Jack A. Smith : Obama, China, and the Middle East

Samantha Powers, Susan Rice (“two cats among pigeons”), and President Obama. Photo by Charles Dharapak / AP.

Foreign policy pivot?
Obama, China, and the Middle East

Obama has transferred the brunt of U.S. foreign/military policy away from the Middle East and the war on terrorism and toward Asia to better manipulate the conditions of China’s inevitable return to big power status.

By Jack A. Smith | The Rag Blog | June 20, 2013

There is an obvious connection between the first summit conference attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Barrack Obama in California June 7-8 and Obama’s major speech two weeks earlier redefining the future of America’s 12-year military role in the Middle East.

In effect, Obama has transferred the brunt of U.S. foreign/military policy away from the Middle East and the war on terrorism and toward Asia to better manipulate the conditions of China’s inevitable return to big power status. The process Washington began two years ago to contain China’s influence — the “pivot” to Asia, now termed the “Asia Pacific rebalancing strategy” — can now be accelerated.

I have located no mention of this connection in the Chinese press, but it undoubtedly added to President Xi’s concern about the “rebalancing” just before his talks with Obama. The only mention in the U.S. mass media I know of was a single paragraph in a March 25 New York Times article about Obama’s comments:

Left unsaid in Mr. Obama’s speech was one of the biggest motivations for his new focus: a desire to extricate the United States from the Middle East so that it can focus on the faster-growing region of Asia.

The switch makes practical sense. It has evidently occurred to the Oval Office that a monomaniacal obsession with a small, scattered enemy possessing primitive weapons undermines America’s imperial interests. The main geopolitical prize for the U.S. government obviously is in East and South Asia, not the Middle East, which has transfixed Washington’s attention since September 11, 2001, at a huge cost in prestige and treasure — probably $5 trillion or more when it’s finally paid off in several decades.

Clarifying this new foreign/military policy thrust is the main reason President Obama delivered his important speech May 23 redefining America’s wars, drones, and Guantanamo. His main message was that “we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror,’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”

“Rebalancing” to Asia does not signify the Obama Administration has the slightest intention to ignore the Middle East. It means these small so-called terror wars are no longer Washington’s first international priority. The U.S. will continue the fighting, but with much smaller numbers of special forces, drones and other cheaper means of domination, not with large armies of occupation and trillions in treasure.

The Afghan, Iraq, and “terror” wars combined with a conservative political atmosphere, regressive economic and political trends, and the impotence of the two-party system in these first years of the 21st century have made a mockery of American democracy: Massive government erosion of civil liberties and the right to privacy; an election system based on corporate money, not the voters; and a ruling elite indifferent to burgeoning inequality and the plight of the poor and destitute.

Osama bin-Laden, the symbol of the terror wars is dead (USA!, USA!,USA!), but not before he tricked the world’s most powerful country into launching two unnecessary and embarrassingly stalemated wars against much weaker foes, creating havoc in those two countries and criticism of American aggression throughout much of the region. Credit card war spending created a mile-high domestic deficit that Congress is using as a hatchet to cut social programs and substantially weaken civil liberties and privacy rights.

The Obama-Xi talks

More details about the speech follow but I’ll focus now on President Xi’s visit first. It is too early to fully assess the June 7-8 meetings during which the two heads of state spent eight hours together in discussions with hardly any of the usual formalities. There were two main issues, from Washington’s point of view, cyber theft and North Korea, plus several other discussions and agreements.

Cyber theft: Obama informed Xi of his extreme displeasure over China’s alleged massive “cyber-enabled economic theft of intellectual property and other kinds of property in the public and private realm in the United States by entities based in China.” Last March, National Intelligence Director James Clapper testified that cyber threats appear to have largely replaced terrorism as posing the greatest risks to U.S. national security.

Obama directed considerable pressure upon his Chinese guest, but did not obtain much satisfaction. At the end of the cyber meetings, Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security advisor (soon to be replaced by UN Delegate Susan Rice), could only report: “It’s quite obvious now that the Chinese senior leadership understand clearly the importance of this issue to the United States.”

The American leader’s cyber presentation was somewhat upstaged the same day when the Guardian (UK) reported, “Obama has ordered his senior national security and intelligence officials to draw up a list of potential overseas targets for U.S. cyber-attacks.” This top-secret 18-page presidential directive was provided to columnist Glen Greenwald by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Obviously, the U.S. engages in cyber crime as do most major countries. It even launched the first cyber “war” by corrupting Iran’s computer network.

