Obama Tries To Weave A Strategic Narrative: But Did He Check The Feng Shui?

Listening to the chattering classes, a paramount challenge for U.S. strategy is ‘the lack of a narrative.’ What is to go after ‘Once upon a time . . .’?

Obama tries his hand declaring by fiat ‘we have turned the page’ from whatever 2001-2011 was. (Report here). Apparently, winding down two land wars allowed him to glimpse the U.S. would seek agility with inevitable force re-sizing. Who knew? Conveniently forgotten is that DoD now has more contractors in *Afghanistan* than uniformed personnel anyway.

At its core the Stiftung finds the report, well, Goldilocks. Compared to competing camps and their ‘narratives’. Its cardinal achievement? To begin re-focusing institutional U.S. geostrategic fixation on Europe and re-align it to the Pacific Rim, alas 20 years too late.

U.S. Shifts Strategic Focus To China

This PR exercise is also less than it seems. Most of the hard questions about mission re-definement made real through procurement? Punted. A defense budget and alleged cuts, etc. are always gamed not what they seem. Obama claims he will start cutting $480 billion over the next ten years. First, reductions in future rates of growth are not reductions at all. Second, given the (malfunctioning) annual budget authorization and appropriations process, projecting beyond 3 years is to party with Charlie Sheen. The Stiftung has long-supported a two-year budget appropriation cycle but people on the Hill prefer the one year approach for narrow self-interested political reasons.

A Few Trillion And Soon You’re Talking Real Chinese Tax Payer Money

The current Obama FY defense budget is over $708 billion. That is over double the FY 2001 outlay of $316 billion. (And for those counting, pure top line defense industry profit – the net of the net profit in 2011 was over $25 billion according to SEC filings. That is a 400% increase since 2001).

Let’s put everything in context: the U.S. since 2001 spent $ 4trillion on defense *and* a further $1.4 trillion fighting actual wars. The latter costs were kept ‘off budget’ in so-called ’emergency’ war supplementals. (Don’t blame just Cheney, et al, a Democratic Senate went along). Remember that when you see frowns about ‘dangerous’ cuts, etc.

Substantively, the apparent fantasy is that U.S. power projection will be light and fast, with drones, JSOC and CONUS-based kinetic strike. The need for littoral heavy footprints and consequent force protection and SLOCs, etc? Gone. Booyah!

It’s a convenient day dream. Littoral access just about anywhere along the so-called Crescent of Crisis will be contested if not denied, whether Iran, Korea, the ASEAN region, etc. The pivot from Europe (so-called) is two decades over due. The Army presence there a hang-over from 1949 and 1991. So some down-sizing inevitable anyway. The Marines, by the way are themselves seeking a smaller force. They want to go back to being both elite and focused on their unique mission. Stationing a token presence in Australia a geopolitical signal Asians will understand.

You’d be excused for wondering how the U.S. forgets its own Asian Lost Weekend. It deployed unprecedented kinetic violence, body counts and Special Forces and eventually sent GROPOS ashore at Danang. The internal logic of escalation dominance (irrational to an objective outside observer) and all that. How’d that work out?

According to Obama’s document the U.S. will not repeat Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. You see, Obama has invented ‘partial-pregnancy’. We will assert U.S. global superiority but not with onshore footprint of large combat forces. We will intervene and help domestic entities but won’t get ‘dragged in.’ Apparently it is the geo-political equivalent of the Rhythm Method. We don’t need to worry about logistics or CSAR because, well, because. While a drone base has a smaller footprint than a F-22/F-35 capable runway, bladders, hangers, etc. the report doesn’t deal with the future of Jedi Knights sitting in cockpits.

Overall, it’s a B. Leaving Europe and realizing the future will be in Asia notable achievements given endemic superficial U.S. strategic planning. A few rice bowls got nudged. Most of all Obama cynically kicked the can down the road after the elections for the details and real turf fights. Because you just know how well Obama does when he’s fresh off a victory. It’s bank, man.


Appropos of absolutely nothing, but offered as a public service. What history suppressed. And now can be revealed.

Strategic Conference, U.S. President, Soviet Union, British Empire

Bin Laden Strike Bad For China? [Ed. – add extra ?] ?

