President Trump, Geopolitical Mastermind

trump_daywithout_ap_img_drubzjA classic 1986 Saturday Night Live skit, titled “President Reagan, Mastermind,” portrayed him as a cunning and focused operator within the confines of the Oval Office.  The bit was meant as a comedic rebuke to Reagan’s professions of ignorance about the unfolding Iran-Contra scandal, and it quickly became seen as a brilliant piece of political humor since it offered a reinterpretation jarringly at odds with the genial but clueless figure the Gipper’s critics often sketched out.

A similar redefinition of President Trump appeared last week on the op-ed pages of the Financial Times.  Mark Leonard, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations, reports that Chinese elites hold a very different perspective on Trump’s foreign policy than what is offered by the conventional wisdom in the West, which regards the president as a geopolitical naif and a reckless, impulsive leader.  In stark contrast, Leonard writes that the officials and experts he recently visited in Beijing are “awed by [Trump’s] skill as a strategist and tactician.”

According to Leonard, his Chinese interlocutors describe Trump:

as a master tactician, focusing on one issue at a time, and extracting as many concessions as he can.  They speak of the skilful way Mr Trump has treated President Xi Jinping. ‘Look at how he handled North Korea,’ one says. ‘He got Xi Jinping to agree to UN sanctions [half a dozen] times, creating an economic stranglehold on the country. China almost turned North Korea into a sworn enemy of the country.’ But they also see him as a strategist, willing to declare a truce in each area when there are no more concessions to be had, and then start again with a new front.

And while many of Trump’s detractors in the West regard his policy toward Moscow as craven and sycophantic, Leonard’s sources perceive a wily geopolitical strategy: “They see it as Henry Kissinger in reverse. In 1972, the US nudged China off the Soviet axis in order to put pressure on its real rival, the Soviet Union. Today Mr Trump is reaching out to Russia in order to isolate China.”

The Chinese assessment of Trump, at least as presented by Leonard, offers a strong counterpoint to the prevailing narrative about the cogency of the president’s foreign policy as well as to the partisan accusations alleging that the president, as one Democratic senator charges, has somehow become “a Russian asset.”

Indeed, the Daily Beast reports that Henry Kissinger himself, who has met at least three times with Trump since the 2016 presidential campaign, has advanced the idea that Washington should attempt a rapprochement with Moscow in order to counter Beijing’s growing global power, and that the pitch has found receptive ears inside the administration.  And one former administration official describes Trump’s approach toward Russia as “the reverse of the Nixon-China play.”

Last week’s meeting in Washington between President Trump and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, offers additional evidence for the narrative Leonard advances.  For months Beijing has been wooing EU leaders with offers of an anti-U.S. alliance (see here and here), and Juncker showed up at the White House fresh from his own summit in Beijing where Chinese officials renewed their pitch.  Yet for all of the hand-wringing about Trump pushing key U.S. allies into Beijing’s embrace, Trump and Juncker emerged from their meeting to announce a high-level push for a new U.S/EU trade accord.

Indeed, according to Trump’s chief economic adviser, Juncker also signaled that the EU “will be allied” with the United States in countering China on global trade issues.  Commenting on the EU deal, one Washington observer notes, “The president created so many battles on trade that now he has gotten everyone to say we are all on your side on China.”  And one journalist observes that Beijing ended up the loser because “Trump has cut himself far more leeway to indulge in China-bashing.”

If Trump is indeed attempting to pull off a Kissingerian power play with Russia and China, the prospects for major success are in doubt.  The Nixon administration was able to capitalize on years of bitter ideological disputes between Moscow and Beijing, not to mention the outbreak of actual military conflict in 1969 that threatened to escalate to the nuclear level.  Fissures do exist in the current Russian-Chinese relationship, and it must grate Vladimir Putin’s nationalist sensibilities that Moscow is widely seen as Beijing’s junior partner in global affairs.  Nonetheless, there does not appear to be much in the way of strategic opportunity for the Trump administration to exploit.

Still, Trump’s machinations may be having some geopolitical effect.  Leonard reveals that because of Trump’s multiple pressure points on Beijing, “many Chinese experts are quietly calling for a rethink of the longer-term strategy. They want to prepare the ground for a new grand bargain with the US based on Chinese retrenchment. Many feel that Mr Xi has over-reached and worry that it was a mistake simultaneously to antagonise the US economically and militarily in the South China Sea.”