Xi criticized the U.S. media for ignoring cyber attacks against China. He also commented, “by conducting good-faith cooperation we can remove misgivings and make information security and cyber security a positive area of cooperation between China and the U.S. Because China and the United States both have a need and both share a concern, and China is a victim of cyber attacks and we hope that earnest measures can be taken to resolve this matter.”

Soon after the summit, according to Associated Press, “China’s Internet security chief told state media that Beijing has amassed huge amounts of data on U.S.-based hacking. The official held off blaming the U.S. government, saying it would be irresponsible and that the better approach is to cooperate in the fight against cyberattacks.”

On June 13, whistleblower Snowden, in Hong Kong, revealed to the South China Morning Post that the National Security Agency was spying on China and Hong Kong. The same day, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chungying said China is a “major victim” of cyber attacks but did not lay blame.

North Korea: Both sides discussed relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). At the end of the meetings, Donilon announced what the White House perceives as a victory:

With respect to North Korea, I think the important point here is full agreement on the goals — that is denuclearization; full agreement that in fact the Security Council resolutions which put pressure on North Korea need to be enforced, and full agreement that we will work together to look at steps that need to be taken in order to achieve the goal.

Rumors were circulating before the meetings that this might be China’s new position toward its old ally, but in summing up the talks on Korea a leading member of the Chinese delegation only said that Xi and Obama “talked about co-operation and did not shy away from differences.”

New relationship: The Beijing government stresses that China seeks a “a harmonious, peaceful rise to power and on becoming a responsible stakeholder in the international system.” During the meetings President Xi said he favored a “new type of great power relationship” based on mutual trust, respect, cooperation on important issues, and better ways to resolve differences.

Xinhua news agency reported:

According to Yang Jiechi, Xi’s senior foreign policy adviser, Obama responded actively to the proposal, saying that the U.S. side placed high importance on its relations with China and is willing to construct a new state-to-state cooperation modal with China based on mutual benefit and mutual respect, so as to jointly meet various global challenges.

Climate change: The U.S. is history’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but relative newcomer China is biggest in recent individual years. At the summit, both agreed to reduce hydrofluorocarbon emissions, one of the most potent of the greenhouse gases. This is not a major step but a beginning. China on its own made an important announcement last month, vowing to put a ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2016. This is considered a major breakthrough that will influence other nations, possibly even the U.S.

Omitted from the meeting was Washington’s customary complaint that China manipulated its currency to America’s disadvantage. For the last several years Beijing has been cautiously but systematically appreciating the value of its currency until it now approximates natural value.

The summit was productive in its way, but that does not change either Washington’s geopolitical objectives or the threats implicit in its “rebalancing” to Asia.

Beijing is exceptionally anxious to keep the peace with Washington. It is a developing country with many crucial tasks ahead for decades to consolidate the economic and social conditions of a country which must feed, house, educate, and gainfully employ 1.3 billion people in a land area somewhat smaller than the U.S. with 314 million people.

China is also decades behind the U.S. in military terms, a gap that will continue indefinitely because the Pentagon constantly spends fortunes to maintain its weapons and logistic superiority. A war would wipe out the incredible advances China has made since the success of the communist revolution 64 years ago, which includes bringing about 700 million people out of poverty, creating a substantial middle class, and becoming the center of world production.

Washington wants friendly relations with the Beijing government, as it does with all countries. However, it imposes strict conditions for such relations. This is based on the fact that the U.S. has been one of two sharply contending, dominant global powers from the end of World War II in 1945 to1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved, and the single dominant world power — indeed, the mightiest hegemonic state in history — ever since.

Those who rule the U.S. believe that it is the “indispensible nation,” ordained to lead, even as its economy suffers stagnation and Washington appears to have a penchant for “leading” the world from one war to another.

The great majority of countries enjoy friendly relations with Washington because they are willing to recognize the U.S. as world leader with special privileges and dispensations up to, and often including, getting away with the murder attendant to its illegal wars. Only a handful of countries do not accept U.S. hegemony — Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran among them — and Uncle Sam extracts a hefty price for such insolence.

Beijing seeks friendly relations with Washington for obvious reasons. Successive Chinese leaders have assured the U.S. government that China does not seek world leadership.

