehensive and sophisticated that it could only have one aim: the preventative neutering of America’s defensive capabilities. Along with others, I dubbed this the nation’s cyber-Pearl Harbor last week, and that characterization looks only more apt today. In concert with the debilitating effect of Edward Snowden’s revelations while in Russian custody, this attack may seriously hinder America’s ability to secure and respond to more conventional threats to its interests.

A little more than one year ago, the Department of Justice revealed that it had charged five members of the Chinese military’s Unit 61398, an economic cyber-espionage unit, of engaging in criminal activity. They had been accused of being part of a ring of cyber spies that had executed a variety of attacks and surveillance missions targeting U.S. commercial firms and interests. Apparently, around that same period, China executed the largest scale cyber-attack on an American governmental target in history. That’s right: The strike that exposed the personal data of all of the approximately 2.7 million federal employees in the Office of Personnel Management’s systems to People’s Liberation Army hackers went virtually unnoticed for over a year. The scale of the damage done to American information security was not discovered by federal investigators but rather by a private software development firm that uncovered the breach during a routine product demonstration.

This staggering incompetence is eclipsed only by the extent of the damage done to American national security.

The hack exposed the SF-86 background files of virtually every governmental employee; those 127-page forms include all of the applicant’s personal information, as well as the details of their relations, friends, current and former professional contacts, and even old college roommates. “U.S. officials speaking on the condition of anonymity say unequivocally such information was put at serious risk by the OPM hack. Of utmost concern are U.S. employees stationed overseas, including in countries such as China, whose government would covet personal information on relatives and contacts of American officials living in the communist country, according to officials,” read an ABC News report.

“We believe that hackers have every affected person’s Social Security number(s), military records and veterans’ status information, address, birth date, job and pay history, health insurance, life insurance, and pension information; age, gender, race, union status, and more,” a scathing letter from the president of the American Federation of Government Employees warned. “Worst, we believe that Social Security numbers were not encrypted, a cybersecurity failure that is absolutely indefensible and outrageous.”

But the potential personal information exposed pales in comparison to the information about America’s governmental apparatus that was revealed to Chinese hackers. “In classified briefings to members of Congress in recent days, intelligence officials have described what appears to be a systematic Chinese effort to build a database that explains the inner workings of the United States Government,” the New York Times reported. “They are likely to be particularly interested in the contacts of Energy Department officials who work on nuclear weapons or nuclear intelligence, Commerce Department or trade officials working on delicate issues like negations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and, of course, White House officials.”

That’s comforting.

This information could be a coup for Chinese counterintelligence operatives, but it will also be a boon to the PLA’s offensive cyber-espionage operation planners. Not only can the Chinese identify federal officials in positions of authority, they are almost certainly in a better position to isolate those who have weakness or might be compromised. Those targets could be amenable to cooperating with Beijing. Former NSA intelligence analyst John Schindler observed that the People’s Republic tends to rely heavily on ethnic Chinese for intelligence-related purposes, and it now has a list of potentially hundreds of thousands of viable targets in or close to those in positions of authority within the United States.

“The modus operandi of Chinese intelligence and its operations abroad are understood by the FBI and the Intelligence Community. However, the extent of the information loss in the OPM hack is so vast that all the counterintelligence awareness in the world may not be able to offset the advantage in the SpyWar that Beijing has won with this vast data theft,” Schindler wrote. “If you are (or have been) employed with the Federal government and have listed Chinese persons in any way on your SF86, it’s time to be vigilant.”

When the zeros screamed out of the sky over Hawaii in 1941, their targets were America’s offensive naval assets in the Pacific. But for a stroke of luck that kept America’s Pacific carriers out of the harbor, Japan might have successfully neutered America’s ability to defend its interests. Similarly, China’s effort to level the playing field with the United States is as brazen as it is troubling. Those professorial voices of mock prudence that only months ago warned, “we are not likely to see large scale cyber-attacks happen outside actual wars” have unfortunately been proven utterly wrong. While cyber strikes are certain to occur amid great power conflicts, it is clear that they can also be prelude to one.

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The Cyber Pearl Harbor and the Inescapable Gravity of Geopolitics

Amid a favorable review of foreign affairs analyst Ian Bremmer’s new book, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan observed that he had probably correctly identified the three divergent and, for the most part, mutually exclusive courses that the United States might take in the coming century. America could make itself a fortress and leave the world to its own devices; it might invest heavily abroad in order to hasten its own retrenchment; or it can embrace its role as global hegemon, enforce its primacy, and safeguard the global peace that has accompanied that condition. Noonan noted that, for “interesting reasons,” Bremmer preferred the fortress. He and others who embrace this approach to geopolitics reject the loaded term “isolationist,” so let’s bury it. The fallacy in that line of thinking is not one that will be exposed by semantics but by physics. America can no more divorce itself from messy, entangling international conflicts than the Earth could dissociate itself from the Sun. The inescapable gravity of geopolitics is the only constant in human history, and the evidence to support that contention is available to all who would not blind themselves to that reality. Read More

Amid a favorable review of foreign affairs analyst Ian Bremmer’s new book, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan observed that he had probably correctly identified the three divergent and, for the most part, mutually exclusive courses that the United States might take in the coming century. America could make itself a fortress and leave the world to its own devices; it might invest heavily abroad in order to hasten its own retrenchment; or it can embrace its role as global hegemon, enforce its primacy, and safeguard the global peace that has accompanied that condition. Noonan noted that, for “interesting reasons,” Bremmer preferred the fortress. He and others who embrace this approach to geopolitics reject the loaded term “isolationist,” so let’s bury it. The fallacy in that line of thinking is not one that will be exposed by semantics but by physics. America can no more divorce itself from messy, entangling international conflicts than the Earth could dissociate itself from the Sun. The inescapable gravity of geopolitics is the only constant in human history, and the evidence to support that contention is available to all who would not blind themselves to that reality.

On Thursday evening, unnamed U.S. officials revealed to the Associated Press that every federal agency in the United States could have been subjected to a cyber-attack of incomprehensible proportion. Those who first thought that this attack was the work of the Russians, an aggressive and revanchist nation that runs one of the most sophisticated cyber-espionage operations on Earth, were soon surprised to learn that this was the work of the People’s Republic of China.

It is no coincidence that this assault on U.S. infrastructure comes at a time when Sino-American tensions are reaching crisis levels. While China presses its territorial claims in the strategically vital but contested Spratly Island chain the South China Sea, this Chinese cyber-attack is the Pearl Harbor of its kind. Officials believe this preemptive strike on American information security was designed to create a “massive database of Americans,” most of which work in sensitive areas of the government. Among the agencies targeted were the Department of the Interior and the Office of Personnel Management, the agency that performs background checks and awards security clearances. This attack’s design is likely to gather information on former or current officials with access to sensitive information and identify those who are most amenable to serving Beijing’s interests.

The international environment is anarchic. With the possible exception of international maritime law, the global arena is governed only by the power of mutual deterrence and the self-preservation instinct. But in the perpetually hot cyber battlefield, deterrence breaks down. Defensive parameters are continually under assault, hardened systems tested, and harassing skirmishers commonplace. But unlike conventional attacks, the attackers can often plausibly deny their involvement. China has done just that. That has not, and it should not, prevent the United States from viewing this provocative act for what it is – a preparatory strike. What’s more, the United States should respond to it as it would any other surprise attack on U.S. interests: With a disproportionate retaliatory response and by preparing for and working to preempt the next assault.

Having fought for and secured its place as a European and Pacific power in the first half of the 20th Century, the U.S. is compelled by the same permanent forces of geopolitics that were identified during the Peloponnesian Wars to balance against aggressive rising powers and prevent satellite states from bandwagoning with the aspiring regional hegemon in their neighborhood. As much as America would perhaps like to divorce itself from European security affairs, it is compelled to provide material, logistical, and personnel support to Ukrainian soldiers combating Russian aggression. Barack Obama has mustered every ounce of his remaining political capital to avoid becoming drawn into the conflict in Europe any further than America already is, but even those efforts might not be enough to resist the forces of history. Similarly, The United States is actively engaged in the process of creating a bulwark of alliances to counter Chinese aggression in the East.

As our Max Boot observed this week, Defense Sec. Ash Carter’s swing across South and Southeast Asia has but one purpose: creating a collation of nations to balance against a rising and aggressive China. He noted that India’s ideological and geopolitical reorientation toward the West, its rising economic and military might, and its traditional antipathy toward China make it a perfect U.S. partner to box in the People’s Republic. Similarly, China’s tense relationship with Vietnam and Washington’s cozy rapport with its former adversary in Hanoi makes that nation a good candidate to contain China. Carter already pledged $18 million to help Vietnam purchase new patrol boats and, according to Reuters, U.S. defense contractors have been approached to help modernize the nation’s air force.

