The personal blog of Peter Lee a.k.a. "China Hand"... Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel, and an open book to those who read. You are welcome to contact China Matters at the address chinamatters --a-- prlee.org or follow me on twitter @chinahand.
Not just because everybody else dumped all over it, and I
wanted to exercise my contrarian’s prerogative to defend the indefensible.
It’s because the central premise—what I call the Obama
Doctrine—is rather attractive to me:
Here’s my bottom line:
America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The
military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that
leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only -- or even primary --
component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best
hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.
President Obama’s unwillingness to employ military action
against Syria or in the Ukraine is, I think, a reflection of his bedrock principle, his aversion to committing US military power unless it is absolutely necessary, a conviction that he
has maintained at some cost against determined pushback by hawks within his
administration, in Washington, and internationally.No more Vietnams or Iraqs.
Good for him.
Unfortunately, the flip side of the Obama doctrine is that
the United States remains committed to a forward counterterrorism posture and US“leadership” i.e. the ability to shape
events overseas even without using military power.
Even when holding back on military power, there are plenty
of ways for the United States to cripple a designated adversary.There’s economic sanctions; financial warfare
through the international banking, economic, and trade system; there’s
subversion, through the Internet, through support of dissident parties and
insurrectionists; there’s proxy wars. There’s JSOC. And of course, there’s
And the most terrifying of all, the non-stop yammering of
neo-liberal pundits advocating and excusing the latest US exercise in humanitarian
In other words, the United States still reserves the right
to cruelly and counterproductively f*ck up any country with any and all means
short of the direct commitment of US military forces.
That means plenty more Syrias.
Even if the Assad regime assiduously astro-turfed the
massive turnout of refuge Syrians to vote at the Syrian embassy in Lebanon, I
found it sad, moving, and pathetic that these people who had been driven from
their homes were trying to show the world that they desperately wanted to live
in a safer place where that election mattered…and at the exact same time the Obama
administration was discussing plans to funnel more support to the insurgents in
order to forestall their military defeat and a political settlement on terms that
the United States deems undesirable.
From an ethical point of view, is it a better, more humane
policy to eviscerate a country slowly through sadistic proxies than simply to
send in the troops and brutalize the locals briskly and efficiently and with
some hope of genuine international oversight?
Looking at Syria, I don’t think so.
As a practical matter, I’m afraid the Obama Doctrine won’t
fly as a matter of realist geopolitic.
Taking the possibility of US military action off the table
in the case of lower-priority objectives undercuts the deterrent character of
the US military machine.
I expect that the People’s Republic of China was interested
and relieved at President Obama’s speech and its implications for the PRC’s
aggressive moves in the South China Sea.
President Obama had a lot to say about “counterterrorism”
and very little to say about “salami slicing” by a certain regional power.
He did obliquely compare China’s moves in the SCS to alleged
Russian activity in Ukraine:
that goes unchecked, whether in southern Ukraine or the South China Sea or
anywhere else in the world, will ultimately impact our allies, and could draw
in our military.
We can’t try to
resolve problems in the South China Sea when we have refused to make sure that
the Law of the Sea Convention is ratified by the United States Senate…
In other words, I’m not doing sh*t in the South China
Sea?Blame the Senate.
If that remains the full extent of President Obama’s succor
to Vietnam and the Philippines in their attempts to check the onslaught of HYSY
981 a.k.a. Rigzilla a.k.a. the PRC’s intrusive, EEZ occupying drilling rig and
its sizable flotilla of ships, there are going to be some long faces in Hanoi
Perhaps President Obama has decided that it will take some
time to work up a systemic riposte to the PRC in the South China Sea, and he’s
not going to rush ahead with some half-assed measure that “reassures” our
allies + Vietnam, but risks being exposed by the PRC as another unenforceable “red
It may be that President Obama has decided that if he can
extract most US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, that’s enough foreign policy
legacy for his presidency and he doesn’t need to add a China war.So he’s kicking the can down the road to the
The fully-formed China plan will, I think, come from a
Hillary Clinton presidency.The pivot is
her baby, and she has convinced herself and her army of eager advisers that the
key to US success in Asia is an aggressive China-containment policy underpinned
by the idea of a credible US deterrent to undesirable PRC actions.
Well, judging by the PRC’s calculated defiance in the South
China Sea, it might take more than US signing on the UNCLOS and pushing for the
ASEAN Code of Conduct to deter the dragon.
So I don’t think President Clinton will be happy with the “Obama
Doctrine” and the way it takes US military action off the table in
A Hillary Clinton presidency might, I suggest, resurrect the
Nixon “madman” posture, by which Nixon used the threat of extreme,
non-proportionate force to try to get North Vietnam to forget that he had
already committed to withdraw US troops and all they had to do was wait him
In her America’s Pacific Century essay, Clinton carefully
laid the foundations for a US military role in Asian maritime disputes through
the Asian maritime security = US economic security = US national security
Maybe a “Hillary Clinton Doctrine” will look like “The
United States will use all measures up to and including military force to
ensure its economic and national security”.We’ll see.
As Bob and Barbara Dreyfuss point out at The Nation, Hillary is a
bottom-line hawk, and she wants all her coercive resources available for any
[Robert] Gates took note of the fact
that Clinton, as senator from New York, “had made friends with a number of
high-level flag officers—three- and four-star generals and admirals—during her
time on Armed Services.” She was, Gates noted, “an ardent advocate of a strong
military” and “believed in all forms of American power, including force.” … [T]he Times adds that, after countless interviews, it is clear that Clinton was
the administration’s hawk:
But in recent
interviews, two dozen current and former administration officials, foreign
diplomats, friends and outside analysts described Mrs. Clinton as almost always
the advocate of the most aggressive actions considered by Mr. Obama’s national
security team—and not just in well-documented cases, like the debate over how
many additional American troops to send to Afghanistan or the NATO airstrikes
Clinton’s advocates—a swelling number in Washington, where people are already
looking to the next administration—are quick to cite other cases in which she
took more hawkish positions than the White House: arguing for funneling weapons
to Syrian rebels and for leaving more troops behind in postwar Iraq, and
criticizing the results of a 2011 parliamentary election in Russia.
And the Times quotes Dennis Ross, the pro-Israel advocate
who worked for both Clinton and for the White House on Iran: “It’s not that
she’s quick to use force, but her basic instincts are governed more by the uses
of hard power.”
Either way, Obama or Clinton, it looks like American foreign
policy will remain a meatgrinder for its enemies for the foreseeable