SANDERS: A full plate for Secretary Kerry

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The customary accolades from fellow solons notwithstanding, Sen. John F. Kerry’s nomination as secretary of state is fraught with complications. Following the debacle of Ambassador Susan E. Rice’s withdrawal from consideration for the post under the cloud of the Benghazi attack (which also dogs outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton), Mr. Kerry’s lackadaisical demeanor seem less than adequate to meet growing the multiple foreign policy crises the country faces.

Mr. Kerry also will face some new tasks. President Obama’s attempt to “pivot” to the growing threat to peace and stability posed by Communist China, in what conventional wisdom holds is the new center of world economy, is laudable. But the implosion of the Obama Mideast policy is apparent. Benghazi was the touchstone, even though the administration has done everything it could to camouflage reality. Shaking free from the Middle East will require more of the Obama administration than slogans.

The vaunted Arab Spring has turned into a struggle in which modernists are losing to a riptide of Islamic radicalism — most notably in Egypt. Al Qaeda franchises are blossoming throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Syria is turning into a sectarian hellhole as full-blown civil war erupts, while the Assad regime attempts to hang on with the kind of brutality all too characteristic of the Arab world. Not only is there evidence of strong participation of al Qaeda look-alikes among Syria’s opposition, but there are growing signs that Washington is so befuddled by the situation that it has lent such elements aid.

Still, at least initially, Mr. Kerry may luck out in Asia. Despite Washington’s recent trimming of U.S. naval power, hoping that technology can substitute for numbers, a mobilization against an aggressive China is developing among America’s Asian allies. South Korea has just re-elected a conservative government which, even while making the usual overtures to its dangerous northern twin, will cling to the U.S. alliance. Japan has thrown out the Democratic Party of Japan, that strange amalgam of left-wing socialists and opportunistic conservatives.

Liberal Democratic Party Leader Shinzo Abe, the prime minister-elect, may retreat from his hawkish campaign rhetoric, especially facing a forthcoming upper house election. But Mr. Abe’s tougher line toward China and North Korea and his support for civilian nuclear power were campaign promises a Japanese electorate bought into.

One hopes that South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye and Mr. Abe can repeat the success of Ms. Park’s father, the formidable military dictator Park Chung-hee, and Mr. Abe’s grandfather, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who a couple of generations ago took the first steps to heal their countries’ bitter feud. They initiated technology transfers and offshore procurement by Japanese companies, boosting South Korea into the ranks of modern, industrialized nations. But the next step, a Japanese-Korean alliance, has not been cemented despite Washington’s half-century effort. And in a world of relatively diminished American power, multilateral military as well as economic collaboration is more critical than ever.

Facing up to Chinese belligerency has to be on Mr. Kerry’s plate, even if not publicly acknowledged. Beijing’s outrageous recent insistence that its southern Hainan province has jurisdiction over the South China Sea and its claims to a right to interfere with traffic on one of the world’s most important nautical highways are probably a feint. But if and when a real challenge materializes, it cannot go unmet by a U.S. Navy committed to freedom of the seas. The same old noises from the recent Beijing Communist Party theater leading to a new administration in March do not bode well.

Mr. Kerry also has the arduous task of putting flesh on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a visionary U.S. proposal to create a Pacific Basin common market — excluding China so long as it is unwilling to play by the rules of fair trade. The concept, however laudatory, faces enormous difficulties, especially the old monkey wrench of Japanese and Korean agricultural interests fearful of cheaper North American and Australasian food.

As much as anything, Mr. Kerry needs full presidential backing, generally not forthcoming from a White House which leads from behind. Obviously, continuing the slow revival of the American economy — a victim of Mr. Obama’s anti-entrepreneurial and regulatory manias — will be a higher priority. But one can only hope that innate American economic vitality and the good sense of our Asian allies, who instinctively know the importance of U.S. leadership, will bear out Bismarck’s quip, “There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children and the United States of America.”

• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at solsanders@cox.net and blogs at yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.

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