04/14/2014 09:56 am ET Updated Jun 14, 2014

Saber Rattling, Mostly Foolhardy, From the Potomac to the Pacific

What a week it was, of saber rattling across the globe, from the Potomac to the Persian Gulf, from the Black Sea to the Pacific.

A bitter extended exchange between two very old friends from Capitol Hill's contingent of Vietnam vets -- Secretary of State John Kerry and Senator John McCain, who briefly considered making up a presidential and vice presidential ticket in 2004 -- captured the spirit of anger and disarray that presently characterizes America's geopolitical posture. McCain, who co-sponsored Kerry for his present eminence in the Cabinet, and Kerry employed dueling quotes from Teddy Roosevelt that are quite telling in today's context.

Meanwhile, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wrapping up his latest extended visit of the Asia-Pacific in advance of President Barack Obama's tour this month, the aggressive signaling between China and the US became more pointed, with the commander of the US Navy's Pacific Fleet warning in a Wednesday night speech in Australia that the "aggressive growth of the Chinese military" is creating a "witches' brew" for conflict in the Western Pacific.

So it was perhaps fitting that the views of Teddy Roosevelt, the original architect of American power in the Pacific, provided the context for the striking clash between Kerry and McCain.

Discussing the ongoing Ukraine crisis, in which Russia and pro-Russian elements inside Ukraine are maneuvering very aggressively for a new Ukrainian government that pulls back from the overt alignment with the West that the coup against President Viktor Yanukovich dramatically signaled, McCain invoked one of TR's most famous phrases.

"My hero, Teddy Roosevelt, used to say, 'Talk softly but carry a big stick,' McCain reminded Kerry. "What you're doing is talking strongly and carrying a very small stick -- in fact, a twig."

McCain judged the administration's policy on the Ukraine crisis to be a failure. He also judged Kerry's attempts to jump start the Middle East peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and attempts to settle the Syrian civil war to be failures.

For his part, Kerry decried McCain for his "premature judgment about the failure of everything."

Kerry hit back at McCain's "premature judgment about the failure of everything."

Discussing the Middle East peace process, Kerry said: "It's interesting that you declare it dead but the Israelis and the Palestinians don't declare it dead. They want to continue to negotiate."

At which point, his voice dripping acid, McCain interjected: "We'll see, won't we, Mr. Secretary?"

More than a bit taken aback, Kerry said: "I beg your pardon?"

Only for McCain to repeat his sarcastic, "We'll see."

"Well, yeah, we will see," Kerry said, "but why declare it dead when ..." Kerry began to reply.

"It's stopped," McCain interjected. "It is stopped. Recognize reality."

Whereupon Kerry summoned up his own famous Teddy Roosevelt line.

"Your friend Teddy Roosevelt also said that the credit belongs to the people who are in the arena who are trying to get things done. And we're trying to get something done," he declared.
"I think it's important to do this. Sure we may fail. And you want to dump it on me? I may fail. I don't care. It's worth doing. It's worth the effort. And the United States has a responsibility to lead, not always to find the pessimism and negativity that's so easily prevalent in the world today," Kerry said.

With regard to Iran and its nuclear program, Kerry declared, "We have no illusions about how tough this is. I'm not predicting success, senator. I'm not. But I know we have an obligation to go through this process before we decide to go to war. So that's where we are. You declare them all dead. I don't."

By casting himself as TR's "man in the arena," Kerry chose the standard inoculation used by anyone caught up in a questionable venture, i.e., "At least I'm trying to do something."

Which is true as far as it goes, but ignores the fact that McCain wants to do a lot more, just not on the perpetually stalled Middle East peace process, in which efforts are of course hamstrung by the Israelis and Palestinians each being more interested in victory than compromise. Kerry also not so subtly reminded McCain that he lost the 2008 presidential election, which makes Obama and his designees the folks "in the arena," at least from Kerry's vantage point.

McCain was on stronger ground in describing Kerry's practice of talking not softly but loudly while carrying not a big stick but a twig. I discussed Kerry's and the administration's empty threats to the Russians in several recent pieces, beginning in early March.

But McCain is on thin ice in advocating the use of a big stick, as is his penchant. Just how many wars would the US find itself in if McCain's ever interventionist suggestions were actually followed?

For even if one has the proverbial "big stick," it doesn't always fit.

What would McCain have us do in the Ukrainian crisis? Dispatch his beloved Navy through the narrow Bosporus Strait at Istanbul into the Russian bath tub known as the Black Sea? The mind boggles at the thought.

Should we send the Marines to launch an amphibious invasion of Crimea, part of Russia for most of the past few centuries, in order to return it to Ukraine? Maybe send in the 82nd Airborne Division by parachute instead?

