Tuesday, December 20, 2016

As I wrote in a blog last April, I have decided to write here about Israel and the U.S. only infrequently—in part because there seems to be fewer and fewer new things to say, in part because there are now many excellent commentaries available on the internet, in part because it’s a lost cause anyway, and in part because my working time is mostly devoted to working  on a big book on the topic (lost cause or not).

However, aside from Israeli-related issues, I have over fifty years experience in reading, teaching, and writing about general issues in American foreign policy.  Therefore , I’ve decided to widen the scope of this blog (and will soon rename it accordingly), to include general commentaries on foreign policy, war and peace, and national as well as international security. 

Not there’s any shortage of excellent commentators on these topics, either.  Still, from time to time maybe I can have something a little different to say.  Anyway, such are the dreadful times we live in that one must at least try to say something useful.  However,  even with this wider new scope, my blogs will be infrequent.   Therefore, the best way to know that I’ve posted a new blog is to sign up for automatic email notification (at the top of the column to the right). 
   
  The “Balance of Power” and a Coming War with China?
 
The traditional American policy of isolationism permanently ended with our entry into World War II, and since then the fundamental premise of U.S. foreign policy has been that national security requires the maintenance of a balance of power in the major world regions, a goal worth going to war over, if necessary. Thus, the preservation of the balance of power in Europe and Asia was the fundamental (though not the only) reason that the U.S. government decided to go to war against Nazi Germany and Japan; after their defeat, the same goal was pursued by the policy of containment, designed to prevent Soviet, Chinese or merely communist expansionism, especially in Europe and Asia.

Currently, a new variation of balance of power strategies—“offshore balancing”--has become the dominant “grand strategy” advocated by national security academicians and, evidently, by national security government officials—at least those in the Obama administration, though not necessarily by that name.   Under such a strategy, U.S. security would continue to require military intervention if an aggressive major power threatened to destroy the balance of power in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Differing from previous versions of balance of power strategies, however, advocates of offshore balancing argue that our national security is best served by eschewing large ground operations in favor of keeping our forces “offshore,” that is, on “over the horizon” naval and air forces.

There is a rather large qualification, however, to this strategy, as developed by its most prominent and sophisticated advocates, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (“The Case for Offshore Balancing,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2016).  They write that “the aim is to remain offshore as long as possible.”  Nonetheless, they argue, sometimes it may be necessary “to come onshore.” This is a rather large qualification to the general argument, for it means that sometimes it may still be necessary, just as in the past, to fight major land wars in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

While an improvement on previous balance of power policies--which required overseas land bases and the continuing deployment of large-scale standing ground forces, meaning that any outbreak of military conflicts were likely to quickly escalate into major war—offshore balancing is still fundamentally flawed, for it continues to rest on the largely unexamined axiom or premise that U.S. national security requires the maintenance of balances of power in world’s most important regions.

Let us examine the case for “containing” China—a different name for balance of power policies---the obvious though unacknowledged purpose of the Obama Administration’s military “pivot” toward Asia.  As a consequence of the balance-of-power strategy, the U.S. has fought three major wars in Asia in the last seventy-five years: against Japan in WWII, in Korea in 1950-53, and in Vietnam in the 1960s. If balance of power thinking continues—including that of offshore balancing--there will be a growing risk that this country may stumble into its worst and most dangerous war yet, against a nuclear-armed China.

In light of the fact that Japan is almost 4000 miles and China over 5000 miles from Hawaii (as well as 5500 and 6500 miles, respectively, from the U.S. mainland), it is instructive to reflect on how and why the United States came to believe that its national security required the maintenance of a balance of power in Asia. It appears that it began “in a fit of absence of mind,” as 19th century British colonialism was famously characterized. 

That is, in 1898 the U.S. “acquired” (as it is often quaintly described) the Philippines, then a Spanish colony, as an initially unintended and unforeseen byproduct of the U.S. defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American War—largely fought over Cuba, at least until an imperial-minded Assistance Secretary for the Navy, one Teddy Roosevelt by name, decided to take advantage of the war to send the Navy to the Philippines and destroy the unsuspecting Spanish fleet anchored in Manilla Bay, over 9600 miles from Cuba.

President William McKinley pondered what to do next. In 1899 the president told a group of clergymen that he “walked the floor of the White House night after night” praying for divine guidance. “And then one night it came to me in this way—(1) we could not give the Philippines back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonorable... (2) we could not turn them over [to other European colonial powers ]…. There was nothing left to do but take them all, and…uplift and civilize them…..I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker), and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States and there they will stay while I am President.”