The scope and depth of this sentiment are unclear, though one China expert reports hearing similar things in Beijing.  Nonetheless, it is a striking development at a time when the general narrative within the U.S. foreign policy commentariat is about China’s global ascendancy amid Trump’s fecklessness.  And it does underscore the possibility that the current U.S. president may be a more multifaceted leader than his most vocal critics allow.

UPDATE (August 5, 2018): Jerome A. Cohen, a leading U.S. expert on China, likewise reports serious foreign policy debates underway in Beijing:

Many Chinese critics, for example, believe that Xi has moved too unwisely in rapidly unfolding the enormously expensive Belt and Road Initiative, in militarizing the South China Sea and ostentatiously spurning the Philippine arbitration against China in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and in uncertainly responding to Trump’s bewildering trade-war challenge.

The Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times newspaper sees the same thing, reporting that in private “more Chinese officials and intellectuals are expressing doubts about [Xi Jinping’s] handling of relations with the US.”  He quotes one Chinese business executive as saying that among the Chinese bureaucracy’s rank and file, “more people are now questioning whether it was right for Xi to go against the US so openly”.  He adds that a “senior US business executive who meets frequently with senior Chinese officials said that since the trade war began in earnest in May, they have displayed ‘a mix of confidence, frustration, anger and insecurity — and at any moment one of those is more dominant than the rest'”.

UPDATE (August 7, 2018)Bloomberg Businessweek today quotes a Chinese observer as saying that the US-China “trade war has made China more humble,” and reports that:

grumbling has begun to echo around the halls of government. One Finance Ministry official says China made a “major misjudgment” of Trump’s determination to confront the country. Others wonder if China underestimated the durability of American power. “The U.S. will use its hegemonic system, established since World War II from trade, finance, currency, military, and so on, to stop the rise of China,” Ren Zeping, chief economist at China Evergrande Group, wrote in one widely read commentary published on June 5.

UPDATE (August 9, 2018): Reuters similarly reports:

“Many economists and intellectuals are upset about China’s trade war policies,” an academic at a Chinese policy think tank told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. “The overarching view is that China’s current stance has been too hard-line and the leadership has clearly misjudged the situation.”

An early version of this essay appears at Asia Sentinel.

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Did Obama Set Trump Up for Failure in Asia?

Obama PivotDonald Trump is encountering a fusillade of criticism alleging that his approach to Asia is creating a vacuum that will be eagerly filled by Beijing.  But those making this argument would be much more honest if they acknowledged that part of the blame lies with Trump’s predecessor as well.

That Barack Obama deserves censure was made plain in a recent Washington Post interview with Max Baucus, the immediate past U.S. ambassador in China, who offered a remarkably critical appraisal of Mr. Obama’s leadership skills and policy toward Beijing.  Indeed, his remarks underscore long-time criticisms regarding Obama’s leadership shortcomings, as well as the real problem his administration faced in matching fine words and good intentions with concrete foreign policy actions.

One of the complaints Baucus registered concerns the fate of the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP), the Obama administration’s project to build a U.S.-centric trade bloc in East Asia that would have brought together 12 countries and nearly 40 percent of the global economy.  The TPP was a key component to Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative – variously known as the “pivot” or the strategic “rebalance” – aimed at shoring up the U.S. presence in a region that is increasingly under Chinese sway.

As Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong declared last year to U.S. business executives, ratification of the ambitious trade and investment agreement was widely seen in Asia as “a litmus test of your credibility and seriousness of purpose.”  TPP was denounced by both major candidates during the recent U.S. presidential campaign and officially torpedoed by the new Trump administration.  But even as the agreement was being negotiated, there were widespread suspicions about whether the Obama White House had the political gumption to see through the Congressional approval process.

Baucus makes clear that Obama himself deserves part of the blame for the TPP debacle.  The newspaper quotes him as saying:

The [Obama] administration didn’t have the same zeal, the single-minded, mongoose-tenacity to get the thing passed that [U.S. Trade Representative] Mike Froman and several others in the bus had.  The president didn’t get involved nearly as much as I thought he could and should. 

Criticism of Mr. Obama’s leadership skills are nothing new.  Leon E. Panetta, the Democratic Party’s elder statesman who served as his second Pentagon chief, highlighted this inadequacy in a recent memoir, particularly what he calls the president’s “most conspicuous weakness” – “a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause.”  Obama, he added, sometimes lacks fire, preferring instead to rely “on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.”  As a result, Obama “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities.”

