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William Bradley

William Bradley

Posted: November 13, 2009 04:25 PM

Obama In Flux

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As he embarks on his first big trip to Asia, President Barack Obama's strategies are in flux in many areas.

His first stop, Japan, is acting more independently of America after the long reign of the relatively conservative Liberal Democratic Party.

His next stop, Singapore, host of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, holds a host of trade challenges, as well as a sideline meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.


Afghanistan is following President Barack Obama to Asia.

The stop after that, China, is the increasingly assertive great power on the cusp of superpower status, locked in a symbiotic economic relationship with America.

His final stop, South Korea, is friendly but embroiled in an endless stand-off with North Korea, another aspiring nuclear power.

It's no surprise that Obama is being followed on his Asian trip by other crises. Because so much in his geopolitics is so fundamentally unresolved, making that Nobel Peace Prize more than a bit premature.

He still doesn't have his newest strategy for Afghanistan. Pakistan is embroiled in its latest offensive against the Taliban.


Obama on Thursday began a week-long trip to Asia, touring a complex region where a newly assertive China and a more independent Japan are challenging America's traditional dominance.

Iran has refused to sign the nuclear agreement its representatives negotiated in Vienna.

The Iranian nuclear situation becomes more convoluted every day. Now the head of the Iranian military has stated that he favors the plan Iran agreed to last month in Vienna, only to stall on ratification, then say no, and then say it wanted to re-negotiate on "details."

There is either a power struggle under way in Tehran or Iran is trying to buy time against harsher sanctions and a possible Israeli attack.

The Obama Administration moved yesterday to seize a New York skyscraper and four mosques around the country -- including one in California, in the sleepy Sacramento suburb of Carmichael -- that it says are secretly controlled by Iran, serving as conduits of cash for the regime.

Then there is the endless question of Israel and Palestine. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton set off a firestorm in the Arab world when she said that Israel had done enough on its program of settlements on the West Bank. Which it is continuing. That was walked back by the administration. But there is little progress in this possibly intractable situation, with neither side willing to compromise much.

With regard to Russia, whose president Obama is again about to meet, it may be shifting away from Iran. This may be part of a complex series of political changes in Moscow which sees power apparently flowing away from the siloviki, or core group of security/intel types. Relations with Russia have also been in flux, with kinder words and some better cooperation on Afghanistan and nuclear proliferation, but no clear agreement on Russia's preferred sphere of influence in its "near abroad."


Tony Blair's farewell speech to the British Labour Party conference in 2006, the beginning of his long goodbye tour.

And then there is the matter of Tony Blair. (I know, he's not a country. Though an old friend joked that when he listens to the Beatles' "Sun King" he thinks of Blair.) His bid to be the first president of the European Union is still alive, though heavily opposed. In part because of Iraq, in part because he is in other respects out of step with Europe's mostly center-right leaders, and in part because he is a superstar who would overshadow smaller countries and the aspirational leaders of larger countries.

European leaders will gather in Brussels next Thursday to make the decision. Blair is a longtime American ally, to put it mildly, so his election would be mostly welcomed in Washington.

While almost all of America slept, Obama held summit meetings with new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

Hatoyama's party swept the long-ruling LDP from power earlier this year. Amidst promises of a more independent relationship with America. But Hatoyama is no radical. Actually, he is part of the long-ruling elite of his island nation.

His father was the foreign minister in an LDP government. His paternal grandfather was prime minister and head of the LDP. His maternal grandfather was the founder of Bridgestone, one of the world's largest tire companies.

It's likely, in the Japanese way, that he will pursue a moderated course of independence.

And Obama, with his Nobel Peace Prize and global celebrity, is the president to work that through, while retaining America's longtime fundamental interests in the region.

Japan still wants protection from North Korea, and a place under America's nuclear umbrella with regard to China. America still wants bases. Both want favorable trade arrangements and free-flowing capital and technology.

But it's Afghanistan that looms over Obama's shoulder as he makes his way through a series of geopolitical minefields in Asia.


Obama won't accept any of the Afghanistan war options before him without changes as concerns soar over the ability of the Afghan government to secure its own country

As Obama works his way toward his newest strategy on Afghanistan, a new Gallup Poll finds the nation split down the middle, with only pluralities for any position.

35% of Americans say he should follow the recommendation of the commanding U.S. general in Afghanistan and increase troop levels by about 40,000. Another 7% support a smaller troop increase, meaning a total of 42% of Americans support a troop increase of some size. However, nearly the same percentage, 44%, would like to see the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan reduced.

With 44% of Americans in the Nov. 5-8 poll favoring a troop reduction and 7% wanting to keep troop levels where they are, a slim majority appears to oppose a troop increase. Last month, using a different question wording, Gallup also found the public largely divided on sending more troops to Afghanistan.

If Obama decides to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, he will be going against the wishes of the vast majority of rank-and-file Democrats. In fact, 60% of Democrats would like the president to begin to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan, while 26% support a troop increase of about 40,000 (18%) or less than that number (8%).

On the other hand, the majority of Republicans side with Gen. McChrystal's recommendation and support an increase of about 40,000 U.S. troops, with an additional 6% of Republicans favoring a smaller troop increase.

Independents are evenly divided between favoring a troop increase of any size (36% would like Obama to follow McChrystal's recommended increase and 7% favor a smaller increase) and supporting a reduction in U.S. troops (43%).

This is a pretty slender reed on which to base an escalation.

There is also a big gender gap on Afghanistan.

Men are much more likely than women to favor expanding the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan. A majority of men favor a troop increase (including 45% who believe Obama should follow McChrystal's recommendation) while only 32% of women agree. A majority of women would like to see the U.S. reduce its troop presence in Afghanistan.


Obama took part in the memorial service at Fort Hood and also delivered an address, one of his best, on the enduring nature and value of military service in the changing world of the early 21st century.

In the midst of all that, Obama has wildly diverging advice from his new commander and his new ambassador in Afghanistan, a retired general himself.

Obama apparently now wants additional options beyond those presented by General Stanley McChrystal, US commander in Afghanistan. And an exit plan. As well he might.

The new US ambassador to Afghanistan, retired General Karl Eikenberry, sent several cables late last week to the president opposing an escalation in Afghanistan, saying that President Hamid Karzai is incompetent and corrupt and that a surge will only make Afghanistan more dependent on America.

The only reasonable mission for America in Afghanistan is to ensure that Al Qaeda can no longer use it as a base for its training and operations. That doesn't require the sort of nation-building as counter-insurgency that McChrystal is advocating. Advocating, that is, with no guarantee of success.

That there is so much unsettled doesn't mean that Obama isn't doing his job. It means that it's a complicated world not given to bumper sticker "solutions."


You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.