Historically minded observers might have noted, in the Asian journey of President Barack Obama and the first lady, a resemblance to the royal passage of Britain’s King George V and Queen Mary in 1911. This culminated in the Great Durbar in Delhi (call it the G-1911?) at which the couple were crowned King-Emperor and Queen-Empress of India. The historically minded observer would also know that just 36 years later India was partitioned, and the British Empire was finished.
The Teapot opponents of Obama picked up and ran with the crackpot notion published in an Indian newspaper that the president’s journey in Asia involves a larger daily expenditure than the Afghanistan war and required restationing of half the ships in the U.S. Navy (half the “battleships” in the Navy, one nautically challenged reporter had it). This slander nonetheless fed upon the regal style of modern American presidential travel. Franklin D. Roosevelt did travel by battleship, but in 1945 the Secret Service put him in a converted C-54 freight plane to fly him to the Yalta Conference. (It was referred to as the “Sacred Cow.” That was a different Air Force then, and a different America.)
This trip has been a long-postponed effort to further promote the president’s standing as a maker of foreign policy, but to Asians it seemed designed to indicate Washington’s perceptions and preferences concerning an emerging Asian order, in which the U.S. confronts the rival claims of China, India and Japan to revise the world’s ranking of nations.
Mr. Obama first went to Delhi, offering Washington’s sympathy to India’s campaign to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, an ambition toward which Japan is cool, and which China tacitly opposes.
For Washington, the trip has mainly to do with American notions of future security arrangements in Asia, after the George W. Bush administration conferred an unprecedented nuclear partnership upon India, an effective nullification of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, until then a foundation block of American foreign policy.
The Obama government, after two seasons of what might be called sunshine relations with China, has now turned against Chinese currency policy and made an unwanted—by China—intervention into the contention between China and six of its neighbors over the possession and commercial rights connected with disputed territories in the South China Sea. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in July that the U.S. has a “national interest” in the resolution of this dispute. The U.S. has painful recollection of the area from Vietnam War days, and of course today maintains some 40,000 troops in Japan and an extensive base structure there (mainly in Okinawa), while there currently are 28,000 U.S. soldiers in South Korea. The U.S. presently intends to remain an Asian power—the Asian power.
All this has to do with geostrategic reconsideration in the Pentagon, the White House and contending think tanks in Washington over how the U.S.‘s role will be defined in the future. A “Greater Middle East” was announced by Washington in 2004, but failed to appear. The Iraq and Afghanistan interventions of the Bush administration were followed by Barack Obama’s support for another troop “surge” in Afghanistan, with partial troop withdrawal from Iraq, replaced by an enlarged civilian apparatus of State Department operations, supported by American mercenary forces, which it is hoped—against hope—will foster democratic development throughout Iraq. Mr. Bush’s failures have not so far daunted Barack Obama.
American foreign policy, as many before me have noted, is rarely changed by failure. What failure usually produces is expansion and generalization of the ideas and methods that already have produced failure, as is happening now. The lust for imperial power persists in governing circles, despite the tarnished crowns and lessons of history. Now it is described as The Long War to bring Democracy to the World.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
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