The Last Statesman

It may be that Barack Obama is anticipating a Trump presidency, where Trump will do everything he says he will do, which is his vow. We’ll pull out of the Paris Climate Accords because global warming is a hoax cooked up by the Chinese to ruin our economy. Trump will renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal so they get nothing at all for disarming – because they deserve nothing. Japan and South Korea will have to pay us big bucks, or they’ll just have to build their own nuclear arsenals to defend themselves – and the same goes for Europe – there will be no more free ride for any of them. And we’ll pull out of NATO – it will be good as gone. He’s said these things. Trump hasn’t said anything about Cuba, but one assumes he’ll break off diplomatic relations again and re-impose the embargo – because they’re very bad people, like the Mexicans, who secretly keep sending us the worst of the worst, while suggesting those are just desperate ordinary people crossing our border, and laughing at us. They will pay for that wall.

That’s what’s coming. Trump will undo about seventy years of carefully constructed diplomatic agreements that, while not perfect, have kept things relatively stable. Trump seems to be saying that the price for that stability has been our total humiliation, and we’ll be humiliated no longer – we’ll be the ones doing the humiliating for a change. As for Hillary Clinton, should she win, expect more invade-and-occupy interventions. She told Obama to intervene in Syria, even if he wouldn’t, and she loved what we did in Libya. She may have been Obama’s secretary of state, but her concept of “diplomacy” wasn’t his.

That puts Obama in a race against time to build enduring diplomatic structures that assure stability, and also cannot easily be undone. Almost one hundred nations signed onto those Paris Climate Accords – we can pull out and look like fools. Things will continue without us. The Iran nuclear deal was an eight-nation deal – the Donald cannot unilaterally renegotiate it, and the European nations that were party to that have now signed their own trade deals with Iran. It’s too late for “the art of the deal” mastermind to toss it all out, and our businesses are also slowing flooding into Cuba now. How can you tell them to abandon their investments there? Don’t we always need new markets?

Meanwhile, Obama has been busy trying to stabilize the world in ways that cannot easily be disrupted, even by a President Trump, and his latest effort was this:

President Barack Obama announced Monday that the United States is fully lifting a decades-long ban on the sale of military equipment to Vietnam.

In a joint news conference in Hanoi with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, Obama said that the removal of the ban on lethal weapons was part of a deeper defense cooperation with the country and dismissed suggestions it was aimed at countering China’s growing strength in the region.

Instead, it was the desire to continue normalizing relations between the United States and Vietnam and to do away with a ban “based on ideological division between our two countries,” he said.

Obama may have been a bit too coy in that last part, and in the New York Times, David Sanger explains what’s really going on here:

When President Obama announced Monday that he was ending a half-century-long arms embargo against Vietnam, it was another milestone in his long-running ambition to recast America’s role in Asia – a “pivot” as he once called it, designed to realign America’s foreign policy so it can reap the benefits of Asia’s economic and strategic future.

There is a grand plan here, not that this is easy:

As Mr. Obama’s time in office comes to an end, Asian nations are deeply skeptical about how much they can rely on Washington’s commitment and staying power in the region. They sense that for the first time in memory, Americans are questioning whether their economic and defense interests in Asia are really that vital.

Mr. Obama is the first president to have grown up in the region – he lived in Indonesia as an elementary school student – and he has never doubted that America is underinvested in Asia and overinvested in the Middle East.

In visit after visit, he has capitalized on the palpable nervousness about Beijing’s intentions while also cautioning that China’s growing influence and power are unstoppable forces of history. In Mr. Obama’s view, that means both the United States and the rest of the region will have to both accommodate and channel China’s ambitions rather than make a futile attempt to contain them, while reassuring the Chinese of America’s peaceful intentions.

That is a tough balancing act, but part of a larger plan:

At the core, the policy has been building on the two-decade-old opening to Vietnam; the establishment of a new relationship with Myanmar as it lurches toward democracy; closer relations with the two largest treaty allies in the region, Japan and South Korea; and renewed military ties with the Philippines. The administration has also pushed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would set new terms for trade and business investment among the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim nations.

Perhaps most important, Mr. Obama has received unexpected help from the Chinese themselves, who have so overplayed their hand in the South China Sea that smaller neighbors suddenly took a new interest in deepening their relations with Washington.

