The Empire’s New Asian Clothes – America’s Strategic Rebalance As Covert Retreat

Yves here. This article provides perspective on Obama’s unseemly anxiety to push through the toxic trade deal known as the TransPacific Partnership. We’ve chronicled at some length how this is not in fact a “trade” deal but is designed to make the world safer and more profitable for US multinationals by strengthening intellectual property protections (helping Big Pharma, Hollywood, and technology firms) while providing for enhancement of the rights of foreign investors to bring cases against governments in secret arbitration panels for measures that would reduce expected profits. The effect of these investor provisions is to allow foreign companies to challenge labor protections and environmental and product safety regulations, facilitating a race to the bottom.

Fortunately, word about the implications of this pact and its sister, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, is getting out. Not only is there large-scale opposition among House Democrats, but today, conservative Republicans announced their opposition to what they call “Obamatrade,” even as Obama plans to make another push for the TPP in his State of the Union address this evening.

But another reason for the TPP is that it is a crucial part of Obama’s “pivot to Asia” strategy. One of its aims is to isolate China by creating a trade bloc that excludes the Middle Kingdom. The article below helps explain why using non-military means to reinforce the US hegemony is even more important now.

By John Feffer, the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies and the author of several books, including Crusade 2.0, and is currently writing a book about Eastern Europe 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Originally posted at TomDistpach

In a future update of The Devil’s Dictionary, the famed Ambrose Bierce dissection of the linguistic hypocrisies of modern life, a single word will accompany the entry for “Pacific pivot”: retreat.

It might seem a strange way to characterize the Obama administration’s energetic attempt to reorient its foreign and military policy toward Asia. After all, the president’s team has insisted that the Pacific pivot will be a forceful reassertion of American power in a strategic part of the world and a deliberate reassurance to our allies that we have their backs vis-à-vis China.

Indeed, sometimes the pivot seems like little less than a panacea for all that ails U.S. foreign policy. Upset about the fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan? Then just light out for more pacific waters.  Worried that our adversaries are all melting away and the Pentagon has lost its raison d’être? Then how about going toe to toe with China, the only conceivable future superpower on the horizon these days. And if you’re concerned about the state of the U.S. economy, then the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the regional free-trade deal Washington is trying to negotiate, might be just the shot in the arm that U.S. corporations crave.

In reality, however, the “strategic rebalancing” the Obama administration has been promoting as a mid-course correction to its foreign policy remains strong on rhetoric and remarkably weak on content. Think of it as a clever fiction for whose promotion many audiences are willing to suspend their disbelief. After all, in the upcoming era of Pentagon belt-tightening and domestic public backlash, Washington is likely to find it difficult to move any significant extra resources into Asia. Even the TPP is an acknowledgment of how much economic ground in the region has been lost to China.

There’s also the longer arc of history to consider. The U.S. retreat from Asia has been underway since the 1970s, although this “strategic movement to the rear” — as the famous military euphemism goes — has been neither rapid nor accompanied by “mission accomplished” photo ops.

The administration’s much-vaunted pivot looks ever more like a divot — a swing, a miss, and a hole in the ground rather than anything approaching a hole-in-one.

The Slowly Shrinking Footprint

During the Cold War, the United States fought more battles and shed more blood in Asia than anywhere else on Earth. From 1950 to 1953, under a U.N. flag, U.S. forces struggled for control of the Korean peninsula, ending up without a peace treaty and with a stalemate at roughly the same dividing line where the war began. At one point, as the Vietnam War expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, U.S. troop levels in Asia swelled to more than 800,000.

Since the disastrous end of that war, however, Washington has been very slowly and fitfully retreating from the region. U.S. military personnel there have by now dropped under 100,000. The low point was arguably during the George W. Bush years when the U.S. military sank into the quicksand of Iraq and Afghanistan, and critics began to accuse his administration of “losing Asia” to a rising China.

Looking at the numbers, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Washington’s attention had indeed drifted from the Pacific. Consider Korea. Peace has hardly broken out on the peninsula. In fact, the North’s nuclear weapons and the South’s extensive military modernization have only had the effect of heightening tensions.

The United States, however, has repeatedly reduced both the size and the significance of its forces in South Korea in a process of punctuated devolution. On three occasions over the last 45 years, Washington has unilaterally withdrawn forces from the peninsula — each time over the objections of the South Korean government. There were nearly 70,000 U.S. troops in South Korea in the early 1970s when the Nixon administration first recalled an entire division of 20,000 troops. Later, the Carter administration, initially keen to withdraw all U.S. forces, settled for another limited reduction. In 1991, in response to the collapse of Communism in much of the world (but not North Korea), the George H.W. Bush administration unilaterally withdrew tactical nuclear weapons from the peninsula.

In the twenty-first century, the U.S. military footprint shrank yet again from approximately 37,000 troops to the current level of 28,500, this time thanks to negotiations between Washington and Seoul. (A small contingent of 800 troops has just been dispatched to South Korea to send a signal of U.S. “resolve” to the North, but it’s only for a nine-month rotation.) In addition, the American troops near the de-militarized zone that separates north from south, long meant as a “tripwire” that would ensure U.S. involvement in any future war between the two countries, are being relocated further south. However, Pentagon officials have recently hinted at leaving behind a residual force. The two countries are still negotiating the transfer of what, six decades after the Korean War ended, is still referred to as “wartime operational control,” a long overdue step. The reduction of forces has been accompanied by the closure and consolidation of U.S. bases, including the massive Yongsan garrison in the middle of the South Korean capital, Seoul. It will revert entirely to Korean control over the next few years.

