At Large

The View From the Other Side

What do our foreign enemies think about us now?

By 5.17.13

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Just as the American international security establishment -- DoD, CIA, State -- maintains continuing assessments of nations considered potential or actual adversaries, these countries do the same in respect to the United States.

The DPRK (North Korea) openly states it believes the U.S. intends to invade it. The Kim dynasty has sought to instill a general paranoia within the nation, with a particular onus on a perpetually aggressive United States aided by its ambitious puppet in the southern portion of the peninsula, the Republic of Korea. It’s hard for Washington to accept, but North Korea really does believe it must remain on constant alert to possible U.S.-supported attack, and as a result must develop advanced nuclear capable missiles. As long as paranoia drives the DPRK strategic policy, it cannot be expected that it can be negotiated out of its nuclear weapon development program. What’s more; it really wants nuclear weapons, if for nothing else than status in the Asia community.

China has none of the innate fear of an American attack that exists with North Korea. Nonetheless, Beijing continues to find it advantageous to maintain an approach to the U.S. that implies that offense is the best defense. It sees Washington as afraid that China some day will breakout as a major world military power. Beijing does not want to discourage that underlying threat. Certainly American huffing and puffing at each new Chinese military development is viewed in that context. The “new” Chinese aircraft carrier, the rebuilt former old Soviet hulk, now floats about generally close to the Chinese mainland in a full battle group always drawing concerted attention from the much larger U.S. Navy. The Chinese Navy (PLAN) enjoys the recognition and annoyance it causes the Americans, but really doesn’t threaten much. Washington has always fallen for this old trick.

As long as China continues to limit itself to this theatrical posturing, lack of aggression will remain the strength of the PRC’s strategy. Currently the bluster over Japan’s claim on the Senkaku islands (aka Diaoyu by China) comprising three total square miles, a band of feral goats, and a dream of gas deposits, is a good example. Beijing has let it be known that it’s the principle not the fact. In this case the principle is part of the numerous claims the Chinese have on a string of islands stretching from the Kuriles near Russia down to the Indonesian archipelago. The Chinese navy watches the American navy and the Japanese navy watches the two others while the Taiwanese also keep an eye on it all. It’s just what Beijing wants.

Perhaps the best strategy of ankle-biting as an aggressive deterrent was the late Hugo Chavez’s threat to destabilize American influence in the Caribbean and Central America by buying off as many socialist-leaning governments in the region as possible with quantities of oil or direct payments therefrom. The Chavista view was that Washington saw itself as having a proprietary interest in this region. This may have been true in the past, but time has worn thin the fears that existed when the Soviets had an active ongoing program to destabilize the hemisphere. As far as Chavez was concerned he still thought Washington should care. The new Venezuelan president hasn’t yet indicated a change in the old Chavista policy, but so far the Obama administration hasn’t risen to the old bait. Nonetheless Caracas still seems satisfied with snapping away at Uncle Sam’s heels in order to get attention without actually causing a serious reaction.

As clever as the current American government thinks it is, it comes far short of the self-confidence of the leadership of Iran. The Tehran leadership is well-trained, indeed immersed, in the practice of dissemblance. This is built into its Shia spiritual belief that is referred to as al taqiyah. Iranian leaders view Washington at this stage as willing to do anything to avoid direct military confrontation. In consequence Iranian political and military authorities maintain a continuing campaign to play on Washington’s considerable fears of Persian aggression. At the same time, Tehran speeds along its nuclear weapons development confident the United States will not take serious physical action to stop them. From the standpoint of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the American body politic is now ruled by the avoidance of conflict with Iran over the latter’s growing nuclear capability. All Iranian strategy is based on this perception – and not unjustifiably.

And then there is Russia. The “reset button” was one of the best con jobs developed in foreign affairs strategy since Hitler sold Chamberlain the idea that there would be “peace in our time.” The Americans during these Obama days are viewed by Vladimir Putin as desiring a working relationship with his regime, at virtually any cost. The proof of this assessment has been made in Syria where it is Russia’s continued support that allows Bashar al-Assad to retain power. China and Iran are important, but it is Russia that has had the ability to give Assad the confidence to carry on, both materially and psychologically. Washington has played the Moscow card very weakly and that has proven to the Kremlin that its assessment is the current U.S. administration’s lack of willingness to confront Moscow on tough issues is correct. From the point of view of an extensively trained and experienced President Putin, President Obama and his entourage lack fortitude. Putin sees Obama as wanting above all else to avoid not only military confrontation anywhere, but want just as much to avoid political confrontation -- especially with Russia.

The most recent key to Russian assessment of Washington’s political military “spine” was and is the White House’s reaction to the deadly attack in Benghazi. It is a tradition internationally that official diplomatic missions must be protected. This tradition includes punitive expeditions (with or without host country assistance) against the forces that attacked the diplomatic facility. Russia’s own devastating counterattacks on Caucasian terrorists clearly indicates their mindset in that arena. From the standpoint of a former KGB operations officer, such as Vladimir Putin, any head of government that does not respond vigorously to attacks against its society and its representatives is of no real consequence and can be manipulated as desired in any future crisis.

Today the power centers of the world no longer worry about U.S. strategic policies. There is no quivering at the prospect that Washington will put its military forces in the field to maintain peaceful discipline and order. America’s “big stick” no longer carries a real threat. Even the enfeebled North Koreans see no military danger from the U.S. -- though they do use the American “bogey man” effectively in their internal propaganda. Elsewhere in the world even that respect has been lost.

Photo: UPI

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.