Countering those developments, though, is the American political mood, which has darkened toward longstanding alliances and international trade itself.

Ah, that would be Donald Trump, and Obama’s man knows it:

“Every country in Asia views the problem differently, and through their own lenses, but they all see a twofold risk of things getting out of balance quickly,” Kurt M. Campbell, one of the architects of Mr. Obama’s strategy in his first term, said on Monday. “One is that China seriously overplays its nationalism” and that conflict breaks out in the South China Sea.

But Mr. Campbell, who is about to publish an account of Mr. Obama’s efforts titled “The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia,” also noted that Asian nations were equally worried that America is no longer willing to be a steadying power.

“Asian countries are prone to anxiety about the behavior of major powers, for good reasons – they have seen a lot go wrong over the past thousand years,” said Daniel R. Russel, the assistant secretary of state for Asia. “And now there is angst about what comes next and the sustainability of the rebalance.”

That would explain this:

The Vietnamese gave Mr. Obama a huge welcome on Monday, lining the streets in ways reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s first presidential trip there 16 years ago. But missing from the news conferences was the hard-core group in the leadership that remains deeply suspicious that Washington’s real long-term goal is regime change.

So while almost certainly they will buy American arms – especially the high-tech gear they need to keep an eye on what the Chinese are doing at the edge of Vietnam’s territorial waters – they have no intention of building the kind of alliance the United States has with Japan and South Korea.

All bets are off come November, and they’re hedging their bets:

Last week, as the streets of Hanoi were being cleaned up for the president’s visit, the Chinese were meeting with Vietnam’s defense minister, pledging to strengthen their military ties.

In the Philippines, the firebrand who has just been elected president, Rodrigo Duterte, once promised to ride a Jet Ski to plant a flag on one of the artificial islands the Chinese have constructed. More recently, he is backing away from the current government’s effort to press its sovereignty arguments, saying he wants to negotiate directly with the Chinese, perhaps swapping a little sovereignty for some economic concessions. That is just the kind of invitation the Chinese wanted to hear.

This is complicated stuff, but we can strike a balance here:

One of the key military elements of the strategy is for American troops to “rotate” through strategically important Asian ports – not to be based there, but to be able to land, refuel, train and build partnerships.

It started with Darwin, Australia. Now Mr. Obama is trying to do the same in the Philippines, which the United States left more than two decades ago, and at the deep-water port of Camh Rahn Bay, if the unspoken deal with Vietnam works out. That would give Washington more reason to regularly traverse waters the Chinese claim as their exclusive zone.

One must be subtle but strong, and careful but implicitly bold, playing the long game without bluster, making no sudden moves, and:

The biggest challenge, however, is on the home front. Donald J. Trump’s threat to withdraw American forces from South Korea and Japan unless they pay far more of the cost – and they already pay much of it – may just be a negotiating position. But it suggests that the United States has no independent national interests in the Pacific. That would be a rejection of a post-World War II order that goes back to the Truman administration.

That would be throwing away seventy years of carefully constructed diplomatic agreements that have kept things relatively stable, but Slate’s Fred Kaplan says this arms deal is fairly simple: 

It’s well-known that Vietnam’s leaders have been pleading for lethal weapons from Washington since 2014, when China set up an oil rig in waters near the Paracel Islands, which Vietnam claims. Since about the same time, American emissaries have been pushing for full port rights at Cam Ranh Bay, the former Soviet naval base on Vietnam’s central coast, whose deep waters can support the largest U.S. warships.

Human-rights groups denounced the lifting of the lethal-weapons embargo, noting that several administrations, including Obama’s, have said the move would take place only after Hanoi improved its human-rights record. Removing the ban, despite the continued jailing of peaceful dissidents, only encourages the Communist government to continue its oppressive practices.

Obama will reportedly address this issue in a speech on Tuesday to young people in Ho Chi Minh City. Meanwhile, he said that, even after lifting, U.S. officials would review specific requests for weapons on a “case-by-case” basis, assessing “what’s appropriate and what’s not,” as they do with requests by other recipients of arms – and that human rights would be one factor in this review. What’s ending, he said, “is a ban that is based on an ideological division between our two sides.”

That is the main point of what Obama is doing in Vietnam, just as he has previously done in Myanmar, Iran, and Cuba – not to open relations for their own sake (he sees no point doing so in North Korea, for example), but to do so if opportunities present themselves and if the only impediment is the dead boot of forgotten history.

