Americans are naturally focused on the upcoming election and the effect Obama is having on our polity and economy. But the effect he is having on our national security may be an even longer-term consequence, because there isn’t much we can do about his foreign policy between now and January 2013. The Senate can stymie some of his worst agenda items, like the New START treaty, but its advise-and-consent role is inadequate to the important task of constructing and executing a positive policy – one with initiative and ingenuity. For that, we rely both constitutionally and traditionally on the president.
There are a number of disquieting developments in national security over the past year, and some just over the past few weeks. In the Far East, for example, China and Russia piled on Japan near-simultaneously this month, in two long-running disputes over local island chains (the Senkaku Islands to Japan’s south and the Kuril Islands to the north). The proximate issue between Beijing and Tokyo – a Chinese fishing vessel that entered disputed waters and collided with the Japanese coast guard not once but twice – has tentatively been settled. But China has suspended deliveries of rare earths to Japan, a significant blow to Japanese industry given that China exports more than 90% of the rare earths sold internationally. Russia, for her part, displayed the most high-handed and uncompromising posture on the Kuril Islands since the Soviet era, a move her leaders would not have tried even two years ago with one of America’s closest allies.
In our hemisphere, Russia is proclaiming unabashedly her intention to assist Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela in developing a nuclear program. A Chinese company, Huawei, is being allowed to begin supplying smartphones to the fourth-largest US service provider, T-Mobile, although T-Mobile is a government contractor and such agreements have always been prohibited in the past. Huawei also proposes to partner with a US start-up company in performing the 4G upgrade on Sprint Nextel’s 35,000 US transmission towers – a level of infrastructure involvement that has been unthinkable up to now because of obvious IT security concerns. But it may pass the Obama administration’s smell test: it appears that China’s purchase of an interest in shale-oil fields in Texas will do so, and Russia’s tender for a uranium mining operation in Wyoming is receiving serious consideration from the Geithner Treasury Department.
The question is not what we think natural resources development is about. (Free-flowing investment and so forth.) The question – when China and Russia are involved – is how China and Russia treat this facet of economic statecraft. And the answer is: like a war between rival crime bosses. There is more than a whiff here of Obama being prepared to sell the US off in pieces to the predatory Asian giants. If we can shut down their worst methods any time we want, by summarily ejecting them if necessary, the question is still why we would let the need to do so arise in the first place. Putting America in the middle of an ugly showdown over such unacceptable intrusions on sovereignty seems like a very bad idea. Yet these Chinese and Russian inroads in the US infrastructure have erupted in a crop in the last few weeks, almost as if a switch was flipped at some point.
In other issues, Obama’s overt partisanship in brokering Israeli-Palestinian talks has been widely discussed, but John Bolton pointed out a deal-breaking prospect in a Wall Street Journal editorial this weekend: that the US administration could effectively sink Israel’s security position by abstaining from a UN Security Council vote on the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state. This possibility – unimaginable even with a president like Jimmy Carter – has an unfortunate ring of imaginability to it for Barack “Vote ‘Present’” Obama. Israel has already recognized the perils of relying on Obama’s America, and has been busy this year renewing defense-cooperation ties with China and inaugurating them with Russia.
In this, Israel is simply doing what America’s other Western allies have been occupying themselves with. In an otherwise discouraging survey of our security situation, it might seem that surely our alliance with the Europeans, our cultural forebears and brothers in arms throughout the Cold War and now in the War on Terror, is maintaining a steady state. But it’s not. Obama has dealt two great blows to America’s credibility as the strategic linchpin of NATO, with his cancellation of the missile defense sites in Eastern Europe and his precipitate agreement on the New START treaty, which severely limits our options for a national missile defense and gives Russia an out from the treaty any time she doesn’t like what we’re doing. France and Germany, in particular, have responded by holding a security summit of their own with Russia – a meeting last week in Deauville, France that has been widely interpreted as preparation for the NATO summit in Lisbon 19-21 November, to which Russia has been invited, for the first time, as a participant.
As with so many developments on Obama’s watch, the psyche almost can’t register the significance of these events. The expiration of the original START treaty, for example, means that the regime of strategic weapons verification has ceased, and nothing has taken its place. There is no on-site verification of Russian compliance with START-type protocols right now, nor is there a prospect of a similarly rigorous methodology being re-implemented. Even the never-clarified discrepancies in Russian compliance with the old treaty are simply being ignored and written off. New START is little more than a very big gamble that Russia can be trusted.
