President Obama with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

President Obama with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

President Obama, who is in Japan today, has announced that the U.S. defense treaty with Japan applies to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Japan and China are in dispute over who has sovereignty over the largely uninhabited island chain in the East China Sea, but Obama’s statement, simultaneously meant to reassure Tokyo and threaten Beijing, made clear that the U.S. will go to war against China if the territorial dispute erupts into conflict.

Ankit Panda at The Diplomat:

In an interview ahead of his trip with Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, Obama said that the United States regards the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands as falling under the purview of the U.S.-Japan security treaty and that the United States would oppose any attempt to undermine Japan’s control of the islands. “The policy of the United States is clear—the Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. And we oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands,” Obama stated in the Yomiuri Shimbun.

The statement naturally drew protest from the Chinese foreign ministry. ”The so-called US-Japan alliance is a bilateral arrangement from the Cold War and ought not to harm China’s territorial sovereignty and reasonable rights,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang noted. The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are disputed by China and Japan, both of whom regard the entirety of the islands and their surrounding waters as their sovereign territory. In 2012, Japan purchased some of the islands from a private owner, effectively nationalizing them. Since then, the dispute has been a major feature of relations between China and Japan.

Throughout a range of U.S. foreign policy issues, references to Chamberlain’s 1938 appeasement to Hitler at Munich are ubiquitous. Wherever the U.S. chooses diplomacy or neutrality over threats and military action, you have hawks screaming “Munich!” in an attempt to argue that “weakness” invites world war.

But what about the lessons of the First World War? A perilous system of alliances and defense treaties helped plummet Europe into one of the most bloody conflicts in human history. A relatively petty and localized issue, like an Austrian archduke getting assassinated by a Serbian anarchist, triggered Germany’s involvement in hostilities against Serbia, which triggered Russia’s involvement which triggered France and Britain’s involvement, and the rest is history.

Surely, if hawks are just trying to stave off devastating conflicts, they should be warning against reckless entangling alliances just as much as they warn against “appeasement.”

China and Japan have been patrolling the waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in deliberately provocative ways to demonstrate their sovereignty over the territory. This could easily result in a minor clash that would trigger an explosion out of all proportion to the actual dispute.

“My biggest fear is that a small mishap is going to blow up into something much bigger,” says Elizabeth C. Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“If there is a use of force between Japan and China,” warns Sheila A. Smith, also of CFR, “this could be all-out conflict between these two Asian giants. And as a treaty ally of Japan, it will automatically involve the United States.”

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are not a vital U.S. interest. The dispute over them between Japan and China has nothing to do with Americans. But Obama just promised the world he’ll go to war over a bunch of rocks in the East China Sea, if he has to.

In yet another definitive piece for the New Yorker titled What We Left Behind, Dexter Filkins writes about Iraq today, especially Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who the United States helped install. Many Americans blame Iraqis for killing their fellow citizens simply because they’re of a different sect of Islam. But we need to remember: besides perpetrating a huge amount of the violence ourselves, by invading Iraq the United States effectively freed an evil genie – excuse any cultural insensitivity the metaphor may conjure up – out of its bottle. When it subsequently rampaged across the land wreaking death and destruction, the United States took little responsibility for catching it and stuffing it back in.

The best that can be said for the United States is that when it left Iraq, the murderous sectarian strife between the Sunnis and Shiites had lowered in intensity. But Shiites have been protesting against Maliki’s Shiite government and he has responded with a heavy hand that has sparked violence on a scale that harkens back to the worst of when the U.S. was still there. Filkins writes:

When Maliki became Prime Minister, some Iraqis hoped that he might help unify the country. He brought members of parliament into his coalition by promising to reach out to Sunnis and Kurds. But, far more often, Maliki used his position to continue the war for the Shiites, fighting what he sees as an irreconcilable group of Sunni revanchists.

Here’s an example of the resurgence in violence and how Maliki deals with dissidents. In 2011, shortly after the Americans left, he sent in troops to clear protesters from Ramadi.

Anbar Province erupted, along with the rest of Sunni Iraq, and the violence has not ceased. A wave of car bombers and suicide bombers struck Baghdad; in January, more than a thousand Iraqi civilians died, the overwhelming majority of them Shiites, making it one of the bloodiest months since the height of the American war. In the effort to put down the upheaval, Maliki ringed the province’s two largest cities, Falluja and Ramadi, with artillery and began shelling.

Another example:

[Maliki’s] government responded savagely to the new round of protests. In April [of this year], after a soldier was killed in the Sunni town of Hawija, troops attacked an encampment of protesters there, killing at least forty-four people. In a televised speech, Maliki warned of a “sectarian war,” and blamed the violence on “remnants of the Baath Party.” Hundreds of Iraqis, most of them Sunni civilians, were killed as the crackdown continued.