It’s not just Korea where the U.S. “footprint” is shrinking. A quieter set of redeployments has reduced U.S. ground forces in Japan, too, from approximately 46,000 personnel in 1990 to the 38,000-strong contingent today. Even larger changes are underway.

In 2000, on a visit to Okinawa, Japan’s southern-most prefecture, President Bill Clinton promised to shrink the staggering American military footprint on that island. At the time, Okinawans were furious over a series of murders and rapes committed by U.S. soldiers as well as military-related accidents that had claimed Okinawan lives and health threats from various kinds of pollution generated by more than 30 U.S. bases. Ever since, Washington has been pursuing a plan to close the Futenma Marine Air Force Base — an old facility dangerously located in the middle of a modern city — and build a replacement elsewhere on the island. That plan also involves the relocation of 9,000 Marines from the island to U.S. bases elsewhere in the Pacific. If it goes forward, U.S. forces in Japan will be reduced by up to 25%.

Elsewhere in Asia, under pressure from local activists, the United States closed two military bases in the Philippines in 1991, withdrawing nearly 15,000 personnel from the country and replacing a permanent basing arrangement with a more modest “visiting forces agreement.” In recent years, Washington has negotiated “cooperation agreements” with various countries in the region, including its former foe Vietnam, but hasn’t built any significant new bases. Aside from forces in Japan and South Korea, and personnel aboard ships and submarines, the U.S. military presence in the rest of the region is negligible.

Of course, a reduction of personnel and the closure of bases are not necessarily indicators of retreat. After all, the Pentagon has been focusing on a transition to a more flexible fighting posture, deemphasizing fixed positions in favor of lighter rapid-response units.  Meanwhile, the modernization of U.S. forces has meant that its firepower has increased even if its Pacific footprint has decreased. In addition, the United States has emphasized Special Operations forces deployments as part of anti-terror operations in places like the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia, while pushing ahead with several tiers of ballistic missile defense in the region. All of these policies preceded the pivot.

Nonetheless, the trend line since the 1970s is clear enough. Even as their capabilities were being upgraded, U.S. forces were also slowly moving to an over-the-horizon posture in Asia, with bases in Guam and Hawaii gaining importance as those in Korea and Japan were quietly downgraded. As it has given up ground, Washington has also pressured its allies to pay more to support its forces based on their territories, buy ever more expensive American weapons systems, and build up their own militaries. As it once sought to “Vietnamize” and “Iraqize” the military forces in countries from which it was withdrawing troops, the United States has been engaged in its own slow-motion “Asianization” of the Pacific.

The Non-Existent Pivot

The Pacific pivot has been billed as a way to halt this drift and reinforce the U.S. position as a player in Asia. So far, however, this highly touted “rebalancing” has essentially been a shell game, involving not a substantial build-up, but a shifting around of American forces in Asia.

This shell game has involved, among other elements, the contingent of 18,000 Marines at that base in Futenma. For more than 15 years, Washington and Tokyo have failed to come to an agreement on closing the decrepit base and building a replacement facility. The vast majority of Okinawans still reject any new base construction, which would damage the area’s fragile ecosystem.  In addition, the island already houses more than 70% of all U.S. bases in Japan, and its residents are tired of the collateral damage that U.S. service personnel inflict on host communities.

Sooner or later, about 5,000 of those Marines are to be transferred to an expanded facility on the U.S. island of Guam, a huge construction project underwritten by the Japanese government. Another 2,700 are slated to go to Hawaii. Up to 2,500 will rotate through an expanded Royal Australian Air Force base in Darwin.

About 8,000 to 10,000 Marines are supposed to remain in Okinawa — or, at least, Washington and Tokyo would like them to remain there. But that depends on the latest round of negotiations. At the end of December, Okinawan Governor Hirokazu Nakaima reversed his position against building a new base, thanks in part to 300 billion yen a year that Tokyo promised to inject into the Okinawan economy over the next eight years.

But it’s far from a done deal. In elections this month in the town of Nago, which has jurisdiction over Henoko where the new base is to be built, Mayor Susumu Inamine won a second term after pledging to continue his opposition to the proposed construction. Turnout was high, and so was Inamine’s victory margin — despite a promise from the conservative ruling party to provide an additional 50 billion yen to Nago if residents rejected the incumbent. Civic groups, meanwhile, continue to try to tie the project up in court.

Beyond shuffling Marines around the Pacific, what else does the pivot consist of? Not much. Four new Littoral Combat Ships are being sent to Singapore to beef up patrols in the region. A small-scale gesture to begin with, that experimental vessel, which has experienced serious cost overruns, is a clunker. The first ship to reach Singapore had to return to port after a mere eight hours on the water, the latest in a series of problems that have prompted a congressional inquiry into the program’s viability.

