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.

Disaster, Enrichment And Incompetence In A Corporatist World

This note is prompted by Tbilisi’s comment regarding the quality of world media on the Japanese crisis, wherein he ranks American corporate media at the bottom. We agree with that grade. The exercise prompted thinking about how we got to where we are and the role of American media in that journey.

Future sociologists studying the American twilight will have a trove of crises to illustrate how America embraced corporate enrichment and governmental incompetence. The result is unaccountable wealth and anger slinking into cynicism. Four immediate examples are: (a) the Japanese catastrophes of March 2011; (b) the BP Gulf spill; (c) the Financial Collapse 2008-2009; and (d) Katrina. All show how America developed passivity to disaster and corporatism.

A City Lost But For A Photogenic Blonde

Katrina happened here. Not some far off tourist spot. And in the clutch, Americans turned their backs on their own for partisan reasons or profit.

Squalor, death and privation – some continuing today – are shrugged off. A major disaster became fodder for meme warfare, much of it covertly racist. No one doubts that a city filled with blonde Republicans would have received different aid. Bush arguably paid a price for his incompetence in the 2006 elections. Significantly, Americans didn’t seem to care enough to re-focus attention on the actual disaster area.

FEMA, toxic mobile homes, contractor abuses — all down the memory hole. Iraq fostered some cynicism. Katrina was JP-5 fuel. Public acceptance and expectation of governmental incompetence took root.

[Read more…]

Nuclear Crisis In Japan – Slo Mo Crisis Of Tangible Things

Perhaps it’s the linguistic barriers; parachuting anchors into Japan probably don’t even have Japanese tourist phrasebooks. But it’s amazing how absent Japanese people, officials or volunteers are from newscasts. A speech from the Japanese Prime Minister announcing the Fukushima reactors are at a crisis point didn’t merit coverage. By contrast, earlier ramblings of a tribal dictator fighting over empty sand? Wall to wall saturation.

Perhaps we’re overly critical of American news media (primarily broadcast). Yet our impression is of Americans talking primarily to Americans standing in debris fields without Japanese faces, voices or perspectives. American broadcasters in Egypt found translators and interviewed protestors, covered Mubarak addresses, etc. Yet the greatest natural disaster in modern times happens to be in a Japan without many Japanese on camera. So far.

There are vague references to homeless. And people without food, water, medicine, heat. Little coverage on what’s actually being done, what needs to be done. The difference with coverage in Haiti is stark. Perhaps because the Japanese social contract removes ‘good tv’ images of conflict, riots, or looting.

Instead, American networks latch onto more easily covered tangible things such as exploding nuclear reactors. Broadcast producers appear to book anyone with ‘nuclear’ in their job title, from disarmament types to nuclear power (pro or con) lobbyists. It’s a two-fer if the commentator is a physicist. Unsurprisingly the commentary about the Dai Ichi plants presents more chyron alarm than clarity – exchanges of ignorance.

A corollary to the American fixation on tangible Japanese buildings is obsession on what it means for us. Should California prepare for nuclear fallout? Could California plants at Diablo Canyon survive a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami? How will Californians buy a Prius going forward? What happens to Americans’ 401ks? And perhaps most salient to Americans, how will the crisis affect their plans to buy an iPad 2?

We don’t dismiss a nuclear crisis verging close to a true meltdown. That desperate situation, however, will unfold over considerable time. Should matters continue to deteriorate the damage and clean up will be a challenge for years. Meanwhile tsunami survivors, homeless, without shelter, food, water or medicine either get needed help or succumb. Which prompts the question, ‘If catastrophe victims get help and American tv doesn’t cover them, were they ever in danger?’

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.

American Air Power This Day In History

March 9, 1945 marked the beginning of the new American incendiary bombing of civilian targets in Japan. Low-flying U.S. warplanes carrying 65% more bombs over the next 2 says created the largest firestorm in recorded history, killing 80-130,000 civilians and destroying 16 square miles. Curtis Le May told the bombing crews they would be “delivering the biggest firecracker the Japanese have ever seen.” By July 1945 such low-level incendiary raids proved so devastating that LeMay declared no worthwhile targets existed in Japan.

These raids killed more people and caused greater damage than the subsequent atomic bombings. The stench from the burning bodies sucked into the firestorm and the blood, turned into mist and wafting on the wind, was so intense Americans in the B-29s turned on their oxygen masks to keep from vomiting.

