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Alfred McCoy, Maintaining American Supremacy in the Twenty-First Century

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This article" originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

It could be a joke of the "a penguin, a rabbi, and a priest walked into a bar" variety, but this one would start, "five Chinese naval vessels operating in the Bering Sea sailed into U.S. territorial waters, coming within 12 miles of the U.S. coast..." And the punch line would be yours to come up with. Certainly, that "event," which did indeed occur recently (without notification to U.S. authorities), caused a small news flap here, in part because President Obama was then visiting Alaska. Not since German U-boats prowled off the East Coast of the U.S. during World War II had such a thing happened and though American officials reported that the Chinese had done nothing illegal or that failed to comply with international law, it still had a certain shock effect in a country that's used to its own navy traveling the world's waters at will.

No one would think to report similarly on U.S. ships transiting global waters of every sort (often with the urge to impress or issue a warning). It's the norm of our world that the U.S. can travel the waters of its choice, including Chinese territorial ones, without comment or prior notification to anybody, and that it can build strings of bases and garrisons to "contain" China, and determine which waters off China's coasts are "Chinese" and which are, in effect, American. This is commonplace and so hardly news here.

Any Chinese attempt to challenge this, however symbolically -- and those five ships were clearly meant to tweak the maritime nose of the globe's "sole superpower" -- is news indeed. That includes, of course, the giant, grim, militaristic parade the Chinese leadership recently organized in the streets of Beijing, which U.S. news reports left you feeling had taken place, like the brief voyage of those five ships, somewhere in close proximity to U.S. territory. There's no question that, despite recent economic setbacks, the Chinese still consider themselves the rising power on planet Earth, and are increasingly eager to draw some aggressive boundaries in the Pacific, while challenging a country that is "pivoting" directly into its neighborhood in a very public way. Get used to all this. It's the beginning of what could prove to be a decades-long militarized contest between two bulked-up powers, each eager enough to be off the coast of the other one (though the only coast China is likely to be off in a serious way for a long time to come is the cyber-coast of America).

Fortunately, TomDispatch has Alfred McCoy, a veteran empire watcher, keeping an eye on all of this. Recently, he wrote a much-noted piece, "The Geopolitics of American Global Decline," on Chinese attempts to reorganize the "world island" of Eurasia and break the encircling bounds of American power. Today, in what is in essence part two, he turns to the other side of the equation, American power (never to be underestimated), and suggests that, in the imperial sweepstakes that have been the essence of global politics since at least the sixteenth century, the most underestimated figure of our moment may be President Barack Obama. The question McCoy raises: Might Obama's global policies, much derided here, actually extend the American "century" deep into the twenty-first? Tom

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Grandmaster of the Great Game
Obama's Geopolitical Strategy for Containing China
By Alfred W. McCoy

In ways that have eluded Washington pundits and policymakers, President Barack Obama is deploying a subtle geopolitical strategy that, if successful, might give Washington a fighting chance to extend its global hegemony deep into the twenty-first century. After six years of silent, sometimes secret preparations, the Obama White House has recently unveiled some bold diplomatic initiatives whose sum is nothing less than a tri-continental strategy to check Beijing's rise. As these moves unfold, Obama is revealing himself as one of those rare grandmasters who appear every generation or two with an ability to go beyond mere foreign policy and play that ruthless global game called geopolitics.

Since he took office in 2009, Obama has faced an unremitting chorus of criticism, left and right, domestic and foreign, dismissing him as hapless, even hopeless. "He's a poor ignoramus; he should read and study a little to understand reality," said Venezuela's leftist president Hugo Chavez, just months after Obama's inauguration. "I think he has projected a position of weakness and... a lack of leadership," claimed Republican Senator John McCain in 2012. "After six years," opined a commentator from the conservative Heritage Foundation last April, "he still displays a troubling misunderstanding of power and the leadership role the United States plays in the international system." Even former Democratic President Jimmy Carter recently dismissed Obama's foreign policy achievements as "minimal." Voicing the views of many Americans, Donald Trump derided his global vision this way: "We have a president who doesn't have a clue."

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But let's give credit where it's due. Without proclaiming a presumptuously labeled policy such as "triangulation," "the Nixon Doctrine," or even a "freedom agenda," Obama has moved step-by-step to repair the damage caused by a plethora of Washington foreign policy debacles, old and new, and then maneuvered deftly to rebuild America's fading global influence.

Viewed historically, Obama has set out to correct past foreign policy excesses and disasters, largely the product of imperial overreach, that can be traced to several generations of American leaders bent on the exercise of unilateral power. Within the spectrum of American state power, he has slowly shifted from the coercion of war, occupation, torture, and other forms of unilateral military action toward the more cooperative realm of trade, diplomacy, and mutual security -- all in search of a new version of American supremacy.

Obama first had to deal with the disasters of the post-9/11 years. Looking through history's rearview mirror, Bush-Cheney Republicans imagined the Middle East was the on-ramp to greater world power and burned up at least two trillion dollars and much of U.S. prestige in a misbegotten attempt to make that illusion a reality. Since the first day of his presidency, Obama has been trying to pull back from or ameliorate the resulting Bush-made miasmas in Afghanistan and Iraq (though with only modest success), while resisting constant Republican pressures to reengage fully in the permanent, pointless Middle Eastern war that they consider their own. Instead of Bush's endless occupations with 170,000 troops in Iraq and 101,000 in Afghanistan, Obama's military has adopted a more mobile Middle Eastern footprint of advisers, air strikes, drones, and special operations squads. On other matters, however, Obama has acted far more boldly.

Covert Cold War Disasters

Obama's diplomats have, for instance, pursued reconciliation with three "rogue" states -- Burma, Iran, and Cuba -- whose seemingly implacable opposition to the U.S. sprang from some of the most disastrous CIA covert interventions of the Cold War.

In 1951, as that "war" gripped the globe, Democratic President Harry Truman ordered the CIA to arm some 12,000 Nationalist Chinese soldiers who had been driven out of their country by communist forces and had taken refuge in northern Burma. The result: three disastrous attempts to invade their former homeland. After being slapped back across the border by mere provincial militia, the Nationalist troops, again with covert CIA support, occupied Burma's northeast, prompting Rangoon to lodge a formal complaint at the U.N. and the U.S. ambassador to Burma to resign in protest.

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Not only was this operation one of the great disasters in a tangled history of such CIA interventions, forcing a major shake-up inside the Agency, but it also produced a lasting breach in bilateral relations with Burma, contributing to that country's sense of isolation from the international community. Even at the Cold War's close 40 years later, Burma's military junta persisted in its international isolation while retaining a close dependency relationship with China, thereby giving Beijing a special claim to its rich resources and strategic access to the Indian Ocean.

During his initial term in office, Obama made a concerted effort to heal this strategic breach in Washington's encirclement of the Eurasian land mass. He sent Hillary Clinton on the first formal mission to Burma by a secretary of state in more than 50 years; appointed the first ambassador in 22 years; and, in November 2012, became the first president to visit the country that, in an address to students at Rangoon University, he called the "crossroads of East and South Asia" that borders on "the most populated nations on the planet."

Washington's Cold War blunders were genuinely bipartisan. Following Truman and drawing on his own experience as Allied commander for Europe during World War II, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower proceeded to wage the Cold War from the White House with the National Security Council as his staff and the CIA as his secret army. Among the 170 CIA covert operations in 48 countries that Eisenhower authorized, two must rank as major debacles, inflicting especially lasting damage on America's global standing.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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