The Pentagon has emphasized the importance of a planned readjustment of the balance of the U.S. fleet globally. Currently, the ratio of Pacific to non-Pacific ship deployments is 50-50. In the years to come, that may shift to 60-40 in favor of the Pacific. But ratios don’t mean much if the overall size of the U.S. fleet goes south. The Navy recently submitted a plan to build up fleet size from its current 285 ships to 306 over the next 30 years. But that plan is based on the rosiest of imagined future budget allocations: one-third higher than those the service has received over recent decades. A more likely scenario, in an age of belt-tightening, is a reduction of the fleet to 250 ships or fewer as more are decommissioned than added yearly.

In air power, too, the pivot comes up short, given what the United States already deploys in the region. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Auslin testified before Congress this past summer, “The U.S. Air Force already rotates F-22s, B-52s, and B-2s throughout the region, primarily in Guam and Okinawa, and there are few more planes that can be sent on a regular basis.”

It’s true that Washington is pushing its new F-35 jet fighter — Japan has already promised to buy 28 of them — but pity our poor allies. The most expensive weapon system in history, the plane has 719 problems, according to a report by the Pentagon’s own inspector general. That’s a lot of problems for a weapons system that costs nearly $200 million a pop (almost $300 million in some versions).

Much of the Pentagon’s future in Asia has been focused on “Air-Sea Battle,” a joint Navy-Air Force integrated plan that made its debut in 2010 with the specific aim of denying adversaries (read: China) access to the seas and skies of the region. The Army, finding itself essentially left out, has put forward its own “Pacific Pathways” initiative, which aims to transform a largely land-based force into a maritime expeditionary force, potentially bringing it into direct competition with the Marines.

However, Washington’s Pacific allies shouldn’t expect much from it. The program is really no more than an effort to stanch the hemorrhaging of Army personnel, already slated for a 10% drop in strength over the next few years — with signs of more shrinkage ahead. As political scientist Andrew Bacevich writes, “Pacific Pathways envisions relatively small elements milling about the Far East so that whatever happens, whether act of God or act of evil-doers, the service won’t be left out.”

While the pivot may not add up to much, one thing is certain: it will cost money, even with allied contributions factored in. For instance, the expansion of the Guam base is now priced at $8.6 billion (or more), with only about $3 billion of that picked up by Tokyo. The overall cost for the relocation of the Marines, the Pentagon estimates, is likely to be $12 billion. And even that is undoubtedly a lowball figure, according to the Government Accountability Office, which estimates the move to Guam alone at as much as double that sum. No surprise, then, that the Senate — in a mood of unusual bipartisan agreement — has balked at the price tag.

The simple truth is that the Pentagon is no longer going to have the same kind of loot to throw around as it did in the go-go days of the last decade. If merely moving forces around the Pacific costs so much, it’s hardly likely that outlays for major new deployments will make it past Congress. And this doesn’t even take into account the inevitable tax revolt of the Japanese, Korean, and Australian publics when the bills for their own “contributions” start coming in.

Why Asia, Why Now?

Even if the Pacific pivot is more smoke than firepower, the United States is hardly a paper tiger in Asia. It remains by far the most powerful military actor in the region. Aircraft carriers, destroyers, fighter jets, and nuclear subs all mean that the United States can throw its weight around when necessary.

But perception means a great deal in geopolitics and right now China is winning the perceptions game. Beijing is flush with money and has been using its considerable foreign exchange surpluses to win favor with countries in the region (even as it undercuts some of that good will with its territorial claims and military actions). In 2010, it teamed up with its Southeast Asian neighbors to form a free-trade zone large enough to compete favorably with Europe and North America.

Although China won’t have power projection capabilities even remotely comparable to the United States in the foreseeable future, double digit military spending over the last decade has closed the gap with Japan and Korea. Tensions in the region have increased — over disputed islands between Japan and China, around the potentially oil-rich South China Sea, and in airspace as well after China unilaterally established its own “air defense identification zone” in November that covers the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

China’s muscle flexing is about the only thing that could turn the Pacific pivot into something real. Countries that were once ambivalent about the U.S. military presence — such as Vietnam or the Philippines — are eagerly putting out the welcome mat for American forces. Japan is using the “China threat” to further water down its “peace constitution” and ratchet up cooperation with the Pentagon. And the United States is eagerly stitching together its various bilateral relationships — from India to Australia to Korea — into a cloak of containment to stifle China’s rise.

Even without much meat on its bones, the Pacific realignment “works” so far because so many disparate actors find it useful to believe in. For China, it provides a convenient rationale for buying or building new weapons systems to deny the United States complete control over air and sea. For U.S. allies, the pivot offers an additional insurance policy that requires them to pay premiums in the form of building up their own militaries. In the United States, hawks rejoice at a Rambo-like return to Asia, while doves bemoan the inherent militarism of the new policy. The Pentagon sees more basing options; arms manufacturers see more lucrative contracts; other U.S. corporations see greater access to overseas markets through the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

However, one major Asian reality has to be taken into account when considering Washington’s increased focus on and interest in the Pacific: not since the end of World War II has the United States been able to impose its will on the region. It had to make do with a stalemate in the Korean War; it lost the Vietnam War; and it hasn’t been able to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. It can’t even stop allies Japan and South Korea from quarrelling over the ownership of a tiny outcropping of rocks that lies midway between the two countries. And the U.S. economic relationship with China — a codependency grounded in overproduction and overconsumption — is a brake on U.S. unilateralism in the region.

