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Hither and Yon

WorldTribune.com: Obama's non-inspiring message to future military leaders

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
WASHINGTON — Winston Lord, a retired senior U.S. diplomat with wide experience in Asia, is “shocked” that President Barack Obama, in his much criticized commencement address at West Point, failed to say a single thing about the “pivot” of U.S. forces to Asia.
Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, counters that Obama did not intend to send a “message,” as some have contended, that U.S. power in Asia is “waning.”
The contrasting responses to Obama’s meandering defense of moderation, of avoidance of war, shows the president, if nothing else, emitted mixed messages that are not exactly raising confidence levels among U.S. allies in Asia.
Lord, who was ambassador to China in the run-up to the showdown on Tiananmen Square in Beijing 25 years ago, made his comment in response to a question that I asked during a call-in session staged by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
My question was what he thought of China’s tough policies in disputed waters ranging from the East China Sea to the South China. And what did he think of the challenges posed by China around the Senkakus,the island cluster that’s held by Japan but claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu.
Lord, a former assistant secretary of state, said China’s aggressive policy was “dangerous” — and warned of the possibility of hostilities flaring from minor unexpected misunderstandings and incidents. He believed, however, that nobody wants a war and that China is testing the will of the U.S. and its allies.
It was after making that observation that he expressed his shock, more than once, over Obama’s speech. How, he asked, could the president make what purported to be a major foreign policy address without alluding to the “pivot” that has the U.S. increasing its strength in Asia while scaling down in Afghanistan?
Cossa takes a considerably more sanguine view, saying it’s “nonsense” to conclude that Obama’s omission of the pivot “reflects a lack of commitment to the region.” Rather, he pointed out Obama’s recent trip in which he actually reinforced U.S. policy in visits to Japan, Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Nonetheless, the choice of language used by Obama has to make you wonder if he was sending the right message to America’s future military leaders. Rather than emit stirring rhetoric that might inspire them to fight for freedom and all that, he cautioned them not to believe “that every problem has a military solution.” He warned against “our willingness to rush into military adventures, without building international support and legitimacy for our action, without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required.”
What wars did Obama have in mind? Vietnam comes immediately to mind considering the fall of the old U.S.-backed Saigon regime, but he no doubt was also referring to more immediate conflicts. Iraq? Afghanistan?
Or might Obama have been justifying his failure to use force against the Assad regime in Syria after his forces were proven to have used weapons of chemical warfare against its own people? Or was he explaining why the U.S. should not go to war for the government of Ukraine against Russian forces massed along its borders?
It seems odd to say, but Obama’s real strength and capabilities have yet to be tested. We really don’t know how he would respond if China and Japan went to war over the Senkakus. And what might Obama do if China built another oil rig in waters within the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam?
Nor for that matter do we have any real clue if the U.S. would go to war to defend the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea from intrusion and possible takeover by Chinese forces that hold three or four of the islands but claim to “own” the rest.
Can anyone imagine Vietnam, the communist state that China plied with arms and advice during the war against the Americans, allying with the Philippines, bound to the U.S. by a security treaty? Would Obama be willing to order U.S. troops, rotating in and out of Philippine bases that were once the centerpiece of U.S. strength in the region, to go to war against China?
And what about North Korea? China may want nothing more than “stability” on the Korean peninsula, but what if North Korea attacks the South?
Cossa wound up his comments on Obama’s speech with one criticism: Obama should have declared a “red line” that Assad could not afford to cross without risking an onslaught of bombing.
Obama doesn’t believe in red lines. He is not setting one for the East China Sea, the South China Sea or North Korea. For that reason alone his remarks at West Point, to young people about to serve as U.S. army officers, may have done more to increase concerns rather than to offer reassurances.
Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com
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