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Obama the Pivot

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Cross-posted from Asia Times

The fabulous reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok does not exactly subscribe to drone wars and "targeted assassinations" -- not to mention bombing of civilian infrastructure. So the Buddha may have been puzzled -- to say the least -- when US President Barack Obama, right at the start of his whirlwind "pivoting" tour of Southeast Asia, and referring to Israel and Gaza, came up with this: "There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders."  

So imagine the Buddha in nirvana, mercifully surveying the sorry landscape of this valley of tears, and duly noting that Obama's drones do rain Hellfires from Pakistan to Yemen, while one of Israel's trademark -- extra-judicial -- target assassinations, of Hamas military leader Ahmad al-Jabari, was the preamble to unleashing the latest chapter of Israel's collective punishment of Gaza. 

Call it the Obama Doctrine or good ol' American exceptionalism; all across the Arab street Obama's endorsement of Israel's rampage was analyzed side by side with this perceptive bit of geopolitical analysis by Ariel Sharon's son; "We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn't stop with Hiroshima -- the Japanese weren't surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too." [1] 

Final solution, anyone? Not even Obama -- nor any other US president -- would admit the possibility that Tel Aviv routinely engages in collective punishment-based state terrorism. After all, as Golda Meir once said, "There are no such thing as Palestinians."  

That renders the spinning of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton being sent to broker an Israel/Hamas deal even more ludicrous. The Obama administration has no power to guarantee its ally Israel's promises to abide by a ceasefire. Still, a deal has to be brokered -- and the key broker is Egypt, under President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). 

From the start, Morsi knew Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu could not go on bombing forever -- what with the gruesome accumulation of "collateral damage." He knew Bibi would have to back down, because a "flatten all of Gaza" bombing followed by a ground war would run the risk of bogging down Israel not only in the terrain of world public opinion but in the geographical terrain as well. 

For weeks now, the mantra among conservatives and right-wingers in the US is that the Obama administration's Middle East policy now consists of kissing the feet of the MB. Even admitting Obama and his advisers do know how to deal with the MB (which is far from given), results of the wackiest kind should be expected. The MB is in power in Egypt; very well positioned to soon take power in US ally Jordan; now leading the remixed opposition bag in Syria; and totally supported all over by Qatar. On top of it, Hamas is essentially the MB in power in Gaza. 
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Considering that Qatar cautiously took a back seat in trying to solve the drama in Gaza (because it is afraid to antagonize Israel), Washington had to rely on Egypt. As for Morsi, he knew that if he didn't try to distance himself from the US in trying to broker a deal, the Egyptian street would hammer him in the next parliamentary elections. And only Morsi has enough margin of maneuver to dance around the supreme objective of Hamas -- which is to break for good the (illegal) physical and economic blockade of Gaza. 

Then there's curiouser and curiouser Syria. The remixed Syrian opposition council is a joint US-Qatar operation. Obama himself, in his first press conference after being re-elected, said he wanted an opposition "committed to a democratic Syria, an inclusive Syria, a moderate Syria." This is not exactly on the agenda in Doha -- not to mention Riyadh. 

What would have been Obama's reaction when he learned that Free Syrian Army gangs totally dismiss the new Syrian National Council -- whose leader Moaz al-Khatib, by the way, believes Facebook is an evil US/Israeli plot? The gangs have proclaimed they want "a fair Islamic state." Translation; screw Qatar and the US, we want to go the medieval Saudi way. 

No question; in the coming months it will be a blast to see Obama trying to pivot away from all this mess towards the Asia-Pacific. 

Too many fish in the sea
That brings us to the final destination of all this pivoting; China. 

Beijing's reading of the pivoting hype is straightforward. The Cold War is back -- and the new red (yellow?) menace is China. The Obama administration has no business in meddling into disputes in the South China Sea. As the Middle Kingdom's rise to top economic -- followed by political -- power in the world is as inexorable as death or taxes, all of Southeast Asia will prefer integration instead of confrontation. 

Now compare it with the rather comic stance of Obama -- who came up with the tension-elevating pivoting in the first place -- now posing as the benign appeaser of tensions, involving China, Taiwan and four Southeast Asian nations, during his whirlwind tour. 

Yet the fight is already on; after all, immense quantities of unexplored oil and gas are at stake. Beijing will only accept bilateral negotiations. The Philippines -- following US influence -- wants internationalization. Cambodia -- essentially a Chinese economic colony -- announced during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit that all members will discuss the South China Sea with China bilaterally. The Philippines -- which refers to a "Western Philippines Sea" -- said "forget it." At this stage, what ASEAN and Beijing must agree on is a "code of conduct." It will take time. But it's inevitable. 

Obama did meet with outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, whom he told the US and China must "establish clear rules of the road" for trade and investment. That's certainly more civilized than Mitt (Who?) Romney promising to start a trade/currency war with China on Day One of his presidency. There's no record of Wen mentioning the pivoting to Obama. 

So in the end, what was Obama exactly doing in his whirlwind Southeast Asia tour? To the horror of American exceptionalists of all strands, he was, essentially, offshoring US jobs. 

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Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His regular column, "The Roving Eye," is widely read. He is an analyst for the online news channel Real News, the roving correspondent for Asia Times/Hong Kong, an analyst for RT and (more...)

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