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    Middle East
     Jan 14, 2012

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Obama drags Middle East baggage to Asia
By Peter Lee

The signature event in United States-Chinese relations last week was not the anti-climactic release of the US Defense Strategic Review, which re-emphasized the Barack Obama administration's widely touted ambitions to perform a strategic pirouette from the Middle East to East Asia. It was the murder of another Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran.

The assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan by forces unknown serves as a message that the Obama administration will find it difficult to reinvent itself as the savior of Asian peace and prosperity; instead, the United States will find itself reprising its dreary and detested role in the Middle East soap opera as defender of the pro-Israel/anti-Iranian status quo.

In some respects, the 2012 campaign against Iran is a rerun of

the drama of 2010 (which itself was a re-run of the George W Bush sanctions push of 2008, which in turn was a reprise of the sanctions push begun in 2006), with the US badgering China to jump on the anti-Iran bandwagon, and Washington brandishing the stick of sanctions against the Chinese banking system while simultaneously dangling the carrot of sweet, sweet Saudi crude before Beijing.

But there's a big difference as well.

In 2010, Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama could hold out the hope that hope that coercing Iran on its alleged nuclear ambitions would be balanced by an integration of Israel into the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime and a nice, geo-friendly win-win outcome for the Middle East (including Iran) and the world.

In 2012, pressure by the Israeli government and its US allies, enablers, and opportunistic supporters; Saudi Arabia's post-Arab Spring anxiety and aggressiveness; and the demands of the upcoming presidential campaign have combined to compel Obama to abandon his dreams of Middle East denuclearization, peace, and rapprochement with Iran.

Instead, Obama joins the dismal, unbroken series of recent US presidents whose only option is to demand Iran's head on a plate as part of a zero-sum win for Israel's Likud and the House of Saud ... and unambiguous loss for the People's Republic of China (PRC). Certainly, Obama has done his best to escape his Middle East conundrum, if not solve it.

Recent statements of the White House, State Department, and, with the announcement of the Defense Strategic Review, the Pentagon have been filled with the Obama administration's palpable yearning to refocus the United States as the indispensable counterweight to rising China, the welcomed champion of militarily weak East Asian free market democracies (plus handy ally communist Vietnam, of course), and deserving piggy at the trough of runaway Asian economic growth.

Indeed, there is a decent fit between the Asian ambitions of the United States and the needs of China's smaller and put-upon interlocutors in Asia.

The idea of a nuanced dance between the American eagle and Chinese dragon, not driven by ideology or security anxieties, but a realist tango of interest orchestrated by the intellectual brilliance of Beltway international relations wonks has understandably engaged the fancy ... of Beltway international relations wonks.

United States foreign policy insider Steve Clemons reported the official line at his blog The Washington Note, together with the welcome news that Vice President Joe Biden, an affable and indefatigable schmoozer, will serve as the human face of America in dealing with the Chinese leadership - a role I suspect that the cool, tense, and intensely cerebral Obama has little inclination or ability to fill, especially since his mission in Asia is now to administer self-righteous public scoldings to China for its perceived transgressions:
China Vice President Xi Jingping, widely estimated to be the successor later this year to Hu Jintao as China's next generation President, will visit Washington, DC in February - and the message, communicated by new China handler-in-chief Joe Biden, will be constructive but hard-headed, interest-driven mutual US-China engagement in which the US will communicate that it's legs in the region aren't weakening with China's rise - but rather getting stronger and providing an ongoing platform for the peace and stability that have benefited much of the region including, as one senior White House national security official told me, CHINA. [1]
Since CHINA has been upgraded to all-caps status, we can assume that the US is very serious about the policy. Will harsh reality support this carefully thought-out plan?

In support of the effort, in January Obama paid a visit to the Pentagon to roll out the Defense Strategic Guidance intended to put the military aspects of the vaunted "strategic pivot" to Asia in place…and sound a combined warning klaxon/dinner bell to American defense contractors.

The Washington Post made the inadvertently unnerving point that Obama's election year strategy was to give the uniformed services what they wanted, so that partisan-minded Republican critics would be confronted by a solid phalanx of top brass:
By enlisting the military's help in defining its strategic priorities, Obama has sought to ensure that he has the military's support when his defense budget goes before congress, including the committees led by some of his toughest Republican critics. Military leaders, in turn, now have reason to believe that Obama will not agree to more cuts. [2]
As to what the military and the civilian leadership want, well, it's China. Quoting from the report:
US economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia, creating a mix of evolving challenges and opportunities. Accordingly, while the US military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region. [italics in original] [3]
However, the document also states that the United States military, reflecting the Obama administration's infatuation with the 21st century War Lite model of regional proxies supported by US airpower and low-cost drones, will be a leaner machine, capable of fighting one and a half full-dress wars, instead of the traditional two-fer.
Even when US forces are committed to a large-scale operation in one region, they will be capable of denying the objectives of - or imposing unacceptable costs on - an opportunistic aggressor in a second region.[italics in original]
Analysts are welcome to draw the inference that Asia-Pacific is the main theater, and the US military is going to equip itself for an ocean war over there.

That's certainly the conclusion that the "Center for a New American Security" (CNAS) - a left-leaning think tank founded by current State Department China honcho Kurt Campbell - drew.

CNAS jumped in to flesh out the US policy with commendable (or suspicious) alacrity, issuing a 115-page report on the Asia-Pacific theater titled "Cooperation From Strength" backed by an interactive website designed to publicize and sell the menace. 

Continued 1 2 

Obama edges toward regime change (Jan 12, '12)

Iran sanctions bite
(Jan 10, '12)

Recall notice for the Turkish model

2. Obama edges toward regime change

3. The war is with China, the battleground Africa

4. Overcoming the 'Japanese only' factor

5. Taiwan vote may trip up US and China

6. The war dance is in full swing

7. Arab observer calls Syria mission a 'farce'

8. Clinton revives charge of 'covert' site

9. India seeks Saudi trade

10. Turkey plays paltry hand

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Jan 12, 2012)


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