If America did not arm the Vietnamese, the Swedes or another defense exporter would. And if every Western nation declined to help Hanoi balance against China, than it would eventually throw its lot in with the Chinese. As a result, the PRC’s influence would expand until it encountered an immovable obstacle in the form of U.S or allied interests in Asia. The conflict cannot be prevented; it can only be preempted.

In this way, the lofty ideal of an “independent America,” one that is in the world but not of it, is unrealizable. Americans may again be nursing their traditional antipathy toward global engagements, and disengagement could once again become a vogue political sentiment. The U.S. will soon discover, however, that the world’s sole superpower – the only nation on Earth capable of projecting sustained military power overseas and of ensuring the unimpeded global commerce to which the world’s citizens have come accustomed – cannot so easily shirk its responsibilities. The rising and revisionist forces in Beijing and Moscow are telegraphing their intention to overturn the status quo. Americans can only pretend to ignore those signals for so long before they will be forced to listen.

 

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The Tide of History Rises in the East

President Barack Obama was almost certainly trying to de-escalate the alarmingly high tensions characterizing Sino-American relations on Monday as the crisis in the South China Sea grew more dangerous. “We think that land reclamation, aggressive actions by any party in that area are counterproductive,” the president said, addressing the nascent crisis in unduly mild terms. “China is going to be successful. It’s big, it’s powerful, its people are talented and they work hard. And it may be some of their claims are legitimate. But they shouldn’t just try to establish that based on throwing elbows and pushing people out of the way.” The president probably thought he was helping, but his suggestion that China’s provocative maneuvers are being made in defense of legitimate territorial claims will likely have the opposite effect. Read More

President Barack Obama was almost certainly trying to de-escalate the alarmingly high tensions characterizing Sino-American relations on Monday as the crisis in the South China Sea grew more dangerous. “We think that land reclamation, aggressive actions by any party in that area are counterproductive,” the president said, addressing the nascent crisis in unduly mild terms. “China is going to be successful. It’s big, it’s powerful, its people are talented and they work hard. And it may be some of their claims are legitimate. But they shouldn’t just try to establish that based on throwing elbows and pushing people out of the way.” The president probably thought he was helping, but his suggestion that China’s provocative maneuvers are being made in defense of legitimate territorial claims will likely have the opposite effect.

It is no coincidence the globe’s revisionist powers have begun to press their outstanding claims on contested lands in the waning days of Barack Obama’s administration. In the wake of the president’s aborted “red line” for action in Syria, Russia became the first European power since 1945 to invade and annex portions of sovereign territory in Europe. Similarly, the People’s Republic of China has rediscovered its irredentist claims on portions of the Senkaku Islands. Perhaps more frightening, Beijing’s decision to construct airstrip-capable islands from nothing in the disputed Spratly Island chain has the most potential to draw in the myriad international actors that also lay claim to those islands.

On Monday, Dennis Richardson, Australia’s Secretary of the Department of Defense, warned that the military buildup China has begun in the contested archipelago is unlike anything the region has ever seen. “The land reclamation activity by China in the South China Sea has been at a pace and scale in the last two years beyond anything we have previously seen. It dwarfs what the other claimant states have done, and the size of the land reclamation does raise questions about its purpose,” he warned.

There should be no questions about the purpose of this man-made island, and the United States does not apparently believe that there are. The project Beijing began in the autumn of last year finally provoked a forceful response from the United States in mid-May when the Pentagon dispatched a Navy flotilla to an area 12 nautical miles from the new People’s Liberation Army base and ordered surveillance aircraft to perform overflights. The display of force from the United States in response to China’s unilateral provocation in an archipelago claimed by virtually every nation in the region prompted a bitter response from the Chinese government. But the ire of officials in Beijing was nothing when compared with the stoked nationalism displayed by influential Chinese commentators, as Foreign Policy’s Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reported:

The official trading of barbs has also spurred a barrage of nationalist comments on China’s web spaces, where grassroots nationalism flourishes. “Where is the Chinese airforce?” Yue Gang, a military commentator with more than 750,000 followers on microblogging platform Weibo, demanded in a May 21 Weibo post. “Isn’t intercepting airborne bandits part of its mission?” A number of Weibo users expressed frustration that the Chinese response to the U.S. plane had been merely to issue warnings. “The United States is feeling out China’s bottom line,” commented one user on May 22. “Repeatedly issuing warnings only encourages America’s reckless provocations.” And a May 26 PLA Daily article — also popular on military fanboy forum Tiexue — deemed the U.S. surveillance flight “bare-naked provocation.” The most popular comment in the related Tiexue discussion called for China, in response, to “slowly tighten the economic squeeze [on America], politically isolate it,” and militarily to “screw America over” until it “calls for a halt.”

Perhaps the most disturbing indication that these intemperate remarks reflect the thinking inside the PRC’s most influential circles was an editorial published in the state-run Global Times warning that a “US-China war is inevitable.”

The rhetoric should not be dismissed as mere bluster, wrote American Enterprise Institute scholar and COMMENTARY contributor Michael Auslin. “All it would take is one hotheaded action by a Chinese fighter pilot to ignite an armed confrontation between the two sides,” he wrote in the New York Post. “Unlike during the Cold War days, when Moscow and Washington established important crisis-management mechanisms, there are almost no working relations of trust between China and the United States. It is not assured that an accident or encounter could be prevented from spiraling out of control.”

Auslin further noted, however, that China has set into motion forces beyond its control. Without a face-saving way out, Beijing will not back down from the crisis it ignited lest it see its claims on other disputed territory in the Asia-Pacific region challenged.

Militaries in close proximity make mistakes, they miscalculate, they react rashly, and they start great, spiraling wars. On the other side of the world, according to a video released by the U.S. Navy on Monday, a Russian Su-24 fighter plane performed a highly provocative pass by a U.S. guided-missile destroyer off the coast of occupied Crimea. Meanwhile, Chinese and American assets come into semi-regular contact over the South China Sea as both powers stare the other down in a particularly treacherous game. Every time these assets come into contact, they are rolling the dice.

It’s going to be a dangerously hot summer.

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The Future of the U.S.-Japan Alliance

With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Washington and getting ready to address a joint meeting of Congress, the long-awaited “revised guidelines” for the U.S.-Japan Alliance were released yesterday. A copy of the document can be found here. It’s an impressive start, but a lot of the heavy lifting remains.

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With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Washington and getting ready to address a joint meeting of Congress, the long-awaited “revised guidelines” for the U.S.-Japan Alliance were released yesterday. A copy of the document can be found here. It’s an impressive start, but a lot of the heavy lifting remains.

Both governments have been telegraphing for months what the revisions would likely include, so there were no real surprises for Asia watchers. Perhaps the most interesting revision, and one that may make a real difference, is the establishment of an “Alliance Coordination Mechanism, [to] enhance operational coordination, and strengthen bilateral planning,” according to the document.

After 50-plus years of the alliance, it may be a bit surprising that no such mechanism hitherto existed, but rectifying that gap is a good idea. If it operates the way it should, Tokyo and Washington should be able to discuss on an early and continuous basis specific issues or threats that may fall under alliance auspices. That takes the pressure off of calling for formal alliance discussions when a threat arises, and also means that appropriate alliance managers are communicating regularly on issues that may eventually require a joint response.

The two sides will also upgrade the Bilateral Planning Mechanism, which may allow for a steady evolution of plans for coordinated operations, as well as requirements needed to undertake enhanced operations.

As expected, there is also an increased emphasis on planning with potential partners for situations where Japan is not under attack, but the security environment is deleterious to Japan, including “emerging threats.” This may open the door to far wider-ranging U.S.-Japan regional cooperation, not only on things like intelligence sharing, but also maritime security, refugee situations, and the like. Threats to cyber networks and space assets also have been a hot topic during the months of negotiations, and the revised guidelines have an entire section on notional cooperation on both those issues.

Overall, the document lives up to its billing, but implementation is now the order of the day. Prime Minister Abe will have to push through a raft of legislation in the Diet (parliament) in order to allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to undertake the broadened array of operations envisioned in the guidelines. That will be no mean feat, given opposition from other political parties, including his own coalition partners, as well as public wariness of an expanded Japanese role abroad.

As for Washington, the sentiments and promises in the revised guidelines are only part of a broader strategy to deal with increased risk in Asia. In that sense, the document is too reactive. China’s creation of island territory in the South China Sea is giving it de facto sovereignty over those waters, according to worried Philippine officials, while North Korea continues to improve its nuclear and missile capabilities.

