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This moment has a pre-war feel. China and Russia, two aggressive states, are on the march, and the rogue regimes they sponsor, especially Iran and North Korea, now act with impunity.
In the last three years, both Beijing and Moscow seized territory from their neighbors, and Washington’s response has been feeble. The Pentagon shares blame with the White House for the failure of American resolve.
President Obama does not appear to be up to the challenge, but then again neither was his predecessor, who repeatedly failed in the face of Chinese and Russian assertion. Failure has been bipartisan and continues to be such.
There are so many hotspots spread across the globe at the moment the risk is that the crises will merge and engulf the world.
On specific issues, there is something to be said for letting our adversaries kill each other in Syria, and Russia can easily find itself in war-without-end there. Yet there is a sense of unease because the United States is no longer the guarantor of peace in the Middle East. In fact, we are not even guiding outcomes.
In East Asia, the test for Washington will be the freedom of navigation exercises the Navy plans in the Spratly chain. The White House refused permission in the summer for such operations, but now the administration has relented in light of Beijing’s refusal to adhere to its obligations. There will be other tests as an arrogant Beijing seeks to eject Washington from the region.
Iran blatantly violated the just-negotiated nuclear deal with the test of a ballistic missile on Sunday. Tehran bought the technology for the missile from North Korea. Why did we not stop missile sales, which have taken place for two decades, in the first place?
China cyberattacks the United States, but President Obama apparently will not impose the sanctions the White House discussed a month ago. The Chinese are cybercriminals, but we have permitted them to rob us blind. They will stop only when we impose costs greater than the benefits they receive.
The United States has the power to lead as our economy is so much stronger than Russia’s or China’s. Russia already is deep in recession, and China is fast headed that way.
That means, among other things, that a determined American president can make a difference. Yet there is no Reagan in sight, in either party. In America today, there is a sense of malaise, much like the 1970s. Pessimism now defines our approach to the world.
As a result, Russia and China are largely free to do what they want. They are taking apart the international system, and the smell of disaster is in the air.