The Shutdown Crew Takes a Big Bite Out of U.S. Geopolitics

A seagull walks on the edge of a reflecting pool near the United State Capitol on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Oct. 4,
A seagull walks on the edge of a reflecting pool near the United State Capitol on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Oct. 4, 2013. Efforts to resolve the government shutdown are at a standstill as President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner traded barbs and the Treasury warned of a dire risk to the economy ahead if politicians don't act. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Add this to the "accomplishments" of the far right government shutdown crew: Removing President Barack Obama from the board at a crucial geopolitical moment.

In contrast to a number of other geopolitical areas, especially of late, the Obama administration does have a coherent and concerted set of moves underway in the Asia-Pacific Pivot strategy, which Obama announced in November 2011. Significant progress has been made in developing alliances and laying the ground work for our big geopolitical pivot from fateful over-engagement with the Islamic world to heightened engagement with the rising Asia-Pacific (My Pivot archive here.)

As China claims sovereignty over nearly the entire South China Sea, one of the world's most strategically significant bodies of water, overawing its much smaller and weaker neighbors there, and pushes its claims in the East China Sea against Japan, much has been done to bring most countries in the region into alignment with the U.S., diplomatically, militarily, and economically.

Obama's latest trip to the Asia-Pacific was to provide some cherries on top for some new deals, move others forward, and establish him as a regular in Asian summitry, both at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit in Indonesia and the annual East Asia Summit in Brunei. You can be sure that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin won't be missing.

While negotiations continue on a Trans Pacific Partnership agreement on trade and investment that notably excludes China, much of the developmental work on the Asia-Pacific Pivot, which is to see the majority of U.S. military power shifted to the region, has been fronted by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. He's in the midst of yet another lengthy trip to the region, this time to South Korea and Japan, and has been joined by Secretary of State John Kerry. The secretary of state will represent the U.S. at the upcoming summits in Obama's absence. Why Kerry? Because the State Department is historically the highest ranking Cabinet department. (But you can bet that most countries prefer a visit from the secretary of defense, who controls a vastly larger apparatus.)

Before canceling his time at the summits in Indonesia and Brunei, Obama first canceled his trips to Malaysia and the Philippines. This was to have been Obama's very first trip to the Philippines, where I think he can be very popular.

The latter cancellation comes at an especially bad time, as the U.S. and Philippines are close to what are essentially new basing agreements for U.S. forces and Obama's presence would make the deal go down quite well with most of the Filipino people. Given America's imperial past in the colony it won during the Spanish-American War of 1898, and kept during a brutal war of suppression against Philippine rebels, America always has need of treading carefully in the Philippines, which became a close ally during World War II but later chafed at America's heavy military footprint.

Rather than simply re-establish the huge U.S.-branded permanent naval and air bases at Subic Bay and Clark Field, the U.S. is continuing the notion it hit upon earlier with Australia and Singapore of establishing an ongoing "rotational presence" at host country bases it happens to share while moving American units in and out on regular deployments.

It is different from the old way, yet it is much like the old way as well, which is why an Obama charm offensive makes it all go down much smoother.

That's just one aspect of the shuffle on new bases, which of course are key to keeping U.S. forces -- mainly Navy and Air Force, with some Marines sprinkled across the map for rapid deployment and Army units focused as they are on the Korean Peninsula -- forward deployed in the theater.

With Obama stuck in Washington dealing with the bizarre government shutdown, Kerry linked up with Hagel in Tokyo this week for a "2+2″ meeting with their Japanese counterparts. What came of that is a significant upgrade to the longstanding U.S.-Japan security treaty, involving new radar to keep an eye on North Korea, new drones to surveil the South China Sea and elsewhere in the Western Pacifiic, help from Japan in moving Marines from Okinawa to other parts of the Pacific, and more expansive patrolling.

I'm told there's more to come on this -- pertaining to major tensions with China in the East China Sea and the new Japanese administration's intention to make one of the planet's best armed forces more geared to expeditionary operations, in contravention of Japan's MacArthur-dictated constitution calling for "Self Defense Forces" only -- but perhaps not now with Obama absent.

Hagel began his latest major Asia-Pacific Pivot trip in South Korea, where he celebrated a key Korean War 60th anniversary and discussed shift of some command and control functions to the host country, which has wanted the U.S. to handle all that.

South Korea has developed a dependency because of the constant North Korean threat. North Korea has one of world's largest ground forces and rockets to devastate Seoul. The Korean Peninsula is somewhat atypical in the Asia-Pacific where distance creates a very different dynamic than we've experienced in the Middle East and Central Asia, and of course requires a much greater focus on naval forces. The Korean Peninsula, in contrast, is more like the Middle East where everything is jammed together and threats are more immediate and intimate.

This is why the Army is so important in Korea, whereas it's mobility-oriented services in the the Navy and Marines most everywhere else, with of course the Air Force very involved as well.

The right sort of attention from Obama can help smooth things with longstanding Korean allies, but not if he's absent.

And those are things I know about. There are undoubtedly other things that were in play for Obama.

This entire Obama trip was a major part of the Asia-Pacific Pivot strategy, putting a bright sheen on relationships and groundwork painstakingly spun up over the past year and more.

Not that the people behind this shutdown, mostly knee-jerk isolationists who imagine that the State Department is some mass dispenser of foreign aid, have any sense of such things. Nor, evidently, do elements of the two-dimensional conventional media which covers this stuff, as seen in this Politico piece. The writer has no sense of what is going on with the trip itself, treating it, complete with inane comments from an ex-Clinton White House press secretary, as some sort of junket.

The Chinese, alarmed by the Pivot, which they see as a set of moves to contain their rising power, know better.

For Beijing, this government shutdown is good. In fact, President Xi just undertook high-profile visits this week to Indonesia and Malaysia, countering the now absent Obama.

The US looks shaky, with an ever more dysfunctional government, increasingly unable to carry out its basic functions, much less comprehend and support a sophisticated global strategy.

As for the rule of law championed by the U.S., much to the irritation of Chinese leaders who see all the talk as a smokescreen for intervention in the American interest, no matter how wackily conceived, what's going on in Washington now looks like anything but the rule of law. What it looks like, one Chinese analyst said to me, is "a partial coup."

After all, this is all happening because one dominant faction in one political party which controls part of one branch of government is trying to block "Obamacare," something which has little to do with the basic fiscal decisions on the table.

It is trying to win through political blackmail what it lost when the controversial health care plan was passed by Congress and signed by the president, when the Supreme Court upheld the law as constitutional, and when Obama won the 2012 presidential election in which the law was a major issue.

For China's neighbors, the devil they know, closer, very rich and on the rise militarily, may be the more stable alternative. After all, they know that China's view of history is long view. Ours? Last decade.

And in his travel around the world as China builds global influence in its relentless rise to superpower status, President Xi isn't pinned down by the machinations of a minority of a minority.

Ironically, the minority of a minority which just slowed one of America's biggest bipartisan geopolitical moves is itself a declining minority. Even with its aficionados holding so much sway in the House of Representatives, a September 26th Gallup Poll survey finds national support for the far right Tea Party at its second lowest level ever, just 22 percent.

America is being judged by what's going on in the Washington clown show. The right-wing faction behind it is like the proverbial barking dog that catches the car -- no idea what to do now. And almost certainly no real grasp of the trouble it's causing.

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