Post-Debate Wrap-Up: The Candidates on Asia

Post-Debate Wrap-Up: The Candidates on Asia

The final 2012 U.S. Presidential Debate went off without a hitch last night as both candidates stuck closely to their foreign policy talking points. China was meant to feature prominently with time devoted explicitly to the bilateral relationship. After brief opening remarks both Obama and Romney veered off topic and returned to the jobs question, a perennial favorite whenever China comes up.

What we know of the candidates’ positions from last night’s sometimes testy exchange paint a picture of a complicated U.S. relationship with the world’s second largest economy. These include concerns over the loss of domestic manufacturing, rule of law and growing military strength balanced against commercial opportunities half a world away (see full transcript starting with the China question here.)

Romney came out swinging with the now somewhat antiquated claim that China is a currency manipulator. In his own words:

“We’ll also make sure that we have trade relations with China that work for us. I’ve watched year in and year out as companies have shut down and people have lost their jobs because China has not played by the same rules, in part by holding down artificially the value of their currency. It holds down the prices of their goods. It means our goods aren’t as competitive and we lose jobs. That’s got to end.

They’re making some progress; they need to make more. That’s why on day one, i will label them a currency manipulator, which allows us to apply tariffs where they’re taking jobs. They’re stealing our intellectual property, our patents, our designs, our technology, hacking into our computers, counterfeiting our goods.

They have to understand we want to trade with them. We want a world that’s stable. We like free enterprise, but you got to play by the rules.”

Technical issues aside (as the Treasury Department has ruled against that legally very specific manipulator charge in the past), inexpensive Chinese manufactured goods are the result of low cost labor, economies of scale and exchange rates.

No matter what happens the jobs lost to China (and many other countries including Mexico, Turkey, India, and Bangladesh), including low-end garment production, household goods, and assembly work won’t be returning. If Chinese products became more expensive production would shift to other low-wage countries. Check the labels the next time you go shopping and you might be surprised where clothing is manufactured these days.

Even if Romney as President labeled China a currency manipulator, the remedy includes tariffs against Chinese goods. As the moderator Bob Scheiffer accurately pointed out, that would risk a trade war with China. Romney replied that China exports more to the U.S. than the other way around so they have more to lose. This simplistic version of trade does not reflect the realities of international commerce.

Sudden tariff increases would be a particularly reckless course of action which does absolutely nothing to solve the core problems facing U.S. labor, namely better paying U.S. jobs. The effects of punitive action would wreak havoc with trade on both sides of the Pacific and the intricately linked global supply chain.

China’s currency has also been appreciating over the past several years and labor costs are rising as well. Romney’s missive, along with the ear-catching phrase that they “must play by rules” which Obama also reiterated, did little to address real trade frictions like further opening of Chinese markets to U.S. goods, greater Chinese enforcement of intellectual property rights protection, and cracking down on counterfeits entering the U.S. That’s more of what we needed from both candidates.

Obama countered with his own “get tough” strategy including an increasing number of WTO cases levied against China (most of which are won by the U.S.) that did give temporary advantage to U.S. manufacturers of tires and steel. Both industries, however are slow growth and lacking in innovative strategies to remain globally competitive.

Clear examples and real world solutions were needed, only the solutions part was sorely lacking.

On the security front there was precious little mentioned about China’s rise, the U.S. pivot to Asia, tensions in the South China Sea, North Korea, or recent China-Japan disputes. Obama did say:

“We believe China can be a partner, but we’re also sending a very clear signal that America is a Pacific power; that we are going to have a presence there. We are working with countries in the region to make sure, for example, that ships can pass through; that commerce continues. And we’re organizing trade relations with countries other than China so that China starts feeling more pressure about meeting basic international standards.”

And then the conversation veered off into Detroit autos and cuts to education. There was no grand U.S. policy towards Asia offered by or asked of the candidates.

For the most part U.S. voters aren’t even that concerned about U.S. foreign policy when it comes to picking the president. What they want to see is a candidate capable of securing the country against threats, decisiveness and calmness under pressure. The real concern remains jobs, jobs, and then jobs. That’s why the debate consistently put foreign policy back into the domestic context.