The raids, however, failed to achieve their goal. As with the British and American air attacks on Germany earlier, the Japanese overcame their initial shock and their morale bounced back. Only the threat of existential atomic obliteration changed matters.


Useful to keep in mind listening to air power advocates today. Air power lost some prestige after last decade’s Air Force failed fantasies of compelling war terminating outcomes with Rapid Decisive Operations. Just a few years before the Balkans demonstrated the same truths. Air power failed to achieve a meaningful result. NATO turned to a threatened ground assault to bring that operation to close. The 1991 Gulf War? Same.

America seemingly chooses to forget. Airpower tempts with an illusory clean solution, fixed without need to get dirty on the ground. La plus ca change.

You Don’t Say . . . Gates Gets Wet As An Amphibian

In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.

Bob Gates, February 25, 2011

You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders – The most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia” – but only slightly less well-known is this: “Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line”! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha . . .

Vizzini, (1987)

Gates tells the Army that Krauthammer and the ‘Go Ashore’ crowd are history. And beneath the crude bureaucrat calculation, Gates seeks to return the U.S. to fundamental geopolitical realities: we’re an amphibian power, not a continental one. Too little, too late.

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.

Obama As Poker Player: He Really Does Have A ‘Tell’

The United States, obviously, has a special role to play on the international stage, regardless of who is president,” Mr. Obama said. “We are a very large, very wealthy, very powerful country. We have had outsized influence over world affairs for a century now. And you are now seeing a situation in which a whole host of other countries are doing very well and coming into their own, and naturally they are going to be more assertive in terms of their interests and ideas. And that’s a healthy thing.

Obama on getting stiffed at the G20. He lacks Clinton’s gift for often inspired parsing. Rather than embed meaning within meaning, Obama’s efforts actually draw attention. Note the past tense passive construct ‘We have had outsized influence’ stands out. No different than the WH’s correction of Axelrod’s cave on the Bush tax cuts. The WH quickly instructed him and others to claim he was misunderstood. Obama, they claim, is true to principle. Just that principle (ahem) is opposition to *permanently* extending Bush’s plutocratic wealth transfer subsidy. Don’t forget the military’s leaking that Obama’s hard deadline of 2011 Afghan draw down is now floated as December 31, 2014 (for now).

And that’s just in the last week.

Now put yourself in Beijing’s place. Or any G-20 leader sitting at the plenary session. Imagine your briefing on Obama before you arrived in Korea. You, like many leaders from Japan, Germany, China, Korea, etc. built your wealth and social stability on merchantilist predation on U.S. consumers and debt. And here comes yet another American president complaining that his country is tired of being a consumption and debt junkie. ‘Beijing has to stop manipulating its currency boosting its smack’, etc.

Next Media’s Animation on U.S.-China Currency Debate

Stronger men than Obama have gone to the pusher man. Most successfully Baker’s coup de main in 1985’s Plaza Accords. But then Baker knows how to play poker. His velvet hammer commanded respect.

Obama’s not that guy. Your briefing as a G-20 leader explains America’s too strung out now to handle the merchantilist product for much longer. The Fed QE easing/asset purchase doesn’t really threaten American inflating their way out of addicition. It’s more of an accounting measure for banks to re-configure their existing portfolios. But no American really understands that, especially CNBC reporters. So, your briefers advise, a few PR releases denouncing the move are meaningless but knock the young American off stride.

It’s all so inconvenient. You’ve been so focused on perfecting your labs and recruiting your mules like WalMart getting tastes of your junk into the American ‘tragedy of the commons’. You’re not used to thinking about responsibility, creating stable win-win international systems. Yours is the zero-sum game of wealth accumulation. Now you’ve got to think about what you need from a post-American debt junkie world.

The American junkie was convenient for everyone. Still no need to act precipitously; America is so hollowed out now all they export really is tweets. Don’t risk siding with Obama now against the Yuan, your briefers caution. The future is in flux. He can’t stand up to Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Boehner, etc. Besides, he always screws his allies and flatters his foes. The guy just admitted U.S. diminishment in Asia, after all, where ‘face’ is all. And worse, it’s clear the Americans don’t have a plan for methadone/detox other than more speeches about ‘Green jobs’ or – wait for it – more tax cuts!!

Why not kick the can down a road? Milk the junkie. And see what happens. With Obama it’s obvious the deal always gets better by waiting him out. He’ll probably even end up calling his own initial position ‘outsized’, to boot.