In an age of economic austerity and policy coordination with China, the Pacific pivot amounts to a complicated dance in which the United States steps backward as we propel our allies forward. It might seem a penny-wise way of sharing the security burden, but the realignment is still woefully expensive. And “Asianizing” the Pacific through arms exports and visiting forces agreements only helps to fuel what has emerged as the most significant arms race in the world today.

The lumbering aircraft carrier known as the United States should be executing a pivot that lives up to its name: a shift from the martial to the pacific. Instead, it’s just roiling the waters and leaving instability in its wake.

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  1. James Levy

    American strategic thinking, if you can call it that, is bankrupt. The United States is the richest and most powerful country in the world. That is unlikely to change any time soon. But the halcyon days from the point of view of the American Imperial Project starting in 1943 are over. The US simply must, but psychologically cannot, live with the fact that it is first among equals and get itself some diplomats and stop thumping its foot and waving its fist.

    The US has not fought a country that could effectively fight back since it bugged out of Vietnam in 1973. It isn’t going to do so in the future. Military forces can still draw lines that say “keep of the grass”, but their offensive viability is certainly in question. Alas, the game must be played to its conclusion, when Washington is too broke or ecologically crippled to keep this nonsense going forward.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      “if you can call it that, is bankrupt.”

      American strategic thinking ended after the Louisiana Purchase; although one might argue the Mexican War was a ploy to prepare for future secession by providing Pacific access for the Southern states. Thats a kind of strategic thinking. The rest has just been a hodge podge of actors with the occasional wacky President making reckless moves. FDR wasn’t terrible. Unlike his successors, he understood Russians (Stalin was Georgian, but its close enough) have an inferiority complex and can easily be brought along if one is calm and persistent.

      1. vlade

        “Unlike his successors, he understood Russians (Stalin was Georgian, but its close enough) have an inferiority complex and can easily be brought along if one is calm and persistent.”

        Good grief. I don’t know what else to say unless you’re ironic.

      2. Nathanael

        Wilson certainly had strategic thinking (redrawing the map of Europe and all that). I would go so fart as to say that FDR did.

        After that, not so much. “Shoot self in foot” seems to have been the function of the US military since then.

    2. Banger

      I think the old-fashioned bombers and tanks military is being replaced by a new military of what is called special operations, drones and robots. The national security state has the ability now, that will remain in place despite noises to the contrary, to monitor global communications and spy on everyone in the world through various combinations of technologies. This uber-state will continue to make its presence felt by being able to kill, torture anyone on earth. Either through calling the Navy Seals or using hit-men/women to accomplish political assassinations. This ability to spy on everyone will also be used to economic advantage to fund covert/black operations or increasing size as well as make a lot of intel consultants very, very rich.

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        This is the Rumsfeldian plan, but It’s dependent on forward bases and countries incapable of electronic warfare. The pivot to Iraq and the drive for drones in as many places as possible is based on understanding these new wonder weapons can’t counter soldiers and disciplined forces. Look at the US trained militias in Iraq. Certainly the Iraq is aren’t NATO grade, but they seem to be having issues despite weaponry advantages.

        I saw a line by some general with a pretty important post of the non political variety, and despite the element of hyperbole, he estimated that a US Russe war would take 48 hours before they were rushing to put 50s era tanks into service as modern and untested weapon systems failed.

        1. Banger

          During the Cold War, particularly towards the end, many planners believed that if the Soviets pushed “the button” nothing or very little would happen–I’m not speculating here I have it direct from someone on the inside–not that they wanted to take that chance but that idea figured into their calculations of what would happen in a nuclear exchange.

    3. ex-PFC Chuck

      “American strategic thinking, if you can call it that, is bankrupt.”

      It’s not that the thinking has always been bankrupt, although most of it has been. Rather it’s that the establishment has been unable or unwilling to accept and act on the ideas brought to them by those few who had something worthwhile to offer. Case in point, the late USAF Colonel John Boyd.

      The breadth and depth of Boyd’s accomplishments are awe-inspiring: arguably the best fighter combat pilot of his era; developer the energy-mobility theory of fighter combat that explained and systematized the “right stuff;” drove the design of the F-16 which is by far the most cost-effective USAF fighter ever, and drove its procurement over the opposition of the USAF brass by applying the principles of combat he had derived from his fighter experience to the arena of bureaucratic combat; and at the end of his uniformed career forcing his home service, against all its instincts, to face up to the need to cancel the B-1 bomber program because of cost overruns and performance shortfalls. (The B-1 was later resuscitated during the Reagan era, thus proving the viability of the concept of “political engineering” which it pioneered and which plagues defense procurement to this day. But that’s another story.)