If Washington chooses simply to react to threats when they cross unknown redlines, then the U.S.-Japan alliance will forever be playing catch-up. Some bolder thinking on how to utilize Abe’s interest in playing a larger regional role may serve to blunt Chinese moves, and certainly aiming at weakening North Korea’s hermit regime is the best policy for trying to shape the region’s security environment. Even if not spelled out in the new alliance guidelines, those goals should be animating policymakers in Tokyo and Washington going forward.

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North Korea’s Nuclear Arsenal Is Bigger Than We Thought

A few weeks ago, I wrote about North Korea’s nuclear breakout, and that the U.S. government was finally beginning to acknowledge the degree to which North Korea’s nuclear capabilities could no longer be ignored. Yet even as the Obama administration continues to talk about the North Korean nuclear “program,” along come the Chinese, of all people, to tell us that North Korea is in reality a nuclear power, with a growing arsenal beyond what American experts suspected.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about North Korea’s nuclear breakout, and that the U.S. government was finally beginning to acknowledge the degree to which North Korea’s nuclear capabilities could no longer be ignored. Yet even as the Obama administration continues to talk about the North Korean nuclear “program,” along come the Chinese, of all people, to tell us that North Korea is in reality a nuclear power, with a growing arsenal beyond what American experts suspected.

Today, the Wall Street Journal reports on what many of us in Washington have been hearing for a while, namely that North Korea may possess as many as 20 nuclear weapons already, and that it could build 20 more by 2016, possibly having 75 nuclear bombs by 2020. The source of this latest intelligence (which, it must be acknowledged, is guesswork)? Chinese nuclear experts, who meet regularly with their American counterparts.

The American experts quoted in the piece take a lower-end estimate of Pyongyang’s nuclear inventory, but still believe that Kim Jong-un currently controls around a dozen bombs, with as many as 20 by next year. Combine either the Chinese or the American total with the North’s ability to launch a long-range ballistic missile that can travel up to 5,600 miles, covering most of America’s West coast, and the picture of strategic stability in Asia begins to look a little different.

By now, it must be clear to all but the most naive of observers that North Korea will never denuclearize. Any idea of returning to the moribund Six Party Talks to achieve that goal is a dangerous notion, as more negotiation over an unachievable outcome will only give Pyongyang more time to further build up its inventory and perfect its ICBM capability. Instead, it is time to put some intellectual firepower behind meaningful sanctions that harm the pocketbooks of North Korea’s leaders, and enhance anti-proliferation activities, to prevent the transfer of sensitive technology.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration may be guilty of hiding information of precisely such proliferation activities, so as to keep nuclear negotiations with Iran alive. Given the failed Bush-Obama attempts to keep North Korea from developing nuclear weapons during years of intense negotiations, the folly of pursuing a similar script with Iran becomes ever clearer. Now, North Korea is stockpiling an arsenal of nuclear weapons controlled by a paranoid, erratic, aggressive regime. Counting on Kim Jong-un’s rationality is a risky bet, but America’s diplomatic failures up to now give few other options for dealing with his threat. Thinking about the unthinkable may become fashionable again.

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Are Asia’s Nations Losing Their Fear of China?

One of the great enablers of China’s rise in Asia has been the fear of smaller nations to oppose its increasingly coercive behavior. Facing the sheer size of China, the worry that trade relations could be affected, and growing power of its military, most Asian nations have tried to avoid antagonizing Beijing over disputed territory in the region. This has been most noticeable in the South China Sea, where China’s largely successful attempts to wrestle territory away from the Philippines and Vietnam has now been complemented by a land reclamation policy that literally creates islands out of coral reefs.

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One of the great enablers of China’s rise in Asia has been the fear of smaller nations to oppose its increasingly coercive behavior. Facing the sheer size of China, the worry that trade relations could be affected, and growing power of its military, most Asian nations have tried to avoid antagonizing Beijing over disputed territory in the region. This has been most noticeable in the South China Sea, where China’s largely successful attempts to wrestle territory away from the Philippines and Vietnam has now been complemented by a land reclamation policy that literally creates islands out of coral reefs.

Yet there are signs that Asia’s nations have had enough, or at least are no longer willing to mute their opposition and anger at Beijing’s high-handed actions. This story, about a recent confrontation between Chinese maritime patrol vessels and Philippine fishing boats in the disputed Scarborough Shoal, contains all the elements of Asia’s geopolitical tussle. China’s coercive actions, including using water cannons and cutting the smaller boats’ mooring ropes, mimics previous incidents with Vietnam and other nations.

Yet now official condemnation of China is becoming more common. The Philippines’ presidential palace criticized China for the recent acts, one of just a number of Asian states that seem less willing to back down, at least diplomatically. While few of these nations have the military capability to effectively protect their claims, and none will be able to replicate Beijing’s feat of creating new islands on which to place airstrips and bases, they seem to have turned a corner in their willingness to denounce China’s actions.

Some of this is due to the realization that silence bought them little respite from China’s creeping control over the waters of Southeast Asia. Yet some more may be due to the fact that Japan has increased its diplomatic and security cooperation with Southeast Asian nations, providing patrol vessels and talking about enhanced relations. As Tokyo has deepened ties with both India and Australia, it is beginning to form a least a loose community of nations working more closely together in building up their defensive capabilities. Perhaps this, too, is changing the calculus of Asian states that have felt isolated until now.

Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, will visit Washington next week, for what may turn out to be an important summit with Barack Obama. Abe is eager to deepen the U.S.-Japan alliance, and it looks like a new set of guidelines for defense cooperation will be released. But where it counts today is on the waters of the South China Sea. The U.S. just concluded its largest military exercises with the Philippines in over a decade, a sign that Washington understands the sensitivities at play.

Yet whether President Obama will embrace Japan’s bid to link together those nations that feel threatened by China is yet unknown. Throwing his weight behind Abe’s initiatives would be a sure sign to Beijing that its rise is not without cost, and that it must temper its actions in order to ensure continued peace in Asia. With less than two years left in his administration, this is President Obama’s last, best chance to help reduce risk in Asia and potentially reshape its regional relations.

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Containing China

At the risk of home-team boosterism (I’m a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations) I must commend for wider attention a new Council on Foreign Relations Special Report on U.S. policy toward China. Its authors are my Council colleague Robert Blackwill, a former deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration and a former ambassador to India, and Ashley Tellis, a well-respected Asia expert from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has done stints inside the government.

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At the risk of home-team boosterism (I’m a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations) I must commend for wider attention a new Council on Foreign Relations Special Report on U.S. policy toward China. Its authors are my Council colleague Robert Blackwill, a former deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration and a former ambassador to India, and Ashley Tellis, a well-respected Asia expert from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has done stints inside the government.

One might expect, based on their impeccable Establishment credentials, that they would be in favor of the post-1970s consensus in Washington regarding China: namely, that a stronger China is in America’s interest. But that is not what Blackwill and Tellis argue. Rather, they describe China as the “most significant competitor to the United States for decades to come,” a competitor that must be contained rather than turbo-charged. “Because the American effort to ‘integrate’ China into the liberal international order has now generated new threats to U.S. primacy in Asia—and could result in a consequential challenge to American power globally—Washington needs a new grand strategy toward China that centers on balancing the rise of Chinese power rather than continuing to assist its ascendancy.”

What would this strategy consist of? Among other steps, they argue “Congress should remove sequestration caps and substantially increase the U.S. defense budget… Washington should intensify a consistent U.S. naval and air presence in the South and East China Seas,” and “accelerate the U.S. ballistic-missile defense posture” in the Pacific; the United States should encourage its allies “to develop a coordinated approach to constrict China’s access to all technologies, including dual use”; Washington should “impose costs on China that are in excess of the benefits it receives from its violations in cyberspace … increase U.S. offensive cyber capabilities … continue improving U.S. cyber defenses,” and “pass relevant legislation in Congress, such as the Cyber Information Security Protection Act.”

To be sure, they couple these tough calls for containment policies with a desire for enhanced “U.S.-China discourse,” which “should be more candid, high-level, and private than is current practice.” There is no one who will object to talking to Beijing. But Blackwill and Tellis’s call for actively containing Chinese power—including by an increase in U.S. military spending—is sure to be controversial. There remain many “panda-huggers” in Washington who remain convinced, notwithstanding China’s crude power-flexing in the South China Sea and East China Sea, that it will be content with a “peaceful rise” within an American-dominated geopolitical system. The evidence suggests otherwise, and Blackwill and Tellis have done the valuable service of issuing recommendations that are more in line with how China is actually behaving than how we would like it to behave.

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Why China Won’t Support “Snapback” Iran Sanctions

No one can accuse the Iranian government of being stupid. They entered into negotiations with their economy tanking and very little leverage, and came out of talks with an outright victory. It was the equivalent of a pair of twos beating a full house in poker.

