State of the world, Year Eight of Barack Obama:
▪ In the South China Sea, on a speck of land of disputed sovereignty far from its borders, China has just installed anti-aircraft batteries and stationed fighter jets. This, after China landed planes on an artificial island it created on another disputed island chain. These facilities now function as forward bases for Beijing to challenge seven decades of American naval dominance of the Pacific Rim.
“China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea,” the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command told Congress on Tuesday. Its goal? “Hegemony in East Asia.”
▪ Syria. Russian intervention has turned the tide of war. Having rescued the Bashar al-Assad regime from collapse, relentless Russian bombing is destroying the rebel stronghold of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, creating a massive new wave of refugees and demonstrating to the entire Middle East what a Great Power can achieve when it acts seriously.
The U.S. response? Repeated pathetic attempts by Secretary of State John Kerry to propitiate Russia (and its ally, Iran) in one collapsed peace conference after another. On Sunday, he stepped out to announce yet another “provisional agreement in principle” on “a cessation of hostilities” that the CIA director, the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs deem little more than a ruse.
▪ Ukraine. Having swallowed Crimea so thoroughly that no one even talks about it anymore, Russia continues to trample with impunity on the Minsk cease-fire agreements. Vladimir Putin is now again stirring the pot, intensifying the fighting, advancing his remorseless campaign to subordinate the Ukrainian state. Meanwhile, Obama still refuses to send the Ukrainians even defensive weapons.
▪ Iran. Last Thursday, Iran received its first shipment of S-300 anti-aircraft batteries from Russia, a major advance in developing immunity to any attack on its nuclear facilities. And it is negotiating an $8 billion arms deal with Russia that includes sophisticated combat aircraft. Like its ballistic missile tests, this conventional weapons shopping spree is a blatant violation of U.N. Security Council prohibitions. It was also a predictable – and predicted – consequence of the Iran nuclear deal that granted Iran $100 billion and normalized its relations with the world.
The U.S. response? Words.
Unlike gravitational waves, today’s strategic situation is not hard to discern. Three major have-not powers are seeking to overturn the post-Cold War status quo: Russia in Eastern Europe, China in East Asia, Iran in the Middle East. All are on the march.
To say nothing of the Islamic State, now extending its reach from Afghanistan to West Africa. The international order built over decades by the United States is crumbling.
Off to Cuba
In the face of which, what does Obama do? Go to Cuba.
Yes, Cuba. A supreme strategic irrelevance so dear to Obama’s anti-anti-communist heart.
Is he at least going to celebrate progress in human rights and democracy – which Obama established last year as a precondition for any visit? Of course not. When has Obama ever held to a red line? Indeed, since Obama began his “historic” normalization with Cuba, the repression has gotten worse. Last month, the regime arrested 1,414 political dissidents, the second-most ever recorded.
No matter. Amid global disarray and American decline, Obama sticks to his cherished concerns: Cuba, Guantanamo (about which he gave a rare televised address this week) and, of course, climate change.
Obama could not bestir himself to go to Paris in response to the various jihadi atrocities – sending Kerry instead “to share a big hug with Paris” (as Kerry explained) with James Taylor singing “You’ve Got a Friend” – but he did make an ostentatious three-day visit there for climate change.
So why not go to Havana? Sure, the barbarians are at the gates and pushing hard knowing they will enjoy but 11 more months of minimal American resistance. But our passive president genuinely believes that such advances don’t really matter – that these disruptors are so on the wrong side of history, that their reaches for territory, power, victory are so 20th century.
Of course, it mattered greatly to the quarter-million slaughtered in Syria and the millions more exiled. It feels all quite real to a dissolving Europe, an expanding China, a rising Iran, a metastasizing jihadism.
Not to the visionary Obama, however. He sees far beyond such ephemera. He knows what really matters: climate change, Gitmo and Cuba.
With time running out, he wants these to be his legacy. Indeed, they will be.
The Washington Post Writers Group