All the candidates really needed to do was get in a few good verbal punches here and there and stay off the ropes. That’s what the debate delivered, but little else.

 

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U.S. Presidential Debate – A Foreign Policy Primer

U.S. Presidential Debate – A Foreign Policy Primer

With two weeks left before election day candidates Obama and Romney tackle foreign policy issues tonight. If last week’s battle royale over the economy is any indication this promises to be a no-holds-barred verbal slug fest. Tremendous changes have occurred over the last four years in the Middle East, Europe and Asia. Osama Bin Laden is dead, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are over. Dictators have fallen from decades in power. China continues to rise.

Still, the global economy has yet to fully recover with Europe teetering on the edge of recession and Japan mired in stagnant economic waters. Middle East political movements struggle to sustain new democracies and China’s economic and military advances raise questions about Asia’s future balance of power.

Here’s a primer on some of the big issues likely to be addressed and a few questions that need to be asked. The debate begins at 9:00pm EST.

Middle East

Since Obama took office four years ago a surprise Arab Spring swept across the region. Libya, Egypt, and Yemen saw leadership changes brought about by popular uprisings. Syria is still mired in its own civil war with little hope of quick resolution. While nascent democracies sprung up after the overthrow of decades of dictatorships serious questions remain about their stability and policies going forward.

For now the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt holds a tentative control with the military watching from behind the scenes for any signs of the nominally secular government turning into an Islamist stronghold. Libya meanwhile struggles with establishing a strong central government as events in Benghazi, where the U.S. Consulate was destroyed and diplomats killed by a terrorist attack, demonstrate.

In Iran a nuclear standoff continues with enrichment activities racing ahead and Israel threatening attack (though as sanctions take a deeper bit out of the Iranian economy Israeli President Netanyahu has eased off the war rhetoric).

The U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan marks the end of major U.S. operations in the region, closing a decade-long period of intervention initiated by the former Bush administration. The Afghanistan government still struggles with providing basic services to its people and countering threats of Taliban violence.

What will Obama or Romney do to further promote democracy in the Middle East without inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment? How can Iran’s nuclear ambitions be eliminated? Is Afghanistan going to slip into chaos once U.S. troops leave?

Asia

China’s inexorable rise gathered speed since January 2009. It completed construction on its first aircraft carrier, became the world’s second largest economy, and has survived the worst of the global economic meltdown with one of the world’s best growth rates. U.S. economic ties with China remains strong which has helped keep domestic inflation low.

Potential flare-ups, however in the South China Sea (with neighbors Vietnam and the Philippines) and East China Sea (with Japan) linger behind the facade of China’s “peaceful rise”. A once in a decade political transition is also underway with China’s new leaders expected to be officially acknowledged on November 8th and installed in March, 2013. Trade frictions are on the rise with increased WTO cases on goods ranging from tires to solar panels. The economy has slowed considerably from the unsustainable double-digit sprint of years past. Some economist predict much tougher times ahead as China’s new leadership faces a country in transition unlike any other time in recent history.

North Korea too has changed since Obama first took office. A young and relatively untested new leader, Kim Jong-Eun rose to power seizing every major military, political and governmental role in quick succession since his father’s passing. In one of the world’s most isolated regimes the family political dynasty remains intact. Hopes for significant economic liberalization have so far failed to materialize and tensions persistent on the world’s last Cold War front.

What does China’s rise mean for U.S. security and economic growth? Is China’s strategic intent to replace the U.S. as main regional influence and what will the U.S. do about it? What will you do as President to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula and end the decades-long hostilities between North and South Korea?

Europe

Germany, the powerhouse of the continent, has lowered growth forecasts to a barely treading above water 1% for 2012. Most were hoping that the manufacturing giant could sustain strong growth against the headwinds of Spanish, Greek, and Portuguese recession along with a lackluster UK and newly integrated eastern European economies.  As the world’s engines of growth stall one-by-one, the threats of a larger global recession increase, as the IMF has warned with increasing regularity.