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No one can accuse the Iranian government of being stupid. They entered into negotiations with their economy tanking and very little leverage, and came out of talks with an outright victory. It was the equivalent of a pair of twos beating a full house in poker.

President Barack Obama has famously promised “snapback” sanctions: If Iran doesn’t meet its obligations, then the sanctions that brought Tehran to the table will simply be restored. What Obama ignores, however, is that the United Nations is not an institution in which members leave national interests at the door in order to embrace lofty values, but rather a tool by which the world’s dictatorships launder their cravenness through the illusion of principle.

Hence, for snapback sanctions to be successful, Obama will needs Russian President Vladimir Putin or his representatives not only to agree that the Islamic Republic is in violation but also that snapping sanctions back in place is in Moscow’s interests. That will be a tough hurdle, given Russia’s military and nuclear investment in Iran. Regardless, the Kremlin believes it has found a win-win formula: Support Iran’s nuclear program and make billions of dollars selling goods to the Islamic Republic. If, however, the situation collapses and Israel or some other power launches military strikes on Iran, sending the price of oil and gas through the roof, then Moscow laughs its way to the bank.

China has traditionally approached both the Middle East and Middle Eastern issues at the United Nations with exceeding caution. When most countries vote up or down on issues, China abstains. The Iranian government, however, recognizes that to make China into a reliable ally, it needs to rope China into the Iranian economy in a way that re-sanctioning hurts. And that is exactly the effect of the deal that Iranian authorities have just announced.

Today, according to this Fars News Agency article (alas, still only in Persian), Behruz Kamalvandi, deputy director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, announced that China will help Iran build a new nuclear power plant, a multibillion dollar exercise. But with Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry releasing nearly $12 billion in previously frozen assets, cash is no longer a problem.

Two years ago, I published an analysis for the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office examining Iran’s diplomatic outreach toward Africa. What immediately became clear was that Tehran targeted those countries who sat as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council or were on the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In effect, Iran sought shamelessly to buy their votes.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Obama and Kerry may have overseen the normalization of Iran’s once-covert nuclear program, but the Islamic Republic knows that the United States is a democracy and that the diplomatic duo will soon be lounging in Hawaii or yachting off Nantucket. They do not know who will be in the White House next and so they want insurance; i.e., the Chinese vote in Tehran’s pocket. More importantly, Iran’s efforts to buy votes to ensure that sanctions never snap back is as good an indication as ever that Tehran plans to comply neither with the letter nor spirit of its nuclear agreements.

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North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout: Canary in the Coalmine

Even a few months ago, nuclear war still seemed passé, an artifact of the Cold War, or derided as a fading dream for neoconservatives who want any excuse to increase defense budgets and meddle abroad. Sometimes, however, reality takes a bite out of comfortable establishment nostrums. Such was the case yesterday, when the commander of NORAD, Adm. William Gortney, admitted what many in D.C. have been whispering for months, that North Korea now has an “operational” road-mobile long-range ballistic missile, the KN-08, and that Pyongyang has “the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the [U.S.] homeland.”

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Even a few months ago, nuclear war still seemed passé, an artifact of the Cold War, or derided as a fading dream for neoconservatives who want any excuse to increase defense budgets and meddle abroad. Sometimes, however, reality takes a bite out of comfortable establishment nostrums. Such was the case yesterday, when the commander of NORAD, Adm. William Gortney, admitted what many in D.C. have been whispering for months, that North Korea now has an “operational” road-mobile long-range ballistic missile, the KN-08, and that Pyongyang has “the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the [U.S.] homeland.”

Thus, the fundamental goal of three U.S. administrations, to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear power that can threaten the United States and its treaty allies, has utterly failed. Two decades of intensive, repeated negotiation have resulted in the polar opposite of what Washington wanted. The nuclear non-proliferation model has been cracked, if not broken, and America’s ultimate security guarantee, “extended deterrence,” will now be called into question even more by nervous allies in Asia, and elsewhere.

Adm. Gortney’s announcement, which senior officials have been inching toward over the past year, now raises two distinct problems for U.S. policymakers, completely separate from the question of whether or not Pyongyang would ever use one of its nuclear weapons.

First, it is time to accept that we are moving into a future of nuclear proliferation, and therefore the increased likelihood of a nuclear event, be it an accident or a conscious act of aggression. In short, America’s holiday from nukes since the end of the Cold War is now over. In addition to smaller nuclear states, great power nuclear competition may well heat up. With Russia and China, two adversarial regimes, modernizing and increasing their nuclear forces, Americans and their allies will have to become used to nuclear saber rattling once again, as shown by recent comments from Vladimir Putin.

Will nuclear blackmail become a standard tool of statecraft in the 21st century? If so, will we simply ignore it, or decide to be more cautious in pursuing our interests? How do we begin thinking again about the unthinkable, yet also learn new lessons that may well have little connection to those from the Cold War, when there were primarily two stable nuclear blocs? We face, instead, a far more fragmented and complex nuclear future, in which aggressive, destabilizing rogue regimes will have control over the world’s most powerful weapons. What strategy will ensure the safety of the American homeland, and does the administration’s plans to slightly modernize, yet draw down our nuclear capability still make sense in this new world?

The second problem is how to deter would-be nuclear regimes, most obviously Iran, when the playbook for gaining nuclear weapons has now been written and published by the North Koreans. Pyongyang is the canary in the coalmine for nuclear proliferators. The failure of negotiation, the unwillingness of the United States to take serious steps to prevent proliferation, the wishful thinking on the part of diplomats and leaders from both parties, has led us to the threshold of a world far more terrifying than anything we’ve faced in a long time. The repeated assurances of U.S. officials that we would never permit nor accept a nuclear North Korea now ring hollow around the world. It can only be a balm to Tehran to look at our record, and to judge that both time and more sophisticated negotiating strategies are on their side.

Pundits are fond of saying that “elections have consequences.” So do policy failures. The consequences of two lost decades that have allowed one of the world’s most evil regimes to gain the ultimate weapon could be unthinkable. It is a black mark against the comfortable belief that “a bad deal is better than no deal.” Such statements only reveal the poverty of thinking among those who do not show the imagination to see how quickly the world can change for the worse, and how the spillover effects of our misguided approaches can themselves cause far greater disruption than the particular policy failure itself.

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Japan Makes Slow, Steady Moves in Asia’s Geopolitical Chess Game

Just a decade ago, only fantasists would have dreamed up headlines such as “Japan, Indonesia Strengthen Defense Ties,” or “Australia-Japan Military Ties Are a ‘Quasi-Alliance.'” The common perception that Tokyo was utterly dependent on its alliance with Washington, and failed to take any initiative to reshape its security relations in Asia, was not inaccurate. No longer, however, can the changes on Asia’s geopolitical chessboard be ignored.

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Just a decade ago, only fantasists would have dreamed up headlines such as “Japan, Indonesia Strengthen Defense Ties,” or “Australia-Japan Military Ties Are a ‘Quasi-Alliance.'” The common perception that Tokyo was utterly dependent on its alliance with Washington, and failed to take any initiative to reshape its security relations in Asia, was not inaccurate. No longer, however, can the changes on Asia’s geopolitical chessboard be ignored.

The driver of all this change, of course, is China. Its rapid military development, combined with a coercive approach to regional disputes, has alarmed its neighbors, particularly in Southeast Asia. Those smaller nations find themselves with limited options to protect their interests, and by default, have waited and hoped for the United States to play a larger role. Yet many of them, while welcoming the so-called U.S. “pivot” to Asia, have been disappointed with the lack of substance behind it.

Into this gap Japan has gingerly stepped. Tokyo cannot play the same security role in Asia that Washington does, nor does it want to. What it is seeking, however, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is to slowly reshape regional security relations. The goal, in effect, is to create a de facto coalition against China, so as to make Beijing temper its behavior.

The latest example of this approach is this week’s announcement between Prime Minister Abe and new Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Jokowi, as the Indonesia leader is known, visited Tokyo for his first state trip as president. That alone is a sign of Japan’s influence in Southeast Asia and the concern over China. While in Tokyo, Jokowi and Abe announced an enhanced security relationship, particularly on maritime issues, where the two both face challenges from China. In this, Abe is following up on a pact with Australia to co-produce advanced submarine technology (which has had a rocky start), the selling of maritime patrol vessels to Malaysia and the Philippines, and a deepening of defense ties with India.

