US Declassifies Strategy, Revealing Yawning Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality – The Diplomat

Just eight days before Joe Biden is inaugurated as president of the United States, the Trump administration declassified the strategy it purports to have followed in its policies towards Asia.

Called the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific,” the President’s National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said that the “the document is being released to communicate to the American people and to our allies and partners, the enduring commitment of the United States to keeping the Indo-Pacific region free and open long into the future.”

The timing of the release seems more likely to be intended to pressure the in-coming Biden administration to perpetuate some of the Trump White House’s policies, or to burnish the professional reputations of national security officials tainted by Trump’s behavior and scandal.

Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger, who oversaw much of the strategy’s development as the National Security Council’s senior director for Asia, resigned from the White House last week after a deadly pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol.

The framework lists three overarching challenges in the Pacific: maintaining the United States’ strategic primacy in the region and promoting a liberal economic order against China’s illiberalism; ensuring that North Korea does not threaten the United States; and promoting the United States’ global economic leadership and fair trade.

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Separate from the merits of these objectives, the Trump administration made little progress towards achieving any of them and made some situations much worse.

Trump’s often capriciously pursued trade war against China broadly failed and likely cost the United States economically far more than it did China, and for marginal, if any, strategic benefit.

The world is broadly much more skeptical of China’s global objectives and concerned about its illiberal and unchecked influence. However, this awareness and concern has been driven far more by China’s own behavior, such as its treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, the political repression of Hong Kong, its economic punishment of Australia, and its abrasive “wolf warrior” diplomacy, than by U.S. leadership or policy.

The Trump administration’s legacy on the Korean Peninsula is much worse. After coming close to sparking a war with North Korea over the reclusive state’s nuclear weapons program in 2017, Trump engaged Kim Jong Un in a series of not very serious diplomatic summits that failed to produce any agreements. North Korea meanwhile unveiled a number of advanced new nuclear-capable missiles, including a giant intercontinental ballistic missile likely capable of hitting anywhere in the continental United States. Instead of bolstering its relationship with South Korea, the Trump administration repeatedly antagonized it with demands to pay the United States more money to support American troops stationed there, while also threatening to bring many of those forces back home and threatening South Korean car manufacturers with trade tariffs.

Instead of bolstering the United States’ economic leadership, the Trump administration presided over its retreat from the global economic order. In spite of China’s widespread economic coercion and disturbing violations of human rights, it has succeeded in leveraging international disappointment and skepticism of the United States from Trump’s policies to cement itself more securely into the global economy. Since Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, Southeast Asia assembled a new regional trade partnership with China, and the European Union concluded a new investment agreement with China over objections from incoming Biden officials.

The Biden administration now faces an even more fractured world from which it might try to assemble an international block against coercive Chinese policies.

The strategy’s goal of maintaining “primacy” in Asia is consistent with Trump’s own sometimes cartoonish military boasts – like the “super duper missile” – and the Pentagon’s goal of maintaining military “overmatch” against any potential adversary. But this overarching goal is not quite aligned with the strategy’s military tasks.

The strategy names two military goals for deterring or prevailing against China in a conflict: to deny China air and sea dominance within the first island chain in a conflict, and for the U.S. military to dominate outside of the first island chain itself. Successful denial does not require military primacy or overmatch and the Pentagon’s own plans suggest that the primacy and overmatch rhetoric belie its more modest approach.

Contesting Chinese dominance inside the first island chain is why the U.S. Army is pursuing new long-range rockets and artillery and is behind the Marine Corps’ expeditionary island base strategy and purchase of mobile missile systems.

But even though these efforts align with the White House strategy, it is questionable whether the strategy is responsible for them. Most of those new weapons systems and warfighting concepts began being developed during the Obama administration and reflect geographic reality more than the Trump team’s strategic innovation.

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If anything, primacy is even further out of reach after Trump’s four years in office than it was at the beginning. Despite coming in with promises of building a 350-ship fleet and successive plans for a 400 or even a 500-ship navy, the Trump administration never submitted a budget proposal to match its sound bites.

Incoming Biden administration officials appear skeptical that these more grandiose military goals are either affordable or necessary to balance China and protect U.S. interests in Asia.

At its best, the “Framework” reads as a collection of the United States’ enduring interests and policies in Asia grafted onto the outgoing President’s bombastic rhetoric and transactional worldview. The result was a strategy that could not achieve Trump’s own idiosyncratic goals and struggled to maintain the geopolitical position he inherited.

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On Trump’s Vicious Immigration Rhetoric and Policies

How do Mexicans protest? With humanitarian demonstrations, or law-and-order demonstrations? It is harder to offer human aid in Mexico than harsh cruelty. The government looks down on any extension of charity to migrants. Still, along the way, in many of the towns where the train stops, local people of little means gather along the tracks with tortillas and bread and fruit and water. American expats sometimes join them.

Some of the unwounded make it all the way to the border, where they are denied entry by the U.S. and pushed into Tijuana to live in COVID-breeding dumps—they can’t go home, or they will be killed. They can’t go forward, because they know what awaits their babies.

This is all in response to our administration’s actions and rhetoric. As are the Tijuana MAGA hats—MTGA, I suppose.

The Otero County Prison Facility in Chaparral, New Mexico
The private Otero County Prison Facility, in Chaparral, New Mexico, is one location where ICE detainees are incarcerated. (Philip Montgomery)

Meanwhile, the glorious Klondike of graft known as the border wall stumbles along, creating tens of miles of multimillion-dollar yard art. In the past few months, ICE and Border Patrol agents have been redeployed as Trump’s secret police, the shock troops sent to protests in American cities, driving unmarked vehicles to collect dissidents. Either the current government of the United States does not care about the “waves” of people invading the country, or the border may not be under siege after all.

Still, it is worth looking south as the U.S. presidential election nears—to those brown lands that have law-and-order forces even more ironfisted than our president dares to be. Yet.

The thunder lizards of any shithole country Trump has insulted have an equal lust for lucre and power. They too look south to conjure “others”—why do they always look south, at poorer, more tattered countries than their own? But they also look within, persecuting “others” in their own lands, even those who look just like them but are insufficiently subservient or merely inconvenient. Like we are starting to do with the antifa kids. Or with the Black Lives Matter protesters, those mothers who need to be pepper-sprayed for standing on the street.

Before he left Mexico, my father faced a crisis of political faith, and this led to his exile from Mexico’s power machine. He was given an order he could not, in good conscience, carry out. But he was still a conservative. He still believed in order. The San Diego suburbs where we finally landed made him comfortable and ruined him. He was now just a bowling-alley custodian, not a power broker with a black car and a Harley and a long military coat. He became the dad of a Bob Dylan fan. And he had to watch, in 1968, on our new color TV, how his beloved government massacred kids like me in Tlatelolco for protesting during the Olympics and embarrassing the mighty men in the presidential palace. He could no longer take refuge in the belief that the system was righteous, despite those leaders who strayed. He saw American conservatism as a last bastion of hope. But he would have finally lost that hope under Trump. He would have recognized the darkness too well.

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