The U.S. takeover of the Philippines in 1898, then, was an absurd historical accident. Yet, from such a little acorn a hugely dangerous oak has grown, for an unexamined policy axiom took root: the U.S. must maintain a balance of power in Asia to prevent a potentially hostile power from dominating all of China and then being in a position to threaten the Philippines.

Put differently, WWII reinforced and deepened US perceptions of itself as a "Pacific" or even an “Asian power,” with a vital interest in maintaining the Asian balance of power against any new challengers. As a result, the U.S. sought to prevent the communists from winning the post-WWII civil war in China, intervened in another civil war in Korea, fought an unnecessary war with China after refusing to settle for the restoration of the status quo ante in Korea, went to war in Vietnam to prevent the Vietnamese communists from winning a revolutionary civil war there—and in the process may have come perilously close to an unnecessary full-scale war with China in the late 1960s, a war that even then might have become a nuclear one.
 
The China Issue Today
Apparently accepting the alarmist view of the capabilities and intentions of China, the Obama administration has essentially adopted the policy of containment by means of offshore balancing. In late 2011 the administration began its “pivot” or “rebalancing” of American foreign policy from Europe to Asia. In a number of speeches as well as background explanations by high administration officials, Obama and Secretary of State Kerry set out the new U.S. policy and the rationale behind it, which essentially is that as “a Pacific Nation”--shades of Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War!—the U.S. would play a larger and long term role in shaping the region and its future.

Among the actions taken by the Obama administration in the last four years to implement this new policy are the following:

*It has made new naval and air deployments in the region; the Pentagon’s goal is said to be to ensure that 60% of America’s military power—especially submarine forces and aircraft carriers; this is already well underway. .

*It has deployed 2,500 marines in Australia.

*It has increased military assistance and cooperation and joint military exercises with Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam.

*It has announced that the U.S. would spend an additional $250 million dollars to build up the naval capabilities of Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam—and perhaps even more importantly, it is considering the reestablishment of the huge U.S. military base in the Philippines that had been closed down in 1992.

Unsurprisingly, China sees itself as a defensive state legitimately alarmed by these US actions, and has taken a series of steps, including what we see as military “provocations,” in order to assert what it considers to be its national rights in the region. The consequence is that we are coming dangerously close to outright military clashes with China, which no matter how limited they initially may to be, contain the wholly unacceptable risk of escalating into a major war—and even a nuclear war.

In evaluating U.S. policies, three issues must be considered.  First, is China truly an expansionist state that seeks to establish hegemony over the entire region? Second, even if China has such intentions—or later develops them as its military and economic power continue to expand—will it have the capability of destroying the Asian balance of power? The third issue is by the far most important one in terms of U.S. national security: why should the United States be prepared to use armed force, even if that were the only way to prevent Chinese domination of Asia?

To begin with, most China and regional specialists are skeptical about pessimistic or alarmist assessments of the Chinese threat in Asia. Rather, they argue that despite the admittedly worrying Chinese military buildup in general and in the South China Sea in particular, together with its assertive claims to small islands also claimed by other Asian states, Chinese behavior should be best understood as motivated not by the grandiose and unattainable goal of gaining “hegemony” over the region, but by more limited factors. In this view, then, China’s policies have been moderate, essentially defensive, and reactive rather than aggressive, driven (1) by fears of Japan and the United States as well as by its historically understandable sense of vulnerability to perceived threats on its borders that it shares with fourteen states--four of which (Russia, North Korea, Pakistan and India) have nuclear weapons; (2) by its growing economic interests in the disputed islands, and (3) by largely symbolic nationalist claims to “sovereignty” over the contested areas, claims that are said to have some historical validity.

Secondly, if China’s policies threatened to harm the important national interests of other Asian states, they would be hardly unable to defend them. Especially if they should act collectively, states like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Pakistan, and even the Philippines and Vietnam would be hardly helpless—even in the absence of any U.S. role at all—to defend themselves and their vital interests against any theoretical Chinese expansionism.

To be sure, there is a substantial argument that U.S. military disengagement in Asia might lead to further nuclear proliferation in the region. In particular, it likely would increase the incentives for Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to develop their own independent nuclear deterrent forces. Still, there are good arguments against letting legitimate concerns over proliferation dominate U.S. Asian policies.

To begin, the overall effects of the already-existing proliferation of nuclear weapons since 1945 have been stabilizing rather than destabilizing—MAD certainly worked in Europe. While there can be no guarantee that the same result would occur in Asia should further proliferation take place there, the real question is whether it can be prevented, and at what cost.