None of this is to suggest a formal alliance, nor a NATO-type coalition of forces. What Abe is doing, however, is making it clear that Japan is a potential security partner to nations throughout the region, offering an alternative to simply acceding to Beijing’s policies. Over time, the weight of this community of democratic nations may well lead to a permanent change in the perception of the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, if not the actuality of it. Washington would be well advised to start taking advantage of the initiative of its key Asian ally, and the willingness of other nations to begin thinking of how to take the initiative in Asia’s great game.

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Obama’s Asia Policy Flounders

Thanks to some bold rhetoric and high-profile visits over the past years, Barack Obama’s Asia policy has by and large been seen as a bright spot in his foreign policy. Compared to the disastrous failure to anticipate or contain the Islamic State, the flatfooted response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, his Hamlet-like indecision over whether or not to intervene in the Syrian civil war, and his Pollyanna-ish belief that negotiations will really prevent Iran’s mullahs from building nuclear weapons, Obama’s Asia policy has appeared both relatively constant, if not proactive. Obama initially got kudos from the Washington policy community for announcing his so-called “pivot” to Asia, and his Department of Defense has pushed ahead on plans to increase the number of ships and planes in the region. The president visited Asia on high-profile trips to major regional gatherings, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement finally looks like it may actually be completed. By contrast with the rest of his foreign policy, Asia didn’t look too bad.

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Thanks to some bold rhetoric and high-profile visits over the past years, Barack Obama’s Asia policy has by and large been seen as a bright spot in his foreign policy. Compared to the disastrous failure to anticipate or contain the Islamic State, the flatfooted response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, his Hamlet-like indecision over whether or not to intervene in the Syrian civil war, and his Pollyanna-ish belief that negotiations will really prevent Iran’s mullahs from building nuclear weapons, Obama’s Asia policy has appeared both relatively constant, if not proactive. Obama initially got kudos from the Washington policy community for announcing his so-called “pivot” to Asia, and his Department of Defense has pushed ahead on plans to increase the number of ships and planes in the region. The president visited Asia on high-profile trips to major regional gatherings, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement finally looks like it may actually be completed. By contrast with the rest of his foreign policy, Asia didn’t look too bad.

There always was doubt among the more skeptical, even if many of us welcomed a deeper focus on Asia. But if some recent articles are anything to go by, the bloom is off the rose for Obama’s Asia policy, and its underlying weaknesses are now becoming painfully apparent. I’ll leave aside the question of whether the “pivot” (or “rebalance,” as the administration likes to call it) was ever much more than a large dollop of rhetoric, with little substance behind it. I’ll also pass on discussing whether Obama’s overall weak foreign policy has possibly contributed to the resurgence of Chinese assertiveness, if not coerciveness. Instead, there are two specific issues that point out the stumbling of Obama’s Asia policy.

Among the greater accomplishments claimed by Obama’s administration is the “Burmese Spring” that resulted in the loosening of authoritarian military rule by Burma’s junta and the 2010 release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The U.S. lifted long-standing sanctions against the Burmese regime in 2012, and eagerly trumpeted the country’s slow move towards democracy. On Sunday, The Washington Post put paid to the idea of Obama’s Burmese success. Criticizing the White House policy as “failed engagement,” the Post headlined what many Asia-watchers already knew: that the administration was ignoring continued and blatant human rights violations, the strengthening religious discrimination, the imprisonment of journalists, and the preventing of Suu Kyi from being able legally to run for president in this year’s elections. All this has been ignored while the administration has given the Burmese junta hundreds of million of dollars in aid. The point is that, like the Russian “reset” or negotiations with Iran, Obama appears satisfied with the public relations spin that ignores reality until stubborn facts intervene. In this case, it means that the message is sent that a fake liberalization can reap enormous benefits from the credulous Americans.

The second piece of evidence on the missteps of Obama’s Asia policy is the little-known issue of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). This is arguably a far more serious failure to understand and react to a major foreign initiative than the Burmese example. In 2014, the Chinese government proposed a $50 billion lending institution for the region. The AIIB is inescapably an alternative to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, both of which are guided by Western financial principles and ensure the influence of Washington or allied nations, like Japan. As the biggest shareholder, founder, and guiding spirit, China most likely will dominate the AIIB, and thereby increase its economic and political influence even more in Asia.

The founding of the AIIB might not have been such a big deal, but for the Obama administration’s ham-fisted response. In trying to pressure nations not to sign on as shareholders, Obama has revealed just how little global influence he has. Not only have most Asian nations signed on, but America’s main allies, including Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy have joined, as well, ignoring U.S. pleas to stay out. The Financial Times charitably called Washington’s abandonment by its allies a “blow” to US foreign policy. But with the news that stalwart U.S. ally Australia has also joined, veteran and respected Australian commentator Greg Sheridan scathingly destroys the fiction of American standing in Asia, writing that Canberra’s decision represents a “colossal defeat” for Obama (the article is behind a pay wall, but excerpts are here).

Why has Washington fallen on hard times in Asia? In Sheridan’s view, Obama is reaping the results of years of “incompetent, distracted” diplomacy that has left his administration with “neither the continuous presence, nor the tactical wherewithal, nor the store of goodwill or personal relationships” to carry anyone along with it. As if to underscore Sheridan’s analysis of Obama’s diplomatic crudeness, which includes a reminder that Obama personally insulted Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott with a “rogue” climate change speech at the G-20 in Brisbane last year, Washington accused London, its closest global ally, of “constant accommodation” of China, after its decision to join the AIIB. Such is the petulant, panicked response of an administration that has failed to understand, anticipate, analyze, and respond to changes that will reshape Asia’s financial landscape.

Now with South Korea considering joining the AIIB, Washington will be left isolated only with its ally Japan as new regional financial relationships are created. Ultimately, either Obama or his successor will likely bow to reality, and find a face-saving way to join the AIIB. Yet it will be clear to everyone in Asia, as well as Europe, that the United States was outplayed by China and forced into an impotent, reactive role.

The changes roiling through Asia may seem less dramatic than those occurring in Europe or the Middle East. Yet they are just as transformative, and their effects will unfold for years. Whether Washington wakes up to its diminishing role in Asia, and acts materially to reverse the decline, will be but one test of its ability to maintain its global role in the coming decades.

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Why Is the U.S. Sacrificing Thailand to China?

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.

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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.

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ISIS Stokes Sino-Japanese Antagonism

Beijing apparently believes in Rahm Emanuel’s famous dictum that you shouldn’t let a crisis go to waste. Instead of condemning ISIS’s brutal murder of two Japanese nationals, China’s propaganda arms are instead using the atrocity to caution the world against Japanese militarization. Nothing could better underscore the poisonous distrust between Asia’s two great powers, or more starkly illustrate the yawning gulf between them.

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Beijing apparently believes in Rahm Emanuel’s famous dictum that you shouldn’t let a crisis go to waste. Instead of condemning ISIS’s brutal murder of two Japanese nationals, China’s propaganda arms are instead using the atrocity to caution the world against Japanese militarization. Nothing could better underscore the poisonous distrust between Asia’s two great powers, or more starkly illustrate the yawning gulf between them.

When the government-controlled Global Times opined that Japanese Prime Minister Abe would likely use the horrific murder as an excuse to send Japanese armed forces abroad, it was both revealing a deep-seated Chinese fear and seeking to further isolate Japan in Asia. Abe had indeed made very un-Japanese statements about making the terrorists pay, but that simply put him in league with Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Jordan’s King Abdullah. To the Chinese, however, Abe’s statements were in reality a dog whistle to right-wing nationalists that the Japanese military would finally be unleashed beyond Japan’s borders.

Such fantasizing is of course hogwash, not least because Japan has almost no offensive or power projection capability. Moreover, the still-powerful strain of pacifism in Japanese society has actually led many to criticize Abe’s plans for a greater Japanese role abroad as being too dangerous. China’s criticism instead says much more about Beijing’s worries than Japan’s intentions.

When Chinese officials look around Asia, they see only one country that could plausibly frustrate their desire to become the undisputed hegemon of the region. Despite having ten times the population, and having surpassed Japan in gross GDP, Chinese officials understand Japan’s continued strengths, its strong alliance with the United States, and its newfound willingness to reach out to other Asian nations to form partnerships. Given that China inspires growing worry over its military power and aggressive designs on disputed territory and common sea lanes alike, officials in Beijing know that the region is slowly adopting a balancing position against them. And Japan, especially under Abe, is the leader of that movement.

Thus, the vilification campaign. Instead of acknowledging Japan’s right to avenge its murdered citizens, and perhaps even offering support, China’s propaganda handmaidens seek instead to fan the flames of anti-Japanese feeling. Outside of China, this may well play the best in South Korea, where bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo are at their lowest level in decades, thanks in part to Abe’s ill-advised statements questioning sensitive World War II issues such as the comfort women or larger questions of Japan’s war guilt. For some of the antagonism between himself and his neighbors, Abe indeed deserves blame, but not for asserting that he will protect Japan’s interests.

