Barack Obama is now in his final days as president but, as he made clear on his visit to Asia last week, there are goals he still hopes to achieve before leaving office.
Closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay was among the promises he made when first campaigning for the White House. He continues to insist that Gitmo is a “recruitment tool that clouds and sours” America’s image in the world.
In 2008, that argument may have seemed plausible. But considering what’s happened since — e.g., the mass slaughters and even genocide of Christians and Yazidis by self-proclaimed jihadis in Syria and Iraq and various terrorist atrocities in Europe — can anyone really still believe that outrage over enemy combatants being held in Cuba rather than Colorado is boosting the ranks of al Qaeda and the Islamic State?
And does it make sense to close Gitmo now, a time when the terrorist threat facing the United States and its allies is “bigger, wider and deeper” than at any point since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks — as Nick Rasmussen, President Obama’s top counterterrorism expert, said in a report released last week as well?
During his eight years in office, Mr. Obama has not shown much interested in Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s young dictator. But Mr. Kim has taken an interest in him. To welcome the American president to Asia last week, he fired three ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan and conducted a nuclear test — the second this year, the fifth in a decade and the most powerful yet.
You’ll recall the history that led to this point: In October 1994, President Bill Clinton announced an Agreed Framework with North Korea, a deal to ease sanctions and provide billions of dollars in aid. In exchange, Mr. Clinton confidently told us: “North Korea will freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program. South Korea and our other allies will be better protected. The entire world will be safer as we slow the spread of nuclear weapons.”
He added: “The United States and international inspectors will carefully monitor North Korea to make sure it keeps its commitments. Only as it does so will North Korea fully join the community of nations.” (Does this sound familiar?)
In response to Mr. Kim’s latest provocations, Mr. Obama has offered to open a new round of talks. And he continues to attempt to persuade China, North Korea’s patron, to work “more effectively” with the United States.
China’s leaders, however, have been unwilling to do more than restate that they are “firmly opposed” to North Korea’s nuclear tests, and that they “strongly urge” the regime “to honor its commitment of de-nuclearization.”
All this, of course, ties in with Mr. Obama’s much-vaunted “pivot to Asia.” If historians of the future are to look back on that as a serious initiative — as opposed to a thinly disguised “pivot away from the Middle East” — at least two conditions will need to be met.
The first is establishing closer ties with the Asia-Pacific nations wary of China’s power. Mr. Obama’s means to that end is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is opposed by Donald Trump — and by Hillary Clinton.
As secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton said the TPP “sets the gold standard in trade agreements.” During the primary, however, she came out against it, obviating the need to debate the issue with Bernard Sanders. To convince Congress to ratify the deal before he leaves office, Mr. Obama vows he “will do all I can” — a phrase that, at this point, hardly conveys inevitability.
Also required for Mr. Obama’s Asian pivot to be meaningful: that he frustrate China’s ambition to transform the region’s international waters into Chinese territorial waters. In July, an international arbitration ruling at The Hague rejected China’s claims to the South China Sea. China has simply rejected that ruling and continues to build artificial islands and turn them into military assets. What will Mr. Obama do between now and January? My prediction: not much.
Another item on Mr. Obama’s to-do list: turning over stewardship of the internet to the “international community,” which means giving authoritarian governments the ability to erode if not destroy online freedom. There is at least a chance that Congress, on a bipartisan basis, will prevent him from succeeding.
Mr. Obama does comprehend that there are those who, as he said last week, are “using the internet for all kinds of illicit practices.” China, Russia, Iran and North Korea in particular have been stealing America’s secrets and threatening America’s infrastructure and financial system. To call this cyberwarfare would not be an exaggeration.
The United States has “more capacity than anybody both offensively and defensively,” the president reassured us. But he quickly added that he does not want to see a cyber-arms race “where countries that have significant cyber capacity start engaging in competition.” He prefers instead “to start instituting some norms so that everybody is acting responsibly.”
Talk about the triumph of hope over experience. If there’s one thing that might have been learned over the Obama years, it’s that efforts to institute “norms” inevitably end up with Americans abiding by the rules and such undemocratic nations as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea flouting them.
The United States won the Cold War not least because there was an arms race, one that President Reagan escalated. In the end, the Soviet Union could not keep up. Mr. Reagan also supported a doctrine of “peace through strength.” Has President Obama’s “peace through norms” been an improvement? And don’t you wish that was among the questions being seriously debated by the candidates vying to move into the White House after Mr. Obama moves out?
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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