China does not challenge American dominion, at least openly, but it is extremely independent. Its tilt toward Iran and Syria, which frustrates the White House, are examples, as is its protection of what it believes are China’s economic, political, and territorial prerogatives regardless of intense U.S. criticism in certain areas. In theory, China opposes unipolar (one country) world leadership, preferring a multipolar system, as do a number of developed and developing countries, but no nation will push the issue for the foreseeable future.

America’s leaders are apprehensive that if China largely continues for the next 10 or 20 years the unprecedented development of the last 20 years its mere success in relation to what could be America’s slow decline will result in Washington’s displacement.

That seems to be where the “Asia Pacific rebalancing strategy” comes into play. It has several purposes but two stand out. The main purpose is not to prevent China’s rise or economic success but to confine it in terms of global power, not that Beijing has evidenced a desire to wield such authority. The other purpose is to further integrate the U.S. into the region’s dynamic economic climate.

The U.S. is bringing three of its strengths into the endeavor — alliances, money/trade, and military power.

  1. Alliances: Washington is organizing the many Asia/Pacific countries historically within its superpower orbit to join a united crusade to keep China from exercising leadership even within its own geographical sphere of interest.

    Such clients include Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam (lately), Australia, and quite possibly those on the periphery — India, perhaps Myanmar and Cambodia. Indonesia and Taiwan may not want to get involved. Since Obama first announced his focus on Asia two years ago, the U.S. has been inserting itself into regional squabbles, particularly the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, always on the side of Beijing’s opponents to make them more grateful to their protector.

    Most of these countries are rising economically or are already established, and they are beginning to develop close economic, political and military ties with each other, but it is unlikely they could form a possible bloc that would some day “balance” China without the U.S.

  2. Money and trade: The U.S. is in the process of forming a free trade association of nations in the Asia/Pacific region, including countries in the Americas bordering the Pacific. It’s called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. China supports the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), but is “considering” membership in the TPP as well.

    The U.S.-dominated TPP will bring some economic benefits to all its members, but the main objective is to provide the United States with an important vehicle to become a major player in the region, political as well as economic, and thus a rival to China in East Asia.

    There are various complications and intrigues involved with the TTP that I won’t go into, except for one progressive critique from the Council of Canadians:

    The TPP is globally controversial because of how it will entrench a myopic vision of market-based globalization that is the main cause of runaway climate change and which has done little to create good, sustainable jobs or reduce poverty worldwide. The TPP also enhances corporate rights to sue governments when public policies interfere with how, when and where they make profits.

  3. Military power: The unparalleled supremacy of the U.S. military/national security/surveillance apparatus — inefficient against guerrilla war (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan) but capable of becoming an unparalleled death machine if deployed against China — is not only coming to the Asia/Pacific region but it’s mostly there already, in certain places going back to World War II.

    The U.S. pivoted to Asia 70 years ago and never left. China has been virtually surrounded for years with U.S. naval, air, and troop bases through the region from small islands dotting the western Pacific to Japan and South Korea in the northeast to the Philippines in the southeast, to Afghanistan in the west. This does not include air power, long-range missiles, surveillance satellites, and nuclear weapons at the ready.

    More recently Obama opened a new Marine base in western Australia and ordered the majority of the U.S. fleet, from aircraft carriers to nuclear submarines, to move from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Why does the Obama Administration feel the need to show the flag and its martial trappings, up close, intentionally too close for Beijing’s comfort? To show who’s boss. If Beijing ever dared provoke Washington in such manner, the U.S. would prepare for war.

An article titled “The Problem With The Pivot” appeared in the December 2012 Foreign Affairs, declaring: “Obama’s new Asia policy is unnecessary and counterproductive.” Written by Robert S. Ross of Boston College and Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, the essay stated:

[T]he Obama Administration’s pivot has not contributed to stability in Asia. Quite the opposite: it has made the region more tense and conflict-prone. Military aircraft and naval ships now crowd the region’s skies and waters. And the United States risks getting involved in hostilities over strategically irrelevant and economically marginal island [in the South China Sea]….

Washington’s increased activity on China’s periphery has led Beijing to conclude that the United States has abandoned “strategic engagement,” the cornerstone of U.S. policy toward China since the end of the Cold War. In contrast to previous administrations, the Obama Administration has dismissed China’s legitimate security interests in its border regions, including even those that are not vital to U.S. security.