      Boyd’s most significant work, however, came after he had “retired.” He did not sign on with a defense contractor or lobbying firm to become a Beltway Bandit. He couldn’t have gotten such a job offer in any case, since he had pissed so many people off throughout the defense establishment. Even today, nearly 40 years after his retirement from uniformed service and 17 years after his death, his name and legacy are radioactive, especially in his home service. There were, however, a few senior people there who recognized his abilities and were willing to retain him as an independent consultant on various matters. This allowed him to retain his security clearances and to keep poking in to soft spots. It was during this period that Boyd greatly increased his focus on the broader issues of war and peace. His thinking is documented in pre-Powerpoint slides that supported presentations he made to audiences within the establishment. Slide sets and videos of some Boyd presentations are now available on the internet; here’s one such site: Here’s another:

      As a brief example of John Boyd’s work here is a set of yardsticks he proposed for use in evaluating the appropriateness of a nation’s grand strategy. He presented it several ways as his ideas evolved. I think it makes the most sense when viewed as one overarching guideline and five supporting ones:

      * Ensure the nation’s fitness, as an organic whole, to shape and cope with the ever-changing environment of which it is a part

      * Strengthen national resolve and increase the nation’s internal political solidarity.
      * Weaken the resolve of the nation’s adversaries and reduce their internal cohesion.
      * Reinforce the commitments of our allies to our cause and make them empathetic to our success.
      * Attract the uncommitted to our cause.
      * End conflicts on terms that do not sow the seeds for future conflicts.

      Much of what this country has done since the end of World War II, and especially since 1989, has been in direct opposition to these principles.

      1. Nathanael

        Boyd seems to have followed in the tradition of Sherman and Grant. That’s not acceptable in the modern military, which exists for the purpose of enriching military contractors, or “merchants of death” as they used to be called.

        1. ex-PFC Chuck

          During his career Boyd kept an eye out for young officers and civil servants who were able and who had demonstrated the potential for the integrity and strength of character to stand up for what’s right. In his biography of Boyd, Robert Coram describes his pitch as follows:

          “… one day you will come to a fork in the road…. And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go…. If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments…. Or you go that [the other] way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference…. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?” p 285-286 (italics in the original)

          Chet Richards, an Air Force officer who was one of those recruits and is still active in the Military Reform Movement Boyd started, has said that the service now has procedures that deliberately weed out such officers. Such is the devolution of our armed services.

      2. susan the other

        Last nite Obama said our military objective in future would be not to go to war but to “spread democracy”. That is our time honored national goal. And our national myth, which justifies using military force to promote what is currently known as “free trade.” This has been our economic/political objective since WW2. But no matter how sane and clear-headed our military is, it cannot overcome the contradictions in the economic model, aka “democracy” we are trying to export; the corpocracy. And now it seems we are pushing an uber-estate based on supra national merchants. Ultimately this really means the supra nationals will have to come up with their own private militaries. The whole rationale is chaotic because the underlying economics is unrealistic. And now add to this the imperative of global warming, which is that there will not be a growth model in future to drive economies forward. And the age old reality that we can’t all trade our way to wealth and prosperity at the same time. The military is crashing up against a political refusal to face economic reality. The above quote says it all where China is concerned: “…(we are in) a codependency grounded on overproduction and overconsumption…” No?

      3. ex-PFC Chuck

        For those interested you can learn more about the man in Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, a general biography that covers his difficult childhood in some depth. Another biography, by Professor Grant Hammond of the Air War College is entitled The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security focuses more on his career. Finally there is Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (Strategy and History), in which Frans Osinga, a Netherlands Air Force officer, has rendered Boyd’s ideas into narrative form.

      4. Fiver


        The “cause” of US planners since the late ’30’s at least has been to remake the world in America’s image, as in, State power serves corporate power to make the world “safe” for corporate capitalism. While I never supported this Imperial imperative, what completely messed up both strategy and tactics in relation to that original goal was the incredible, almost complete subsuming of US “interests” to those of Israel since at least 1980 (some would argue 1967) – that’s 30-40 years on the wrong side of needless conflict right up to today’s insane National Security State in response to an also asinine “war on terror” that taken all together has done irreparable damage to US prestige and “leadership” ability. When a hegemon cannot lead, it reverts to force. And that is the great danger re China.

  2. Nicholas Cole

    In the course of a couple decades, when the United States was focused on the Middle East, we saw wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, operations in Libya and Pakistan, and posturing and other activity in Syria, Iran, etc. With the empire’s eye now on the Pacific, how long will it be until a reason to start a fight in the area presents itself? In other words, is all the smoke and mirrors about a Pacific pivot just a justification for engagements that are on the way? I’m so foreign policy buff, and I would appreciate some thoughts.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      American FP is not a simple case of a directive. Its a lumbering monster of multiple actors and directions.

      All politics is local. I would contend the driving force behind Libya was an unspoken understanding that Obama was a bust domestically and needed a FP victory. With the apparent success in Libya if one considers a state of tribal warfare and ethnic cleansing success, they rushed to move on to Syria expecting the propagandized smart army and shallow support of Obama abroad to carry them through. For me, I think this was the main issue.

      The neo-conservatives loved knocing off Gaddafi.

      Big Oil loved the idea.

      The U.S. MIC was terrified France and Italy could pull it off on their own and needed to make sure they ran any operation. Due to the refugee situation, I don’t hold actions by more regional countries against them.

      The Saudis love getting rid of enemies and finding places to export their own malcontents.

      Lets take Syria. One, its not Libya. The state of its air defense is probably much better and likely to be resupplied. If U.S. jets started to crash, the sense of American invincibility which has allowed Americans to tacitly support aggression disappears, and generals will be questioned and investigated. Some generals do actually care.

      Chaos in Syria means chaos in Lebanon, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, etc., and the smarter people knew this.