In Thursday’s edition of China’s Communist Party-owned Global Times newspaper, the lead editorial was headlined, “After Bin Laden, will China become US’s foe?” Hoping that economic integration would defuse “right-wing paranoia” about China in the United States, the editorial nevertheless concluded: “The rise of China is certain to cause friction” in America. On Friday, the paper led with an editorial that referenced an interview I had given the Global Times in late April to admit that “China could be the loneliest rising power in world history.”

Of course, editorials in state-owned newspapers do not always mirror the Communist Party’s thinking or policies. But in this case, these two editorials remind us of two related points about Beijing’s worldview. First, China respects and even fears the United States more than the vast majority of Americans probably realize. And second, China’s sense of isolation is not an act but acute and real — and Osama bin Laden’s death will only accelerate America’s reengagement with its Asian allies and partners at China’s expense.

That’s certainly one way to spin it. How would you?

Even The Cherry Blossoms Know . . .

Despite re-touched postcards, D.C. is truly beautiful for about 38 days a year. 18 come in what now counts as Spring. The remaining 20? Scattered across the Fall. These are glorious days.

Otherwise, because our Founders wisely selected swamped land for their capital, days are by turns staggeringly humid or clammy, oppressive and cold. We are now in our supposed 18 beautiful days.

A key ritual heralding the arrival of Spring are cherry blossoms. Not just the gifts from Japan surrounding the Tidal Basin. Across assorted neighborhoods blossoms offer a spellbinding canopy that attracts embassy staff, tourists and locals alike.

This year the blossoms have not come out to play. Nattering ankle-biters will point to petty factoids like the weather. We know the truth. They are paying somber respects. They know about the potentially 100 year struggle to contain Fukushima and care for over half a million homeless

100 years. Something to think about as a Nation economically and even culturally intertwined with Japan turns its lonely eyes (and half a billion dollars plus) to a non-descript strip of sand on behalf of people we’re only now bothering to see who they are. Decades after people have forgotten the names of today’s American policy makers and places like Misrati or even Benghazi, our ally (Operation ‘Tomodatchi’ an inspired choice) will still be dealing with the tsunami and Fukushima after effects. Although to hear CNBC, Japan’s not facing catastrophe at all, but a golden opportunity.

Blossoms before in happier times.

Japan’s Waking Nuclear Nightmare At Fukushima

Like you, we are following the nuclear emergency situation in Japan intently. The human tragedy in the earthquake’s aftermath heart wrenching enough. Schadenfreude and mixed feelings in Shanghai may seem particularly cold but not ahistorical.

Who can the Japanese turn to? There have been 6 prime ministers in 5 years. As of this writing, Prime Minister Kan has been in office 272 days. Kan’s foreign minister just resigned because of scandal. And Kan is battling the ‘Sith Lord’ of Japanese politics, former DPJ master mind Ichiro Ozawa, whom the DPJ expelled for corruption. Ozawa in the days before the quake was openly working to topple the DPJ and return to politics himself. Kan has called the disaster the greatest threat since WW II but his options are constrained. Japan already has the largest public debt in the world.

Chinese Policy On America – Let Them Drift Away . . .

Much ado regarding Chinese CP Chairman Hu’s visit to the States. We’ve all seen the Chinese military’s slap at Gates during his recent visit. Testing their still embryonic 5th generation fighter also a pointed embarrassment — again — to the undeniably shaky Chinese civilian control over the PLA and its sprawling infrastructure.

Hu’s doing his final rounds as President, stepping down soon. This visit for a variety reasons always was going to be more tonal than substantive. The hard decisions on policy and direction will await his successor. For the Chinese, kicking the can further down the road has the added benefit of being smart geopolitics. The soft and hard power curves are moving their way on sheer inertia alone. The junky still remains addicted to both Chinese credit and cheap Chinese trinkets. Even Obama’s vaunted ‘green’ industry that he said will produce ‘thousands of good, high wage jobs’ is already stamped ‘Made in China’. A provision regarding restricting government contracting and Chinese goods a symbolic blip. Doesn’t alter the above.

The Windup Girl, Capital Cities In A Swamp And Open Thread

A beautiful and finally tolerable day in the Imperial City. Call them ‘surrender monkeys’ all you want, but when Pierre L’Enfant in 1791 began designing Washington, D.C., he’s not the one who decided the capital should be on a swamp. Here’s an open thread.