How will the European slowdown affect the U.S. economy and can the U.S. avert even more economic troubles if Europe stalls?

Terrorism

Attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and a recently thwarted attempt in Jordan in addition to continued fronts in Yemen and now Mali show that the treats of terrorism have not abated. As long as arms continue to flow into the hands of radical groups and weak or failed states remain the threat of violence will continue. Concerted and sustained action can, however minimize the depths of the threat and seriously disrupt organizations bent on destruction.

What can and should the U.S. do to further combat terrorist organizations? Is the Al-Qaeda threat still a focal point of U.S. foreign policy?

For updates from Klein’s Commentary connect via email, Facebook or Twitter (links above).

The Fundamentalists’ Last Stand

The Fundamentalists’ Last Stand

In Swat, Pakistan three children were attacked including Malala Yousafzai, a 14 year old awarded for promoting girl’s education. She was taken off her school bus by an armed Taliban militant and shot in the head (as of this writing she is reportedly in stable condition.)

After years of acquiescence towards radicalized militant groups, the shooting of a child appears to be finally galvanizing public opinion in Pakistan, a country with a rich history of tolerance.

The BBC’s M Ilyas Khan notes:

“The attempt on Malala Yousafzai’s life has shocked and angered the nation, and reports from parliament suggest a wider anti-Taliban consensus might be in the works – something Pakistan’s fractious politicians have rarely achieved before.”

Richard Leiby reports in The Washington Post:

“The world image of Pakistan is, to put it mildly, not very good,” said Ijaz Khattak, a professor at the University of Peshawar who knows Yousafzai and her father, an educator and peace activist in Swat. “Society is seen as increasingly sympathetic to these terrorists. What this incident can prove to be is a catalyst, because the outrage can turn the tide against the religious fundamentalism.”

Moderate Pakistani Muslims are not alone. The terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya killed four including  Ambassador Stevens, a highly regarded official active in supporting the new Libyan government. Within days thousands demonstrated in support of secular Libya and against the attackers. In contrast to the riots elsewhere about an amateur video criticizing Islam the crowds of Benghazi descended on militia headquarters driving them out of the area.

Extremists in the Middle East have had a litany of excuses for their terrorist ideology. For decades U.S. support of regional dictators including Egypt’s Mubarak and for a time Iraq’s Hussein (when fighting against Iran) gave radical groups easy ideological ammunition. Now that the Arab Spring’s indigenous revolutions toppled these regimes fundamentalists have lost yet another rallying cry.

Malala Yousafzai, who is still struggling for her life in a Pakistani military hospital, may never be able to return to her home because of the continued threat of violence. Taliban militants apparently stated that if Malala lives they will attack again until they kill her.

The day she is free to live anywhere, study anything and say whatever is on her mind without fear marks the day fundamentalists have lost in Pakistan. That day may be coming sooner than some expect.

In the end, only moderate majority populations, galvanized by these acts of terror into a groundswell of popular outrage and action can make these attacks the fundamentalist’s final failed stand.

 

Photos: (Top) Inter Services Public Relations Department. (Bottom) Malala awarded Pakistan’s first Youth Peace Award. Pakistani Press Information Department.

If China Televised a Presidential Debate

If China Televised a Presidential Debate

(Sometime in the future . . .)

Moderator, internationally-renowned artist Ai Weiwei: Thank you all for coming to the National Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Beijing for this first ever, internationally televised CCTV – China Presidential Debate. There will be no opening remarks, only questions submitted by Weibo users whose names will be concealed. Our first question comes from a real estate developer.

What do the candidates believe the role of government should be in the economy?

Candidate on the left podium – The government should have more state control, more direction over the economy and more of a focus on the poor. State-owned enterprises stabilize the country. My opponent believes the free market and western economic ideals should be slavishly followed. I believe China should follow its own development path and bring back the ideals of our founding father.

(We hear mild applause. Several in the audience are holding pictures of Mao and waving small Chinese flags.)