      The advocates of “smart, liberal” wars went to do research on the wonders of Libya and found a disaster, so they weren’t running interference out of shame or at least recognizing there time hasn’t come.

      The domestic economy for the 99% is worsening. Knocking off tin pot dictators isn’t a diversion to people eking out a living.

      Russia now cares, and the French, Italians, etc, no longer had either the resources or need to get involved.

      Despite Obama and the Saudis desire for war, the Friends of Syria went from 130 countries to less than 6 in six months.

      Its important to remember John Adams and Jefferson revolted against the British with a French alliance, but they saw a country which during the course of their lives would fight an undeclared naval war with France and fight a second war with a weaker French alliance against Britain which we more or less started. Was that the plan?

      I’m all over the place, but one issue is the expectation of swiftness of victory. In Iraq, we were promised parades. Libya didn’t turn out the way it was promised, and Americans soured on Syria. The Chinese aren’t the Iraqis after 20 years of conflict and world sanctions.

      1. Llewellyn

        Continue to analyse this as politics at your own peril. It is far from it. Politics has very little to offer in comparison with a seat at the round table with the OliGarchs.

    2. Fiver


      Early days. But there is no doubt a confrontation with China is in the cards at some point well before it’s even half as strong as the US – a decade away minimum. The US Security State will brook no challenge – see other comments.

  3. tongorad

    A Prosperous China Versus An Imperial US
    “If the United States insists on its status as the dominant and unchallengeable military power, then we are on the road to conflict, certainly a new Cold War the beginning of which the “pivot” represents, and quite possibly we are on the road to WWIII. We in the United States are the ones who can control this and perhaps save the world from the very worst suffering and deadly conflict. The answer is to abandon Empire, dismantle our overseas bases, end our occupation of foreign nations, including South Korea, Japan and Germany, adopt a defensive strategy to protect our land and come home. Trade and talk, yes. Military intervention, no.”

    1. James Levy

      My sentiments almost exactly but Washington isn’t going to give it all up any more than Vienna could in 1914 or Paris in 1870 or Tokyo in 1941. The collapse of the Soviet Union was an aberration. Most imperium die with a bang before the whimper. The American elite see this country not as “great” or “august” or “noble”, but as “the last best hope of mankind.” Beyond us is only darkness. We MUST prevail (that wonderful word uttered in delight by “Buck” Turgidson at the end of his Plan “R” first strike speech in Dr. Strangelove). We were prepared from the 50s through the 80s to destroy the world rather than fall to godless communism. That ethos hasn’t changed. Which is why I fear for the future and can only hope that domestic issues forestall America’s global Gotterdamerung.

    2. Fiver

      That’s been the answer all along – but capitalism demands both growth and concentration of wealth/power, so only a sea change in US public willingness to both tolerate and pay for mega-violence inflicted on far weaker foes as standard procedure will suffice.

  4. NotTimothyGeithner

    I’m a believer all politics is local with a few exceptions (ex. Ukraine and Russia). The real issue is Americans need to demand our Presidents don’t throw themselves into being constructive around the world when they aren’t successful here at home. Generals don’t tell the President to go to hell. They say, “Mr. President…” I think the flattery is important, and Presidents are naturally drawn to issues where they can demand loyalty from all sides and denounce opponents as unserious and lacking proper intelligence.

  5. Emanuel Goldstein

    “Why Asia, why now?” For the same reason that Oceania was at war with East Asia sometimes and with Eurasia at other times. Because the MIC needs exciting new narratives to catapult the propaganda to the people and continue the policy of perpetual war for perpetual peace. We need new contrived enemies, new interesting back stories, big virtual maps on CNN with toy air craft carriers, and stock footage of Chinese soldiers goose stepping with tanks in the back ground. Otherwise, how would the people staffing foreign policy think tanks continue to justify their existence with strategy talk and realpolitik? This time around it just happens to be feigned concern over a bunch of uninhabited rocks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

    Why Asia? Because China and Japan (and the US) need to deflect attention from internal problems and the best way to do so is with a grand distraction in the form of an abstract policy with no substance. Don’t get me wrong, if I had to serve the military, defending the free world from Guam or Australia doesn’t sound too bad.

    “But perception means a great deal in geopolitics and right now China is winning the perceptions game.” The American people do not care about the perception game regarding China. This “perception game” is just something that media talking heads and foreign policy experts bloviate about.

    As for the ultimate result, i.e., decline of the US empire, I say good riddance. I am hopeful after the administration’s humiliating retreat in Syria that I will get to witness more epic fails by the MIC leading to the complete collapse of the empire.

    1. psychohistorian

      As the toxic effluent from Fukushima continues to spread and contaminate the ocean(s) I expect the perception of its creators (the US via GE) to sink dramatically.

      The question is whether the death of American empire will lead to the death of us all….. I am less than optimistic.