Obama and the Middle East

Now I’ll return to Obama’s May 23 speech “ending: the war on terrorism,” and the “new” U.S. policy in the Middle East. Aside from clearing the way for deeper involvement in Asia, what are we to make of this manipulative and defensive 7,000-word lecture?

Obama sought to convey the impression — in the words of a New York Times article the next day —

that it was time to narrow the scope of the grinding battle against terrorists and begin the transition to a day when the country will no longer be on a war footing…. As part of a realignment of counterterrorism policy, he said he would curtail the use of drones, recommit to closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and seek new limits on his own war power.

Progressive and left commentators excoriated the speech with a “there he goes again” approach to what they viewed as a deceptive, self-justifying attempt to deflect criticism of his war policies.

President Obama’s pledge to take steps toward removing the U.S. from its “perpetual war footing” was widely questioned. A May 25 front page article in The New York Times noted:

Nor can Mr. Obama escape his own role in putting the United States on a war footing. He came into office pledging to wind down America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but within a year had ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and oversaw a significant expansion of the Bush administration’s use of clandestine drone strikes.

Anthony Romero, ACLU executive director, commented:

President Obama is right to say that we cannot be on a war footing forever — but the time to take our country off the global warpath and fully restore the rule of law is now, not at some indeterminate future point.

The antiwar Answer Coalition summed up the speech in these words:

While there is much to dissect in his speech, the bottom line is that President Obama is attempting to respond to criticism of his war on terror policies while creating a new framework to institutionalize many of these same policies.

Answer was convinced that the

speech must be seen as a direct response to the individuals and organizations who have consistently been challenging the actions of the administration on these issues. It is unavoidably clear that the firestorm of criticism around drone strikes, Guantanamo Bay Prison, and the extent of domestic surveillance created a climate in which Obama was forced to defend his policies.

Other commentators tore apart Obama’s efforts to rationalize his killer drone policy when he declared: “Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al-Qaeda and its associated forces. And even then, the use of drones is heavily constrained.” (The Afghan theater includes western Pakistan.) Critics also panned the few superficial reforms he promised to introduce into the program.

Progressives refused to accept his justification for not closing Guantanamo concentration camp as he promised five years ago. Some articles pointed out that despite a recalcitrant Congress, Obama could have used the vast authority of the presidency to actually close the prison and release its hapless inmates. When Obama boasted that he “ended torture” it was pointed out that the forced-feeding of hunger striking Guantanamo prisoners was torture according to the American Medical Association.

Unfinished business: Iran and Syria

The Obama Administration still has much unfinished business in the Middle East that guarantees it will remain indefinitely — though not in “global war on terrorism” rampages as in Iraq. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops will be stationed in or close to the region, on land and at sea. Special forces troops and drones will continue to kill suspected terrorists in the Middle East and now deeper into Africa. In addition, Obama seeks to keep 10,000 U.S. troops and nine bases in Afghanistan to 2024, 10 years after “combat forces” withdraw at the end of 2014.

The White House has many other plans for the Middle East and North Africa. The first task is to insure that Israel, America’s main dependency and factotum in the region, remains the Pentagon’s virtual forward base in the Arab world. America’s second task, at which it has been laboring for many years, is regime change in Iran and Syria — the only two countries in the entire region not within Washington’s hegemonic orbit. Iraq and Libya used to make it four countries, until Bush (2003), then Obama (2012), reduced the number.

Iran, now an Islamic Republic that adheres to the Shia branch of Islam, is the main target because it is a powerful, oil-rich state that will not bend the knee to Washington. The Iranian people have not been forgiven for the last 34 years for the intolerable affront of kicking out the vicious dictatorial monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, installed on the Peacock Throne by American-British imperialism a quarter-century earlier. Were Iran willing to kowtow to the U.S. today, it wouldn’t be suffering extreme sanctions and the constant threat of U.S.-Israeli war.

Iran was greatly strengthened when the U.S. invaded its main enemy, Iraq, bringing down the minority Sunni government in Baghdad led by secularist Saddam Hussein. The majority Shia Iraqi population then elected a government of their own. Now there are Shia regimes in Tehran, Baghdad, and Damascus (secular President Bashar Assad and government leaders are Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam), forming a contiguous Shia region 1,500 miles wide, bordered by Turkey on the west and Afghanistan to the east.

