Distractions and Confidence: The Rot of the Present vs. the Root in the Past

Let's assume that the unthinkable is avoided at the last minute thanks to the latest cobbled together "solution" on Capitol Hill. Much of the damage to America's image, its leadership posture in the world, if not the world economy, is already done.

Can it be that it's Washington itself which is the true distraction from a coherent national strategy?

The dreadful combination of hack politics and hardcore extremism which marks Beltway political culture spun up a far bigger distraction in itself than any of the multiple distractions that have so roiled geopolitical waters lately and distracted from the Asia-Pacific Pivot. Which moves ahead nonetheless.

Yep, bigger than the boneheaded insistence that the Benghazi disaster was the result of a protest gone sour. Bigger than the Snowden revelations. Bigger than the over-reaction to the Snowden revelations which angered much of the world and delivered the young leaker into the hands of Vladimir Putin. Bigger than the suddenly spun-up curiosity of the Syria crisis-as-latter-day-Cuban missile crisis. Bigger than yet again delivering a leading role to Putin in order to get out of the Syria mess. Bigger than canceling years-in-the-making Asia-Pacific summitry to deal with the Tea Party's latest brainstorm. Bigger than serving up undercooked special ops raids. Bigger than prompting the abduction of our ally, the Libyan prime minister. Bigger than suggesting that Africa is the new front in a global war that virtually no one actually wants.

Frankly, we look very bad, insular and dysfunctional. Worst of all, we look stupid.

Let's let our friends in China lay out with their studied glee how the shutdown debacle makes the notion of a stable Pax Americana a rather bad joke, dubbing it a failure on all fronts.
For in the big world beyond the vastly expensive Beltway sandbox of vicious political ping pong and hyper-partisan gamesmanship, China's official press agency is using the debacle to call for "a de-Americanized world."

Which points up the need for the Asia-Pacific Pivot, of course, which the PRC dislikes.

Which is not to say that the Chinese don't make some cogent points.

The official Chinese news agency, mouthpiece for the Chinese establishment, reporting to the Communist Party's Propaganda and Public Information Departments, urges the creation of a "de-Americanised world." The fate of the world's people should not be left, it declares, in the hands of a "hypocritical" and "dysfunctional" government in Washington.

The Xinhua news agency says US policy is marked by the killing of civilians, torture of prisoners not accused of any crimes, and a general purpose meddler in the affairs of other nations, as demonstrated again by thevery expansive National Security Agency surveillance programs.

Even America's economic preeminence is seen as evanescent.

"As US politicians of both political parties are still shuffling back and forth between the White House and the Capitol Hill without striking a viable deal to bring normality to the body politic they brag about, it is perhaps a good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanised world," the editorial said.

The supposed progenitor of a stable Pax Americana-backed global system keeps failing in melodramatic fashion to get its own house in order, Xinhua declares, threatening the very global order it seeks to enforce and calling into question massive international holdings, including, not coincidentally, those of China.

"The cyclical stagnation in Washington for a viable bipartisan solution over a federal budget and an approval for raising debt ceiling has again left many nations' tremendous dollar assets in jeopardy and the international community highly agonised," Xinhua acidly noted.

Well, the happy potential promise of last June's California summit between the US and China, set up to be something of a bonding experience between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, is in the rear view mirror, isn't it?

We are hopefully avoiding the very worst of matters, the sort of global crisis of confidence in American intelligence and competence that is the only distraction that might utterly derail matters in Asia and the Pacific. Because the Asia-Pacific Pivot -- a complex geopolitical shift for America from fateful over-involvement in the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to increased engagement with the rising Asia-Pacific -- is both a set of new ideas and a set of very old ones, having been launched by the far more clear-thinking Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt.

While East Coast elites fixate on Europe, admittedly a fascinating and important place, the dynamics of American history have moved the country in the other direction, heading west towards California's shore and beyond.

As America expanded across the continent, it became a continental power and developed a real army. As it became a major player in international trade, taking advantage of the Napoleonic Wars, it became a maritime power and developed a real navy.

The Adamses wanted a deep water navy to begin with, but Jefferson did not, instead seeking to avoid foreign entanglements and rely on coastal defense craft and forces. But, infuriated by the young country having to endure depredations against its merchant ships by the Muslim powers, of the Barbary Coast, for which the standing solution was to shell out a large fraction of the federal treasury in tribute payments, the Virginian changed his mind. Just as he prefigured America's coming expansionism with the Louisiana Purchase and the explorations of his young White House aide Meriwether Lewis and his associate William Clark, Jefferson launched America's first foreign wars, complete with the beginnings of a real navy and the country's first foreign invasion, spearheaded by US Marines (hence "from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.")

By the time the US had filled out much of the vast continental territories it took for itself, taken on a leading role in the industrial revolution, and sorted out its sick reliance on slavery, Theodore Roosevelt, the quintessential man of many parts (who would be run out of today's Republican Party on a rail), had arrived for his coming role on the global stage.

Working closely with the then new Naval War College in picturesque Newport, Rhode Island, Roosevelt, who first made his mark as a young naval historian writing about the War of 1812, cashed in his political chips on a post as the assistant secretary of the Navy, which was then the number two post in the entire Department of the Navy, an entity including the Marine Corps and in pre-Pentagon days one of the most senior departments in the US government. Much of subsequent American history flowed rather fatefully from there. (I'll lay all this out in detail in another piece dealing with the Presidents Roosevelt.)

His young cousin Franklin, another navalist who hero-worshiped the Rough Rider/Progressive president, determined to take the same exact post -- assistant secretary of the Navy -- which he held from the run-up to World War I to its aftermath. Like the TR, FDR had a big vision for America in the Asia-Pacific. But he knew that the rise of Hitler was even more dangerous for the world than the rise of Japanese fascism, and, even as he carefully maneuvered in the Pacific in the 1930s -- all the while at the helm of a profoundly isolationist country from far right to far left -- determined that when war came with Japan and Germany that for the first few years of the conflict, only 15% of American resources could be devoted to the Pacific.

In this, he took heart from endless wargaming at the Naval War College, of which America's great commander of the Pacific War, Admiral Chester Nimitz, declared: "The war with Japan had been enacted in the game rooms at the War College by so many people and in so many different ways that nothing that happened during the war was a surprise--absolutely nothing except the kamikaze tactics toward the end of the war. We had not visualized these."

So even though the Pearl Harbor attack found US forces in deep disarray, enough thinking had been done to prepare for bad scenarios.

Why all the Asia-Pacific scenario work in the two Roosevelt presidencies. Because both Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt identified the region as central to America's future. As it is today.

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