  6. From Australia

    Stratigic Rebalance? Right! If that’s what you want to call it. I would call it Global Cancer, and to be truthful, none of us like cancer, it is a disease that slowly eats away the good bits to replace them with the cancerous bits, rot it called, sort of like whats happening now thoughout the Middle-East. I am an Australian, born and bred, but weather your fond of Aussie or not, please don’t offend us by classing us as your Allies! Australians DON”T want association with the American Military, nor do we want or suppot your Agenda for Global dominance, (though our corrupt polititions may, thanks to political interference by the US) and we certainly don’t agree or support your so called Asian Piviot, as China has proved to be a fair player economically, trust worthy and honerable, a far cry from what the US has done, and intends through its TPP! So please, pass on to your stupid, corrupt and murderous heads of state, Australians DON’T wont your filthy murderous troops on our soil!
    Your country has done enough damage to the Globe, and if North Korea lobs a missile down on Washington, all they would get from me is praise! The world would be a much safer, fairer and peaceful place to live for all concerned. I want a future for my children! DO YOU?

    1. FederalismForever

      “China has proved to be a fair player economically, trust worthy and honerable.” Um, you’re kidding, right? And are you actually so morally obtuse as to prefer North Korea to the U.S.?

  7. financial matters

    There are more constructive alternatives…

    Xin Fa’an: A Modest Proposal to Resolve the Coming Trade War

    Michael Pettis

    “”Well I guess one way to get this balance (here comes my modest proposal) would be for China to engineer a New Deal in America, which we could call Xin Fa’an (“new deal” in Chinese). Beijing needs the US to continue running a rising trade deficit in order to absorb Chinese overcapacity while China slowly rebalances its economy towards domestic demand, which will take many years.

    The US is paradoxically in a very good position to increase investment because it has very poor infrastructure for its levels of development. The US has tons of room for a major expansion in infrastructure and, unlike in China, almost any infrastructure spending is likely to be value creating.

    Let China engage in a massive rebuilding of US infrastructure – it can build airports, highways, damns, and railways – which would raise investment levels enough keep the US trade deficit high in a way that benefits the US and China.

    Talk about win-win. China will get the eight to ten years it desperately needs to engineer what will otherwise be a brutally difficult rebalancing.

    So can we get China to fund the Xin Fa’an in America? Probably not. Muddled Chinese public opinion will be furious that desperately poor China is investing in rich America, even though the overall returns will be better and the cost of China’s adjustment will be much lower. Muddled American opinion will be furious that America is “selling out” to China. Bumptious politicians in both countries will completely fail to get the underlying economics of the trade, and they will never allow it to happen. But it is still a pretty good idea.””



    “”A solution Sleigh envisions would involve bond borrowing for public-private infrastructure
    projects that would be “labor-intensive and great for long-term economic growth and would absolutely help us meet our obligations, because these bonds are going to yield 6 to 8 percent on our investments.” The Federal Reserve’s blessing and its willingness to accept the infrastructure bonds as collateral on the Fed’s lending could be a powerful lure for capital investors—including China, which owns a mountain of low-yielding US Treasuries.

    “Wouldn’t that be an amazing story,” Sleigh said, “if the Chinese, instead of holding Treasury notes, invested $100 billion in building high-speed rail in the United States?” These ideas sound farfetched to the usual experts who dominate monetary politics. But stay tuned. As Bernanke surely understands, the economic crisis is not over. We are still at risk of things turning worse. If that occurs, these and other proposals for action will become highly relevant.

    Stephen Sleigh, interview by William Greider, The Nation, October 5, 2012.””


    These are ideas to put Treasuries to better work and foster cooperation. There is a lot of unbalance to work out. Overall I think it’s best for countries to use their sovereign currency first and foremost to work toward full domestic employment by orienting labor toward domestic consumption. I think global trade would then work best on this foundation.

  8. Nick

    At the end of the day, China remains a communist dictatorship with deep seeded demographic and resource problems that will inevitably blow up in their face. America is assisting her democratic allies in the region, building up their capacity to deal with the looming threat of China. All of this works in America’s favor, especially since the US is now energy independent.

    American allies in the Mid east, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the rest of the Gulf Countries are quite capable of taking care of themselves. The war in Iraq was a success, as their booming oil production demonstrates (soon to be on par with Saudi Arabia). America will make her peace with Iran. Meanwhile, Afghanistan will continue to be a black hole, but a contained one. The scramble for Africa continues, and the US is making small gains there as well.

    Suffice to say, it’s not wise to bet against America. ;)

  9. TarheelDem

    The lumbering aircraft carrier known as the United States should be executing a pivot that lives up to its name: a shift from the martial to the pacific. Instead, it’s just roiling the waters and leaving instability in its wake.

    Yes, indeed. But that would require the US national security planners to step outside of 68-year-old illusions and understand that international security involves the “build-down” (meaning through agreements with other powers and not just unilateral action) of the global military inventory and military arms trade.

    The United States never held Asia in a way to lose it (contra the 1940s warhawks) nor have we occupied it in a way that our drawdowns can be considered a retreat. Those Kiplingnesque ways of imagining a “great game” have created an illusionary “sole global superpower”. Prior to 2001, it was easy to buy into that illusion. The collapse of the Soviet Union made the US look solely dominant. And most countries behaved as if that illusion were true. Al Quaeda reasoned that if one superpower could be taken down, why not two. In the over-reaction to the attacks on 9/11 and the hubris of a war of aggression, the US allowed that illusion to be tested. The power of the sole superpower for all its expense, variety, technological prowess, and training was found to be very limited indeed.

