Darwinian: Obama Goes Post-Iraq in Oz, Republicans Race to the Past

Things are getting very Darwinian in presidential politics. It's a matter of competition, a matter of evolution -- as in who gets the future and who does not -- and a matter of the little city of Darwin, Australia. Ironic, in that most of the Republican presidential field rejects Darwin's evolution science.

"In the Asia Pacific of the 21st century, the United States of America is all in." So said President Barack Obama in his address to the Australian Parliament as he unveiled an upgraded security alliance with Australia, an historic ally from World War II days.

Obama is rolling out the major beginnings of a post-Iraq geopolitical posture for the US and a revamped political, economic, and security architecture in the Pacific Basin, in large part to counter the rise of China. Which has been undercutting US industries and making new aggressive moves over the past year in the South China Sea -- most of which it claims, to the consternation of its neighboring countries -- and some threatening moves, as always, towards Taiwan.

Tensions over China's yuan currency and very expansive claims of sovereignty over its neighbors in the South China Sea dominated the East Asia Summit in Indonesia, where President Barack Obama lived as a boy.

Obama recognizes that the distinction between local and global politics is becoming evanescent. At the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hawaii, he pushed a Trans Pacific Partnership on economic issues which China is encouraged to join. If, that is, it stops depressing the yuan, much more stringently protects intellectual property rights, and sharply cuts state subsidies to its corporations. Which of course would disrupt China's strategy.

As for the rest of Obama's strategy in what he calls the Asia Pacific, much of it hinges on Darwin, Australia.

This lovely tropical city of 125,000 at the northern edge of Oz, which I've visited, is about to loom very large on America's geopolitical map. Though the numbers are small -- only a company of Marines at first, ultimately a brigade -- Obama has decided to flow US military forces in such a way that the Australian base there will become a de facto joint base with the United States.

All the better to oversee the southern reaches of the South China Sea, which China is very aggressive in claiming over its neighbors, and Indian Ocean trade routes.

The US is looking past its ill-fated Iraq and Afghanistan adventures and Darwin is one of the keys to this future.

Discovered and founded in the 1830s by the crew of the legendary British explorer ship HMS Beagle, Darwin is named for, yes, Charles Darwin, the father of the science of evolution. Darwin had been aboard Beagle for its previous voyage of discovery, and the young naturalist evidently made quite an impression on his shipmates.

Early in World War II, Darwin was the site of a major Japanese attack, the Australian equivalent of Pearl Harbor, though on February 19th, 1942 rather than December 7th, 1941. It was to become an important staging area for US and Australian forces during the Pacific War.

Obama spoke to Australian troops and US Marines at Royal Australian Air Force Base Darwin on November 17th.

There are serious questions about precisely what Obama should do with regard to the rising power of China. He can certainly go too far, as we've seen in Afghanistan, even though he has begun a slow-walk withdrawal which does not match the complete withdrawal from Iraq. But we all have a new set of facts and dynamics to study as the adventurism of the past decade begins to recede.

Meanwhile, the leading lights, as it were, of the Republican presidential field remain mired in the posturings of the past. The Republican presidential debate in South Carolina highlighted the field's general lack of knowledge and sophistication on foreign policy and geopolitics, and comments since then have underscored that sad reality.

Speaking of which, Herman Cain, who doesn't know a thing about the little-known issue of Libya, denounced the Arab awakening, praising Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and Yemeni strong man Ali Abdullah Saleh, and came out foursquare for waterboarding, as did the rest of the field except for Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul. It's not torture, said Cain, it's "enhanced interrogation."

Mitt Romney threatened US military action to prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons. How would that actually, you know, work, much less not result in an enormous backfire? He didn't say.

Newt Gingrich also postured on Iran, but argued that covert actions, including killing Iranian scientists, are preferable. That doesn't sound very covert when he puts it that way, does it?

Huntsman, who seems to be in an entirely different race, wants to bring the troops home from Afghanistan.

But Romney not only rejected that, he said he would refuse to allow any negotiation with the Taliban. What's his plan then to win in Afghanistan? Unknown.

And so it goes with candidates who evidently feel that the problem with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney is that they didn't go far enough.

It's not surprising that the Republicans are so inept on geopolitics, since only Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich have significant foreign policy experience.

Obama, shown here addressing the Australian Parliament, where he was joined by Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who just enacted a carbon tax on greenhouse gases, has been on a marathon trip around the Asia Pacific, a region he says he wants America to focus on like never before.

Huntsman, the former Utah governor, was the US ambassador to China. Which is a big deal. Unfortunately for Huntsman, it was in the Obama Administration. Huntsman also served as ambassador to Singapore, a powerful and strategic Asian city-state, and as deputy US trade representative.

Gingrich served as speaker of the House. Before that, he co-founded the Congressional Military Reform Caucus with then Senator Gary Hart. After that, he served on the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, co-chaired by Hart and former Senator Warren Rudman, which laid out a path for the first quarter of this century and predicted major terrorist attacks on the US homeland.

As Obama makes his Asia Pacific moves, he does so with the US much more popular in the region than China, according to a new Gallup Poll survey.

China has been much more assertive and aggressive with its neighbors lately, claiming nearly all the South China Sea despite the fact that many nations share it, and pushing forward with plans to create its own aircraft carrier battle groups and develop various advanced weapons systems that no other Asian nation, with the possible exception of Japan, could hope to counter.

So how do folks in the region feel about their would-be ally, the United States?

According to a new Gallup Poll survey, pretty well.

Across the vast region, 44% approve of the US as a globally leading nation, while only 30% accord China the same sort of regard.

China has voiced its concerns over a US military deployment in Darwin, Australia, the first long-term expansion of the American military presence in the Pacific since the end of the Vietnam War, as seen in this report from China Central Television, the major state broadcaster of mainland China.

US standing has actually gone up since 2010, from 41%.

Only in Vietnam, where of course the US fought a long, bloody, and disastrous war, and Malaysia are the US and China viewed with equal approval. China is not a favorite in any nation.

There is one big caveat, and that is a very big one, and it's India. The US is favored over China there, too, but by only 16% to 10%.

The US has to do a lot more to gain approval in India.

Which may be why Obama's first state dinner as president in 2009 -- naturally covered by our media as the reality TV gatecrashers' night -- honored Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Say, you don't think that Obama had a strategy from the beginning, do you?

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

William Bradley Huffington Post Archive