Furthermore, even if the U.S. withdrew from the region, Asian states might still decide against going nuclear, which is hardly cost-free either in terms of money or of increased tensions and possible dangers of a nuclear arms race throughout Asia.  Conversely, paradoxically, even if the U.S. commitments and military presence continue, there is no guarantee that our Asian allies won’t decide to go nuclear anyway, based on the fear that if faced with an imminent war with China, the U.S. would renege on its commitments to go to war on their behalf.  Indeed, that would be a perfectly rational assumption, since it would be quite mad for the U.S. to actually live up to such “commitments.”

In any case, the debate over Chinese intentions and capabilities (whichever view should prove correct) is not the central question for U.S. foreign policy—which is whether the U.S. should be prepared to go to war to prevent possible Chinese hegemony over Northeast Asia. In considering this issue, let’s assume the worst case, in which China should turn out to be a radically expansionist state that somehow gained control of all the resources and population of Asia. Even so, U.S. national security—our only truly “vital” national interest—would not be at stake. There are only two ways in which our security could be threatened: by a conventional invasion or by a nuclear attack. No one takes seriously the notion that a China, even somehow controlling the population, land masses, and economy of Asia, would be capable of crossing thousands of miles of ocean and invading a nuclear-armed United States. 

And as for the nuclear danger, it already exists, for China is capable of a massive nuclear attack against the U.S. from the weapons within its homeland, a threat that is already (or very soon will be ) essentially absolute, meaning that any later Chinese expansionism would be irrelevant and would do little or nothing to increase its capabilities that threaten America.

What should follow is that we can avert any theoretical Chinese threat to vital national interests by relying on our own nuclear deterrence capabilities while also avoiding any war, including “limited” wars, with China. Put differently, the most likely “threats”--Chinese border conflicts with neighboring states or military clashes over sovereignty claims in the South China Sea-- have the least relevance to U.S. national security, while the most theoretically dangerous ones--Chinese military expansionism throughout Asia--are the least likely to occur.

Conclusion
It has long been an axiom of policymakers and academics alike that U.S. national security requires the maintenance or restoration of the “balance of power” in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The underlying logic or premise of the wars fought for those purposes was that it was better to fight a war now—even a major war—than inevitably to have to later fight an even more devastating war against an increasingly powerful and expansionist state or coalition of states. This was the logic that led to the U.S. government’s decision to join the war against Nazi Germany before it had conquered even more territory and resources; to impose severe economic sanctions against Japan that it knew would likely lead to a war with that country; and to abandon “isolationism”—better understood as “military noninterventionism”-- after WWII in favor of the policy of containment, designed to ensure that the balance of power in Europe and Asia would not be threatened by the Soviet Union and communist China. 
 
However, even if that logic was compelling in the past, it no longer makes any sense to fight a war now than a supposedly even worse war later, for the costs of going to war now against nuclear powers would already be beyond comprehension, whereas the postulated later war might not occur—indeed would probably not occur--at all .
For this reason, an overall US strategy of military disengagement and noninterventionism is far better suited to protect U.S. national security interests in Asia than any version of balance of power strategies, including offshore balancing. What follows is that we should be ending our military presence in Asia—as opposed to our present policy of increasing it--and gradually withdraw from our political and military alliances and commitments, de facto or formal. To be sure, it is true that U.S. allies in Asia (as well as in Europe)—and probably many neutrals as well—do not want America to withdraw its armed forces and military commitments in their regions, but that is hardly a decisive argument in favor of continuing them: we have to make independent judgments about the nature of U.S. interests, the necessity of the use of force, the chances for success, the costs and risks we are prepared to accept, and the probability that states that feel threatened can defend themselves if they were forced to stop relying on this country.

In sum, the best way for the U.S. to protect its national security from potential Asian threats is to jettison balance of power strategies, in any form, and never again go to war there.—any war, not just ground forces wars.


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The New York Times and Israel: All the news except that fit to print.

As I'm now at work on a book on the history of the U.S., Israel, and the Arab-Israeli comment, I will be commenting here only rarely.  But sometimes I can't resist.

The travesty of the New York Times' coverage and opinion pieces on Israel is now so well known that it seems hardly worth mentioning any longer.   Still, every once in a while the farce--actually, the lying by omission--is so blatant something should be said.
 