And really, this was not a shocking action:

In the 1970s, in the wake of the Vietnam War and revelations of malfeasance in U.S. intelligence agencies, Congress enacted reforms barring arms sales to countries with abhorrent human-rights records. However, these laws allowed waivers if the president certified a sale as vital to national security. Over time, these waivers became commonplace to the point where the laws became meaningless. During economic downturns, even critics of arms sales started seeing them as tempting sources of export revenue. After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, they also regained favor, reminiscent of Cold War times, as tools for strengthening allies and boosting American influence.

With the United States selling caches of weapons worth hundreds of millions (in some cases, billions) of dollars to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan, it doesn’t make much sense to deny a place on the list to Vietnam – whose record is no worse and, compared to some, much better. And given Vietnam’s genuine need for certain weapons (especially for maritime defense), the mutual interest a relationship holds for the U.S. Navy, and the intense level and pace of foreign investment in Vietnam over the last two decades, the idea of continuing the embargo seems shortsighted and arbitrary, at best.

There may be a subtle long-term geopolitical strategy at play here, but the day’s actual deal was no big deal – although it’s hard to imagine Donald Trump understanding any of this. Someone should ask him just what his long-term geopolitical strategy is – beyond vengeance for what he sees as our perpetual humiliation.

America is going to miss this Obama fellow when he’s gone, and Jacob Weisberg explains the next stop on this Asia trip:

In his final year in office, an American president inevitably focuses on his legacy, recasting his accomplishments and making 11th-hour decisions with the potential to outlive him. For Bill Clinton, this meant a torrent of new legislation, national monuments, and trade agreements. For George W. Bush, it was constructing a case that the U.S. had finally turned a corner in his disastrous war in Iraq.

It is characteristic of Barack Obama, whose original ambition of constructive dialogue with Republicans was so decisively thwarted, that the theme of his last stretch as president should be reconciliation. Instead of making peace with the Republicans, which proved impossible, he has turned his hand to resolving longstanding conflicts with other countries; his final sprint has included restoring relations with Iran and with Cuba, which had been severed since 1980 and 1961, respectively.

Obama’s visit to Hiroshima this month will open another door, one that has remained closed since 1945.

No sitting American president has ever gone there, but Obama has his reasons:

His critics have been quick to decry the visit as another stop on what they call his “global apology tour.” This is a doubly bogus idea – first because Obama has not been an especially prolific apologist, and second because of the premise that the U.S. never has anything to apologize for. In fact, the president has been doing something far more interesting than regretting past American misdeeds. He has been trying to construct bridges across troubled waters.

Benjamin Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, has made clear that the Hiroshima visit will not feature any apologies. But merely visiting the city’s Memorial Peace Park with Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, will challenge a powerful American taboo. In 1995, the Smithsonian Institution attempted to mount an exhibition around the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

The National Air and Space Museum planned to feature photographs and oral histories from victims and survivors. Under pressure from veterans’ groups that thought the exhibition too sympathetic to the Japanese, the museum first sanitized then canceled it. Newt Gingrich, then the speaker of the House of Representatives and now bidding to become Donald Trump’s presidential running mate, charged that Americans were “sick and tired of being told by some cultural elite that they ought to be ashamed of their country.” The director of the museum was forced to resign amid the furor.

Obama may simply want to end that nonsense:

Why did President Harry Truman decide to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing more than 200,000 people? And was he justified in doing so?

Gar Alperovitz, a left-wing scholar, has long argued that the bombs were unnecessary to end the war in the Pacific, and that Truman knew it. Alperovitz believes the bombs were intended as a demonstration to the Soviet Union of U.S. capability at the dawn of the Cold War. Even some of those who defend Truman’s decision acknowledge that use of a weapon of mass destruction against civilian populations is a war crime.

Others point out that Japanese hardliners opposed surrender even after Nagasaki, and that dropping the atomic bombs was ultimately a humanitarian act. By ending the war the U.S. probably saved many more lives than it destroyed, including those of war-weary American soldiers deployed on Okinawa in preparation for Operation Downfall, innumerable Japanese soldiers and civilians trained to die for the emperor in an apocalyptic last battle, and victims of the barbaric Japanese occupation throughout Asia. Without Emperor Hirohito’s capitulation after the second bomb was dropped, grotesque suffering might have continued for many more months.

