Belmont Club

The Earliest Train Out

The Obama administration has reacted to Beiing’s defiant declaration that it will not abide by the international tribunal’s ruling against its claim in the South China predictably.    It has warned the small countries which won the lawsuit not to provoke China.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is using quiet diplomacy to persuade the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and other Asian nations not to move aggressively to capitalize on an international court ruling that denied China’s claims to the South China Sea, several U.S. administration officials said on Wednesday.

“What we want is to quiet things down so these issues can be addressed rationally instead of emotionally,” said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private diplomatic messages.

Some were sent through U.S. embassies abroad and foreign missions in Washington, while others were conveyed directly to top officials by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Secretary of State John Kerry and other senior officials, the sources said.

The attitude towards China is similar to the administration’s passive stance towards Putin in Syria.  The Washington Post reports that national security officials are aghast at the administration’s proposals to effectively join hands with the Russians and Assad in Syria. “The Obama administration’s offer to coordinate air attacks in Syria with Russia has opened a deepening rift between senior national security officials who insist it could quiet Syria’s civil carnage and further larger counterterrorism goals, and those who consider it a counterproductive sellout to the Kremlin.”

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who said last month that reaching an “understanding” with Russia was “the most important thing” in moving Syria forward, plans to push the deal when he meets Thursday in Moscow with President Vladi­mir Putin. ..

The U.S. proposal, which has not been made public, calls for the establishment of a “Joint Implementation Group” with Russia, through which the two countries would initially exchange intelligence and operational information on the locations of Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, and “synchronize” their independent operations against the Islamic State. Once al-Nusra targets have been agreed, they would determine what action to take and “deconflict” their air operations.

The most astonishing thing about the coordinated effort is it would be part of Obama’s ceasefire with Russia. “Despite a cease-fire ostensibly in effect since February, Syrian planes have kept up a steady bombardment of both civilian and opposition sites — where they have argued that al-Nusra forces, exempt from the truce, are mixed with rebel groups covered by the accord. After observing the early weeks of the cease-fire, Russian planes joined the Syrian forces, including in an offensive last weekend that took over the only remaining supply route for both rebels and civilians hunkered down in the northern city of Aleppo.”

Ceasefires ain’t what they used to be.  As now understood they mean “we cease, you fire”, the argument being that resistance only makes things worse.

A new coordination agreement with Moscow, supporters within the administration argue, would save lives by stopping air attacks on civilians and opposition fighters, while simultaneously increasing the focus on al-Nusra, a shared U.S.-Russian enemy. Al-Nusra forces are amassed south of Aleppo, but their scattered presence among rebel fighters to the north has been used as an excuse for both Syrian government and Russian attacks.

But as Kerry and Robert Malley, the chief White House point man on Syria, negotiate with the Kremlin, a growing chorus of defense, diplomatic and intelligence officials have voiced objections.

“We do this, and then what?” said a U.S. official, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue and feared identification as internal critics.

Then what? What happens next is Assad wins.

As Roy Gutman in the Daily Beast puts it the final act in siege of Aleppo is about to start. “Assad Cuts the Last Road to Aleppo and Moves in for the Kill. Now it’s a question of whether the U.S. and its coalition allies are ready to stand back and watch the rebel-held parts of Aleppo, with 300,000 people, fall to Assad.” The answer to that seems to be “yes”.

Having proved unable to stop Putin and Assad, Obama now wants a seat at the table to mitigate the massacre. Obama’s foreign policy has consistently been to optimize defeat. To give the president his due, he normally discovers he’s in a war too late to win.  By the time he realizes his predicament it’s usually hopeless and the only course left is to surrender with grace.

As Max Fisher, writing in the New York Times reports that foreign policy pundits have only now come to the shocking conclusion that North Korea really means its threats!  For years the conventional wisdom was that Pyongyang’s threats were a cry for understanding and help.  So the Obama administration engaged them, as they engaged Iran by offering bribes and inducements to good behavior.

The country’s weapons programs have long been understood as meant not for immediate military purposes, but to rally North Koreans behind the leadership and extract concessions from foreign governments. North Korea’s bluster, in this view, is not sincere, but just another set piece in an elaborate, never-ending show.

Now recent developments suggest that Kim was building weapons all along in order to use them. “This realization is forcing analysts to rethink not just nuclear issues, but also the underlying goals and motivations of the North Korean state itself, with sweeping implications for how one of the world’s most secretive nations is understood.”

This belated realization nevertheless marks progress in the administration’s mental development. After this sad experience with Kim Obama may be open to the possibility that ISIS, Iran, Russia and China are saying what they mean instead of engaging in some kind of sophisticated double-talk that only the president and his enlightened Secretaries of State can understand.

Maybe China really wants to conquer the South China Sea.  Who knows?  It could be true. The basic lesson the Southeast Asian nations should draw from this is they should not bet the farm on the current administration’s assurances. In the administration’s remake of the classic Western “High Noon” Will Kane took the train out of Hadleyville.

Considering who plays “Will Kane” in the remake, maybe it’s better that way.


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