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Hither and Yon

Clueless: What Our Leaders Don't Know about World Realities

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
WASHINGTON — U.S. foreign policy these days is so confusing and conflicting that it’s impossible to figure out where the U.S. is going, whether in the Middle East, Eastern Europe or Northeast Asia.
The U.S., which has suffered a catastrophe in Iraq of spectacular proportions, may be headed for another catastrophe in Afghanistan and has no clear idea of what to do about rising Chinese strength in Asia.
ReignOfTerror-300x197The indecision — and weakness — goes back to the hubris of two successive American presidents who seemed to be very nice guys with wide popular followings but no idea what to do when confronted with the worst outcome of their policies. It’s hard to decide who really was and is the weaker — George W. Bush or Barack Obama — but they do share one enormous failure in judgment.
First, Bush, after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, declared “mission accomplished” — or, if he did not use those words, engaged in florid self-praise after landing in a flight suit on a Navy plane on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. Behind him was the banner with those somewhat premature words. Then, in 2011, after the last U.S. troops had left Iraq, Obama declared in a speech to U.S. troops, “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, self-reliant and stable Iraq.”
Thus assured, Americans more or less forgot the place. Baghdad fell out of the news except for periodic explosions that killed thousands, but those faded one after the other in a miasma of international indifference. It’s difficult to say which president was more ill-informed, more overconfident and more delusional, the Republican, conservative Bush or the Democratic, liberal Obama.
It’s doubtful if the U.S. can perform the miracle needed to restore order in Iraq. It’s impossible to imagine a government that might be acceptable both to the Shias in Baghdad and to the Sunnis, allied with Al Qaida terrorists, who control much of the rest of the country.
Obama’s weakness is all the more alarming considering how the U.S. might respond to a crisis in Asia — a showdown with China and/or North Korea. Again Bush is responsible for the huge mistake of authorizing six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program after having talked tough during his first term. He was badly misled by the chief U.S. negotiator.
Christopher Hill thought he could mastermind a deal on North Korea just as he and his one-time boss, Richard Holbrooke, had done on Kosovo in the Dayton peace talks in 1995.
In fact, aside from a tour as a young diplomat in the economics section of the U.S. embassy in Seoul, Hill had had little Asian experience and was ill-versed on dealing with North Korea.
Now we know better. The six-party talks were a failure, North Korea has expanded on its nuclear program, and the two Koreas remain at dangerous odds as they have been since the Korean War. The U.S., South Korea — and Japan — can count on two factors that should make another war in East Asia rather unlikely.
One is that China hardly wants its protectorate, North Korea, doing anything that might endanger China’s outsized trade surplus with the U.S. and South Korea. Another is that North Korea again is suffering through terrible drought and economic hardship brought on in part by lavish spending on nukes and missiles.
Obama must be praying that nothing happens in East Asia that might force him to make a decision — to bomb or not to bomb; to send troops or not to send troops; to send supplies or not to send supplies. There’s no telling what he might do if the Chinese staged a military offensive to take over the Senkakus — Diaoyu to the Chinese — those small uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are held by Japan against persistent Chinese threats.
Nor can we be sure Obama would defend the Philippines’ two or three islands in the Spratlys, in the South China Sea, that China also claims along with the rest of the Spratlys, some of which the Chinese have held for years.
It’s easy for the U.S. to be inclined to write off these problems. Why not give up entirely on Iraq, conclude the whole ruckus is a fight between Sunnis and Shias and let them go on killing one another? And why care about island outcroppings around China?
For that matter, in the groves of American academe, you can find scholars who see the U.S. defense of South Korea in the Korean War as a waste and would just as soon the U.S. pulled all its troops out of Korea as well as Japan.
Trouble is, walking away isn’t easy. What if Al Qaida turns Iraq into a base for ever more international terror? And what about Iraqi oil exports? Obama doesn’t seem to have real answers to these questions.
Let us hope he doesn’t have to answer too many questions about defending U.S. allies in Asia.
Donald Kirk, kirkdon@yahoo.com, has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades.
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