Haaretz
In the front page of its April 5th online English language edition:  
        A story on Israel cutting electrical power to Hebron, supposedly  for nonpayment of debts to the Israeli government  (Palestinians have to buy much of their electricity from Israel, since Israel has deliberately destroyed much of the electrical system of the occupied territories).  
         Two stories on the escalating Israeli repression of dissent and dissidents--Jewish dissent, that is.  Repression of the Palestinians, of course, hardly merits any new comments.
         One story ("The Medic as Executioner") about how it was actually an Israeli combat medic--sworn to treat wounded Israelis and Palestinians alike--who in cold blood executed (or rather, murdered)  a disarmed and critically wounded Palestinian attacker.
         One despairing  editorial and five oped columns on various other manifestations  of the collapse of the Light Unto the Nations into darkness. 

 
The New York Times.  
       On this same date the Times did have one story on Israel: on the efforts of the Israeli army to get former soldiers to return  military "equipment" they had kept when they left the service:  such as old uniforms, sleeping bags, helmets and the like, as well as weaponry. The writer of the story--Isabel Kershner, naturally--comments that the army program sought to play on the "collective nostalgia" of former conscripts..

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Showing Putin and Assad the What For!

In today's New York Times oped page Roger Cohen angrily fulminates  about Obama’s “shameful,” “feckless,” “feeble,” “evasive,” “awkward, “embarrassed,” and  “purposeless” policy in Syria--his administration’s “Munich,” he says.  Wow, that really has to be a disastrous policy, evidently meriting nothing less than seven adjectives and two references to "Munich."

How so?  Well, here’s Cohen's bill of particulars:

1. “The president and his aides have hidden at various times behind the notions that Syria is marginal to core American national interests;”
2. “ that they have thought through the downsides of intervention better than others;”
3.  “that the diverse actors on the ground are incomprehensible or untrustworthy;”
4. “that there is no domestic or congressional support for taking action to stop the war or shape its outcome;”
5. “that there is no legal basis for establishing “safe areas” or taking out Assad’s air power;”
6. “that Afghanistan and Iraq are lessons in the futility of projecting American power in the 21st century;”
7. “ that Syria will prove Russia’s Afghanistan as it faces the ire of the Sunni world;”
8. “and that the only imperative...must be avoidance of another war in the Middle East.”

Gee, to me that sounds like eight excellent reasons to support Obama’s policies in Syria, rather than  “feeble evasions masquerading as strategy,” as Cohen thunders. Surely Cohen is leading up to a point-by-point rebuttal of Obama’s apparent pusillanimity?  What, exactly, does he propose by way of change?

He doesn’t say. Well, ok.  He does have one recommendation: “the president should at least do everything in his power… to “surge” the number of Syrian refugees taken in this year to 65,000 from his proposed 10,000.”  Good idea.   That will teach Assad and Putin a thing or two.

Friday, January 8, 2016

It's Not Only On Israel That the New York Times Is Inept



I know this is straying off the reservation, but I can’t resist commenting on the Jan. 7 NY Times editorial “North Korea Flexes Its Nuclear Muscle.”   The editorial page of the NY Times is typically the weakest section of the paper.  For informed readers, it practically goes without saying that on Israel,  it is notoriously disingenuous, obscurantist, or flatly wrong on the facts.  This kind of incompetence is not limited to Israeli matters, however—on many topics, Times’ editorials are frequently muddled or illogical. 

This one, though, takes the cake. I reprint the full editorial here, with some emphases added, and with my comments in caps:

“There was a predictable ritual to the world’s reaction to North Korea’s latest nuclear test, its fourth. Vigorous condemnation, followed by promises never to accept the North as a nuclear weapons state, followed by chest-thumping demands for more sanctions. The problem is that while the North Korean threat is real and growing, the United States and its partners have failed miserably at finding an effective solution.”

WOW.  STRONG WORDS.  WE EXPECT, OF COURSE, THAT THE TIMES WILL SPELL OUT WHAT WOULD BE THE EFFECTIVE SOLUTION THAT THE US AND ITS ‘PARTNERS,’ WHOEVER THEY MIGHT BE, HAVE SOMEHOW FAILED TO COME UP WITH.

“Although a final judgment depends on further study, it now appears that North Korea did not detonate a hydrogen bomb on Wednesday as claimed. The test appears to have involved a less-powerful atomic weapon. Regardless, it was another sign of leader Kim Jong-un’s determination to expand his impoverished country’s nuclear arsenal in violation of United Nations resolutions, seize the limelight when he feels ignored and keep Asia off balance.”

SO WHAT SHOULD WE DO ABOUT IT?