What China is really telegraphing is far simpler: there will be no rapprochement between the two great powers anytime soon. And that means an Asia that continues to simmer with tensions both real and imagined.

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Muddled “Strategic Clarity” on North Korea

Among those offering a way forward in the current North Korea crisis is Ambassador Christopher Hill, the Bush administration’s chief negotiator in the now-defunct Six Party Talks, and now at the University of Denver. Hill has penned an essay entitled “Strategic Clarity on North Korea.” While it offers no new ideas on how to reduce the danger North Korea poses, it does offer a great deal of advice on how to get China to play a bigger role in helping to deal with Pyongyang. Unfortunately, almost every suggestion is either based on wishful thinking, unsound analysis, or a lack of realism. It profoundly misreads China’s interests, bilateral Sino-U.S. relations, and power politics in the Asia-Pacific, and offers suggestions that if followed will weaken America’s position in the region.

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Among those offering a way forward in the current North Korea crisis is Ambassador Christopher Hill, the Bush administration’s chief negotiator in the now-defunct Six Party Talks, and now at the University of Denver. Hill has penned an essay entitled “Strategic Clarity on North Korea.” While it offers no new ideas on how to reduce the danger North Korea poses, it does offer a great deal of advice on how to get China to play a bigger role in helping to deal with Pyongyang. Unfortunately, almost every suggestion is either based on wishful thinking, unsound analysis, or a lack of realism. It profoundly misreads China’s interests, bilateral Sino-U.S. relations, and power politics in the Asia-Pacific, and offers suggestions that if followed will weaken America’s position in the region.

For his argument to have any salience, Hill must dredge up the hoary claim that Beijing is “fed up with [its] client state’s behavior.” As I showed recently, this is a false hope renewed over and over again, in almost exactly the same words by observers all over the political spectrum. Each time Pyongyang commits an outrage, we are assured by government and media alike that China is now really very angry, and thus will be more willing to help us. The only evidence adduced for such an assertion is wispier than the smoke rising from the huts of starving North Korean peasants.

Yet, even in making his claim, Hill engages in at least two logical fallacies. The first is to claim that North Korea is a client state of China, when he admits just a few paragraphs later that, thanks to his execution of China’s top man in the North (who also happened to be his uncle), “China’s leaders know that they cannot rely on the ‘Young General’” Kim Jong-Un. Thus, it is unclear that the North is still a client in any way that would allow Beijing to put meaningful pressure on it.

The second logical fallacy Hill makes regarding Beijing’s “anger” toward North Korea is that, even if the Chinese leadership are indeed upset by Pyongyang’s behavior, their reasons for being so are entirely unconnected with Kim’s attack on Sony or his antagonism to America. There is therefore no reason whatsoever to believe that Beijing will suddenly be willing to help Washington with its problem. To conflate China’s possible, and unproved, annoyance with Kim with Washington’s cold war with the North is to misread the basic strategic environment in Asia. This raises false hopes that there is a potential ground of agreement between Beijing and Washington.

This assertion, however, is just the beginning. Almost as an aside, Hill makes a claim contradicted by all available evidence that Beijing is interested in “mending relations” with its Southeast Asian neighbors thanks to Beijing’s coercive behavior over South China Sea territorial disputes. Hill judges that “China now appears willing to address the disputes multilaterally, through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN].” This is a statement that would come as a major surprise to nations like Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and others who have faced greater Chinese paramilitary pressure in recent months, and who have unsuccessfully tried to get Beijing to agree to multilateral resolution of the problems, and not just “address” them through endless and meaningless discussion at ASEAN meetings. Such a benign view of China may hold sway in Denver, but it is most certainly not shared throughout much of Southeast Asia.

Back to the main argument, though, and here the wishful thinking that pervades so much of America’s foreign policy is on full display. The presumption is that, given the right set of conditions, China can be enticed into a more cooperative and trusting relationship with the United States in regard to North Korea. In order to do so, Hill calls on Washington to engage China on confidence building discussions over the future of a post-North Korea peninsula. “Giving one another access to deep thinking on the issue could be the best means to encourage cooperation,” he writes, again making two unwarranted logical leaps in one sentence: first, that China would engage in an honest conversation with the U.S. on this issue, and second (again), that it is interested in cooperation. The Chinese would undoubtedly welcome a window into Washington’s deepest thinking while keeping their own opinions safely hidden.

Even worse, Hill writes that “the Chinese today frequently discuss a policy of ‘great country relations’…The US must work with them on that concept.” He either dismisses or is unaware of the Chinese interpretation of that phrase, which is based on a mutual acceptance of spheres of influence. In other words, the new model of great power relations promoted by Beijing is a fig leaf for reducing and eventually eliminating U.S. influence and power in East Asia. Yet, Hill credulously believes we should encourage such Chinese thinking, so as to reap nonexistent cooperation over North Korea.

A final, and astounding, suggestion is that Washington “should encourage better relations between China and South Korea.” There is nothing to fear in such an approach, he writes, since “there is plenty of room for everyone.” If only we could be so sure that Beijing sees it that way, and we can be pretty sure that it does not. After all, Hill has just told us that China is worried about a future Korean peninsula united and tilted toward America. If encouraged in their relationship with the South, why should we assume Beijing will play by liberal, Marquis of Queensbury rules of international behavior, instead of pushing as much advantage as it can through a combination of blandishment and intimidation? Beijing’s great goal is to rupture America’s alliances throughout the region, and this suggestion is a way of doing it for them. In fact, if South Korea sees its main ally pushing it closer to Beijing, why wouldn’t it take the hint, or Japan or Australia, for that matter? If one thinks America has no future role to play in Asia, then this is the 21st century equivalent of Lenin’s statement that “the capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them.”

And what is the grand policy that will make all this hodge-podge of wishful thinking and misguided analysis come to fruition? A “strategic reengagement,” an alchemist’s dream of making the gold of perpetual peace from the dross of great power competition. To wish such a reformulated relationship does not make it so, especially when there is no evidence that one half of the projected union is in any way willing to play such a role. This is a classic, and naïve, example of the projection of one’s own hopes on another.

But the reader must assume that Hill, as experienced a diplomat as he is, knows all this. After all, he gives the game away, having prefaced all of his solutions with the statement, “Assuming that China’s leaders are aware that their relationship with one of the world’s worst-behaved regimes will not further their goal of global engagement….” He surely is winking at us, as it is, in fact, an entirely unwarranted assumption that Beijing believes its goal of global engagement (whatever that may mean) is harmed by its relations with North Korea. After all, nearly two decades of support for the Kim family has resulted in no negative effect on China’s trade with the rest of the world, membership in international organizations, or high-level meetings. In fact, Beijing would be entirely justified in concluding that its aid to North Korea is utterly overlooked by the rest of the world, and most especially by the United States.

What Hill never attempts to address is the most basic question of what China would gain from cooperation with the United States over North Korea. There is every reason to believe, instead, that it has concluded its interest lies precisely in enabling a disruptive regime in North Korea that frustrates Washington and has tied up intellectual and material resources for decades. Why would China want to surrender that advantage? Its relations with the U.S. are already going as well as could be hoped.

There is a great deal in this essay, and it surely will be read avidly in Beijing, and probably Pyongyang. Unfortunately, it provides little help and lots of dangers for the United States. Let’s hope the Obama administration ignores it in its tired entirety.

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Obama Surrenders Africa to China

For decades, American presidents traveled to Africa, proposed new partnerships with the continent and its peoples, and then promptly forgot about the partnership once they returned to Washington. On October 20, 1999, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared, “I believe that our administration has spent more time, attention, and money on Africa than any other administration.” Years ago, I visited Mali and Burkina Faso on vacation, and found the progress announced after Albright and her predecessor Warren Christopher’s visit to that country fleeting. While 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Global War on Terrorism overshadowed George W. Bush’s legacy, perhaps no president had as lasting an impact on Africa as did he. The commitment was not only diplomatic but military as well. The Pentagon stood up Africom, its sixth geographic combatant command, and promising even greater commitment to African security.

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For decades, American presidents traveled to Africa, proposed new partnerships with the continent and its peoples, and then promptly forgot about the partnership once they returned to Washington. On October 20, 1999, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared, “I believe that our administration has spent more time, attention, and money on Africa than any other administration.” Years ago, I visited Mali and Burkina Faso on vacation, and found the progress announced after Albright and her predecessor Warren Christopher’s visit to that country fleeting. While 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Global War on Terrorism overshadowed George W. Bush’s legacy, perhaps no president had as lasting an impact on Africa as did he. The commitment was not only diplomatic but military as well. The Pentagon stood up Africom, its sixth geographic combatant command, and promising even greater commitment to African security.

