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Look Ma, No Hands

There is a conceit inherent in being professionally modest; in feigning a departure from the stage only to insist on pulling the strings from behind the props. Thus there is a certain underhandedness about leading from behind.  J. Berkshire Miller, writing in the National Interest, put his finger on the fatal hidden contradiction of the Obama foreign policy.  Obama wanted to relinquish the wheel while having the last say on everything. In particular, he affirmed the great power status of China, but forgot about Japan.  It was as if a traffic cop, having vacated the intersection, neglected to remember that collisions would be the outcome of switching off the signal lights.

Everyone wanted to move forward. When the Japanese prime minister visited the Yasukuni shrine as part of his campaign to re-introduce Japan unapologetically on the world stage, Obama was displeased because that would irk China. And when China reacted in the Senkakus, Obama was displeased because things weren't going according to his plan. At no point did he see the cascade of events as started by the White House itself.

And this gradual widening between Abe and Obama also resulted in some failed messaging from Washington. One of the most acute examples of this was the U.S. acceptance of the term “great-power relationship” to reflect its ties with Beijing. The move, which came out of the Obama-Xi summit at Sunnylands, resulted in bewilderment in Japan, among other places in Asia, and has contributed to fears that the Obama administration may acquiesce to China’s salami-slicing tactics in the East China Sea. While the United States insists that its interpretation of the “great power relations” is different than that of Beijing, the perception in Tokyo remains that this was a critical mistake. These cracks were heightened once again when the United States and Japan appeared out of sync with regard to the compliance of their commercial airliners to China’s unilateral imposition of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea last November.

It was perhaps for that reason that Obama, surveying the pile up at the intersection, sought to restore order again with a flashing yellow caution light pointing all ways by declaring the US bound by a treaty to defend the Senkaku islands. You might have thought he would learn something about drawing Red Lines, but hey, it's Obama.

He's got the idea the world will run itself, and according to his expectations too. The New York Times reported the administration has now set great store by traffic rules agreed between 20 nations in the Asia Pacific; like handing out a Driver's Handbook in the Asia Pacific and leaving it at that.

A naval code of conduct approved by more than 20 nations around the Pacific, including China, Japan and the United States, could reduce the risk of accidental encounters’ spiraling into conflict, experts said. But Beijing’s firm rejection of President Obama’s comments on Wednesday about islands claimed by both China and Japan underscored the maritime tensions that continue to trouble Asia....

The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea was endorsed Tuesday by naval officials from the United States, China, Japan and other states at a symposium in the northeastern Chinese port city of Qingdao, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

The agreement comes at a time of growing concern about territorial disputes between China and some of its neighbors. China claims islands controlled by Japan in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. Several countries, including China, Vietnam and the Philippines, have overlapping maritime claims.

Note the NYT reports China has already rejected Obama's comments, but don't expect him to notice.

The administration appears to believe there is some kind of natural international legal order which will enforce itself. Hillary Clinton, asked to comment on Russia's dismemberment of the Ukraine ventured that Moscow would be punished by a kind of Karma. "I think the outcome for him and Russia will not be good, which is deeply unfortunate," she said. "Russia should be a much more dynamic and much more successful country and could be if Putin weren't trying to turn the clock back to the Soviet Union days."

Senior administration officials make all these curious reference to the "clock" or the "21st century behavior". Obama once reviled Romney by saying the "80's wanted their foreign policy back" as if the decades could be reified.   When he wants to be more precise Obama invokes the hand of "international community" to explain whose chastisement will descend on the international malefactor.

But it is always some unspecified mystical force -- never Washington itself -- who will square the account. For example, you have the administration's assurances that Putin will be punished for invading the Ukraine by some ineffable force, just as long as you remember that force won't be the administration.

For a town that doesn't believe much in God, Washington is more full of ghostly invocations than a whiskey preacher; as if the god of history were a palpable presence, standing at their right hand, waiting to clean up after them. They say this even though in Ukraine, for instance, Moscow said "that it would immediately start military maneuvers along the border with Ukraine". That sounds like a threat to which Kerry could only retort by saying “the window to change course is closing.”

So now it's the window what's going to punish Putin.  At least it's not the door. As for Kerry, not so much. Like some public policy adolescents the administrations gads about, scattering half forgotten initiatives like dirty socks and shirts secure in the belief that something -- the Man maybe -- will pick up the trash.  Possibly the most relevant commentary on Obama era foreign policy was the 420 counterculture celebration in San Francisco's Golden Gate park.  These environmental advocates left 10,000 pounds of trash, brought traffic in the Haight to a standstill and started a fight in the process of being cool.  If you think the 420 guys have lost it, then what about Obama?

All you need is love. What do you need to pick up the trash for?

Eli Lake, writing in the Daily Beast, notes one of the forgotten threads of the Libyan adventure. "Jihadists Now Control Secretive U.S. Base in Libya".

In the summer of 2012, American Green Berets began refurbishing a Libyan military base 27 kilometers west of Tripoli in order to hone the skills of Libya’s first Western-trained special operations counter-terrorism fighters. Less than two years later, that training camp is now being used by groups with direct links to al Qaeda to foment chaos in post-Qaddafi Libya. ...

Last week, the Libyan press reported that the camp (named “27” for the kilometer marker on the road between Tripoli and Tunis) was now under the command of Ibrahim Ali Abu Bakr Tantoush, a veteran associate of Osama bin Laden who was first designated as part of al Qaeda’s support network in 2002 by the United States and the United Nations. The report said he was heading a group of Salifist fighters from the former Libyan base.

In other words, Tantoush is now the chief of a training camp the U.S. and Libyan governments had hoped would train Libyan special operations forces to catch militants like Tantoush. ...

According to one U.S. official who is read into the training program, the camp today is considered a “denied area,” or a place where U.S. forces would have to fight their way in to gain access. Until now, the Western press has not reported that the base used to train Libyan special operations forces was seized by the militants those troops were supposed to find, fix and finish.

The fact that the one-time training base for Libyan counter-terrorism teams is now the domain of terrorists is a poignant reminder the United States has yet to win its war with al Qaeda, despite the successful 2011 raid that killed its founder and leader.

It's a Middle Eastern example of Obama's method of greenlighting everything and being in charge of nothing and then running like hell when there's a 70 car pileup in the intersection. Whether the word you want to use is "recognizing the great power status of China" -- without recognizing the great power status of Japan, or "leading from behind", which in this case means letting al-Qaeda take weapons and bases from you like candy from a baby, the concept is the same: action by inaction. Achievement by expectation.

There's a touching belief among some that the world can be made to run the way you want without taking the trouble to run it. But it takes talent to run a successful frat-house. Perhaps the last person to do it was Winston Churchill (whose bust Obama sent back) during the Second World War. Churchill created the Special Operations Executive, made up of talented amateurs whose mission was to "set Europe ablaze".

Obama probably wanted to do something like that. And it was with childlike delight that he at first greeted the Arab Spring.  Look ma, I'm Winston Churchill. But what he forgot -- which Churchill knew -- was that the difference between setting an enemy-held continent ablaze and setting your pants on fire was competence and foresight. You needed talented amateurs, and alas Obama had the latter but lacked the former. Still the president had the pants and also the matches.

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No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.

Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific

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