Barack Obama

Our Romney Moment

When Mitt Romney went to Israel and wondered out loud about the role of “culture” in explaining the income disparities that exist between the Jews and Palestinians, he was branded a racist. But his intent was not to court the Jewish community back home who almost always vote Democrat, but to engender support from the evangelical Christians who constitute one major wing of the Republican Party.

He followed this up by attacking President Obama for winding back welfare-to-work reforms introduced by the Clinton-Gingrich consensus in the 1990s. These claims were roundly criticised for being untrue, but yet again, the point was not to be accurate, but to create clear points of distinction between himself and the president due to his inability to do so over Obamacare, the single most reviled policy by the GOP.

What is going on in American politics is a battle for the very soul of the nation. Americans due to their history are a nation that believes in self-reliance. Any attempt to improve the welfare of citizens through the government is frowned upon. So fundamental is this principle sewn into the fabric of the nation’s psyche that the centrepiece program of the Obama presidency was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court. Its constitutionality was affirmed on a mere legal technicality.

Every country develops a kind of cognitive bias, it seems, which gets woven into its collective identity. Call it culture; call it institutions, but I believe the general point Romney was trying to make, albeit callously undiplomatic, is essentially true.

In Australia, for instance, the idea of “the fair go”, that each individual should be given equal footing to pursue his or her dreams and aspirations, is part of the social contract that binds the citizenry to each other and their government. This is why when PM Gillard introduced a carbon tax, the struggling blue collar heartland of her Labor Party base could not understand why as it posed a risk to their ability to have a fair go.

The same can be said about the Philippines and its devout adherence to Catholic beliefs in considering the passage of a reproductive health bill. The fact that the nation is still divided over this issue demonstrates Filipino aversion towards any form of state intervention in what is considered a private affair.

If the RH bill is passed, and it most likely will be, at least in the lower house, then you can be sure that the campaign to unseat those who support it will be vicious in the 2013 congressional elections. This is why while some legislators will in private support the measure, publicly they will tend to stand with the opposite side.

That is why a bi-partisan coalition, which is what existed when then minority leader Edcel Lagman who co-authored the bill locked arms with the administration, is so essential. During the prime ministership of Kevin Rudd, Ms Gillard’s predecessor, support for an emissions trading scheme had the backing of then opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull.

Unfortunately, both these bi-partisan agreements were put asunder in the lead up to the vote. Both Messrs Lagman and Turnbull were dismissed by their respective party-mates and replaced by people who chose to use the issue to wedge the voters and the government. In Australia, Tony Abbott, a former seminarian took the helm of the conservatives, while in the Philippines, Gloria Arroyo, a devout Catholic pulled the strings to have her nominee replace Lagman.

As she fights for her political life and personal exoneration, it is clear that she intends to harness anti-RH sentiments in the community to rally to her cause as she awaits trial for various high crimes. If the clergy who have been quite obliging to her in the past stand shoulder to shoulder with her on this issue, they might mobilise formidable resources to oppose the government in the courts and in the congressional races. Already, the Liberal Party faces stiff opposition in the senatorial derby from the UNA Coalition whose leader in the upper house is staunchly opposed to the RH bill.

What this means is that if the bill is defeated before this congress adjourns, it will have a harder time when it reconvenes after the elections. Those who support this bill should not be disheartened, because the struggle to promote their cause is not a matter of merely changing the law of the land, but of fundamentally altering the psyche of the nation.

Those peering from the outside will always wonder, what is so reprehensible about offering universal health care to Americans? Or why is putting a price on carbon so revolting to Australians? The same could be asked about Filipinos as to why they are still so divided over the issue of reproductive health.

As floods ravage the country causing mudslides, floods and misery all around, the question is how will it manage the deadly cocktail of grinding poverty, population growth and environmental degradation without a reproductive health law and program?