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After seven years of formal separation, the Palestinian parties of Fatah and Hamas have agreed to come together and form a unity government. Since the U.S. and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist group instead of a political party, they both vehemently oppose the agreement.

“It is hard to see how Israel can be expected to negotiate with a government that doesn’t believe in its right to exist,” asserted State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki.

It shouldn’t be news to Psaki that the negotiations already fell apart because of Israel (according to John Kerry). So the agreement does not have an appreciable effect on peace talks. But more importantly, Psaki’s inability to see the inherent hypocrisy in her statement is almost shocking.

Juan Cole:

The US spokesperson said that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a party that does not believe it has a right to exist. The hypocrisy and irony is thick. Israel doesn’t recognize the right of Palestine to exist. As for the demand that Hamas renounce violence, likewise, Israel has not renounced violent aggression toward the Palestinians, something it and its settler surrogates engage in daily. The fact is that parties to negotiations are often engaged in violence against one another (hence the negotiations) and often don’t recognize each other’s legitimacy at the start.

Palestinians must recognize Israel’s right to exist, but Israel can, through its words and its actions, deny Palestine’s right to exist. Palestinians must renounce all violence in order to have legitimacy in peace talks, whereas Israel is not only exempt from this obligation but can use violence as a matter of routine. Indeed, “After the agreement was announced,” reports the Guardian, Israel “launched an air strike on a site in the north of the Gaza Strip, wounding 12 people including children.” The message apparently is that Palestinians better not come to political agreements that Israel opposes, or else Israel will drop bombs on their children.

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Over at The Diplomat, Shannon Tiezzi worries that Obama’s trip to Asia this week “will increase perceptions in Beijing that the U.S. seeks to contain China’s rise.” It’s difficult to counter that perception because it happens to be correct.

Obama is visiting Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Three of those four countries have formal security agreements with Washington obligating the U.S. to go to war in their defense. All three have made explicit pleas that Washington reassure their security against China in the form of economic, military, and diplomatic support.

Malaysia does not have such a formal defense treaty, but one could be on the way. Like Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, Malaysia has tense territorial and maritime disputes with China, most recently over “the James Shoal, just 80 kilometers (50 miles) off the coast of Malaysia’s Sarawak state.”

More than the territorial disputes, Malaysia represents a key geopolitical asset for hegemonic powers in the region. “The oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and fifteen times the amount that transits the Panama Canal,” reports Robert Kaplan in his new book. “Roughly two thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and 80 percent of China’s crude oil imports come through the South China Sea.” Unsurprisingly, Obama is trying to make friends with Malaysia to maintain control of Asia Pacific’s sea lanes and keep China in a weaker position.

The U.S. has extensive military relationships with all four countries Obama is visiting. Almost 30,000 troops occupy South Korea and 40,000 occupy Japan. The U.S. has at least hundreds of troops in the Philippines, and may get more following new agreements expected in coming months. And hundreds of Malaysian troops are trained by the U.S. military every year.

Add to all this the dramatically increased U.S. naval presence in the Asia Pacific and the U.S.’s military relationships with Guam, Singapore, Taiwan, Australia, Indonesia and even Vietnam and you have a virtual military encirclement of China. Washington allies with all of China’s neighboring rivals, and somehow Beijing is expected to perceive this as something other than a hostile containment policy?

In Asia, U.S. policy is about maintaining hegemony – or at least preventing Chinese hegemony. As Geoff Dyer writes, “America has defined its vital interest as preventing any one power from dominating the other main regions of the world and turning them into a private sphere of influence.” In other words, the U.S. is on a mission to prevent China from doing exactly what America did in its own Western Hemisphere; namely, dominating its own sphere of regional influence.

Problematically for Washington, it is difficult to disguise this policy with the usual moralistic platitudes about democracy, capitalism, and freedom. China is no Soviet Union. They can hardly be accused of being some kind of global menace, since they mostly focus on growing their own economy. They aren’t democratic, but neither are half the countries the U.S. supports in opposition to China. This isn’t about making the world safe for democracy. It is about power.

This is clear to anyone who looks honestly at U.S. policy and, in particular, the “Asia Pivot.” And yes, we can be darn sure it is clear to China.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel meets with Egyptian general Abdel Fatah Saeed Al Sisy

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel meets with Egyptian general Abdel Fatah Saeed Al Sisy

The Washington Post reports that the U.S. has decided to “partially resume military aid to Egypt”:

The United States has decided to resume delivery of Apache helicopters to Egypt, the Pentagon announced late Tuesday, backtracking on a decision officials made last summer following the country’s military coup and its violent aftermath.

