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Tomgram: Juan Cole, The Asian Century?

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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For Barack Obama, midterm 2010 has already been written off as a crushing Republican triumph, but that's hardly the full story. After all, approximately 29 million Americans who voted for him in 2008 didn't bother to stir for him or the Democrats in 2010. Think of it this way: he's less a man who lost to the opposition than a man who lost his own dispirited base, much of which is by now thoroughly disappointed, if not mad as hell, and evidently not particularly interested in supporting him anymore.

Like many presidents in defeat, he promptly left town (or "the bubble," as he's taken to calling it) for places as far east as possible, in this case all in Asia. In the wake of an electoral blowout, this previously planned diplomatic journey of goodwill was quickly recast as a search for American jobs. A little late to launch that search, of course, and India may not be the perfect fit either. After all, any American who has ever made that desperate call for computer or other technical assistance and found him or herself on the phone with some young person not in Bangor, Maine, but Bangalore, India, probably won't be overwhelmed by the allure of India's ability to deliver jobs to the U.S.

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Nonetheless, the president gamely arrived in India touting one of two industries which make things that go boom in the dark, where the U.S. still can't be beat. No, I'm not talking about Hollywood. You wouldn't take Hollywood to Bollywood, after all. I'm talking about that other American boom-time business under bust-time conditions: the making of high-tech weaponry. India was once a Russian bailiwick when it came to arms sales, but no longer. So the president arrived with a Boeing deal to sell C-17 transport planes to the Indian military for up to $5.8 billion (and so, supposedly, create 22,000 new American jobs). A "preliminary agreement" was inked on this trip, while the two countries agreed on a counterterrorism security initiative, and the U.S. lifted certain export controls on dual-use technology as well.

If weapons sales abroad could pull the U.S. out of its present job doldrums, however, they would have done so long ago. In the post-Cold War era the U.S. practically cornered the global arms market. If you want to count on anything, however, count on this: we'd be perfectly happy to arm to the teeth the two great regional rivals in South Asia, India and Pakistan, if they'll let us. After all, we arm the world (and worry about it later). Think of today's piece by Juan Cole, who runs the invaluable Informed Comment website and whose latest book is Engaging the Muslim World, as a preview presidential tour of the coming ruins of the American empire. Tom

Obama in Asia
Meeting American Decline Face to Face
By Juan Cole

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Blocked from major new domestic initiatives by a Republican victory in the midterm elections, President Barack Obama promptly lit out for Asia, a far more promising arena. That continent, after all, is rising, and Obama is eager to grasp the golden ring of Asian success.

Beyond being a goodwill ambassador for ten days, Obama is seeking sales of American-made durable and consumer goods, weapons deals, an expansion of trade, green energy cooperation, and the maintenance of a geopolitical balance in the region favorable to the United States. Just as the decline of the American economy hobbled him at home, however, the weakness of the United States on the world stage in the aftermath of Bush-era excesses has made real breakthroughs abroad unlikely.

Add to this the peculiar obsessions of the Washington power elite, with regard to Iran for instance, and you have an unpalatable mix. These all-American fixations are viewed as an inconvenience or worse in Asia, where powerful regional hegemons are increasingly determined to chart their own courses, even if in public they continue to humor a somewhat addled and infirm Uncle Sam.

Although the United States is still the world's largest economy, it is shackled by enormous public and private debt as well as fundamental weaknesses. Rivaled by an increasingly integrated European Union, it is projected to be overtaken economically by China in just over a decade. While the president's first stop, India, now has a nominal gross domestic product of only a little over a trillion dollars a year, it, too, is growing rapidly, even spectacularly, and its GDP may well quadruple by the early 2020s. The era of American dominance, in other words, is passing, and the time (just after World War II) when the U.S. accounted for half the world economy, a dim memory.

The odd American urge to invest heavily in perpetual war abroad, including "defense-related" spending of around a trillion dollars a year, has been a significant factor further weakening the country on the global stage. Most of the conventional weapons on which the U.S. continues to splurge could not even be deployed against nuclear powers like Russia, China, and India, emerging as key competitors when it comes to global markets, resources, and regional force projection. Those same conventional weapons have proved hardly more useful (in the sense of achieving quick and decisive victory, or even victory at all) in the unconventional wars the U.S. has repeatedly plunged into -- a sad fact that Bush's reckless attempt to occupy entire West Asian nations only demonstrated even more clearly to Washington's bemused rivals.

American weapons stockpiles (and copious plans for ever more high-tech versions of the same into the distant future) are therefore remarkably irrelevant to its situation, and known to be so. Meanwhile, its economy, burdened by debts incurred through wars and military spending sprees, and hollowed out by Wall Street shell games, is becoming a B-minus one in global terms.

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A Superpower With Feet of Clay

Just how weakened the United States has been in Asia is easily demonstrated by the series of rebuffs its overtures have suffered from regional powers. When, for instance, a tiff broke out this fall between China and Japan over a collision at sea near the disputed Senkaku Islands, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered to mediate. The offer was rejected out of hand by the Chinese, who appear to have deliberately halted exports of strategic rare-earth metals to Japan and the United States as a hard-nosed bargaining ploy. In response, the Obama administration quickly turned mealy-mouthed, affirming that while the islands come under American commitments to defend Japan for the time being, it would take no position on the question of who ultimately owned them.

Likewise, Pakistani politicians and pundits were virtually unanimous in demanding that President Obama raise the issue of disputed Kashmir with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his Indian sojourn. The Indians, however, had already firmly rejected any internationalization of the controversy, which centers on the future of the Muslim-majority state, a majority of whose inhabitants say they want independence. Although Obama had expressed an interest in helping resolve the Kashmir dispute during his presidential campaign, by last March his administration was already backing away from any mediation role unless both sides asked for Washington's help. In other words, Obama and Clinton promptly caved in to India's insistence that it was the regional power in South Asia and would brook no external interference.

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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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