Obama’s purpose is not to challenge this patriotically correct narrative, or affirm a politically correct one, or to reconsider Truman’s choice. He understands that an American president cannot and should not try to adjudicate on this kind of historical debate. Rather, his focus is on opening an impassable topic as a necessary adjunct to addressing contemporary issues.

In short, if we want to talk about nuclear weapons, we do have to talk about Hiroshima:

The president hopes that acknowledging the horror that took place at the dawn of the nuclear age will spur the conversation he wants to have about nuclear proliferation and disarmament in the 21st century. He also aspires to serve as a conciliator on the painful history that still divides the U.S. from its most important Asian ally.

It’s hard to imagine Donald Trump doing either, or Hillary Clinton, but Ron Rosenbaum suggests something else:

Hiroshima is still here to remind us of what happened when we first unleashed our “device” and how it can never happen again – supposedly.

That’s what everyone says after visiting Hiroshima, the statesmen and citizens who sign the guest book at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. We will never forget. But maybe we will. The very fact that Hiroshima is thriving with its KFC and Starbucks, with the carefully manicured lawns of its “Peace Memorial Park” – the only evidence that hell was unleashed here – may have the opposite, anodyne effect. This is not John Hersey’s Hiroshima, the Hiroshima of the horrific immediate aftermath, but is to a certain extent a Hiroshima that says a nuclear detonation is a transient thing, something that’s eminently recoverable from with a little time and some good landscaping.

There is that, and the other questions:

The city still raises questions about the nature of the nuclear age. What made the bright line between nuclear mass slaughter and non-nuclear mass slaughter so bright? Was it the radiation, in its invisible insidiousness and – more importantly – in the longevity of its deadliness?

Why are the civilian wartime deaths in Hiroshima different from all other civilian wartime deaths – if they are? How does one compare them with the deaths in the firebombing of Tokyo, where just as many or more died immediately? To Dresden? To Auschwitz too? Has it numbed us to civilian casualties in places like Vietnam and Iraq? Was Hiroshima a logical outcome of wartime exigency or a war crime? It’s the ground zero of ground zeroes for such questions. It’s a site of mourning that has lessons for subsequent sites of mourning.

Consider 9/11 in that light. Seven and a half years and two wars ago and nothing! Not a single memorial, because the obscene vanity of celebrity architects and developers and the obscene self-promotion of credit-seeking politicians has combined with the conflicting demands of “survivor groups” to utterly paralyze the process of agreeing on anything. (I’ve long argued that the best memorial would be the raw gaping hole in the earth at Ground Zero – no need for words!)

At Hiroshima, they have the opposite problem. Over the years, Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park seems unable to say no to any memorial tchotchke someone wants to implant on its acres of rolling grass. The map I picked up at the Peace Memorial Park Museum lists no fewer than 74 individual monuments, memorials, cairns, and crypts in the park. …

Needless to say, every monument or pond or flame or stone is an admirably earnest and understandable response to a horrible tragedy of war – and a strain of responsibility to the dead, that their death be a sacrifice, or sacralized. In one of the two peace museums (I forget which) you see them characterized as “the sacred dead.” They died so we could see the result of our sins, our Faustian bargain with the unstable interior of the atom – an analog, perhaps, of the unstable interior of the human soul.

No one monument can say that, but yet one has to admire the civic culture of Japan for managing to get permits for so many memorials. Still, at some point a critical mass (not the best phrase) of peace tchotchkes turns Peace Park into a kind of frenzied Peace Clutter, complete with a souvenir stand selling T-shirts and those sticky-sweet Japanese snacks in their radiation-hued pastel packages.

There’s something unsettling about all this:

The irony is that Hiroshima has been rebuilt so successfully, mourned and memorialized so dutifully, that the raw horror has been museumized. The streets have been franchised. The Hiroshima Starbucks’ latte tastes the same as it does anywhere.

But walking back through the predawn streets from the all-night Hiroshima Kinko’s, you can hear the whisper of hundreds of thousands of ghosts.

Obama hears the ghosts. Donald Trump would see the franchise possibilities. Hillary Clinton would be careful and stay away.

Whether we like it or not, we will miss Obama. We’ve seen our last statesman for now, and maybe from now on – but at least he put some things in place that aren’t easily undone. Still, the world will get darker.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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