Perhaps the saddest thing about President Obama’s Middle East peace initiative is how tangential it is. Ruel Marc Gerecht and Anthony Cordesman examine the upheavals in the region, focusing on Egypt and Syria respectively, without even mentioning Palestine, the jewel in Kerry’s crown. It is as if one were diagnosed with cancer, but the doctors says “I can’t cure the cancer but I can manicure your nails.”
Cordesman’s short message is that the Eastern World is exploding. The fire in Syria is spreading. “What started as a civil conflict more than two years ago now threatens to fuel a major conflict between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the Muslim world. The conflict is dividing Lebanon and giving Hezbollah and other extremists a larger foothold there. It is also creating problems in Jordan and Turkey, pushing Iraq toward civil war and making Iraq’s Shiite leadership more dependent on Iran.”
And in this matter Washington is paralyzed. It can’t go forward, can’t go back. Even “winning” — in the sense of toppling Assad — seems only marginally better than losing. Cordesman concludes that about the best thing the administration can do is go down swinging, to find redemption in honor. He writes:
If Assad succeeds in crushing the opposition or otherwise maintains control over most of Syria, Iran will have a massive new degree of influence over Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in a polarized Middle East divided between Sunni and Shiite. Minorities will be steadily driven into exile. This would present serious risks for Israel, weaken Jordan and Turkey and, most important, give Iran far more influence in the Persian Gulf, an area home to 48 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves.
If Washington arms the rebels and they still lose, the United States will at least have shown its willingness to make decisions and honor its commitments. It will have shown it will make good on its words and support its allies. … It would show that the United States is serious about strategic partnerships. It might help us persuade allies to back up their words with actions. And it might even show the Islamic world that there is an alternative to extremism and Sunni-Shiite conflict.
But if that sounds like a speech from the last days of Corregidor, Gerecht’s anaysis of Egypt is almost as gloomy. He describes another no-win situation. The problem in Egypt, he argues, is that they must choose between an Islamism that respects property rights or a Western secularism that sees socialism the solution. The choices before the Egyptians are between the ideology of Morsi or the ideology of Obama. Gerecht describes the points of view:
The army has since moved with some enthusiasm into crony capitalism. But it’s pretty obvious that the army has no intention of allowing free enterprise to grow that could compromise its own hold on the country. …
It’s unclear who—the Islamists, the secularists, or the military—has more patience when it comes to economics, but it’s a decent guess that the religious can better weather the rough economic times ahead. Self-help and community organizing are their strengths, and they have learned to operate without decrepit state institutions. …
Creating a modern economy in Egypt will hinge on devout Muslims buying into the project; they, not the super-rich businessmen of the Mubarak era, and certainly not the deeply socialist secular youth who look upon the government as the employer of first resort … In fact, the Islamists are probably less attached to a state-controlled economy than the rest. The study of Islamic law engenders an unavoidable respect for property rights. As the late Marxist Orientalist Maxime Rodinson pointed out in Islam and Capitalism (1966), socialism—the triumph of equality over liberty—has weak roots in Islam.
So Egypt can choose either to be like that playground of Islam, Homs or that worker’s paradise, Detroit, which leaves “Egypt … in uncharted territory.”
And speaking of charts, Joe Biden is currently touring the Pacific telling anyone who will listen that “we are a Pacific power. America is a Pacific resident power and we will remain so”, which is probably a strong indication there is some doubt in the matter. For decades America’s pre-eminence was so obvious it hardly needed touting. Joe Biden’s “hey we’re still here” tour, if designed to inspire confidence, is almost as pathetic as Kerry’s offer of a manicure to the cancer-ridden Middle East.
Maybe Biden had to tell the world the Obama administration was on top of things because you might get the opposite impression from events. China begins its first boomer patrols next year. Bill Gertz reports:
China’s navy is expected to begin the first sea patrols next year of a new class of strategic missile submarines, highlighting a new and growing missile threat to the U.S. homeland, according to U.S. defense officials.
Which means all those “unproven missile defense systems” and canceled advanced combat systems have to work overtime. The administration is peculiar in that it owes most of its survival to the things it doesn’t like and all of its troubles to the things it dreams up — then cancels. Like Obamacare, Syria, grand bargains, etc. Gertz continues:
“We are anticipating that combat patrols of submarines carrying the new JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile will begin next year,” said one official familiar with recent intelligence assessments of the Chinese strategic submarine force.