I know. We can surge American ground forces in NATO forward into Ukraine through Germany and Poland ... Except that the Germans would never allow it. Fortunately for us, as they would be slaughtered by the Russians.

Of course, McCain is the one who declared "We are all Georgians" in 2008 when that Russia-bordering country's leader -- perhaps foolishly emboldened by palling around with Vice President Dick Cheney and employing McCain's foreign policy advisor as his paid lobbyist -- foolishly provided Russia with a pretext to invade and annex part of his country. As most Americans couldn't have cared less, it turned out, not surprisingly, that we are not all Georgians. Even if we live near Atlanta.

Which makes it most ironic that McCain is dissing Kerry on Syria. For Kerry pushed for US military intervention in the Syrian civil war -- in which we would have found ourselves on the same side as jihadists who hates us -- last year. And so did Barack Obama, right up to the point at which it became painfully apparent that there was no appreciable support in America for getting into that war, outside of a few offices in Washington, DC.

As for Iran, it's intriguing to note that Kerry justifies the Obama Administration's diplomacy there, much of it carried out in secret to bring Tehran to the bargaining table on its highly controversial nuclear program, as "a process" to go through "before we decide to go to war."

Which would seem to indicate that Kerry is somewhere near the same page as McCain in the big Middle East playbook.

While I don't trust the Iranians, either, promising though the new presidency in Tehran may or may not be, I also haven't heard a realistic scenario for a war with Iran that both succeeds in wiping out any prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon and avoids a terrible backlash, economic and otherwise.

It's a lot easier to get into big wars -- as we've seen in the Iraq War and the escalated phase of the Afghan War, both of which McCain staunchly advocated -- than it is to get out of them without paying an exorbitant price.

Frankly, the highest use of military force from the standpoint of political strategy is to deter action that we don't want to take place.

Which is why all this posturing about interventions in places where it is very difficult at best for us to succeed is a distraction from places where our forces can have that sort of deterrent effect.

For, while all these other matters were bubbling and boiling, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel -- serving as a sort of opening act for President Barack Obama, who tours the Asia-Pacific later this month -- has just been in China. He's visited the PRC's first aircraft carrier and met with top leaders, who seem to be trying to convince him that China cannot be "contained."

I suspect they are trying to convince themselves of that.

China pointedly chose the time of Hagel's visit to unveil a new jet fighter aircraft for use in carrier operations at sea.

But, and I think tellingly so, the People's Liberation Army Navy chose not to conduct any landings or take-offs from the Liaoning while Hagel was aboard. As anyone who has ever visited an aircraft carrier underway knows, the highlight of it all is to see the big show, i.e., the spectacular catapulted take-offs and rather harrowing trap landings on the ship's flight deck. Which looks just like a postage stamp as you approach it at sea.

The reality is that the Chinese are still far from mastering the rudiments of carrier air operations, something the US Navy has been conducting since the 1920s.

The Liaoning, now pride of China's fast-expanding navy, is an old Soviet Navy cruiser which China purchased from Ukraine and only painstakingly converted into an aircraft carrier. It can certainly overawe the forces of Vietnam, the Philippines, and other contending neighboring countries which China is trying to overawe as it pursues its amazing claim that virtually the entire South China Sea is its territory. But does not overawe the forces of Japan, locked in struggle with China over its claimed air defense zone over much of the East China Sea. Nor, almost needless to say, does it overawe US forces.

During his visit, Hagel verbally sparred with his Chinese hosts over their claims to islands close to the Philippines and Japan. Wagging his finger for emphasis, Hagel noted taht "T Philippines and Japan are longtime allies of the United States. We have mutual self-defense treaties with each of those countries." The US, he said, is "fully committed to those treaty obligations."

Then on Wednesday night in the Australian capital city of Canberra, the commander of America's Pacific Fleet, Admiral Harry Harris, decried China's "pattern of increasingly assertive behavior in the region." He told the Australian Strategic Policy Institute conference that among the most alarming of China's moves are "maritime sovereignty claims that have no basis in, or relationship to, international law, such as the area within the so-called nine-dash line," referring to China's claim of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea, including waters near each of its neighbors on that highly strategic body of water which contains vast resources and through which much of the world's trade passes.

While this, said Harris, means that the US must increase its presence in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, he urged Australia, where Obama launched his Asia-Pacific Pivot strategy in November 2011, to take steps to remain "a relevant maritime power." The key to that, he said, is for Australia to increase its submarine force.

These Pacific moves are risky moves, to be sure, not to be undertaken lightly. But unlike much of what's been discussed in this piece, they are not non-serious moves.

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