Don't Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out, Mr. President

Why Obama's Asia trip only made China angrier and inflamed regional tensions.

President Barack Obama has just returned from his Asian tour -- but it may have been better if he had never gone in the first place. As part of his major effort to "rebalance" to Asia by demonstrating U.S. presence and leadership in the region, Obama intended to implement a three-part agenda: assuring allies of the credibility of U.S. security protection, warning China of the dangers of its expanding maritime claim, and fostering a regional free trade zone so the United States can increase its economic advantage. Now, after his April 22-29 trip to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines, Obama's allies are uncertain, China is increasingly unpleased, and the trade deal remains unsigned.

The only place where Obama made any progress was in reminding U.S. allies of its presence. To assuage Tokyo, Obama clarified that the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea fall under the U.S.-Japan security treaty. And on April 27, the United States announced an agreement with the Philippines that paves the way for the U.S. military to again use Filipino bases. Beijing believes the purpose of that agreement is to deter China, which claims islands and islets in what the Philippines calls its exclusive economic zone.

But the record of Obama's administration, and that of his predecessor's, is of security assurances backed up lately only by inaction. The United States has failed to stop Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It failed to stand up to Russia's adventurism in the formerly Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, or in Crimea in March of this year. Granted, none of these places are treaty allies of the United States. But if the United States won't face Russia in Europe, will it really challenge China in the East and South China seas?    

By refusing to restrain Japan, the United States is instead impelling China to build up its defenses, so it can eventually handle U.S. coercion in regards to the Diaoyu. How can China respect a world power that would ally with its former enemy Japan -- while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe still pays tribute to the militant shrine that honors World War II war criminals? Has the United States forgotten that Japan's wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who gave the order for the attack on Pearl Harbor, is also enshrined at Yasukuni? 

Clearly, there exists a territorial dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu. Premier Zhou Enlai first proposed "shelving the dispute" in 1972, and received verbal agreement from his Japanese counterpart Kakuei Tanaka. In his 1978 visit to Japan, Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping furthered this proposal by offering to "discuss it without haste in coming years" -- sensible advice, to which Japan responded positively. For nearly four decades, China has followed this "shelving-the-dispute" formula -- it has only very occasionally sent official vessels to the area. It is Beijing's restraint that has helped assure the peace and stability in the East China Sea over the last few decades.

Tokyo, however, has consistently pushed the envelope. Despite China's strong opposition and words of caution from the United States, the Japanese government "nationalized" the three main islands in September 2012. This seriously hurt the status quo of the region -- and pressed China to respond. Since then, Beijing has more frequently sent its official vessels to the waters surrounding the islands, in order to demonstrate its sovereignty. This is not provocation, but a natural reaction to Tokyo's ratcheting up of tensions.

The United States could help reduce the tension by admitting the existence of a territorial dispute over the Diaoyu, and stating that the best approach to preserving peace and stability is for neither party to change the status quo. China and Japan could negotiate, hold talks, and welcome mediation. Tokyo could then de-nationalize the islands, and China could reciprocate by sending fewer official vessels.

Rather than employing that fair approach, Obama has taken the biased and risky move of siding with Japan. And Tokyo's refusal to recognize the dispute raises the chances of physical confrontation. Instead of containing the sparks generated by his ally, Obama has added fuel to the fire, unnecessarily endangering the United States. To be sure, China is still interested in peacefully settling the dispute with Japan. But given Tokyo's provocation and Washington's partial support, regional tensions are higher than they've been in more than half a century.

Obama has also failed on the trade portion of his agenda. None of the U.S. allies would be foolish enough to sign a trade deal with Washington just because the United States -- whose credibility is increasingly in doubt -- has offered. These Asian governments are elected by their own people, not appointed by the White House. TPP in its present form, as desired by the United States, could jeopardize these governments domestically, since the TPP could lead to substantial job losses in these countries. 

The United States is increasingly unable to balance Asia and the world. Obama may not recognize that, but one of his successors certainly will. The future for all of these countries lies increasingly with Asia -- not with the United States.



Egypt's War on Honest Language

The mass death sentences against 683 Egyptians reveal how Cairo officials are redefining concepts like terrorism and freedom in a cynical bid to solidify their grip on power.  

Egyptian officials will respond to the storm of criticism over the mass death sentences handed down to 683 Egyptians and the banning of the April 6 Movement -- a youth movement that was influential in the 2011 uprising -- by doing what they always do. They will insist that the country's judiciary is independent from political forces, and that judges are merely following the letter of the law in handing down harsh sentences. Egypt, in this version of reality, is actually a country where rule of law is paramount.