We’re tuning out for a day or two all the click-baiting, ankle-biting meme chihuahuas (Gore and Portland, this person is or is not a racist, etc.) in favor of a new book. “The Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi. We recommend it.

People seem to think Bacigalupi is the next William Gibson (after all, it says so in the blurbs). Perhaps he is, but so far we find him closer to Murakami’s excellent Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Also highly recommended.

Reviewers suggesting it’s a new ‘Neuromancer’ aren’t completely off. That book’s now oft quoted “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” doesn’t convey the richness of “Windup.” And Murakami’s textured (and structurally clever) “Hard Boiled Wonderland”, although not as well known to most Amerikuns, while of the same early 1980s era as Gibson went beyond just ‘jacking into the net’ and explored some of the biological themes fully developed in “Windup.” What we get with “Windup” is a more richly created dystopian world.

Is Bacigalupi another Vance as others suggest, a ‘world builder’ without peer? That’s for another post, perhaps. “Windup” is a great read filled with wry observations about a future with mindless American-Davos consumerism/branding triumphant. Dystopian to be sure but always entertaining and at times witty as well.

On Andy Grove, Mercantilist Schwerpunkts And Free Trade Kool Aid

If one is serious about re-industrializing the United States to create high wage manufacturing jobs, one probably should shun hapless pundits and other ideological purveyors. To be fair the braying comes from all sides: ‘Free Markets’ cant or the tiresome “What Would Hamilton Do Today”? As par for the course, the most visible ‘experts’ provided to us on the cable news wall often can’t read a spreadsheet, think EBITDA is a new social networking site, haven’t actually worked for an industrial company or consistently met a payroll.

Economic development requires a more serious mind. But then, one could say the same about war. And look at that.

Even more than killing dark people, a sustained development concept in Bubble-addicted America is particularly challenging. Americans expect to earn inflated income by performing essentially meaningless and frivolous output. Haven’t we essentially outsourced the wars, too?

Andy Grove laments the decline of the hi-tech industry’s domestic manufacturing. He’s right that it is essentially now a (temporary) branding and marketing channel for Asian manufacturers. “Made in China, Designed By Apple In California”. Our friend comment shared this link from Grove on point: Sadly, one has to ask: where precisely have you been for the last 30 years, Andy? (Let’s overlook the Intel billions invested in India, Malaysia and China along the way.)

Can Americans Even Have An Intelligent Policy On Re-Industrialization?

Americans we will assert seem generally uninterested in development matters, especially historical economic development. So it’s important to put forth first principles to frame a conversation. Say a president visits a failed state like Michigan. He declares ‘new manufacturing jobs in America’ [cue ritual applause] will come. But before that can happen, we should be clear on what’s the goal of American economic activity? To promote *consumer* welfare measured in the here and now? Or to develop a social and economic infrastructure that maximizes *societal* welfare in the medium to long term? An infrastructure to enable other economic and social expenditures (military, standard of living, life expectancy, etc.)?

The first is America 1960-2010; ‘consumer welfare’ is the metric. The second? Delayed consumption, lower standards of living and capital accumulation for the future. How one answers these questions determines divergent paths.

The Four Models

For statesmen or serious students of Great Power history (this excludes by definition march of trumpets Boys Life ‘history’ ala Victor Davis Hanson et. al.), there are 4 essential, successful modern development models: (a) the British until 1870s (the end of the mercantalist First Empire and commingling with ‘Wealth of Nations’ and ‘White Man’s Burden’ era); (b) the Germans from 1870-1914; (c) the American from 1880s-1960s; (d) the Soviets 1917-1970s; (e) Japan from 1945-1991; (f) the Four Tigers (copying Japan); and (g) China (1980s-today). The latter three are essentially variations on the Japanese dual economy mercantalist approach. (The BRICs are more notional, still in China’s shadow).

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Jonathan Chait And Battered Pundit Syndrome

Seeking perhaps to maximize page views and SEO optimization (the boy’s gotta eat), Jonathan Chait goes contrarian and affirms the Boy King’s Rooseveltian greatness. He condescendingly diagnoses the ignorance of Obama’s critics thusly:

Part of the reason for liberal dismay in [sic] an ahistorical understanding of how progress works. In the liberal memory, political success is bathed in golden-hued triumph. In reality, it is a grubby, stop-and-start process that looks pretty ugly up close . . .