To outsiders, it would seem like a matter of good common sense and prudential risk management to have such policies and programs in place. To those that belong to such cultures, however, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Obama’s Dilemma: U.S. Foreign Policy and Electoral Realities

Obama’s campaign was about more than particular policies. He ran on a platform that famously promised change and hope. His tremendous political achievement was in framing those concepts in such a way that they were interpreted by voters to mean precisely what they wanted them to mean without committing Obama to specific policies. Read more

Obama: Osama bin Laden is dead, Justice has been done (updated)

“Justice has been done,” United States President Barak Obama declared from the White House East Room. President Obama spoke to the American people in a late night address, and confirmed that Osama bin Laden was killed by United States Military Forces, and Agents of the Central Intelligence Agency in a “compound” in Abottabad, 56 kilometers from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. United States took custody of the body. The Wall Street Journal reported that Osama bin Laden’s body was buried at sea in compliance with Islamic traditions, and that his remains were identified by US Forces, as well as by family members at the compound where he died. DNA testing is also being conducted.

There were no American casualties during the assault.

The attack, and victory
Osama bin Laden was shot in the head, as he resisted US Forces, the New York Times wrote.  Battle that killed Osama bin Laden was the culmination of months of detective work by US Intelligence.  According to the New York Times, US intelligence tracked one of Osama bin Laden’s courier into the site.  They speculated that the fortress was so heavily defended that it couldn’t have been hiding a “mere courier.” Guantánamo Bay detainees, according to the New York Times gave the courier’s pseudonym to American interrogators, and was a protege of Khalid Shaikh Mohammaed, the mastermind of September 11.

Barack Obama at the situation room during the attack on Osama bin Laden
Barack Obama at the situation room during the attack on Osama bin Laden

President Obama explained that a small team of US Forces penetrated the area, and engaged in a firefight.  The action was about 40 minutes long and Osama bin Laden, and his force resisted and engaged US Forces.  Casualties in the firefight included a woman who was used as a human shield, one of Osama bin Laden’s sons and two “couriers.”

Wired’s Danger Room quoted senior Obama administration officials describing Osama’s Abottabad base defenses as “extraordinary.”  There were 3.7 to 5.5 meter high walls, with barbed wire on top, described the official.  Danger Room added that there were internal walls provided sectioned portions of the compound, ensuring privacy.  “A terrace on the third flood has a seven foot wall privacy– has a seven foot privacy wall.”

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at the Situation Room during the attack on Osama bin Laden

United States news media earlier reported ahead of President Obama’s speech that the United States had killed Osama bin Laden. Their sources reveal that the United States has either or both DNA evidence and his body. Osama’s body was identified through DNA testing done on his sister who lives in Boston.

President George W. Bush issued a statement, “This momentous achievement marks a victory for America, for people who seek peace around the world, and for all those who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001. The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.”

President Bill Clinton released a statement on the death of Osama bin Laden saying, ““This is a profoundly important moment not just for the families of those who lost their lives on 9/11 and in al-Qaida’s other attacks but for people all over the world who want to build a common future of peace, freedom, and cooperation for our children.”

Twitter breaks the news
GMA News TV curated what appear to be live tweets by Pakistanis of the attack on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad headquarters. “A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt. I hope its not the start of something nasty :-S” tweeted @ReallyVirtual

As news began to circulate on twitter that President Barack Obama was going to address the American people, there was speculation that the announcement involved Libya, which was quickly shot down.  The Guardian recalled that it was twitter where the news first broke. Keith Urbahn (@keithurbahn) tweeted, “So I’m told by a reputable person that they have killed Osama bin Laden.” Urbahn was the former Chief of Staff for Donald Rumsfeld, the United States Secretary of Defense under United States President George W. Bush.

The rest, as they say was history.

Quickly, conflicting reports that Osama bin Laden was killed in Afghanistan or in Northwest Pakistan, surfaced. CNN then reported that Osama bin Laden was killed in a mansion outside Pakistan. Osama bin Laden’s death was then confirmed by senior Pakistani intelligence officials. It was followed by confirmation from news organizations, and STRATFOR too confirmed that Osama bin Laden was killed together with his family members in that Pakistani mansion. The mansion is reportedly close to the Pakistani capital, and that strained further US-Pakistan relations.

There were reports that as Al Jazera English noted that Osama bin Laden was killed by a drone strike.

