“Our commitment to defend the Philippines is ironclad,” Obama said in a clear warning to China that is engaged in a territorial dispute with Manila over islands in the South China Sea.
Even though there is a long-standing treaty which actually requires the US to come to the aid of the Philippines if it is attacked, the President must have welcomed the opportunity to play the tough guy following his equivocation in the escalating row with Russia over Ukraine and the inevitable failure of Middle East peace talks.
He was underlining his policy of ‘tilting’ towards Asia and ensuring Beijing clearly knows his continuing commitment to the US’s friends in East and South-East Asia.
China predictably sniffed at Obama’s support for the “troublemaking” Philippines, claiming it was another attempt to contain China’s influence in the region – which it was.
However, Beijing knows that its “indisputable” territorial rights are actually on shaky ground, which is why it refuses to take part in any international mediation. Its claims on various islets and shoals are based on “ancient maps and charts” – documents drawn up when the Abbasid Caliphate ruled most of North Africa and the Middle East, while the Eastern Roman Empire stretched from the toe of Italy to Trebizond.
With allies reassured and the big stick waved at China, Obama must now address the realities waiting in Washington. Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempts to get the Israelis and Palestinians to talk about a lasting “two-state solution” has clearly failed, but this is not such a problem as every Administration since Nixon and Kissinger has tried and failed to find a solution to this insurmountable problem. Ukraine is a different matter.
While Obama was away, US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel was assured by his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, that Russia had no intention of invading the rest of Ukraine after accepting the annexation of Crimea – but to many commentators this held echoes of the Sudetenland and Adolf Hitler’s 1938 speech about this being his last territorial demand.
The US president made a big mistake when, from the beginning, he took the military option off the table, leaving the US and Europe to dither and debate over the extent and depth of sanctions while Russian President Vladimir Putin presides over the gradual break-up of Ukraine (the extent to which he is complicit in this can be debated).
Any threat to use force would have remained just that – a threat - but one that Putin would have appreciated. As it is he correctly judges he can ride out sanctions (they are rarely fully effective and inevitably weaken with time) while continuing to play cat and mouse with the West.
This from the pages of history:
By now, the Nazis had perfected the art of stealing neighbouring territory. They would start by encouraging political unrest inside the area. At the same time, they would wage a propaganda campaign citing real or imagined wrongs committed against local Germans. When neighbouring political leaders finally came to see Hitler to resolve the ongoing crisis, they would be offered help in the form of a German Army occupation to "restore order".
Obama would do well to ponder another quote from the past, this from the Spanish philosopher, George Santayana:
Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them.