Just before the memoir’s release, a senior Obama administration official conceded Panetta’s point, acknowledging that the president’s leadership style was “much more that of the lawyer than the CEO.”  Too often, and on too many important policy issues, Obama conceived of the presidency as an exercise in thought leadership rather than the engine for the messy politicking a pluralist democracy requires.  As a Bloomberg View columnist summed up on Obama’s last day in office,

… to make policy work, you need politics. And politics is not about white papers. It is about making unsatisfactory deals and calling in favors from your friends, friends you usually made by helping them out with an unsatisfactory deal of their own. An intellectual approach to policy-making that tried to bypass those unseemly details, it turned out, didn’t necessarily result in good policy.

Obama’s frequent detachment from the policy process led to a huge disjuncture between his promise on shifting strategic focus to Asia – a region where the president once said “the action’s going to be” and “Here, we see the future” – and his actual accomplishments on this score.   Unveiled to much fanfare (here and here) in late 2011, the Obama administration placed great rhetorical emphasis on the Asian pivot.  In early 2013, Tom Donilon, the U.S. national Security advisor, proclaimed that “when it comes to the Asia-Pacific, the United States is ‘all in’.”  Later that year, his successor, Susan Rice, insisted the pivot was “a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.”  A few months before the administration’s term ended, she emphasized the president’s “profound commitment to the Asia Rebalance.”

But for all of these professions, Baucus states that the administration was never able to devise a coherent, sustainable policy for dealing with a rising China: “We’re much too ad hoc.  We don’t seem to have a long-term strategy, and that’s very much to our disadvantage.”

Indeed, many long questioned Obama’s determination to see through not only TPP’s implementation but also the buildup of military forces necessary to contest a more assertive China.  Just months before launching the pivot, he undermined his own credibility by signing into law the 2011 Budget Control Act and then did nothing in subsequent years to relieve the sharp pressures it imposed on the U.S. defense budget.  In March 2014, for example, the Pentagon’s acquisitions chief acknowledged that “Right now, the pivot is being looked at again, because candidly it can’t happen [due to budget pressures].”  At the same time, a Japanese official told the New York Times, “If there’s real rebalancing, it is hard to find.”  Even more trenchant, the newspaper also quotes a long-time Asia hand who worked in the first Obama administration as saying that pivot was “ill-conceived and bungled in its implementation.”

As a consequence of Mr. Obama’s failure to back up his rhetoric with the necessary fiscal resources, the U.S. military currently confronts a severe readiness deficit at a time when Chinese military strength is noticeably increasing.  The U.S. Navy was slated to play a central role in the pivot, yet two-thirds of its mainstay F/A-18 strike fighters are currently grounded due to lack of spare parts or maintenance backlogs.   Overall, more than half of the service’s aircraft inventory – including fighters, transport, patrol and reconnaissance planes as well as helicopters – are presently out of service.  The U.S. Army reports that only three of its 58 combat brigade teams are capable of immediate deployment, while the U.S. Air Force states that it is “now able to keep only half of our force at an acceptable level of readiness.”  Astoundingly, U.S. military leaders recently testified that President Obama never personally discussed this readiness crisis with them.

These problems have not gone unnoticed in Beijing.  A new Chinese navy internal assessment concludes that China has now secured military supremacy in the South China Sea and that the United States “lacks both the ability and will to engage in a military conflict or go to war with us.”

Nor has the situation escaped notice among long-time U.S. allies.  Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte, for example, stated last September that “China is now in power and they have military superiority in the region.”

And a recent Australian analysis concludes that “China now has the strategic initiative in South East Asia.”  It adds:

China now dominates militarily the central ASEAN region.  In times of peace and crisis, this military capability could be used to intimidate, bully or cajole regional states.  In times of limited regional war, China is now the odds-on favorite.

Donald Trump may well be hastening the day when American leadership in East Asia is eclipsed by China.  But if that were to happen, one should not lose sight of the previous president’s role.

UPDATE (March 29): A Financial Times article today reports:

Even some US officials privately acknowledge that China has won the battle for the South China Sea without firing a shot. In the annals of American decline, this episode will surely loom large….

….Much of the fault lies with Barack Obama, the former US president, and Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state.

An earlier version of this essay appears at Asia Sentinel.

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Mattis Shines a Poor Light on the Obama White House

800px-james_mattisMy previous post focused on the unnoticed irony involved in the appointment of James N. Mattis as President Trump’s Defense Secretary, given the Obama administration’s treatment of him when he was head of the U.S. Central Command.  But the Mattis story also underscores two other themes articulated in a number of earlier posts.  The first point regards the utter disingenuousness of President Obama’s once-regular threats to use military force to stop Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.  The second is about the dysfunctional character of the Obama national security process.