Candidate on the right podium – The government should facilitate greater reform and opening. That is how China will take its rightful place as a global economic and political leader in the 21st century. Private enterprise will drive future growth in leading industries. Government can and must enforce the rule of law to create a positive environment for business to flourish. Corruption must be stamped out. Consumers, not elites should drive growth.

(More applause, a little louder and longer than the first.)

Second question comes from a graduate student at the China Foreign Affairs University.

China was invaded many times in the past. Now we are a strong country. Why shouldn’t we take back what is rightfully ours including Taiwan, the South China Sea and the Diaoyu islands?

Candidate (on the left): China is a strong nation and will defend its national interests wherever they may lie.

Candidate (on the right): China is a strong nation and will defend its national interests wherever they may lie. Let me add that we believe in a peaceful rise.

Okay. Our third and final question, well more of a comment and a question, comes from a factory worker in Guangdong.

My husband and I both work 10-12 hours a day, 7 days a week at a Chinese-owned factory. The owner often doesn’t pay the overtime we are promised, even after we’ve paid the manager to get the extra hours. Many of my co-workers have gotten ill from the chemicals we use to clean computer screens. The company said they would pay for medical costs but the local hospital insist on cash. If we want to see the actual doctor we have to pay more. Even with receipts we never get reimbursed. I went to complain to the union. The union boss told the factory manager and now I’ve lost all of my overtime and have to work the overnight shift.

Since I do not have a residency permit my daughter can’t attend school here. She lives 200 kilometers away with my parents. Local officials took their land. Now they live in a small apartment in a new building many miles away that is already falling apart. The money they received wasn’t enough for the apartment so they had to use up all of their savings. While we earn more than we used to both of our salaries barely pay our parent’s doctor bills (they have no insurance), my daughter’s school fees (even though she goes to a public school) and our company housing and food. I do not feel better off than I did ten years ago. What are you going to do about it?

(Large thunderous applause fills the auditorium.)

The microphones are suddenly cut and the candidates whisked off stage. Ai Weiwei pulls out his own bullhorn just as television screens across the country go black. A few seconds later images of fireworks appear from the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

The Presidential Debate We Needed, but Never Saw

The Presidential Debate We Needed, but Never Saw

One question for the undecided voters of America – are you better off now than you were 90 minutes ago?

Despite a Romney landslide 67% “win” among CNN debate watchers and pundits parsing the candidates words in excruciating detail (worse than the actual number-laded debate itself), undecided voters remained decidedly, undecided.

What voters needed from the debate, a clear idea of the candidates’ plans for American renewal, remained lost in the thicket of questionable facts, long-winded replies, and tired rhetoric.

The debates did little to address the most pressing issues facing the U.S. economy. What can government actually do, in the short-term, to help increase employment, get the deficit under control, and ensure the social safety remains intact.

There was no clear vision for America, no soaring oratory, no sense of mission or purpose. Just two men, talking past each other through volleys of competing accounts of their opponents’ views and saccharine human touch stories. Remember the Denver woman with child in hand whose husband hasn’t had a full-time job in years? Or was it a man in (insert name of swing state here) who lost his insurance coverage and can’t get the operation he needs?

What seemed to get the most rise out of Colorado undecideds were phrases like “stop shipping jobs to China” and discussions on the importance of education. Old wine, new bottles.

How much do the candidates’ facts even matter? Probably not as much as we’d like to believe. Who is going to remember whether the Romney plan (with or without details) will actually add $5 trillion to the deficit. Did green energy companies really receive $80 billion in tax breaks and oil companies only a few billion? How many licks does it take to get to the center of that tootsie pop … no one really cares.

The fact checking cycle will run for the next few days and when the October truths come out they’ll be forgotten by November 6th. One zinger worth holding onto — Romney loves Big Bird, but won’t use taxpayer money to fund PBS.

Moving on to the next debate a youthful Paul Ryan faces off against the seasoned and outspoken Vice President Biden. In this match-up will an elder statesman school his less experienced upstart or does a Gen X politician goad the VP into saying something outlandish and damaging to the Obama campaign? It’s reality television on sedatives.

