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"Just When I Thought I Was Out... ": Obama Pushes the Geopolitical Pivot Amidst Ancient Enmities

"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in."

Michael Corleone
The Godfather Part III

Poor Barack Obama. He wins one of the most hard-fought of presidential elections by a relatively comfortable margin and moves swiftly to push his geopolitical pivot to the Asia-Pacific with a big trip to the region. Only to find himself dealing with ancient enmities at the other end of the pivot.

And doing so with a new potential ally in Egypt's Mohamed Morsi under fire at home and an old ally in Israel's Ehud Barak apparently departing.


You can see an archive of my articles related to the geopolitical pivot from over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central to increased engagement with rising Asia and the Pacific by clicking here.

The good news is the truce between Israel and Hamas is holding. It appears that some 160 Palestinians were killed in this latest conflict over Gaza to only six Israelis. Israeli casualties were dramatically diminished by the success of the Iron Dome anti-missile system, developed by Israel and funded by the Obama Administration. Obama has announced that the US will help Israel expand and further improve its already formidable anti-missile capabilities.

Delegations from Hamas and Israel are in Cairo, where they began work on Monday to further flesh out the ceasefire agreement.

One system proved crucial in minimizing the level of conflict between Israel and Hamas. Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system, funded by the US, played a critical role in keeping Israeli casualties low in the conflict with Hamas. The success of Iron Dome may give Iran, which threatens missile attacks on Israel in the event of a strike against its nuclear program, a certain degree of pause.

With new Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader from USC, taking the lead, Cairo, one of the most fascinating cities in the world, became the pivot of all negotiations. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who played a shuttle diplomacy role in closing the deal and joined Egypt's foreign minister for the public announcement of the ceasefire) was one of a host of international figures who converged on the Arab world's largest city.

Morsi, who earned a doctorate at the University of Southern California and taught engineering for several years in Los Angeles, moved in the immediate aftermath of achieving global acclaim for brokering the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas to assert broad new powers, which he said would be temporary.

This triggered some violent protests, with Muslim Brotherhood offices firebombed in several cities.

However, while very spirited, the protests weren't all all that large. Today brought a much bigger protest, in the form of a "Million Man March" that seems to have fallen far short of that mark.

Morsi himself had gone earlier into the street to make his case, arguing that his concentration of powers would be temporary until a new constitution and new parliament are in place.

Not that anything like that has never been heard before, of course.

The former Cal State Northridge engineering professor issued a decree declaring sweeping powers while the constitutional assembly, which the country's old supreme court has tried to disperse, keeps working on a new constitution and a new parliament is elected.

Earlier this year, the supreme court invalidated the democratically-elected parliament, which was dominated by candidates of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. The courts also acquitted or gave light sentences to former officials of the Mubarak regime, whom Morsi proposes to have re-tried.

While Egypt sorts out its complex revolution, the effects of the latest Arab-Israeli conflict are coming into focus.

A day after playing the central role in brokering the Israel-Hamas ceasefire, new Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi declared sweeping powers in advance of the preparation of a new constitution. The engineering Ph.D. from USC says the move is necessary to sweep away remaining elements of the old Mubarak regime. Critics call it a dictatorial move.

Militarily, Israel and Hamas fought to a draw, which accounts for a wild victory celebration that broke out in Gaza City after the ceasefire went into effect. Israel's expeditions against pro-Palestinian militants in 2006 and 2008-2009 also ended in effective draws, but each resulted in far more Palestinian deaths than did this conflict.

Hamas did lose its military chief and co-founder, Ahmed al-Jaabari. But we will see if that assassination turns out to have been wise, for he exercised a major degree of control over militants and their often dispersed rockets, and his death leaves a vacuum.

Hamas seemed to gain in international legitimacy as the conflict unfolded and it proved able to stand up against Israel, with major Arab figures from throughout the region arriving in Gaza City, despite Israeli bombardment, to express solidarity with the group and the people of Gaza. But the surface of Arab politics can often conceal deeper, contrary meanings. It will take time to determine what the show of support actually means in any operational sense.

Israel also seemed to gain, from the standpoint of causing what may be a major draw-down of Hamas weaponry and successful somewhat surgical strikes against. And from the standpoint of demonstrating that, in Iron Dome, it has the makings of serious strategic defense. Which has to give Iran, which has threatened to rain fire on Israel in the event of a strike against its nuclear program, some pause as it contemplates its moves.