The Sunnis are the great majority in the Middle East and throughout Islam. Certain Sunni Arab countries — such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf dictatorships, among others — seek to reduce Shia power by supporting the overthrow of the minority Alawite government led by President Assad, weakening Iran with the loss of its main Arab supporter. The moderate Islamist government of NATO member Turkey is a big supporter of the rebels, partly to gain influence in the Sunni Arab world, partly to impress the U.S.

Escalation in Syria?

The beginning of the popular struggle for democracy in Syria two years ago consisted largely of nonviolent protests that were met with government repression. We will never know if certain government concessions to the original peaceful protests would have led to reform instead of mayhem. The conflict, however, very soon transformed beyond calls for a broader democracy into a deadly civil war led by Sunni rebels, including jihadist elements, seeking to eliminate the secular regime and take power.

This war, in its second year, has become exceptionally vicious, destructive of people and infrastructure. The UN says at minimum 93,000 Syrians have been killed. A large number of the dead have been soldiers on both sides.

The U.S. and its closest NATO allies have supported regime change from the beginning, but only if it is possible to place a government submissive to Washington’s dictates in Damascus. That proviso is important.

It is incorrect to assume Obama is disinterested in overthrowing the Assad regime simply because he refused to commit to an American air and ground war to support of the anti-government forces. Obama’s problem is that the insurgents are thoroughly disunited despite receiving arms and money from Sunni countries and “non-lethal” aid from the U.S. and others for well over a year.

White House efforts to form a reliable, united pro-U.S. rebel front have failed repeatedly. At the same time, Islamic jihadist fighting elements are stronger than the other warring groups in the Free Syrian Army. This suits the wealthy Saudi Arabian dictatorship, the major sponsor of the war, but is anathema to Washington for obvious reasons.

As we write, the Obama Administration has just announced, “following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.” Up to 150 people are alleged to have died from the gas.

Nerve gas may have been used but I remain dubious that the Syrian government ordered its use. Assad fully understood that if even a small amount of gas was deployed it would cross Obama’s “red line,” leading anywhere from a marked increase in U.S. support for the rebels to massive retaliation.

Assad clings tenaciously to his life, his office, and his constituency. Why would he, in effect, toss it all away by approving the use of a small amount of sarin knowing it could trigger his doom? War hawks in Washington — liberal and conservative, as well as within the State Department — are demanding a drastic response from the White House, from arming the rebels with sophisticated weapons to establishing a no-fly zone to putting “boots on the ground.”

Obama is hesitant. According to The New York Times he has “decided to begin supplying the rebels for the first time with small arms and ammunition.” I suspect he will insist that the shipments must not end up with jihadist rebels. He can be expected to resist pressure to establish a no-fly zone in Syria backed with U.S. jets, as he did in Libya. Syria has sophisticated air defenses as opposed to nearly defenseless Libya.

Another factor causing hesitation is that despite a year of press and U.S. government exaggerations that Assad is on the precipice of defeat, the Alawite government controls most of the territory and nearly all the large cities. Recent battlefield support from Lebanon’s Shia self-defense organization Hezbollah has been an important asset for the government and has contributed to rebel setbacks and loss of territory in recent months.

The sarin announcement, and the subsequent American decision to openly send arms, benefits the insurgents at a time when they need a morale boost and an infusion of weapons with which to mount counterattacks. Obama will do what he can to keep the rebels in the field and bring about regime change. But he knows history will be unforgiving if he aligns with known terrorists, and justly suspects that the American people will oppose another U.S. ground war in the Middle East.

There is one important unknown factor: the influence on Obama from newly named security adviser Susan Rice, the former UN Delegate, and her replacement, Obama adviser Samantha Powers. Both are liberal war hawks and staunch advocates of so-called “humanitarian intervention.” They may push for a tougher line on Syria and elsewhere.

At the UN Rice has been publicly rude to chief delegates from both China and Russia. Powers is said to have been a major influence on Obama’s decision to attack Libya. Veteran analyst M.K. Bhadrakumar, writing June 8 in India Punchline, commented that by advancing both advisers Obama “is letting loose two cats among pigeons, a reference to State and Defense Secretaries Kerry and Hagel.”

[Jack A. Smith was editor of the Guardian — for decades the nation’s preeminent leftist newsweekly — that closed shop in 1992. Smith now edits the Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter. Read more articles by Jack A. Smith on The Rag Blog.]

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