Obama, Teabaggers, Foreign Policy and Asia

If you have been following what America’s right-wing bloggers and radio talk-show hosts have been saying about President Barack Obama’s just-concluded trip to the Asia-Pacific, you would be under the impression that Obama was not treated by officials in that region as the leader of the world’s only remaining superpower and the largest and most advanced economy.

The neo and ultra-conservative pundits recalled the good-old-days when former American presidents were supposedly treated with so much respect in Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing as they used American economic and military might to compel leaders there to bow to Washington’s dictates. But as the right-wingers see it, Obama acted as though he was the leader of just another normal nation and not that of the great power that had won the Cold War not so long ago, projecting a certain level of timidity during his East Asian tour which might explain why he was cold shouldered by the East Asians. And that was such a humiliating experience for proud Americans like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

Indeed, according to these and other nutty loudmouths, Obama had disgraced his country by having taken a deep bow at the waist while meeting Japan’s Emperor Akihito. Hey, remember how former US vice president Dick Cheney, greeted the emperor in 2007 with a firm handshake — but no bow — just the way a real American Man would conduct himself.

American historians were quick to note that Obama was not the first U.S. President to take a bow, following the rules of diplomatic etiquette when meeting with foreign kings, queens, and other heads of state. In fact, former President Richard Nixon – you know, that lefty peacenik — bowed to Akihito’s father in Japan in 1971. And he was the same Japanese emperor who had led his country to war with the U.S. in 1941.

The notion that Obama didn’t get any R-E-S-P-E-C-T in the Asia-Pacific during his visit and that his “wow bow” in Tokyo reflected a supposedly spineless diplomacy of kowtowing to China and capitulating to other rising powers in the region over security and trade issues is probably just another example of the kind of hysterical Obama bashing that has engulfed America’s flagging political right since last November.

In the right-wing alternate universe Obama is seen as being responsible for the Great Recession, the mess in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now also for the economic and military rise of China, the changing Japanese attitudes towards America and the other challenges facing American power in East Asia. According to the members of the non-reality-based community the suggestion that the China may be less willing to play ball with Obama has nothing to do with America’s real weakened economic and military position in the aftermath of the financial meltdown in Wall Street and the War in Iraq. Nope. It all has to do with the perception of American weakness that has been produced by Obama’s more conciliatory approach towards China (dubbed by officials in Washington dubbed as “strategic reassurance”), his willingness continue negotiations with the Japanese over the status of U.S. military bases Okinawa and his engagement with the military regime in Myanmar.

But in reality, this kind of more conciliatory approach that have been embraced by Obama in his dealing with China, Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is part of an effort to adjust American position in the Asia-Pacific in response to the very real changing geo-strategic and geo-economic balance of power, and in particular to the shifting balance of power between America and China.

Indeed, the transformation of the post-Cold War unipolar U.S.-dominated international system into a looser multi-polar system was inevitable. From that perspective it is quite possible that historians in the future would contend that the most important event that had taken in place in 2001 was not the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington but what happened exactly two months later – the accession of China into the World Trade Organization (WTO) which marked the start of its full integration into the global economy.

That this process of diminishing unipolarism and increasing multipolarism has accelerated under Obama’s predecessor has to do with the costly policies at home (irresponsible fiscal and monetary policies) and abroad (military unilateralism and the war in Iraq) that have weakened U.S. status around the world, including in East Asia, and provided the Chinese with even more opportunity to exert their economic and diplomatic influence while America continued sinking into the many military quagmires in the Greater Middle East.

Taking into consideration that what Obama has been trying to begin reversing the trend towards American retreat from Asia that took place under President George W. Bush, one could argue his East Asia tour was certainly a good start. America and China are not about to form a permanent “Group of 2” forum. But during the talks in Beijing that covered currency, climate change, tariffs, Iran and Afghanistan — the American and Chinese leaders took the first steps in a long road in which each side will have to provide strategic reassurances to other. It would a process involving reciprocity under which the Americans will not be anymore in a position to deliver sermons and dictate outcomes to the Chinese.

That could be certainly a humbling experience for the right-wing critics and the neoconservatives who seem to operate under the illusion that America is still Number One and that it can still continue cutting taxes, expanding the deficit, fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while defeating terrorism, containing China and Russia, punishing “rogue regimes” and spreading democracy and human rights around the world.

But one of the main reasons why America has less leverage in its dealing with China is fact that the Chinese are playing now the role of America’s banker as they continue financing the growing U.S. deficits. And in order to reduce these deficits, Americans will have to cut spending, which should include reductions the same U.S. military commitments abroad that right-wing critics would actually like to see increased.

Indeed, the same teabaggers who in the name of conservative values of limited government and fiscal restraint have been clobbering Obama and the Democrats for expanding the power of the federal government to promote a domestic liberal agenda, including $787 billion economic stimulus and his health-care reform proposals, seemed to have become born-again government interventionists, progressive internationalists and social engineers when it comes to Iraq and Afghanistan and to millions of foreigners and other distant societies whose values are alien to most Americans. Many of our irate anti-statist conservatives want to see the same U.S. government whose power they decry when tries to manage the school system in, say, Lebanon, Ohio, managing lots of stuff in, say, Lebanon. Help build the health care system in Afghanistan — but not in America.

In fact, according to most public opinion polls the majority of American conservatives support increasing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. The same teabaggers who are bashing Obama Administration as “socialistic” and “fascistic” seem to be quite enthusiastic about an Obama doing more national building in Afghanistan, which is bound to help raise the U.S. deficit into the stratosphere and expand the power of the federal government.

As Obama and the Democrats contemplate a new strategy for Afghanistan they should consider integrating the conservative values of fiscal discipline and limited government into their decision-making on this central foreign policy issue. After all, reducing and not expanding U.S. military in Afghanistan (and Iraq, and Korea, and Japan, and…) would help control the spending by the federal government and reduce the ballooning deficit. And that, after all, is exactly what our teabaggers are demanding.

Leon Hadar

November 24, 2009

The Daily Reckoning