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War in Eastasia

July was the deadliest month yet for U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan. In Iraq, while political factions continue a five-month squabble over who will lead the government, insurgent violence is growing.

July was the deadliest month yet for U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan. In Iraq, while political factions continue a five-month squabble over who will lead the government, insurgent violence is growing. The WikiLeaks info-dump of more than 90,000 documents, in addition to proving to the few who had not yet realized that the United States is in deep doo-doo, have shown that our ally Pakistan is collaborating with the Taliban and al-Qaeda to plan attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan.

You’d think that the Pentagon had enough on its plate without more war. But that’s not how superpowers think. We have entered, as Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Fran Shor argues, an age of “imperial overkill,” in which we “rely even more heavily on the military to compensate for a waning hegemony in other domains.” Bogged down in our very own arc of crisis in southwest Asia, the Pentagon wants to make sure that other potential kings of the hill don’t take advantage of our preoccupation.

And so, over the last few months, the Obama administration has been engaged in serious displays of force in Asia. Washington has tightened the screws on North Korea and gone head-to-head against China. The Pentagon may well be signaling to Pyongyang and Beijing that it can handle the additional fight. But we might inadvertently find ourselves halfway down the path to war before it’s too late to step back.

The problems begin with North Korea. Ever since taking office, but particularly after North Korea’s second nuclear test last year, the Obama administration has been unenthusiastic about engaging Pyongyang. Instead, it has settled into a wary containment of the country. The sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan in March, which an international inquiry pinned on Pyongyang, only made matters worse. But rather than proceeding with utmost caution, the Obama administration got drawn into even more dangerous waters, thanks to the South Korean government.

“Hardliners in the South Korean military and the administration of President Lee Myung Bak, determined to thwart any possibility of dialogue with the North, have pushed relentlessly for an even more confrontational posture towards Pyongyang, seeking to enlist Washington in actions that made the Obama administration distinctly uncomfortable,” writes former CNN reporter Mike Chinoy.

Those actions include last month’s ramping up of a naval exercise near the Korean peninsula, when the Pentagon added a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington to the mix. This U.S.-South Korean exercise — with the overwhelming show of force provided by 20 warships, 200 planes, and 8,000 soldiers — came just after China and Russia managed to water down a UN Security Council statement, which condemned the sinking of the Cheonan, by avoiding any mention of North Korea as culprit. In the aftermath of this statement, North Korea pledged to return to the Six Party Talks and pursue both a peace treaty and denuclearization. But Washington remains in containment-plus mode, which will likely elicit precisely the kind of North Korean response — a third nuclear test, another long-range missile launch — that will usher in another escalation of tension.

Even as it tightens the screws on Pyongyang — with new financial sanctions and monthly U.S.-South Korean military exercises — Washington is turning up the heat on Beijing. True, at the last minute, the administration backed away from a direct confrontation with China by deploying the George Washington not to the Yellow Sea, as South Korea had wanted, but farther from Chinese waters in the Sea of Japan. But it looks as though the next time around, in this month’s exercise, the Pentagon will send the carrier to the Yellow Sea, regardless of Chinese objections.

In other ways, too, the Obama administration has been spoiling for a fight. At the recent ASEAN summit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressured China to “internationalize” the multi-party territorial dispute in the South China Sea. This maneuver, which required lining up the support of nearly a dozen countries in advance, caught China by surprise. Beijing would like to handle the dispute bilaterally. Big powers such as China or the United States usually prefer to throw their weight around in one-on-one negotiations.

Sure, the Obama administration, like its predecessor, engages China at the highest levels on economic issues — we depend, after all, on Chinese manufacturers, Chinese banks, and, occasionally, Chinese consumers — but we work hard to bottle up China militarily. If you look out from Beijing, all you see is the United States making alliances, sending arms, or intervening militarily on Chinese borders: the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the bilateral pacts with South Korea and Japan, the arms sales to Taiwan and India, and so on. We call it hedging. They call it encirclement.

And where China has made strong alliances of its own — Iran, Burma, North Korea — we’ve done our best to disrupt them. Granted, China is hanging out with some tough customers. But for equally pragmatic purposes, the United States cultivates some unsavory relationships, with the likes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel. So China bristles at the double-standard, and resists U.S. pressure to join in the sanctions stranglehold on Iran and North Korea.

The Pentagon isn’t interested in going to war in Asia. North Korea could wreak devastation in South Korea. A war with China, meanwhile, would wreak global devastation. Nor is it likely that either Pyongyang or Beijing is interested in picking a fight with the world’s military behemoth.