A recent Washington Post report about the relationship between General Mattis and the Obama White House emphasizes the overriding priority Mr. Obama put on reaching an accommodation with Iran over its atomic ambitions.  In the summer of 2011, Mattis proposed to undertake a military strike against Iran in retaliation for the causalities Tehran-backed militias were inflicting on U.S. forces in Iraq.  The plan reportedly prompted “heated discussions” in Washington that “stretched out for weeks” before it was ultimately rejected by President Obama.  As the newspaper notes, Mattis concluded from the episode that “Obama White House was unwilling to take the fight directly to the Iranians, even when they drew American blood.”

More ructions between Mattis and the White House soon followed.  A second “heated debate” took place during late 2011 and early 2012 when Mattis asked for contingent permission to take preemptive action against any Iranian attempt to mine the strategically-critical Strait of Hormuz.  As the Obama team began to engage in multilateral talks with Iran in the summer of 2012, Mattis further raised hackles by “relentlessly [drilling] the U.S. military’s war plan for Iran” and by emphasizing in his reports to Washington the destabilizing role Tehran was playing in the Middle East, including its support for terrorism.

By early 2013, tensions had grown such that Mattis was unceremoniously removed from his post.  Although the Obama administration did not present his ouster as a rebuke, Mattis is reportedly convinced that “he had been dismissed early for running afoul of the White House.” Dennis Ross, who was then Obama’s point person on Iran policy, is also quoted in the newspaper as saying:

It was a kind of culture clash.  There was such a preoccupation in the White House with not doing things that would provoke Iran or be seen as provocative. Mattis was, by definition, inclined toward doing those things that would be seen as provocative. And as time went by, this became increasingly less acceptable to them [emphasis added].

It is, of course, a president’s prerogative to choose his own military commanders and dictate the perimeters of their conduct.  But note the striking disjunction between what was going on behind the scenes with Mattis and what Mr. Obama was publicly saying in 2012.  In that year’s State of the Union address, the president stated that “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.”  In a media interview shortly afterwards, he emphasized that he was not bluffing about the military option and that “when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”  “I don’t bluff,” he emphatically insisted. Obama then followed this up with a hard-hitting address to the American Israel Political Action Committee, an influential lobbying group in Washington, stressing that “when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say.”

This blog has long been suspicious (see here and here) of the sincerity of the threats President Obama was making at this time about his willingness to undertake military action, if necessary, to curb Iran’s nuclear program.  The Washington Post report further reinforces these doubts.

The Mattis story also exemplifies a regular criticism made about the Obama policy-making process – that his national security inner team was not above squelching dissenting views or insulating him from unpalatable news.  Commenting on Mattis’s ouster from CENTCOM, Thomas E. Ricks, a defense journalist generally sympathetic to the administration, exclaimed at the time that “The message the Obama Administration is sending, intentionally or not, is that it doesn’t like tough, smart, skeptical generals who speak candidly to their civilian superiors.”

A number of previous posts (here, here, here and here) have detailed the Obama White House’s intolerance of critical advice, even when it came from inside the administration.  And the Washington Post article bolsters this point, quoting Leon E. Panetta, who was Defense Secretary at the time, as saying about the debate triggered by Mattis’s plans for retaliating against Iran:

There were clearly White House staff who thought the recommendations he was making were too aggressive.  But I thought a lot of that was, frankly, not having the maturity to look at all of the options that a president should look at in order to make the right decisions [emphasis added].

Senate Democrats heaped high praise on Mattis during his confirmation hearing because they saw his experience as something that will add stability and balance to the new Trump team.  But they showed no awareness that his story also illuminates the real deficiencies of President Obama’s national security policies.

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The Irony of the Mattis Appointment

800px-james_mattisThe easy confirmation of James N. Mattis as President Trump’s Defense Secretary entails no small amount of irony.  Senate Democrats perceive the retired Marine general as someone who will speak unvarnished truth to a new White House team they fear will try to insulate Mr. Trump from unpalatable news and disagreeable perspectives.  But left unremarked upon is that his earlier tenure as the head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, was cut short by the Obama administration for doing precisely that.

Read the full essay at Fair Observer.