But France and Germany aren’t willing to subsist under an umbrella of trust brokered on Obama’s terms. As this piece posted at the European Council on Foreign Relations website puts it – very much as if it’s conventional wisdom – the US “has ceased to be a full-time European power”; under Obama, our effective interest in the security of Europe has dropped like a stone. Nor do we seem any longer to perceive any serious security needs in the “Atlantic theater” – in spite of the military attention Russia has been giving this potential line of confrontation. The two most significant command organizations put on the chopping block by Defense Secretary Gates this year – Joint Forces Command and the US Second Fleet – are the principal commands through which we interface with NATO for the core mission of Atlantic security. Add this to Obama’s cancellation of the missile defense sites in Poland and Czech Republic, and you have a record of unmistakable disinterest in our NATO defense infrastructure.
It should not surprise us, therefore, that NATO’s sense of coherence and mission under US leadership is beginning to unravel. We should make no mistake: these are historic developments. France and Germany wanting a security summit with Russia before a NATO summit – and particularly a NATO summit at which missile defense is expected to be a principal topic – is what our vice president would (if he had any sense) call a big effing deal. It means a lot: it means France and Germany don’t trust the existing situation, and they don’t trust the US leadership. This is it: the process of America’s core alliance falling apart is effectively underway.
One of the most important items discussed between Sarkozy, Merkel, and Medvedev was, precisely, missile defense. The NATO Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has already said no European missile defense is realistic without Russian participation – a natural development given that Obama abandoned the previous plan as a concession to Russia. Clearly, as long as Obama is in the Oval Office, a missile defense for Europe will indeed have to meet with Russian approval. France and Germany hope Russia will consider active participation in a collective missile defense scheme.
And this would be one thing if the effort were being led and brokered by the US. With the US in the driver’s seat, Russian participation could conceivably be to our advantage as well as Moscow’s. But we aren’t; this isn’t a US effort. The prospect we face instead is Russia exercising a veto over any theater-wide missile defense for NATO, and using that veto as a perpetual bargaining chip.
Russia doesn’t expect to be the target of a missile-borne menace from Iran – and neither does Turkey, which is engaged in heel-dragging on the installation of a missile defense radar on her soil. In fact, Turkey would rather not do anything to overtly suggest an antagonistic posture toward Iran. Russia and Turkey have already, ahead of next month’s summit, expressed reservations about the NATO missile defense concept to be discussed there, and Russia has a laundry list of her own separate security concerns to advance, as an alternative agenda for the assembly to focus on.
In the absence of US leadership, Russia’s role in European missile defense will be that of spoiler. While Iran slogs toward the goal of holding her designated enemies at risk with nuclear weapons, Russia and Turkey between them can preserve their privileged positions as intermediaries with Iran by producing an endless series of delays and excuses – properly negotiated and stamped with the “smart power” seal – to bog down Europe’s pursuit of a missile defense system.
This is something Obama is allowing to happen. Much of the impetus for Western Europe’s turn to Russia has originated with his effective decision not to prioritize our NATO infrastructure for European security. It is banal to point out that the world has changed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union; of course it has, but no civilization has ever avoided war and catastrophe by marveling, resistless, over changes to its security situation. There are multiple options for strengthening NATO and preparing it for transformative evolution, but Obama has shown no initiative in this regard at all. He has instead emitted a series of signals that have driven some of our key allies to accelerate their independent search for new security arrangements.
The particulars are different today, but in terms of their importance to global geopolitics, the events of the last two years are identical in quality to the ominous developments of the 1930s. The nations exercising nominal leadership of the world’s post-Cold War consensus are simply relinquishing their responsibility and turning inward.
It matters tremendously that China and Russia feel free to gang up on Japan. It matters that France and Germany perceive a need for a separate security relationship with Russia. It matters that there’s a real possibility Obama will collude in a UN end-run around Israel. It matters that proposals by the world’s most economically predatory nations to buy controlling interests in American natural resources are being given serious consideration by the current administration, and that China seems to be poised to gain unprecedented access to the US IT infrastructure.
It is under these conditions that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has lately conducted his triumphal visit to Lebanon and symbolically planted the flag of Iranian Islamist revolution in the Levant (and over Jerusalem). Ahmadinejad wouldn’t have tried this during Bush’s tenure – nor would Bush have allowed Lebanon’s vulnerable government, which is heavily dependent on US patronage, to collude in the event. The whole world is exhibiting an increasing sense of the freedom – and for some, the need – to act as if there is no United States. At no time in our history has that condition been good for our security.
300 million Americans can’t go out and exercise diplomacy where our president is failing to. But on 2 November, we can send a message that America isn’t going to continue down a feckless path toward geopolitical chaos. Our real option now is to send, as best we can, the signal that any havoc other nations can’t finish wreaking in the next two years, they would be well advised not to start on. That is an unattractive option, but it is better than none. It helps that other peoples tend to remember history better than we do.