    The only way to push back those limits was to violate the laws of war and if that failed to commit crimes against humanity. As far as the US transgressed that line in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, secret prisons, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia, public outrage still held some restraining power on US use of force. Again and again, counterinsurgency with limited troops by an invading force proved to be a failed strategy. Having not enough troops to create deterrence through occupation, having no positive plan for non-resistance to occupation (such as the Marshall Plan was touted to be), the dynamics of the conflict tended toward gratuitous war crimes. The US military failed to deliver what was not within its power to deliver; its military doctrine was a failed one in Vietnam and continues to be a failed one.

    The only thing to retreat from is the illusion of global power and the strategy of dramatic forward deployment. And from the delusion that military power alone creates security.

    But it never was about security; it was about dominance. Not national security but extending national (read corporate) interests.

    The Pacific Pivot makes virtue out of the necessity of the difficulty of getting basing rights and the massive expense of permanent bases. IMO the Air-Sea Battle branding and the Pacific Pathways branding are little more to the military testing how to continue to do forward deployment with so many permanent bases. And hiding from the warhawks in Congress the fact that even the military understands that “containment of China” is a fools errand.

    The hazard of the withdrawal of even the illusory Pax Americana is the resurgence of nationalism, with each having a gunny sack of historic grievances. And each having a domestic party associated with or (as in North Korea) captured by the military.

    1. Fiver

      To know that a strategy has failed, you first have to be certain what the goal was. I am not at all certain that US “security” in any real sense, or Iraqi “democracy” in any sense, real or unreal, was the goal of US action in Iraq. However, I do know that taking Iraqi, Libyan and Iranian production off the market has kept the price of oil so far above a reasonable “peacetime” price we now have the spectacle of an idiotic fracking bubble in the US and a tar sands ghg nightmare development in Canada. What are a few thousand US dead and injured or a million Iraqi deaths when trillions and trillions of dollars have found their way into private pockets via the action?

  10. Fiver

    I find this piece odd in several respects, not least that he twice goes a long way towards upending his own major arguments in support of his thesis, i.e., that the US is in “retreat” in Asia (and elsewhere).

    As Nick Turse (TomDispatch) will attest, the monster bases are giving way to the manic growth of new, smaller US military installations around the globe with the emphasis on speed, mobility, drones, unlimited Special Operations, etc. The entire argument re declining troop deployments as a measure of US “weakness” is off the mark, and especially so given real spending on the military has increased throughout the period of change, and as of now, with no prospect of meaningful cutbacks in future. The fact is the US doesn’t need hundreds of thousands of troops to “project” its power in 2014, and these drawdowns simply acknowledge they had largely become an anachronism.

    The thrust of US strategy now is to avoid “boots on the ground” for domestic political reasons – boots which you clearly do not need if you do not intend to occupy, and why occupy if push-button, non-nuclear devastation is an available option? The whole point of the efforts to pull the US into the conflict in Syria was premised on a Libya-style “no fly zone” that really meant an all-air assault aimed at destroying the opposing State, not occupying it.

    These smaller installations could readily be the follow-on to agreements like the TPP, or done on a bilateral basis. Far from a “retreat” the US has created an entirely new type of war capability for a new type of war. For example, the new African Command for the next theatre of war – one where US and Chinese interests are most likely to collide in future.

    The “why Asia now” question is largely an exercise in identifying and responding to current, relatively minor irritants as if early harbingers of real threats to come – or to create. This is typically foolish US posturing to some extent, but it crosses the line into blatantly stupid to the extent the China “threat” is used by the US to shape regional alignments and policies along militant, anti-China lines. Japan, for instance, ought to immediately desist from its China-bashing – even if those islands held 100 billion barrels of oil, they would not be worth what Japan inflicted on China in the ’30’s, so let’s see a little more humility from Tokyo on that score and a lot less tension-ratcheting on this from the US.

    The entire “America in Decline” paradigm suffers from a huge confusion of conflicted values. To be clear, the only constraint on the exercise of US power is domestic elite opinion. The US could have obliterated Vietnam with nukes, as it threatened, but settled for non-nuclear genocide. It could today undoubtedly destroy China it it chose to do so, and quite possibly avoid being hit in return. We know the US almost “decided” the USSR in the late ’40’s. We know the US opted to risk nuclear war rather than allow the USSR to have missiles as close to US targets as US missiles in Europe were to Soviet targets. Not so long ago.

    The real “decline” has been socioeconomic, in values as expressed by the incredible juxtaposition of immense US wealth with the abandonment of at least half the populace, of the rule of law, of the common good and of what democratic institutions had existed. The great danger, for China, Russia, Africa, and of course the Arab/Muslim world, is that a future US leadership translates the deep malaise of domestic weakness/anger into a final bid for complete, uncontested global Empire.

    Retreat? Hardly. Not when Warren Buffet says Jamie Dimon is as good as they come. Not when every Bush-era war criminal is on the book/speak circuit, so conveniently rehabilitated, publicly laundered by all our most popular talking heads. Not so long as the entire Joint Special Operations Command and related secret war apparatus, which is the subject of the book “Dirty Wars”, is not dissolved and those responsible for creating it brought to justice.

    Rome lasted centuries after its height because there just wasn’t anything to replace it. The question for the American people and world for the next 10-20 years is this: how far is the US State prepared to go to maintain its position? The word “retreat” doesn’t come to mind.

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