A long-term competitor
Q: In the past week, China and Israel have issued sharp rebukes to President Obama and his approach to issues relating to trade and West Bank settlements. As a world leader facing political challenges at home, is this the right moment for Obama to show toughness and resolve and risk escalating the confrontations or to demonstrate patience and diplomacy in trying to defuse them?
In dealing with China and Israel, toughness depends on patience and diplomacy. U.S. policy works best when we have a realistic, non-ideological and bipartisan consensus on our strategic objectives, and when we work persistently in a disciplined way over the long haul to achieve them. With China and Israel, intemperate toughness only creates dogged resistance.
China's strategic view draws on an imperial memory of centuries of having had the most advanced civilization in the world, as well as the scars of that civilization's decline in the early 20th century. That history of internal divisions and strife make the PRC's rulers very wary of a loss of control, which they fear would generate widespread instability.
So to protect their economic growth, we see them following a neo-mercantilist economic policy in which they take strategic commodities they need for economic growth off the international market and manipulate their currency to national advantage. Driven by national pride, they invest a large share of GDP in building up a modern, power-projection military, going far beyond anything envisioned by President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he coined the phrase, "military industrial complex." We must work with China in a way that changes their behavior and, in the friction of events, does not allow the PRC to be seen here at home as an enemy.
Israel draws on a deeply held religious and historic tradition along with a steely determination not to be denied a right to live on contested land. Sometimes that steely determination, the scars of serial intifidas, and a record of military successes against its Arab neighbors leads to a kind of paranoid overconfidence that causes missteps on the path to agreement with the Palestinians. We must work with Israel to ensure they understand the limits of tactical encroachment on the main prize we both value of a two-state solution, an end state that will require from both Palestinians and Israelis painful compromises and credible and effective means to enforce the terms of any agreement.
Our ability to use toughness when necessary comes at a price. We must foster credibility in our ability to act. We must be consistent and patient, often a weakness in U.S. policy. We must respond to Israeli and Chinese behaviors that seem threatening with an appreciation of their real motives and realistic, unemotional counters based on bipartisan consensus here at home. We must take the tough measures to rebuild our financial position in the world. That goal means reversing our trend toward a structural debt that threatens national bankruptcy. Yet at the same time, in reducing our force presence in Iraq, we must modernize and restructure our military.
In this long-term competition toughness and patience go hand in hand. Given realistic objectives and strategic resilience on our part, we must respond with diplomatic and economic moves that influence these important players to move toward the long-term interests they share with us, rather than toward short-term narrowly nationalistic goals. While maintaining constant pressure, we must pick our hard points very carefully.
We have a way to go and some homework to do before we are ready to "risk escalating confrontations" with either Israel or China. The administration seems to have a good handle on that reality.
Gen. Monty Meigs (Ret.)
March 17, 2010; 11:27 AM ET
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