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Friday, February 13, 2009

Dick Morris Gets It Wrong: The Critical Importance of Hillary’s Trip to Asia

Dick Morris, removed from President Bill Clinton’s political team in 1996, continues to seek revenge in his attacks on Hillary Clinton. Morris posted in the Hill on Monday a piece titled Hillary’s incredible shrinking role. Here’s the lead paragraph: “Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is finding that her job description is dissolving under her feet, leaving her with only a vestige of the power she must have thought she acquired when she signed on to be President Obama’s chief Cabinet officer.”

You’ve got it wrong, Dick.

Robert D. Kaplan in the Atlantic sets the record straight:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has chosen Asia as the destination for her first overseas trip. Starting this Sunday, she’ll be on a week-long trip to Japan, South Korea, China, and Indonesia. This has significance for several reasons.

Asian economies have been dramatically expanding since the 1970s – no surprise there. But what is less widely recognized is their equally dramatic military expansion, which has transformed them from low-tech land forces to high-tech, civilian-military, air and sea post-industrial complexes. Asia is bristling with nationalism and weaponry, even as Europe drifts into functional pacifism (despite its contribution to NATO forces in Afghanistan). It is this joining of economic might with military might that makes Asia the strategic focal point of the new century.

The Bush Administration understood this reality, but could not address it because it was preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan. The new Obama Administration is also preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan. But whereas former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was running all over the world on her own, the Obama White House has reorganized the top levels of the State Department so that certain issues, like the Greater Middle East, can be delegated to special envoys, allowing Clinton to give Asia the attention it deserves.

The Bush strategy was to leverage Japan and India militarily and diplomatically against a rising China, even as it sought good relations with Beijing. President Obama will do the same – for there really is no other choice. The difference will be in the energy applied to the task. Half of life is showing up, as the cliché goes, and Secretary Clinton has signaled with her first trip that she plans to show up often in Asia.

A measure of the new administration’s realization of the importance and nuances of Asia is demonstrated by Clinton’s decision to add Indonesia to the itinerary. Indonesia is crucial for many more reasons than the fact that President Obama went to school there for a few years as a child. It is the largest Muslim country in the world and the fourth most populous one. It commands the narrow Strait of Malacca, which is the world’s energy highway, where supertankers transport Middle Eastern oil to the burgeoning middle class fleshpots of the Pacific Rim. Thailand – Southeast Asia’s former political linchpin – is polarized and increasingly unstable, and Malaysia and Singapore are facing their own difficult political transitions, but Indonesia seems to be on its way to becoming an authentically stable Muslim democracy.

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