For the most expensive election in U.S. history one would have expected a better show. Maybe in the third and last debate the gloves will finally come off and we’ll get to see a real battle of ideas that make a difference.

Iran’s Economy at the Edge

Iran’s Economy at the Edge

(UPDATE: 10/3/12 – BBC reporting protests in Tehran.)

Months of tightening U.S. sanctions appear to be taking their toll on Iran’s economy. The rial plunged against the dollar (losing 25% in street value in the past week and down some 80% since 2011). Imports, paid for in dollars, have become increasingly expensive. Inflation approached 24% in August alone. Oil exports, a major revenue earner for the regime have plummeted as well. Shrinking dollar reserves make financing whatever remaining trade even more difficult.

These extensive sanctions include all imports, exports and financial transactions with U.S. entities. With Europe’s participation Iran can now barely function in the international banking system.

The main goal, however remain stopping Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities, not destroying the livelihoods of the general population.

Here’s the gambit: Ratchet up non-lethal economic force on Iran while avoiding a military conflict (including keeping Israeli jets on the ground and averting a regional war). This in turn should cause a political crisis that either forces Ahmadinejad to capitulate or a new leader to replace him ready to negotiate. Regime change a la an “Iranian Autumn” of popular discontent might follow, but seems unlikely at the moment and has not been a core objective. Then again stranger things have happened in the Middle East since 2011.

Iran’s nominally “elected” ruler, Ahmadinejad would carry the full blame of his country’s increasing isolation, not the behind-the-scenes clerics who really run the country. His decidedly more sedate tone in a recent UN speech (no tirades against the U.S. and calls for the end of Israel) suggest his popularity has taken a hit. With barely nine months left in his final term of office he might be more ready to negotiate. The deal on the table before this latest round of provocation still gave Iran access to nuclear material for fuel and medical-grade uses.

Unintended consequences in international affairs are a constant risk. Influencing extremely complicated systems, including tens of millions of people reacting to sudden economic hardship and political machinations of theocratic leaders chief among them.

The flip-side of this strategy could include a backlash against the West for causing economic harm, a more radicalized government, and nuclear enrichment accelerating as a result. No one said this was going to be easy. Still since Iran’s economy already faces home-grown problems from years of serious mismanagement current troubles probably won’t radicalize secular Iranians while hard-liners gain one more reason to run riot.

Either way results should be in soon. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, complete with an almost comical bomb illustration during his UN speech, continued to warn of a point of no return and Israel’s readiness to strike. The U.S. meanwhile re-affirmed its commitment to never allow Iran to possess a nuclear bomb, which could take less than a year once a decision to pursue weaponizing had been made. Iran’s economy gets closer to breaking point by the day and sanctions won’t be lifted without a deal while its nuclear race continues. The specter of destruction (economic, political or military) is coming to head in the not-so-distant future. Let’s hope the sanctions gambit pays off.

 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Occupy East China Sea – China, Japan Face Off Over Disputed Islands

Occupy East China Sea – China, Japan Face Off Over Disputed Islands

Chinese fishing fleets continue pressing their claims to the resources of a disputed island chain in the East China Sea while Japan considers what it can do with a Coast Guard fleet to protect their administrative control. The Senkaku/Diaoyu or Diaoyu/Senkaku island debate rages on with an occupy movement in full swing.

With the Japanese government’s decision to buy the islands from its private owner, rather than let right–leaning Tokyo governor Ishihara do the same (and escalate tensions further), a wave of anti-Japan protest spread in China. In addition to the anticipated demonstrations against Embassies and consulates, large crowds looted, set fires and attacked civilians (Japanese and Chinese, some in Japanese made cars).

The question over sovereignty of the islands has revolved around two main arguments from China –  historical precedent and geographical rights. Neither holds much sway in the international community of today rather than say several hundred years ago when imperial dynasties ruled.

