According to the US Federal Reserve, Americans’ net worth has fallen 40 percent since 2007, returning to its 1992 level. Progress toward recovery will be slow and difficult, and the US economy will be weak throughout the run-up to November’s presidential and congressional elections. Can any incumbent — and especially US President Barack Obama — win re-election in such conditions?
To be sure, the blame for the US’ malaise lies squarely with Obama’s predecessors: former US president Bill Clinton, for encouraging the Fed to take its eye off financial market supervision and regulation, and former US president George W. Bush, for his costly wars, which added massively to US government debt. However, come election day, many (if not most) Americans are likely to ignore recent history and vote against the incumbent.
Given this, it would not be surprising if Obama and others in his administration were seeking non-economic issues to energize his campaign. National security problems in general, and the challenge posed by China in particular, may be shaping up as just such issues.
Obama’s foreign and defense policies have been assertive, to say the least, especially in the Middle East and the Pacific. He has sanctioned far more unmanned drone strikes than Bush did, extended the security services’ intrusion into Americans’ privacy, allowed the CIA to continue its rendition program, approved trials of accused terrorists by flawed military tribunals and has not shut Guantanamo Bay.
Moreover, the US is increasing its troop presence in the Pacific at a time when it already has more military force in the region than all other countries combined. Six aircraft carriers, with their accompanying support vessels — 60 percent of the US’ entire Navy — are now stationed in the Pacific.
In addition, Obama’s administration has been conducting talks with the Philippines to increase and enhance naval cooperation. Singapore has been persuaded to host four advanced naval ships. Australia has established a base for US Marines in Darwin and another for unmanned spy planes on the Cocos Islands.
That is not all. In a move that has received little or no publicity, congressional Republicans added a clause to the Defense Appropriation Bill for next year requiring the Obama administration to consult with countries in the Western Pacific about stationing even more forces — including tactical nuclear weapons — in the region. US Senator Richard Lugar has advised me that since there has been little or no objection to the amendment from the White House, he sees no reason why it will not pass the US Senate.
At a recent security conference in Singapore, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta emphasized the US military build-up in the region. Afterward, he went to Vietnam, allegedly for discussions about the US Navy’s use of Cam Ranh Bay, a major US base during the Vietnam War.
The US, like Australia, denies that all of this adds up to a policy of containment aimed at China. However, few in the Western Pacific see it that way.
Panetta’s visit to Vietnam followed hard on US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s visit to Beijing for strategic and economic talks. Those talks seemed to go well, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the US is pursuing a two-track policy: talks, yes, but also a build-up and repositioning of US military power in the Pacific just in case.