The leader of al-Qaeda
Osama bin Laden led his terrorist organization, al-Qaeda to attack the United States on 9 September 2001. Those attacks led to the invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq, and the War on Terror. Osama bin Laden marketed himself to his legion as someone who gave up a life of privilege for his Jihad.

Osama bin Laden’s obituary by New York Times calls him with the most apt title, the most wanted face of terrorism.

“To this day, the precise reach of his power remains unknown: how many members Al Qaeda could truly count on; how many countries its cells had penetrated; and whether, as Bin Laden boasted, he sought to arm Al Qaeda with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

He waged holy war with distinctly modern methods. He sent fatwas — religious decrees — by fax and declared war on Americans in an e-mail beamed by satellite around the world. Qaeda members kept bomb-making manuals on CD and communicated with encrypted memos on laptops, leading one American official to declare that Bin Laden possessed better communications technology than the United States. He railed against globalization, even as his agents in Europe and North America took advantage of a globalized world to carry out their attacks, insinuating themselves into the very Western culture he despised.”

In Manila, President Benigno Aquino III in reacting to news that Osama bin Laden has been killed said, “One sword has been beaten down; we must continue to be dedicated to the principle of beating the swords of terrorism into the plowshares of progress and peace.”

Robert Scoble (@scobleizer), on twitter joked, “So can we stop the lame airport checks now? Although I sorta like being grouped. ;-)”

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, an Islamic bandit group based in Mindanao, Philippines called Osama bin Laden, a “martyr.” While in the Arab World, Osama bin Laden’s legacy is confused.

At Ground Zero, the Ghosts seem to sleep easier, knowing Osama bin Laden has fallen.

BreakingNews quoted @joebrooks: “NBC News: This new decade could be the beginning of the era of Arab-Democracy.”

The world now awaits the outcome. With the death of Osama bin Laden translate to an end to terror, or is the normal that spawned from September 11, continue on?

# # #

The following are tweets as news that Osama bin Laden was killed broke.

[blackbirdpie url=”!/keithurbahn/statuses/64877790624886784″]
[blackbirdpie url=”″]

[blackbirdpie url=”″]
[blackbirdpie url=”!/keithurbahn/statuses/64877790624886784″]
[blackbirdpie url=”″]
[blackbirdpie url=”″]
[blackbirdpie url=”″]
[blackbirdpie url=”″]
[blackbirdpie url=”″]
[blackbirdpie url=”″]
[blackbirdpie url=”″]


Photos by White House, public domain

US President Barack Obama launches re-election bid through Social Media

Barack Obama’s re-election campaign kicked off with a message to his supporters on YouTube, “It begins with us.”  Obama for America also clearly uses social media as a way to contact his many supporters, as well as a place for donation to tickle in.  As TechCrunch pointed out how clever Obama for America is using Facebook.  Once you’re part of the Obama campaign, it lets you see which of your friends, aren’t in yet, and prompt’s them, “Are you in?

Obama also has an official twitter page, but nothing on apps, to the level of what the campaign is doing on Facebook.

Obama from the first campaign used Social Media cleverly. So expertly, and coherent is their social media strategy, that the center piece is still, and everything is linked from there. That’s the portal, and that’s where everything comes back to. Whether it is the donation, or email mailing list or social media. The Obama campaign demonstrated great mastery of social media the first round, and if it is an indication they continue to do so, and raised that level of sophistication.

Observing the clever use of technology, of social media, and how it works with Barack Obama’s campaign is interesting, from an advertising standpoint, from a marketing standpoint and from a political campaign position. Of course, it goes without saying that technology is not enough. And in this case, technology and social media just vanish to become elements of the campaign. Its success or failure will become case studies for future campaigns anywhere in the world.

From a political perspective, Obama faces a different campaign. No longer the underdog, President Obama is now the man to beat. His party took a heavy beating in the mid-term election. And America continues to be largely to the right of the political spectrum. Obama’s victory did not change that. Will Social media, and technology bring Obama over the top?