For the history defense, China claims the islands were never Japanese territory and show up on several ancient maps of the region. History converges around 1895 after the Sino-Japanese war when the Japanese government began to control the islands. Han Yi-Shaw, guest writing in Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times opinion blog dives deep into the historical record and concludes:

“Collectively, these official documents leave no doubt that the Meiji government did not base its occupation of the islands following “on-site surveys time and again,” but instead annexed them as booty of war. This is the inconvenient truth that the Japanese government has conveniently evaded.”

Whatever the reasons espoused by Japan’s rulers at the time, war was (and in some places continues to be) the main arbiter of establishing control over physical territory. If history was the gauge to judge international decisions over territorial disputes Mongolia could claim rights over China, India and vast swathes of the Middle East and Europe. Iran would have overlapping claims from their Persian empire. Mexico re-gains the American Southwest, but perhaps Spain, France and Britain would like to carve out the rest of the U.S.

Historical precedent also shows Japan did administer them, unchallenged, then lost them in World War II to the U.S., and then re-gained them afterwards. If China doesn’t recognize the end of war agreements (to some of which they were not a signatory) then far more lies in question than just a few islands.

Geography also plays a weak role. China is looking to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to arbitrate a claim that the islands belong to their continental shelf. Since they lie outside of the standard 200 nautical mile limit the government is setting in motion a review to extend the range of the shelf.

While this is certainly better than waging war to win back the islands based on an over one hundred year old conflict UNCLOS doesn’t settle national sovereignty issues, it attempts to resolve conflict over exclusive economic zones.

Neither historical precedent nor length of continental shelf is going to ultimately win favor with the international community or gain the credibility China wants for its claims over these islands. Maintaining the status quo by both sides has been the accepted norm. Increased interest in potential natural resources, rising nationalism on both sides, and China’s rapid military expansion threaten that tentative peace. Japan’s purchase from a private citizen may appear to upend the status quo, but not necessarily. It largely prevented more hawkish factions from attempting to fire up nationalistic sentiments.

For now both sides will need to look strong domestically without crossing a red line into open conflict. As long as neither country builds on the island, begins drilling operations at sea or aggressively restricts access to fishing grounds, a tentative calm can be maintained. The only peaceful way to resolve the dispute is for both sides to negotiate directly. Otherwise we’re back to the days of might makes right in Asia, and that didn’t go well at all.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Muslims Didn’t Kill U.S. Diplomats in Benghazi

Muslims Didn’t Kill U.S. Diplomats in Benghazi

First came anger. Anger at the images of the burning consulate. Anger at the senseless loss of life, at those who rioted, and the few who killed. On the anniversary of Sept. 11th that brought tragedy to so many, now more Americans were caught in the crossfire of a fight that never ended.

Then came questions. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in her address to the nation asked “how could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?”

Unfortunately anti-American sentiment never died with Gaddafi. An active terrorist training camp operated freely nearby. A bomb and note were left outside the Consulate back in July and a British diplomatic convoy had been attacked. The extremist flame has yet to be extinguished.

Finally the blame. It would be all too natural to say that Muslims were the cause of this senseless tragedy. After all, the killings are often “in the name of” Islam. Attackers yell “Allah hoo-akbar” (God is great), though Sunnis and Shia, both Muslim, yell the same when they kill each other. Muslims didn’t kill U.S. diplomats in Benghazi on 9/11, 2012, terrorists did. Those who call to the divine in the support of violence live furthest from the true foundations of their own religion, whether a Wisconsin murderer of Sikhs, a Norweigan fascist or extremists in Benghazi.

New images are now appearing of Libyans with signs expressing their sorrow at what happened. We can only hope they continue to come out in greater numbers to support the new Libya — their Libya — liberated by their own sacrifices to create a country free of the violence and fear of Gaddafi’s reign of terror and the radical groups now festering within their borders.

Americans too have now sacrificed their lives for the new Libya. Mourning has begun for the families who lost so much. The fallen diplomats went to Libya to do a job that few would undertake in conditions that most would never tolerate. Let’s hope that the majority of Libyans, who aren’t terrorists, continue the fight against those bent on depriving them of the liberty they fought so hard to win in the first place.

In memorium:

 

Photos: Mustafa El-Shridi and http://imgur.com/a/tlCyI

CNN Commentary: Has the UN Lost Its Peacekeeping Mandate?