But the United States is also not willing to cede influence in Asia to a rising China. A recently released report from a bipartisan blue-ribbon panel of military experts, chaired by former U.S. officials Stephen Hadley and William Perry, recommends that the United States embark on a major upgrade of U.S. naval capabilities — to counter China. This report, like its eye-glazing brethren, is couched in the language of the long term, and it is appropriately diplomatic (speaking, for example, of “the rise of new global great powers in Asia” rather than referring to China in particular).

The reality on the ground — or in the water — is something different. When we conduct military exercises on China’s doorstep, and within range of a clearly unhappy North Korea, we might be unwittingly starting something that we neither want to nor are able to finish. In the dualism of our decline, we can think only of flexing muscles or relinquishing power: Use it or lose it. We shouldn’t be surprised when met by similar behavior, from our allies and adversaries alike.

Moving on in the Balkans

It’s been more than a decade since the wars in the Balkans ended. Those brutal conflicts, which divided up the former Yugoslavia, seem so very 20th century in retrospect. As much as writers such as Samuel Huntingdon attempted to frame the Balkan wars in religious terms — Orthodox vs. Catholic vs. Muslim — they were largely bloody struggles over territory and spoils. They were parochial in every sense of the word.

But as FPIF contributor David Gibbs points, the wars in the Balkans prefigured the wars of the 21st century in at least one important way. They provided a rationale for U.S. military intervention that would be dusted off later by both the Bush and Obama administrations, for instance in Iraq. “When intervention was actually undertaken in Bosnia, it mainly served to worsen the crisis,” Gibbs argues in The Srebrenica Massacre, After 15 Years. “There was considerable potential for a diplomatic solution to the Bosnia war. And there is evidence that diplomacy came close to settling the conflict, thus preventing the Srebrenica massacre. But this option was blocked by the United States.”

Only little Slovenia has managed to join the European Union. The rest of former Yugoslavia has been left waiting at the altar. “The EU struggles to calibrate its reaction to the slow progress of the Balkan states,” writes FPIF contributor Andrew Feldman in Balkan Accession: Slow and Steady Progress. “Officials don’t want to give large rewards for too little progress for fear that states won’t be pushed to make the big changes that are necessary. But they also don’t want states to get discouraged, and pro-EU politicians need something to show for their hard work and fight against ultra-nationalists.”

Fall-Out from the Bomb

In Uganda, in two venues showing the World Cup final last month, the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab set off two bombs that killed 76 people. The bombing was only the latest evidence that the violence engulfing Somalia threatens the region as a whole.

“In the final analysis,” argues FPIF contributor Francis Njubi Nesbitt in Al-Shabaab’s Wake-Up Call, “there is no military solution to the endemic violence in Somalia. The secret is proper sequencing of military, diplomatic, and development initiatives

Historian Howard Zinn’s last book looks at the political, military, and social implications of the bombings that the United States conducted against Germany and Japan. Zinn’s “experience during World War II left him unpersuaded by the arguments of military necessity and the appeals to nationalism,” writes FPIF contributor and IPS co-founder Marcus Raskin in his review. “We must refuse ‘to be transfixed by the actions of other people, the truths of other times,’ he writes in The Bomb. This ‘means acting on what we feel and think, here, now, for human flesh and sense, against the abstractions of duty and obedience.'”

Colombia, Nepal, and Drinking Water

After eight long years, Álvaro Uribe is finally on his way out. He will step down this month as Colombia’s president, to be replaced by his hand-picked successor Juan Manuel Santos. Before leaving office, however, Uribe has gone out of his way to provoke a conflict with long-time adversary Venezuela. “By precipitating a break in relations with Venezuela, Uribe seems to be expressing doubts that his political heir will comply with his hard-line policies,” writes FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen in Uribe’s Parting Shot. “On his way out, Uribe is attempting to lock in confrontational policies that have left Colombia with few allies in the South.”

Uribe, by the way, will be co-chairing the international inquiry into Israel’s attack on the Turkish flotilla. Well, he certainly knows something about state-sponsored violence.

Nepal, meanwhile, apparently can’t form a government. Its parliament just failed for the third time to elect a prime minister. “Nepal is a tiny Himalayan nation sandwiched between two mighty Asian rivals: India and China,” writes Deepak Adhikari in Postcard from…Nepal. “New Delhi and Beijing are using Nepal’s territory to wage a proxy war against each other. This interference in Nepal’s internal affairs has contributed to a political crisis that has already claimed one prime minister and threatens to undermine the peace process begun four years ago.”

Finally, in a spot of good news last week, 122 countries voted in the UN General Assembly that access to clean water and sanitation is a human right. No country voted against the resolution, though 44 countries abstained (including the United States). “As with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the implementation of the resolution would likely be uneven and won through local advocacy campaigns,” wrote FPIF contributor Daniel Moss before the vote in So That All May Drink. “Nevertheless, the resolution would constitute a legal tool to strengthen advocacy for thirsty people around the globe.”

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