Shadow Government

The NSA Leaks Are Bad, but Syria Hurt U.S. Credibility More

For an administration that built its foreign policy strategy around "restoring our reputation abroad" (and the media that played along with that narrative), it is cause for alarm that European allies like Germany are now mad at us. Western European opinion, after all, was the evidence that academics, the New York Times, and the Democratic Congress used to illustrate America's declining reputation under Bush (never mind that the U.S. reputation in Asia and Africa generally went up in polling from 2001-2008, and in the Middle East has rapidly declined since Bush left office). This was the same mindset that led President Obama to give his global zero speech in Berlin instead of say, Tokyo or Jerusalem, which actually face the threat of nuclear armed missiles.

Now the media is lamenting Asian outrage over the NSA scandal. In the wake of reports in the Washington Post on joint U.S.-Australian collaboration to monitor Chinese and Southeast Asian communications, the Chinese government spokesman expressed "deep concern" (Beijing was shocked...shocked!), while the Indonesian Foreign Ministry called in the Australian Ambassador in Jakarta to protest this "violation of diplomatic norms." Google this latest round of Snowden leaks on Asia and you will find a dozen headlines that say something like "Outrage over NSA Spying Spreads to Asia."

And yet, what has struck me in numerous recent discussions with senior politicians and officials from East Asian allies is how little the NSA revelations come up in conversation. Our East Asian allies know that Henry Stimson ("gentlemen do not read other gentlemen's mail") is no longer Secretary of State. With a rising China and a nuclear armed North Korea, they have become quintessential realists and know how the game is played. What worries them much, much more than Snowden is Syria. It comes up in private conversation all the time. I have tried to explain that our "never mind" on Syria should not lead governments in Seoul or Tokyo to question the resolve of Americans to defend our allies against growing threats in East Asia. I have pointed to recent surveys showing that more Americans than ever say we should fight to protect Korea if it comes under attack from the North. And I have noted that despite the Asia pivot's drift in recent months, the U.S. military continues giving top priority to the region. 

We are fortunate to have Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, Park Geun-hye in Seoul, and Tony Abbott in Canberra. They are not going to give up on us as easily as the Saudis and other Gulf allies have over Syria and Iran policy. Nor are our friends in Southeast Asia, who express outrage over the NSA stories because they can, but keep American close as China rises because they must. But even though the NSA story dominates the headlines, the administration's prevarications over Syria continue to linger for the elites who drive national strategy in these countries.  Yes, they want to like us -- but they also need our enemies to fear us.

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Shadow Government

Abe Picks Up Obama's Fumble in East Asia

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intends for Japan to become the major power leading East Asia in the face of Chinese aggression, and China is responding. All of this is bad news for the United States, its regional allies and the world.

Abe is going down this path of "proactive pacifism" not because he is an atavistic shrine-visiting militarist (he is not), nor because he leads a country bent on war with China (it is not). It is simply because he governs a country that is unfortunately placed close to an assertive power that wants to alter the international system and reap more economic benefits from sea-bound minerals, and the erstwhile referee, the United States, has decided to lay low for eight years. If drone attacks can't solve a problem, the Obama administration is not interested in engagement, and drone attacks won't solve this dispute-cum-crisis.

Trouble has been brewing for over a year regarding the disputed sovereignty of the islands in the East China and South China Seas. China has been stepping up its maritime presence while declaring unilaterally its sovereignty over the islands. Moreover, China's ally North Korea continues to provoke in many ways, not least of which by hurling missiles over Japan and kidnapping Japanese nationals. The Japanese PM has had enough, announcing in parliament for the entire world to hear that "the ocean should be protected and the freedom to navigate must be protected." He said similar things the next day reviewing troops, and he is flexing his military's muscles.

These words are typically spoken by U.S. presidents when tensions are high because only the U.S. can say them with authority. But more importantly, only the U.S. can say them and mean them as a true balancer who intends only to keep the peace and keep the commerce flowing.  That is, no country in the region -- literally not one -- wants to see Japan try to solve U.S.-size problems. Nevertheless, we have come to a point in year five of the Obama administration that our militarily weak allies who have no regional, moral, political or diplomatic authority have to do our job against change agents. The reality of the danger the world faces from disputes and provocations that can get out of control does not depend on whether China's leaders are simply warmongers (I don't think they are) or the stewards of a dangerously slowing economy who perhaps fear that now is their last chance to break out of their perceived encirclement. 

It is simply a fact that the prime minister of Japan, no matter who he or she is, cannot tolerate a situation like the region faces today. The countries of the region -- friend, foe and whatever the term is for the in between -- have been waiting for five years to see the U.S. lead. All they have witnessed is the Obama "pivot" to Asia. But that was never a serious foreign policy measure because it was not predicated on a strategy comprised of careful calculation of the investment of resources to achieve specific goals. Rather, it was a way to say "we are doing something to attend to things that Bush didn't do." Japan and the rest know that, and so the one country with the economic might capable of developing a military that can challenge China is acting. Maybe Abe means really to do something; maybe he means just to get Obama's attention. Abe is certainly aware that Japan is not the leader desired by the region given its history as colonizer and pillager, and that makes his statements all the more likely to get our attention.

What does China think? While that question has never been easy to answer about any situation, we can speculate that some in the leadership, military types probably, want to break out of what they consider U.S. hegemony and the encirclement they believe we have engineered since Mao took over. And now is the time because they've never had a U.S. president be so reticent to lead and so willing to tolerate challenges to the international order. Perhaps other Chinese leaders -- those who are able to calculate economic realities -- secretly desire the U.S. to finally take up its responsibility and find a solution that saves face for all and prevents a crisis. It is all but certain that the other powers in the region share this desire.

With Obamacare floundering and Benghazi and the IRS scandals far from over, it is unfortunately very unlikely that the administration will engage. As I noted a few months back, this probably is only going to get worse.

Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images