“In recent years, the United States and other major powers expended maximum effort negotiating a landmark agreement to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. That deal, which is now being implemented, is undeniably important, but the Americans and their partners erred in largely ignoring the even tougher challenge, and more immediate threat, from North Korea.”

MORE STRONG WORDS, BUT IF AMERICA AND ITS PARTNERS WERE NOT ‘IGNORING’ THE NK THREAT, WHAT SHOULD WE BE DOING?

“By various estimates, the North has produced 10 to 16 crude weapons since 2003 and could have as many as 20 by the end of the year.. It has also improved the range of its missiles and the mobility of their launchers. The more bombs and missiles North Korea produces, the more likely it is to try to sell these weapons to earn desperately needed hard currency.”

STILL NO WORD ON THE SOLUTIONS

“North Korea stains the record of President Obama, who took office promising to make ridding the world of nuclear weapons a priority.” 

WOW AGAIN!    OBAMA HAS FAILED TO RID THE WORLD OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS!  OBVIOUSLY THIS WOULD BE AN EASY THING TO DO IF ONLY HE HAD MADE THAT A PRIORITY.

“Its actions are a humiliation for President Xi Jinping of China, North Korea’s only ally, largest trading partner and economic lifeline for food and oil. Mr. Xi initially treated Mr. Kim with impatience and disdain, warning him after a nuclear test in 2013 that the North must not threaten world peace. Since then, Mr. Kim seemed to heed Beijing’s admonitions; as recently as October, the North reportedly assured China it would not conduct nuclear tests. Partly because of that, Beijing sent a senior Chinese official to a parade in the North’s capital, Pyongyang, the first such visit since Mr. Kim took power.”

NOW IT APPEARS THAT IT IS CHINA THAT HOLDS WHATEVER CARDS ARE AVAILABLE TO BRING ABOUT NORTH KOREA’S NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT—AS OPPOSED TO THE U.S. AND ITS PARTNERS, UNLESS OF COURSE CHINA IS OUR "PARTNER."

“The latest nuclear test drew swift condemnation from the United Nations Security Council, NATO and the European Union, as well as individual countries. Chinese officials were described as furious. 
“What can be done to back up the tough talk”? 

AT LAST, THE SOLUTION?  WHAT OBAMA SHOULD DO?  NOPE:

“Even before the latest test, Congress was talking about tightening sanctions on North Korea, which has been under American and United Nations penalties for years. Unilateral American action is not enough. China claims it doesn’t have the kind of power over North Korea that many think, but the fact is that it has more than anybody else and is uniquely positioned to pressure Mr. Kim and his regime, including by interrupting trade flows.”

WELL, IT TURNS OUT, AFTER ALL, THAT WE CAN’T DO THAT MUCH, SO THE REAL TARGET OF THE TIMES’ WRATH IS CHINA. 

YET: “China is understandably concerned that really tough economic penalties would cause people to flee North Korea for China.”

WAIT A MINUTE!  CHINESE CONCERNS ARE UNDERSTANDABLE.  I WOULD THINK SO—A COLLAPSING REGIME ON ITS BORDERS, WHICH MIGHT EVEN START A NUCLEAR WAR IN THAT SITUATION, IS CERTAINLY AN ‘UNDERSTANDABLE’ CONCERN—AND NOT ONLY TO CHINA, BUT EVEN MORE SO TO SOUTH KOREA AND, INDEED, US.

WHAT TO DO?  WAIT FOR IT: “even smaller gestures like preventing Mr. Kim and his friends from importing whiskey and other luxury goods might have an impact.”

 ADVICE TO CHINA: “ Peacefully helping to solve the North Korean nuclear threat is an important test of China’s aspirations to be a world leader.”
“Since an agreement with the United States collapsed in 2002, negotiations with North Korea on the nuclear issues have gone nowhere, in part because of American demands that the North agree first that the outcome would be nuclear disarmament.”

WERE THESE DEMANDS WRONG?  COUNTERPRODUCTIVE?   WHY, EXACTLY?  THE TIMES DOESN’T SAY, ESPECIALLY IN LIGHT OF THE NEXT SENTENCE:   “There is no sign Mr. Kim has any interest in negotiating away his nuclear weapons, his only real bargaining chip.  But persuading Iran to negotiate on its nuclear program also looked like a pipe dream until creative diplomacy made it happen. The current approach with North Korea certainly isn’t working.”

IN THAT LIGHT, WHAT COULD BE LOST BY CUTTING OFF KIM’S FOREIGN WHISKY SUPPLY?