Israel may also have gained in the sense that it can work, albeit very indirectly, with a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt that has been no rhetorical friend to the Jewish state. Israel always relied on having one of the world's most effective armed forces and on a network of alliances with Arab dictators, most notably Hosni Mubarak.

But those dictators have been largely swept away by the Arab Awakening. That's the thing about dictatorship, it always breeds its own demise. And Israel's military, while still very formidable -- especially in its elite special ops and intel manifestations, not to mention its technological capabilities -- has underlying problems as a result of its years of campaigns against Palestinian militants.

The iconoclastic Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld warned more than a decade ago that using Israel's military might against a rebellious population would inevitably result in diminishing returns and a diminishment of the force.

President Obama sat down with Chinese Premier Wen Jiaboao and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda at the Asian summit in Cambodia. Major disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea were leading topics of discussion.

That is what happened with British forces in the late days of the Empire, not to mention the French in Algeria, the Americans in Vietnam, and the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Obama's efforts at the old end of the pivot may have been further complicated Monday when Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak -- the former Labor prime minister, chief of the IDF general staff, and head of Israeli special operations forces -- surprised many by announcing that he is leaving politics. Israel has a contentious national election on January 22nd, Barak alienated many of his old supporters on the left by being part of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's right-wing coalition government, and he recently parted ways with Netanyahu, his old army subordinate, on the latter's emphasis on a unilateral strike against Iran. Barak's new Independence Party doesn't poll well.

Barak has been, along with President Shimon Peres, a principal interlocutor between the current Israel government and the Obama Administration. Obama and Barak were already working to further the Iron Dome successor anti-missile system. But I suspect Barak's political story has not ended.

Then there is the kettle of fish comprising Benghazi.

After being brought down by a rather silly sex scandal, General David Petraeus testified before Thanksgiving that talking points emerging from CIA emphasized the likely terrorist act of the Benghazi disaster (Libyan officials said it was a jihadist attack from the beginning), rather than the thoroughly discredited notion that it was a a protest gone sour, but that those talking points were watered down along the way.

However it came about, it's a mistake, probably predictable butt-covering, not Watergate redux. It's only one of the things that need to be understood about how this happened, the most important of which is probably why intelligence missed it despite Benghazi being an important CIA place of operations.

With all this happening at the back end of the pivot the front end is in danger of being obscured. While the administration won't spell it out, countering the rise of China is a big motivator for the pivot.

After years of a trial and error project with its old converted cruiser-turned-aircraft carrier, China announced Sunday that it has finally succeeded in landing a jet fighter on its first ever aircraft carrier. The commissioning of the country's first carrier earlier this year is part of the PRC's drive to expand its power projection capabilities as it stakes extraordinarily expansive claims to virtually the entire South China Sea and confronts Japan over islands in the East China Sea.

China has successfully landed a fighter jet on its first aircraft carrier, which entered service two months ago. Xinhua News Agency announced the landing exercise on the Liaoning, a converted Soviet cruiser purchased from Ukraine, noting that it marked the debut of the J-15, a fighter-bomber developed by China from Russia's Sukhoi Su-33.

The Liaoning, however, is an old Soviet cruiser purchased from Ukraine, well behind US Navy capability. And Chinese pilots are at the very beginning of learning carrier air operations.

At last week's East Asia Summit, Obama said in public remarks and private meetings that the multifaceted dispute over the South China Sea must be settled in a multilateral fashion. China prefers bilateral negotiations with each of its neighbors, since it has an overwhelming preponderance of power to bring to bear in each such situation.

Obama reiterated that the US takes no position on any of the specific claims. But that the US will not allow any country, by which it means China, to use force to gain hegemony over the vast maritime region, which is a vital gateway for commerce and contains what are thought to be vast stores of oil and natural gas as well as fisheries key to Asian diets.

The US wants a new code of conduct to prevent clashes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, where China and Japan are facing off over a small string of islands. But China, which has explicitly balked at such a call in the past, did not commit to it this time, either.

All these things and more (which includes getting free of the slow-motion train wreck in Afghanistan) combine for a collective test of the bandwidth of the Obama Administration. It was never going to be easy and it may be getting harder.

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

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