At first, after President Obama’s inauguration, Africans’ hope that American attention might be sustained was realized. Hillary Clinton cannot point to many accomplishments as secretary of state, but she did pay disproportionate attention to Africa even as the rest of the world started to burn. While perhaps not directly related to her own influence, it was during Clinton’s tenure that Obama deployed U.S. forces to seek to capture Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a nominally Christian insurgent group (sponsored by Islamist Sudan) that has sought to destabilize first Uganda and now Southern Sudan with terrorism and atrocity.

Alas, with Clinton gone, and American power in retreat, Obama appears to have once again turned his back on Africa. Sure, he deployed some forces to help contain Ebola but that was reactive rather than proactive. When it comes to building a real partnership with Africa, it seems that China is years ahead of the United States. This is tragic, because there is no area showing such promise of sustained growth than Africa.

According to the World Bank:

The world attained the first Millennium Development Goal target—to cut the 1990 poverty rate in half by 2015—five years ahead of schedule, in 2010. Despite this progress, the number of people living in extreme poverty remains unacceptably high.

  • According to the most recent estimates, in 2011, 17 percent of people in the developing world lived at or below $1.25 a day. That’s down from 43 percent in 1990 and 52 percent in 1981.
  • This means that, in 2011, just over one billion people lived on less than $1.25 a day, compared with 1.91 billion in 1990, and 1.93 billion in 1981.

Africa accounts for much of the decline in poverty; the fact that this occurred against the backdrop of African countries eschewing socialism and embracing the free market principles is no coincidence. Piracy has declined precipitously off the Horn of Africa (albeit while picking up in the Gulf of Guinea) and countries once mired in civil war have now put that era behind them. True, there are states like South Sudan and the Central African Republic teetering on the verge of failure, if not already over the precipice, but these are now more the exception than the rule. And states that are perennially basket cases like Zimbabwe and Eritrea are likewise increasingly in a club of their own.

In short, relationships with Africa are less those of donor to recipient, and more true partnerships. And it is to these that the United States is turning its back. China is sending hundreds of peacekeepers to southern Sudan, reopening its embassy in Somalia, and building a railroad in Nigeria. Chinese are flooding into the continent, drawn by economic opportunity.

Speaking to 50 African heads of state at the first U.S.-Africa Summit this past summer, Obama took a subtle shot at China’s motivations, declaring, “We don’t look to Africa simply for its natural resources; we recognize Africa for its greatest resource, which is its people and its talents and their potential.” Still, money is money, and business is business. U.S.-Africa trade has dwindled under Obama. Trade has always formed the backbone of relations, and countries seeking to get rich aren’t going to turn their back on a formula that worked the world over, however exploitative China might be.

There is a new Great Game brewing, but alas, Obama is forfeiting. Some American analysts argue that America is already too far behind, but defeat is only certain if the United States refuses to fight for its interests and continues to take allies for granted.

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Castros Ensure That Rubio Isn’t Gambling

Playing its usual role as the purveyor of liberal conventional wisdom of the day, the New York Times heaped scorn on Senator Marco Rubio for his outspoken opposition to the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba in an article headlined, “In Political Gamble, Marco Rubio Sticks to His Hard Line on Cuba.” But the oft-repeated assumption that any opponent of the latest of President Obama’s initiatives is on, as the article says, the wrong side of history says more about the desire of American liberals to throw out anything that reminds them of the cold war than anything that is likely to happen on the island.

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Playing its usual role as the purveyor of liberal conventional wisdom of the day, the New York Times heaped scorn on Senator Marco Rubio for his outspoken opposition to the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba in an article headlined, “In Political Gamble, Marco Rubio Sticks to His Hard Line on Cuba.” But the oft-repeated assumption that any opponent of the latest of President Obama’s initiatives is on, as the article says, the wrong side of history says more about the desire of American liberals to throw out anything that reminds them of the cold war than anything that is likely to happen on the island.

The conceit of the piece is pretty much a repetition of President Obama’s talking points about his reasons for granting the Communist regime diplomatic recognition and other economic benefits. The old policies that revolve around isolating Cuba and forcing it to change have failed. The only hope for improving life there is to embrace the regime and to stop treating it as a pariah. The assumption is not only that Cuba will change enough to justify the move. It’s also based on the idea that most Americans want no part of what is seen as a vestige of cold war rivalries.

That’s certainly true of the core readership of the Times but, as has also been repeated endlessly in the last few days, younger Cuban-Americans are no longer as wedded to hostility to the Castro regime as their parents and grandparents. The point the president and his media cheering section is trying to make is that Rubio’s hawkish position is not only outdated but that it also doesn’t have much of a constituency even in the Republican Party, as evidence by the silence of some leading Republicans on the issue such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the applause for Obama’s move on the part of libertarians like Senator Rand Paul.

Liberals think that although Rubio is getting a lot of attention by staking out a “hard-line” position on Cuba, the Florida senator is actually making it clear that his views are outdated and about to be eclipsed by events that will soon lead to normal relations with Havana. In this manner, they think he will alienate his core Cuban constituency that will enjoy and exploit the new reality as well as a business community that is always willing to exploit any new markets in search of profits.

But the problem with all these assumptions is that there is very little sign that Cuba will evolve in the direction President Obama thinks it will or that Cuban-Americans or Republican voters will reject Rubio’s message.

First of all, the objective of the Cuban regime is not to prepare the way for a transition to democracy or even to open up its economy to foreign investors. Raul Castro does want some infusion of Western cash to keep his failed state afloat now that the Soviet Union is dead and Venezuela is bankrupt. But he isn’t any more interested in the post-Cold War model of China than he is that of Russia.

As Walter Russell Mead, a supporter of the deal with Cuba, noted earlier this week in the American Interest, the regime is well aware that a Republican Congress will never lift the embargo on their country. That’s fine with the Castros, who want to keep strict limits on the influx of foreign business and investment. Unlike Russia, which scrapped both its political and economic systems and China, which embraced capitalism for its economy while maintaining a Communist dictatorship, the Cuban leaders want to keep both their tyranny and their bankrupt socialist system. All they want from the United States is just enough investment to keep them going without actually generating any sort of reform.

Rubio’s position is no gamble because the Castro brothers have no intention of letting Cuba become Russia or China. They want, and with the help of President Obama, may well get, a third option that enables them to preserve their regime and do nothing to advance the standard of living in Cuba.

What Rubio has done is to draw attention to the fact that in exchange for giving something of great value to a brutal and dictatorial regime, President Obama has gotten nothing in return. The president’s blind ideological faith in engagement with foes of the United States has been demonstrated time and again with nations like Russia and Iran. But considering how little he has gained for these appeasement campaigns, the notion that history will judge Obama kindly for these moves is more of a leap of liberal faith than a sober assessment of reality.

Far from a gamble, Rubio’s bold stand presents no risk at all for him. The chances that the regime in Havana will allow anything that could be mistaken for liberal reform are virtually non-existent. Nor is it likely that the base of the Republican Party, which feels such disgust at the president’s weakness and willingness to sell out American values in order to gain a meaningless diplomatic triumph, will punish Rubio for pointing this out.

It remains to be seen whether this issue will be enough to propel Rubio into a viable 2016 presidential bid. But it does solidify his reputation as one of the leading spokesmen, if not the most important spokesman for his party on foreign-policy issues. With Americans rightly re-focused on the threat of Islamist terrorism and worries about a nuclear Iran being exacerbated by Obama’s determination to secure a nuclear deal at any cost, the president’s Cuban gambit not only helps keep foreign policy a major issue for 2016 but also highlights Rubio’s greatest strength and one on which he is far closer to the views of most Republicans than someone like Paul.

But whether or not he runs for president, the facts on the ground in Cuba are bound to make Rubio look smart. Just as President Obama’s mockery of Mitt Romney for embracing the politics of the 1980s on Russia now looks pretty embarrassing, it’s likely that the same will be said of those who think Rubio is on the wrong side of history on Cuba.

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Cuba and the Price of Normalization

Then news this morning that the Cuban government is finally freeing Alan Gross, an American unjustly imprisoned there for the last five years, is cause for celebration. The release of Gross, a Jewish aid worker who was trying to help the Cuban people, not to spy on their government, was long overdue and the seemingly lackluster efforts to free him by the Obama administration were discouraging. But the administration and the Cuban government obviously was interested in achieving something more than a prisoner exchange as they engaged in negotiations. The result of a reported 18 months of talks was not merely the end of Gross’s ordeal but the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba’s Communist government after more than a half century of conflict. This is something about which Americans should feel less than enthusiastic.

