Obama's Hard Calls: South China Sea, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, Ukraine and Russia

As he comes to grips with his failed escalations in Afghanistan and Syria, President Barack Obama should nevertheless respond to China's escalations in the South China Sea. Fortunately, all it requires is that he direct the U.S. Navy to sail where it has legally sailed for more than a century.

In the past week, Obama has had to acknowledge the failure of both his 2009 surge of US troops into Afghanistan and of a ballyhooed scheme to train up and equip the elusive "moderate" rebels in the Syrian civil war. As a result of the failure of the Afghan surge -- made obvious once again by the momentary Taliban capture of a key regional capital -- Obama is keeping a residual force of 5,500 troops in 2017 to continue to try training up the woeful Afghan national army and to conduct counter-terorrist operations.

And so Obama won't be able to leave office in 15 months having ended the Afghan War with a win and the Iraq War with whatever we were going to call a result that left a pro-Iranian regime, in part handpicked by the Bush/Cheney White House, ruling a rump state from Baghdad.

Ironically, Obama is ending up in Afghanistan where he could have been with vastly less expense in treasure and blood back in 2009, with a very small US force in place to help the Kabul government run part of Afghanistan and to be ready to strike if terrorists threatening America should by chance show up again in Afghanistan to re-establish their bases there. Which was, of course, the only good rationale for going into a country the internal governance of which is largely irrelevant to our interests.

In Syria, matters are more comical than ironical. The Pentagon's program to identify and train moderate rebels for the fight against the Assad regime had, after the prompt defection of dozens of such "moderates" to Syrian jihadists, produced only a handful of new fighters in the field. There they joined fighters who may or may not be moderates, though some were trained by the CIA.

What remains of the latest Saudi-prompted US venture into the murky waters of Syrian politics has morphed into a scheme to train existing Syrian rebels as ground controllers for air strikes against not the Assad regime but Isis. US air cover is promised for these worthies, who presumably needn't worry too much about coming under attack from the new Russian forces in Syria since they won't be fighting against Moscow's longtime ally Assad anymore.

Which is about as clear as the Obama administration can get in the wake of this Syrian debacle.

How the multi-dimensional Syrian mess plays out -- with the Iraqi government discussing having its new intelligence partner Russia conduct anti-Isis air strikes within its sagging borders as well -- is very much in flux.

Russian forces have entered the conflicts in Syria against both the arguably more moderate anti-Assad rebels and Isis in a big way. They're providing air and missile strikes -- including show-off cruise missile strikes from ships more than a thousand miles away in the Caspian Sea -- both to aid Assad regime forces in current fighting and to pave the way for what looks like a coming offensive by Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, and Iranian troops. A senior Iranian general was killed in fighting inside Syria earlier this month. More to the point, General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the elite Iranian Quds Force, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the summer in Moscow to discuss plans.

Given Russia's aggressiveness, joined with that of Iran, talk of imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, which Obama never embraced but which has been spun up by Republicans, the Saudis, and Hillary Clinton is simply non-serious.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin, after getting a friendly victor's champagne spray from Formula One world champion driver Lewis Hamilton, used last week's occasion of the inaugural Russian Grand Prix in Sochi to meet with the Saudi defense minister, a principal in a brewing internal power struggle amongst the Saudi royal family.

For all the hard work of American diplomats in getting Western European nations to go along with sanctions against Russia for its Ukrainian intervention following the US-supported regime change in Kiev, there has been little to no impact on Russia's moves. What has really hurt oil-rich Russia is the Saudi-sanctioned drop in world oil prices, down some 60 percent since June 2014, with most of that move in the first few months.

Not that that has succeeded, either, in dissuading Russia from its course of establishing a de facto eastern Ukrainian buffer zone between itself and what it has long decried as NATO encroachment extending to a country just a few hundred miles from Moscow.

What Putin is doing in Ukraine sure ain't pretty. But, if you understand Russian history, it sure is predictable.

Which is why media innuendo about the July 2014 shoot-down of a Malaysian jetliner flying over Ukraine might help spin up a new cold war but does little to illuminate. A new report revealed what was already fairly well-known, that the missile in question was of Russian manufacture but long retired from Russian inventory. Missiles like that are available in secondary markets like so many Salvador Dali prints.

Putin is a very smart intelligence professional, not, contrary to what Hillary implied last year at UCLA, a Hitlerian mad man. Any planned involvement with the shoot-down would clearly hurt Russia. What's more likely is that it was done either mistakenly by pro-Russian separatists or by design by anti-Russian forces seeking a macabre propaganda boost.

In comparison to all these centers of intrigue, the situation in the South China Sea is much clearer. With the US pinned down by its mostly foolish post-9/11 wars, China has taken advantage by sharply ramping up its military spending and by pressing claims to little islands throughout the South China Sea claimed by some of its much smaller neighbors, establishing military bases on some. It has also claimed sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea itself. China refuses mediation over its island claims and refuses multilateral negotiations, instead insisting on bilateral talks in which it easy overawes each opposing claimant.

The US position on China's claims to the islands, most of which are closer to its neighbors, is that the disputes must be worked out in international venues China cannot dominate. The US position on China's claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea itself is that it is absurd on its face.

Notwithstanding cyber-age hype, 90 percent of the world's goods are transported by sea. One-third of that trade crosses the South China Sea, which is also a repository of vast fisheries and energy reserves. It's one of the most strategic bodies of water on a planet dominated by its bodies of water. China has upped the ante there by building artificial islands and upgrading others, placing garrisons and air bases on them.

The US position is most in accord with international norms and notions of fair play. It is also, naturally, most in accord with US national interests.

This is a water world. Some 70 percent of Earth is covered by oceans.

It is very much in our interest to guarantee free-flowing maritime commerce and open access to the oceans and what lies beneath. America is a maritime nation and a bulwark of the international trading system.

Until such time as we are finally weaned off fossil fuels and have Star Trek-like replicators, we must be sure that the principal seaways and key waterways remain open.

This is why the President Roosevelt who made America a great power and the President Roosevelt who made America a superpower were both navalists. (For each man, serving as assistant secretary of the Navy was the cornerstone of his career.)

For centuries, the Royal Navy guaranteed the flow of commerce on the world's oceans. That's what made little old England Great Britain, the world's greatest power. It certainly wasn't through pursuing a lot of big land wars, which the Brits generally contrived either to avoid or to have others fighting for or alongside them. (Washington really has produced some of the dumbest imperialists in history over the past 50 years.) Since World War II, the U.S. Navy has taken the place of the Royal Navy as worldwide guarantor of maritime access and commerce.

If Obama understands at all the true imperatives of American power, and I think he does, given his hoped for Asia-Pacific Pivot, he will move to demonstrate the unreasonableness and absurdity of China's claims. While the US has scoffed at China's claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea, operating its ships throughout the sea without consulting Beijing, it has not yet sailed American ships within the customary 12-mile zone of territoriality around the claimed islands, though that has been contemplated.

It's time to do that now.

Obama had his Washington summit and White House state dinner for President Xi Jinping last month. Not much came of it beyond a further iteration of the agreement that China will at last cut its greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, Xi was defiant about Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea region.

It's time to subtly yet forcefully remind China of the international rules of the road on this largely aquatic planet.

Because of its wealth, notwithstanding recent woes around its secretive economy, many frequently kow-tow to Chinese interests, pointedly ignoring severe civil liberties and environmental problems in what is still a highly authoritarian society. Objectionable as much of that is, it's also an internal matter. What happens in the South China Sea is decidedly not.

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