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Obama’s Disinterest in Europe: An Update

bored-obama-3Two earlier posts (here and here) argued that President Barack Obama has largely been disinterested in America’s European allies.  Although this view attracted criticism from those insisting I exaggerated the case, evidence has continued to roll in buttressing my position.

The newest piece of proof comes courtesy of DC Leaks, a website that has posted materials purloined from, among others, the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.  Included in its collection are emails hacked from the personal Gmail account of General Philip Breedlove, who until recently served as NATO’s supreme military commander.

Two of Breedlove’s notes are particularly striking.  In the first, he writes to Colin Powell in September 2014, six months after Russia’s seizure of the Crimea peninsula, seeking the former U.S. Secretary of State’s assistance in re-energizing the Obama administration’s focus on European affairs.  Breedlove confides that “I do not see this [White House] as really ‘engaged’ on Europe/NATO.”

A second note in March 2015 concerns the extraordinary snub Mr. Obama had just delivered to Jens Stoltenberg, who months earlier had been appointed as NATO’s secretary general.  Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, all passed up a chance to confer with Stoltenberg during his visit to Washington even as Russian depredations against Ukraine continued.  According to a media report, Stoltenberg requested a meeting with Obama well in advance of the visit but never heard back from the White House.

Commenting on the incident, Breedlove laments to a friend that “This is a mess.  I do not understand our [White House].”

At a NATO summit two months ago, Obama declared that “in good times and in bad, Europe can count on the United States – always.”  But many of his actions have registered the opposite message, so much so that the chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee even blames the president for begetting Donald Trump’s skepticism of the NATO alliance.  (For a similar view by a U.S. foreign policy pundit, see here.)

Eight years ago, Mr. Obama won over European hearts by promising not to conduct himself like George W. Bush and the continent gratefully responded by awarding him a Nobel peace prize in the mere anticipation he would live up to his promise.  He has indeed been true to his word, though very much not in a way European leaders had hoped.  Reflecting on Obama’s legacy for U.S.-European relations, Ana Palacio, a former foreign minister of Spain, recently concluded that “the lasting impression that Barack Obama will leave us [Europeans] with is one of disenchantment.”

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Obama’s Intelligence Scandal: An Update

ImageAccording to news reports, a large group of intelligence analysts working at the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, have formally complained that their superiors altered assessments about the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in order to adhere more closely with the Obama administration’s public line that the military campaign against these groups is progressing well.  As I argued in a previous post, the emerging scandal exemplifies a long-running critique about Mr. Obama’s approach to foreign policy – that his national security inner team is excessively focused on the dictates of domestic politics and is not above squelching dissenting views.

The Daily Beast, which has taken the lead in breaking this story, now reports that the intelligence scandal has broader dimensions: Two senior analysts at CENTCOM, including the top expert on Syria, have been ousted from their positions due to their assessments casting doubt on the viability of the Obama administration’s plans to arm rebel groups fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime.

In a separate report, the publication also claims that the CENTCOM work environment has turned “toxic” and “hostile” as top officials there have created a culture of intimidation.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that the House intelligence committee, which is conducting its own investigation into the scandal, has complained that CENTCOM is deleting relevant documents and harassing analysts it wishes to interview.

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How Sincere were Obama’s Threats to Stop Iranian Nuclear Proliferation?

Jeffrey Goldberg’s detailed exposition in The Atlantic of Barack Obama’s foreign policy outlook has sparked a wave of media commentary as well as damage-limitation efforts by the White House.  Based on a series of far-reaching interviews with the U.S. president, the piece contains a number of fascinating revelations, including Obama’s high regard for his own decision-making ability and corresponding disdain for the leadership skills possessed by many of his counterparts on the world stage; his suspicion of Washington’s foreign policy cognoscenti who he believes adulate the idea of deterrence credibility and in any case reflect the interests of their Jewish and Arab benefactors; and his disregard for America’s traditional allies in Europe and the Middle East.  On this last point, Goldberg quotes Obama as saying “free riders aggravate me” – a sentiment that Donald Trump holds as well.

So far, however, the exegesis of Obama’s views has missed a fundamental issue: How can a president who makes plain his deep aversion to new strategic entanglements in the Middle East and believes (in Goldberg’s words) that the region “is no longer terribly important to American interests” also insist his earlier threats to use military force to stop Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons were entirely serious?

There is a gaping logical disconnect – nay, an outright contradiction – between these two tenets given that any military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure was bound to trigger even greater levels of regional violence and instability that Mr. Obama so obviously wants to keep at arm’s length.

Read the full essay at The Diplomat.

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