Top Egyptian officials are already touting their progress, despite the ominous news coming from the country. "I'm actually quite proud of the constitution -- I think by any account it's a very significant transformation, especially on issues of civil liberties," Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy declared in Washington on the same day that the mass death sentences were handed down. "Whether they relate to gender equality, freedom of expression and religion, it is an extremely progressive framework that essentially invites Egyptians to come together."

Of course, Egypt's senior diplomat and his spokespeople are paid to put Egypt in the best light, not to wrestle with the idea that Egypt's legal system is rigged in a way to benefit a dominant elite. This is an old story, but the recent court rulings show just how far the rule of law has deteriorated -- and how Egyptian elites have appropriated terms like terrorism, dissent, freedom, and progress for their own ends.

This may seem trivial, but when leaders purposefully distort a political vocabulary to justify their actions and existence, what hope do Egyptians have for building a more open and just political order? This willingness to employ a misleading discourse is how the country has reached a point where hundreds are sentenced to death in the name of a "war on terrorism," while even a group like the April 6 Movement, which supported the overthrow of former President Mohammed Morsi, can be outlawed on suspicion of espionage. All the while, Egyptian officialdom speaks with little irony of "progress" and assails foreign critics for not properly understanding "the Egyptian context."

The inevitable result of this state of affairs is the persecution of an ever-expanding array of enemies. For example, the trial of the "Al Jazeera Three" -- journalists who have been jailed in Egypt since late December on terrorism charges. They are not terrorists, but rather employees of a television network that has become unpopular -- even toxic -- for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood. For Egyptians taking their cues from the current leadership and its press, however, this is terrorism. 

The most serious disagreement between Egypt's rival factions continues to be over -- to no one's surprise -- the term coup d'état. This argument stretches back to the military intervention last July that ousted Morsi, but is emblematic of the divisions still plaguing Egypt today. For Egyptian elites and supporters of the new regime, the idea that Morsi's ouster was the result of a coup is not only wrong, but also deeply offensive: How, they ask, could it be a coup if millions of Egyptians took to the streets to call the military out of the barracks?

However, neither the presence of large numbers of protesters calling for change nor the potential for violence makes the military's intervention any less of a coup d'état. The literature on civil-military relations acknowledges -- in one way or another -- that coups are not strictly confined to the officer corps. Civilian support for a military intervention is, rather, critical to a coup's success.

For many Egyptians, however, the use of the term "coup" has become a marker of support for the Muslim Brotherhood. To reject the label and assert instead that what happened last summer was an expression of the will of the people is the undeniable sign of support for former army chief and current presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Many Egyptians reject this dichotomy, of course, but the interim government, the government-friendly press, its supporters among the intellectual class, and Muslim Brothers all derive significant political benefit from framing the prevailing discourse around the semantic progression of coup, coup supporter, Muslim Brother, and terrorist. 

The debate -- if one can even call it that -- over whether the military's action constitutes a coup is clarifying, but in an altogether insidious way. It creates an "either you are with us or against us" political environment, which allows manipulation and intimidation free rein. Egyptian columnists, academics, and other observers in Egypt and abroad are subject to the not-so-subtle threats of the Egyptian state to toe the line or suffer the consequences.

This is eerily similar to the atmosphere the state fostered in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, which destroyed Egypt's intellectual class and rendered talented thinkers into propagandists. The Muslim Brothers are no better, invoking fascism to describe supporters of Sisi. On balance, however, it is the government -- which boasts far more resources at its disposal than the Brothers -- that has cynically sought to divide society for the benefit of a political order that looks and feels suspiciously like the old one.

The politicization of language in Egypt has created the environment that makes the harsh government crackdown and monstrous media attacks on all forms of dissent possible. There are thousands of political prisoners currently in Egypt's jails, restrictions on freedom of expression are becoming more severe, and new anti-terrorism laws have given the security forces additional powers to crack down on any form of popular dissent. All of these  developments are proof of how Egypt,  despite its leaders' protestations to the contrary, has not progressed toward a more open and just order since Morsi's ouster.

Egyptians fed up with endless uncertainty may care little about how political elites define objective reality, but it is at the heart of their country's ongoing crisis. Egyptian leaders' redefinition of terms like coup and dissent is central to a broader, divisive political strategy, portending a grim and undemocratic future for Egypt. The sham trials that make headlines today indicate what to expect from the Egyptian political system, as authorities use any and all means necessary to establish control.