A second reason for liberal despair is the cult of the presidency. Few people follow the arcana of Congressional debate. They attribute all political outcomes to the president, and thus when the outcome is unsatisfactory, the reason must be a failure of presidential willpower.

[Read more…]

What Obama Said At West Point Worth Noting

Obama’s address to the Army cadets offered the usual laudatory references to American military’s greatness and history. Including the ‘I’m your commander-in-chief but really ok guy’ jokes. Naturally, Obama’s omission of Wolfowitzian unilateral, unchallenged American power gets pundits’ tongues wagging. His embrace of diplomacy as a much needed option for exhausted recourse to military action welcome but also old news. We ain’t got the mojo no more – militarily or diplomatically. Even the Brazilian president, together with the Turkish prime minister, got the memo when cutting their own deal with Iran.

More important to the Stiftung was Obama’s indirect warning to the military establishment – the salad days are winding down. And with them? The last tangible claim America has to some kind of global centrality. He reminded all listening that American power’s foundation was, is, and will be our economic health. He indirectly alluded to its haggard state. We think it’s noteworthy Obama observed to the military that the American people need to start making things. We must engage in real economic activity (lawyers, politicians, Facebook devotees, media ‘personalities’ and wedding planners excepted) to support a world class military. As ritual requires, any hint of truth must be dosed with copious dollops of ritualistic cant about America’s future has never been brighter because [insert macro here i.e.,’the genius of American enterprise’, ‘the unparalleled creativity of the American worker’, etc.]

Obama hitched his horse to victory in Afghanistan. It’ll be interesting to see how he defines it down.

We have brought hope to the Afghan people; now we must see that their country does not fall prey to our common enemies,” Obama said. “There will be difficult days ahead. But we will adapt, we will persist, and I have no doubt that together with our Afghan and international partners, we will succeed in Afghanistan.

The British? Making moves about leaving.

Google Discovers That Bad People Do More Than Type Mean Things!

China’s obsession about controlling the Internet as a disruptive force is well summarized in this Wired story about the murder of a young Chinese student for Internet addiction. The story quite rightly highlights the paranoia and sense of threat are shared by society and bureaucrats. Cnet also offers a nice roundup of events leading up to Google’s sudden discovery it was doing business with an authoritarian government.

John Markoff et al. also remind us that the Chinese government has been waging formal warfare on the Internet since the first doctrinal and theoretical iterations appeared over a decade ago. In this instance, they are a people of their word. And who would have guessed an authoritarian government would hack private computers, foreign governments networks, and in general act like a determined geopolitical foe and opponent of liberal democracy?

We always thought Google’s initial decision to wade into China pecuniary. Too big a market to be missed. Perhaps they thought deals with authoritarians could be kept quiet. Isn’t that the point of authoritarianism? So we have no sympathy for them now. After all, they had 5 years of the Warlord, National Security Letters and the NSA all gone ex- constitutional here. On a day to day commercial basis Google is in many ways as oppressive, capricious and domineering as its supposed evil Chinese overlords. It’s time to end the charade of Google’s ‘innocence’ and ‘don’t do bad things’ mouthings.

They knowingly crawled into bed with the devil. And seemingly want to run away half pregnant. They will miss out on the large market revenue they lust for. Now that Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon have split up, some of the future parties to shower Schmidt, Brin and the other kid will be more fractured. Plus, as Techdirt notes, Google is quite content to help the Indian government censor. Kind of inconvenient when trying to celebrate a stand on principle.

On the other hand, it could all be clever PR – the launch of their iPhone-killer was a boondoggle. A complete nightmare. Who better to blow that noisome publicity away than some faceless Chinese who want to monitor the Dali Lama’s downloading of American Idol on YouTube? Much posturing, like WWF’s early days. If not, it’s not like the U.S. is completely out of the market. There’s a company, further north, that specializes in evil (unintentional or not) and above all shares the zeal in crushing dissent and competition — although they may be getting soft. They even have a product, Bing! (And it seems were in on it from the get go . . .)