The Obama administration opted to go ahead with the delivery of 10 aircraft to help Egypt combat cells of extremists in the Sinai, even though Washington is unable to meet congressional criteria for the full resumption of aid.

The bottom line is that the Obama administration has decided to defy U.S. laws that prohibit sending military aid to undemocratic coup governments. The human rights situation in Egypt has deteriorated in the lead up to this decision to send the military junta the ten Apache helicopters they’ve been begging for. The Post:

Since the coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi last year, Egypt’s military-backed government has orchestrated a brutal crackdown on the Morsi-allied Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing. Egypt also has imprisoned hundreds of secular activists. And it has detained journalists from Al Jazeera on charges that the television network and press-freedom activists call unfounded.

The Post headline is actually somewhat misleading. It’s not so much that Washington is “partially resuming military aid to Egypt,” but rather that the aid was only partially halted to begin with. Last October, President Obama suspended millions of dollars from the annual U.S. aid package and halted advanced military hardware. But the Egyptian regime still received about $1.6 billion in U.S. aid. The so called “halt” was largely symbolic.

The U.S. has always opposed democracy and supported authoritarianism in Egypt, so this should come as no surprise. The internal Washington logic, however, is that while continuing to support the military junta may not be good for democracy and human rights, it will help secure U.S. interests. These interests supposedly are the following: (1) to help Cairo battle extremists in the Sinai, (2) to maintain control of the Suez Canal, which the U.S. Navy uses to send warships from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf and through which “8 percent of global seaborne trade and 4.5 percent of world oil supplies travel,” and (3) to maintain the peace treaty with Israel.

On the first issue, Cairo has more to fear from extremist groups in the Sinai than Washington does, since they don’t actually threaten America. As for the Suez Canal, again, Cairo has no interest in closing that vital passageway; it would hurt them economically and geopolitically far more than it would hurt the U.S. or world economy. And on the third count, the peace treaty with Israel is maintained because of Israel’s military superiority, not U.S. bribery; Egypt is too unstable for the regime or even some other popularly elected group to risk conflict by rescinding the treaty.

In short, U.S. aid to Egypt works against U.S. interests, not in favor of them. Meanwhile, the military regime continues to brutalize the population and restrict freedom across the board.

“…it would be good to know under what circumstances the White House thinks it can kill Americans without a trial.”

If Rip Van Winkle awoke just yesterday, he might be dumbfounded at the above sentence. To Americans in the Obama-era, it is an all too relatable assertion.

The sentence comes from The New Yorker‘s Amy Davidson and she is referring to the court decision this week that ordered the Obama administration to release the legal memo that authorized targeting an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, for assassination.

In it’s decision, the court made clear that this does ”not challenge the lawfulness of drone attacks or targeted killings.” Instead, as Davidson sardonically puts it, the decision establishes that, “We get to know what the law is.”

The case is important, first, because it would be good to know under what circumstances the White House thinks it can kill Americans without a trial. More than that, the decision turns on what has become, especially after Edward Snowden’s leak of N.S.A. documents, the crucial point in the debate over civil liberties and security: the government gets to have secrets, but it doesn’t get to have secret laws.

…More than a year after the Awlakis were killed—and after a lower-court judge upheld the government’s denial of the F.O.I.A. request for the memo—Michael Isikoff, of NBC, obtained a Department of Justice white paper on targeted killings. This was a sort of Cliff’s Notes for the secret O.L.C. memo, sixteen pages long and deeply unsatisfying. It used words like “imminent threat” in ways that were jarringly vague. On its own, the white paper suggested that the President could decide that an American living abroad was frightening, and that would be enough for a death sentence—it would count as due process if the President duly processed the question in his own mind, taking time to think it through.

…We get to know what the law is. The most important single revelation in the Snowden papers has been that, too often, we did not. There were secret surveillance-court decisions that interpreted statutes in ways that defied the plain meaning of English words like “collected” and “targeted.” Targeted listening, targeted killing—we need to know, when the government talks and directs and justifies, just what it thinks it is saying.

As I wrote in The American Conservative last year, the Obama administration has excelled in “vastly increasing the government’s use of secret laws and secret interpretations of known laws.” To the extent that this court decision puts a check on that dangerous expansion of power (the government may still appeal), this decision is a success.

With any luck, the decision will put pressure on the administration to reign in its drone war in general. As Rosa Brooks, Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center told Congress last year, “When a government claims for itself the unreviewable power to kill anyone, anywhere on earth, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret information discussed in a secret process by largely unnamed individuals, it undermines the rule of law.”