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Then news this morning that the Cuban government is finally freeing Alan Gross, an American unjustly imprisoned there for the last five years, is cause for celebration. The release of Gross, a Jewish aid worker who was trying to help the Cuban people, not to spy on their government, was long overdue and the seemingly lackluster efforts to free him by the Obama administration were discouraging. But the administration and the Cuban government obviously was interested in achieving something more than a prisoner exchange as they engaged in negotiations. The result of a reported 18 months of talks was not merely the end of Gross’s ordeal but the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba’s Communist government after more than a half century of conflict. This is something about which Americans should feel less than enthusiastic.

We are told that Gross’s freedom, along with that of 53 human-rights prisoners, is for humanitarian reasons and not part of a prisoner exchange in which Havana released another person (dubbed a U.S. “intelligence asset”) for three Cuban spies. But the real focus of American policy here was on President Obama’s goal of engagement with America’s foes. As with his outreach to Iran, the president’s belief that diplomacy can smooth out if not entirely erase our differences with dangerous regimes has become the engine of American foreign policy during his administration. Whether it is the failed attempts at resets of relations with the Putin regime in Russia or the long-running effort to appease the Islamist regime in Tehran, the point of American efforts is not so much the achievement of tangible goals or the enhancement of U.S. security as it is on the promotion of good will with nations that have little or no regard for U.S. values or interests.

In pursuit of this amorphous goal, the administration has made bargains, like the interim nuclear accord signed with Iran last year, that do little to promote U.S. goals but allow the president to keep talking with hostile nations. It is in this context that we must view any effort to normalize relations with a tyrannical Cuban government.

It should be conceded that the American embargo on Cuba, which can only be lifted by Congress and not by presidential fiat, has not been effective in isolating that country or in promoting change there. But even if we recognize that this is true, neither should the U.S. be blamed for the endemic poverty in Cuba. After all, many American businesses have obtained exemptions for conducting commerce there and virtually every other nation on the planet does have trade with Cuba. Poverty in Cuba is caused by Communism and the repression that is inherent in the system that the aging Castro brothers have imposed on this tortured island prison.

The arguments for opening U.S. trade with Cuba revolve around the idea that engagement will undermine the Communist system and the regime. It should also be noted that when you consider that America has intense economic relations with China, the world’s largest tyranny, the insistence on isolating a far smaller one in Cuba doesn’t seem to make sense. Seen from that perspective, President Obama’s decision to end 51 years of diplomatic estrangement and to open up trade with it will probably do little harm and perhaps lead to some good.

But there are two underlying dynamics to the decision that are deeply troubling.

The first is that this rapprochement has been achieved by blackmail by a vicious totalitarian state rather than an honest and open diplomatic process. Though we are supposed to believe that Gross’s freedom was incidental to the agreement, it’s clear that his unjust imprisonment raised the price of the payoff Obama was preparing to hand the Castros in order to achieve what he is claiming as a foreign-policy triumph. This is a clear signal to other tyrannies that Washington can be fleeced if a U.S. hostage can be held for ransom.

Second, while America’s efforts had not led to freedom for Cuba, it’s far from clear that what will follow the president’s decision will actually end the Cuban people’s long Communist ordeal. Here, the China precedent is both instructive and chilling. By cooperating in this manner the U.S. is going from a position of futile hostility against Communism to one in which it will be directly complicit in the efforts of this brutal regime to survive. Just as American economic ties helped the communists in Beijing to succeed where those in Moscow failed at the end of the Cold War, so, too, is it likely that all that will be accomplished here is an infusion of American cash and legitimacy that will give a failed, bankrupt yet vicious government a new lease on life.

Though he paid lip service to the cause of promoting freedom when he spoke today, as with so many of his foreign-policy initiatives, the president’s focus is more on repudiating longstanding American policies than on actually helping anyone in Cuba. Nor has he extracted a fair price for granting the Castros what they have been demanding for decades. At a time when Cuba’s main allies, especially Venezuela, are in extremis due to the fall in oil prices, this was the moment for the U.S. to get more than just the freedom of Gross. But, as he has done with the even more dangerous regime in Iran, Obama paid a lot and got nothing for the Cuban people.

We can hope that Cubans will benefit to some extent from this decision but it is doubtful that they will be freer or that their prospects for liberty have been improved. Though the end of the break with Cuba is not nearly as significant as it might have been during the Cold War, it does send a message to every other American foe that the U.S. can be bought off cheaply. That’s an ominous precedent for the nuclear talks with Iran and every other dangerous situation faced by the U.S. while Obama is in the White House.

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Human Rights Hypocrisy Charge Doesn’t Fly

Hard on the heels of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the use of torture by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has come under attack from foreign nations accusing Americans of being hypocrites on the question of human rights. China, the world’s largest tyranny as well North Korea, arguably the craziest and most repressive nation on the planet, as well as other massive human rights violators such as Iran, have all thrown the report’s revelations in America’s face. While even those Americans most critical of the practice may not take anything said on the subject by these countries seriously, they do argue that U.S. use of torture undermines efforts to rally support for international human rights. But while the torture story is seen as a black eye for the U.S., there’s no comparison between what the CIA is accused of doing and what goes on elsewhere. Americans may not have clean hands but they are not hypocrites.

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Hard on the heels of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the use of torture by the CIA after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has come under attack from foreign nations accusing Americans of being hypocrites on the question of human rights. China, the world’s largest tyranny as well North Korea, arguably the craziest and most repressive nation on the planet, as well as other massive human rights violators such as Iran, have all thrown the report’s revelations in America’s face. While even those Americans most critical of the practice may not take anything said on the subject by these countries seriously, they do argue that U.S. use of torture undermines efforts to rally support for international human rights. But while the torture story is seen as a black eye for the U.S., there’s no comparison between what the CIA is accused of doing and what goes on elsewhere. Americans may not have clean hands but they are not hypocrites.

China, North Korea and Iran assert that America’s brutal interrogations of al-Qaeda suspects means that everything the U.S. has said about human rights should be ignored, vindicating them as well as lending credence to calls for prosecutions of those involved. American liberals seem to implicitly agree with them even if they disagree that U.S. behavior lets anyone else off the hook for human rights violations. But charges of U.S. hypocrisy are nothing more than tyranny talking points.

Whatever one may think of the rough treatment meted out to al-Qaeda prisoners, they were terrorists waging a brutal and bloody war against the West and the United States. As terrorists they were not covered by the protections of the Geneva Convention, nor do they have the same rights as citizens accused of crimes in a court of law. The torture may or may not have effective in getting them to give up vital intelligence but to compare even the nastiest things done to them to the actions of countries like China, North Korea and Iran is more than absurd.

Those tortured in those countries are not accused terrorists but ordinary citizens or dissidents striving for freedom or merely caught up in the grips of a state terrorism. When China, North Korea or Iran, or the many other countries that routinely violate human rights torture, the purpose of the activity is to preserve the ability of the state to go on oppressing people. When the CIA did it, it was part of an effort to defend the lives and the freedom of the American people and those elsewhere struggling to fend off al-Qaeda’s efforts to transform the world into an Islamist caliphate.

Do the motives of the torturers not count? Some would argue that torture is itself a crime and cannot be used under any circumstances. Even more, they say that tolerating torture gives the lie to America’s claim to be the defender of freedom. There is a certain moral logic to such a stand and, in the context of ordinary police work it can be argued that torture can never be contemplated by a just society. Yet the situation the U.S. found itself in after 9/11 was not ordinary. It was a war in which the stakes were as high as they have been in any conflict fought by Americans.

Both in the context of that perilous moment after 9/11 and the long war against Islamist terror that is still going on, the claim that keeping America’s hands clean is more important than the goal of crushing al-Qaeda and its successor groups and thereby defending the future of freedom, may be consistent but it is morally unserious. The first obligation of any democracy at war with tyranny is to defeat the enemy, not to avoid embarrassing revelations about interrogations. It is comforting to assert that victory does not require democracies to sully themselves with brutal behavior but such statements are pious hopes or retroactive pronouncements, not realistic analyses of options in the heat of battle.

By contrast, the efforts of tyrannies to oppress their peoples via torture and other human rights violations have no such justification or motive. To claim that there is no moral distinction between freedom defending itself with brutality and tyranny defending itself with similar methods is to construct a philosophical model that has not connection to real life or the necessarily ambiguous dilemmas of war. Nor should anything that was revealed this week about the CIA deter the United State or its allies from criticizing the widespread human rights violations going on around the world. No nation is perfect. But America’s willingness to do whatever it takes to defend the homeland against Islamist murderers does not make it a nation of hypocrites. That is a label best placed on those who cry out for security when under attack but then second-guess and smear as criminals those who successfully defended them.

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