China’s strategic missile submarine force currently includes three new Type 094 missile submarines each built with 12 missile launch tubes.
The submarine patrols will include scores of new JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) on the Type 094s. The submarines are also called Jin-class missile boats by the Pentagon.
The missile submarine patrols, if carried out in 2014, would be the first time China conducts submarine operations involving nuclear-tipped missiles far from Chinese shores despite having a small missile submarine force since the late 1980s.
So you might get the mistaken impression the Chinese had now moved beyond the First Island Chain. Moreover, the New York Times has noticed that “China launched its revamped coast guard last week and immediately sent four ships, emblazoned with the new red, white and blue logo, to patrol waters off disputed islands in the nearby East China Sea.”
The message was clear: China planned to use the new unified paramilitary vessels to keep pressure on Japan over the sovereignty of the tiny islands, an issue that has riled relations between the two countries.
At the same time as the newly designated coast guard vessels appeared in the waters on Wednesday, China sent a turboprop early-warning aircraft through international airspace between the islands of Okinawa and Miyako, an area where Japan said Chinese planes had not flown before. The Japanese called the flight by the Y-8 aircraft the latest in a series of provocations aimed at forcing concessions from Japan, which administers the disputed islands, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.
The merger of four Chinese maritime units into one superagency was announced in March. The actual creation of the new force has been nervously awaited in the Asia Pacific region as another sign of China’s fast-growing maritime capability and its determination to enforce claims in the South China Sea, as well as the East China Sea.
The large number of Chinese and Japanese maritime vessels in dangerous proximity in the East China Sea at a time of high tensions over the islands has raised alarm in Washington about clashes that could lead to larger conflict.
In such an escalation, the United States might be pulled into the fight because the mutual defense pact with Japan obliges Washington to defend all territories administered by Japan.
But you would be wrong to think there was any trouble. The President has pivoted to the Pacific, like he pivoted to jobs, and pivoted to Afghanistan. And he’ll pivot again if he has to. If there’s something in ample supply in the White House, it’s pivots.
Mention of that mutual defense pact with Japan brings us back to Anthony Cordesman’s earnest hope that Washington can “show that the United States is serious about strategic partnerships”. You know a mutual defense pact is in trouble when you have to ask if it is still operational.
But those considerations from an earlier era. Today it’s all about “ladders of opportunity”, “phony scandals”, “leading from behind”, or “responsibility to protect”. It’s about celebrity politics and talking points. The President recently nominated Caroline Kennedy as ambassador to Japan to show just how seriously he takes the region, something which has puzzled the magazine Foreign Policy. For although she is a nice lady they cannot for the life of them figure out what on God’s green earth she has to do with Japan.
Early in 2008, back in the days when Barack Obama was hardly a shoo-in to be the Democratic nominee for president, Kennedy penned a piece for the New York Times called “A President Like My Father.” In it, she described Obama as a man who could inspire a new generation of Americans as her father, President John F. Kennedy, had inspired a previous generation. It provided Obama with a big boost and, along with the support he received from Sen. Edward Kennedy, gave the candidate the imprimatur of the political-celebrity wing of the Democratic establishment — a leg up in his tight race against then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Other than writing this op-ed, Kennedy has not the slightest hint of a qualification to be ambassador to Japan. Trained as a lawyer, she has led a worthy life of dedication to family charities, other nonprofit organizations, and writing. But she has no particular experience with Japan, no experience with diplomacy or foreign affairs, and no government experience.
But that is all right. Kurt Campbell writing in the New York Times explains that in the Obama administration, experience is not necessary. “What you really want in an ambassador is someone who can get the president of the United States on the phone.… I can’t think of anybody in the United States who could do that more quickly than Caroline Kennedy.” But Foreign Policy is not convinced.
Giving out ambassadorial posts to those who have personally helped the president but who otherwise have no diplomatic experience or, in some cases, no experience with the countries in which they are being called upon to serve sends a host of lousy messages. One is that real diplomatic experience doesn’t matter. Another is that in America cronyism trumps all. And another is this very un-American idea that U.S. foreign policy is more about the president than the actions of an entire government, a system, or national interests.
Doing completely random things may have been un-American once, but that’s the way it works now. The Eastern World may be exploding, but Kerry’s going to get his Palestinian peace deal as if that mattered. And Caroline Kennedy can get on the phone if something goes bump with China. After all, according to Joe Biden America is a “resident power”, relying on president power.
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