CNN Commentary: Has the UN Lost Its Peacekeeping Mandate?

Now that Kofi Annan has stepped down from his position as U.N. Arab League Envoy to Syria and peacekeeping troops are being removed from the country one has to wonder – does the United Nations have any role to play in conflict resolution?

The reality is that the Annan Plan, which supported an interim government to shepherd Syria into a post-dictatorship future, was doomed from the start. Bashar al-Assad was to unilaterally step down in the middle of ongoing hostilities while his forces held the momentum against a popular uprising.

Al-Assad of course played the statesman, met with U.N. officials and allowed troops to enter Syria. No one was fooled for long. His military began an all-out assault soon after Annan’s plane took off. Helicopter gunships and fighter jets strafed cities as civilian casualties mounted. Nearly $17 million was authorized for the 150 military observers and 105 civilians. While a paltry sum considering the more than $7 billion peacekeeping budget, that money could have funded, for example, 2,400 water projects for creating wells to bring safe drinking water to over a million people in need.

Instead, United Nations’ efforts lengthened by weeks if not months a concerted move by regional powers to openly oppose Syria’s indiscriminate attacks on its citizenry.  The General Assembly then voted to censure its own Security Council for failing to do more. . . . Read more here.

Why Syria Matters

After months of skirting around the diplomatic edges of a year and a half old Syrian crisis the U.S. finally drew a red line.  If chemical weapons enter the conflict the U.S. will act with force. That prompted two of Assad’s last remaining benefactors to step up their rhetoric against greater U.S involvement in a civil war that has killed approximately 18,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more (see PBS for a succinct timeline.)

The AP is reporting that Russia, main military backer and advisor of the Assad regime, received Syrian assurances that stockpiles would not be used and they remained firmly under government control. China, echoing Syria, said the Americans were using the risk to justify intervention.

Why the sudden interest in kinetic involvement (aka bombs and bullets) rather than the continued non-lethal support the U.S. is already providing, including humanitarian assistance and commmunications? Syria, after years of speculation finally stated publicly that it has chem/bio weapons. An attack by “external forces” could trigger their use, according to Syrian government officials via the New York Times.

If the regime is teetering on the edge, as many suspect it may be considering the overwhelming use of conventional force, including fighter jets, helicopter gun ships and tanks, then chem/bio may be its last resort. Defining “external” could be as easy as saying foreign fighters, which are already battling alongside the Syrian Free Army.

Assad has shown a callous disregard for the non-Alewite majority civilian population so far, reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s murderous rampages of the past. There is little reason to believe that the Iraqi Kurdish fate of a chemical gas attack might not befall Syrians as well.

At the moment Assad appears to favor a fight to the death having rebuffed the UN and two approaches by the Arab League to step down with safe passage. The BBC reported that during a recent visit to Moscow, Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil added an Assad exit to the standard talking points of “options”, but not if Assad had to resign first – a clear non-starter.

Radicalized opposition groups possessing chem/bio weapons pose a definite threat of enhanced terrorism well beyond the region. Both Russia and purportedly China face potential Islamic fundamentalist uprisings within their borders which is perhaps one reason they favor these weapons under Syrian control. Even more importantly long standing economic interests including oil and Cold War era positioning for spheres of non-U.S. dominated influence define Russian and Chinese alliances with Assad.

Syria also has one of the best equipped conventional militaries in the region. With a virtual arms bazaar for the budding terrorist group, landmines and shoulder mounted rockets that can take down aircraft would pose an immediate threat if seized by radical groups. The Monterey Institute’s Deputy Director Leonard S. Spector lays out five categories of weapons and associated concerns in his July Congressional testimony.

Intentionally or otherwise this last hold-out of the Arab Spring has turned into a battleground for influence while a captive Syrian populace pays the ultimate price. Still a U.S. ground invasion remains a remote possibility. There is no stomach for more U.S. casualties after Iraq and Afghanistan and even less so in the run-up to elections this fall.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot at stake for the U.S. if only that were better defined.