The Libyan War of 2011

By George Friedman

The Libyan war has now begun. It pits a coalition of European powers plus the United States, a handful of Arab states and rebels in Libya against the Libyan government. The long-term goal, unspoken but well understood, is regime change — displacing the government of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and replacing it with a new regime built around the rebels.

The mission is clearer than the strategy, and that strategy can’t be figured out from the first moves. The strategy might be the imposition of a no-fly zone, the imposition of a no-fly zone and attacks against Libya’s command-and-control centers, or these two plus direct ground attacks on Gadhafi’s forces. These could also be combined with an invasion and occupation of Libya.

The question, therefore, is not the mission but the strategy to be pursued. How far is the coalition, or at least some of its members, prepared to go to effect regime change and manage the consequences following regime change? How many resources are they prepared to provide and how long are they prepared to fight? It should be remembered that in Iraq and Afghanistan the occupation became the heart of the war, and regime change was merely the opening act. It is possible that the coalition partners haven’t decided on the strategy yet, or may not be in agreement. Let’s therefore consider the first phases of the war, regardless of how far they are prepared to go in pursuit of the mission.

Like previous wars since 1991, this war began with a very public buildup in which the coalition partners negotiated the basic framework, sought international support and authorization from multinational organizations and mobilized forces. This was done quite publicly because the cost of secrecy (time and possible failure) was not worth what was to be gained: surprise. Surprise matters when the enemy can mobilize resistance. Gadhafi was trapped and has limited military capabilities, so secrecy was unnecessary.

While all this was going on and before final decisions were made, special operations forces were inserted in Libya on two missions. First, to make contact with insurgent forces to prepare them for coming events, create channels of communications and logistics and create a post-war political framework. The second purpose was to identify targets for attack and conduct reconnaissance of those targets that provided as up-to-date information as possible. This, combined with air and space reconnaissance, served as the foundations of the war. We know British SAS operators were in Libya and suspect other countries’ special operations forces and intelligence services were also operating there.

War commences with two sets of attacks. The first attacks are decapitation attacks designed to destroy or isolate the national command structure. These may also include strikes designed to kill leaders such as Gadhafi and his sons or other senior leaders. These attacks depend on specific intelligence on facilities, including communications, planning and so on along with detailed information on the location of the leadership. Attacks on buildings are carried out from the air but not particularly with cruise missile because they are especially accurate if the targets are slow, and buildings aren’t going anywhere. At the same time, aircraft are orbiting out of range of air defenses awaiting information on more mobile targets and if such is forthcoming, they come into range and fire appropriate munitions at the target. The type of aircraft used depends on the robustness of the air defenses, the time available prior to attack and the munitions needed. They can range from conventional fighters or stealth strategic aircraft like the U.S. B-2 bomber (if the United States authorized its use). Special operations forces might be on the ground painting the target for laser-guided munitions, which are highly accurate but require illumination.

At the same time these attacks are under way, attacks on airfields, fuel storage depots and the like are being targeted to ground the Libyan air force. Air or cruise missile attacks are also being carried out on radars of large and immobile surface-to-air (SAM) missile sites. Simultaneously, “wild weasel” aircraft — aircraft configured for the suppression of enemy air defenses — will be on patrol for more mobile SAM systems to locate and destroy. This becomes a critical part of the conflict. Being mobile, detecting these weapons systems on the ground is complex. They engage when they want to, depending on visual perception of opportunities. Therefore the total elimination of anti-missile systems is in part up to the Libyans. Between mobile systems and man-portable air-defense missiles, the threat to allied aircraft can persist for quite a while even if Gadhafi’s forces might have difficulty shooting anything down.

This is the part that the United States in particular and the West in general is extremely good at. But it is the beginning of the war. Gadhafi’s primary capabilities are conventional armor and particularly artillery. Destroying his air force and isolating his forces will not by itself win the war. The war is on the ground. The question is the motivation of his troops: If they perceive that surrender is unacceptable or personally catastrophic, they may continue to fight. At that point the coalition must decide if it intends to engage and destroy Gadhafi’s ground forces from the air. This can be done, but it is never a foregone conclusion that it will work. Moreover, this is the phase at which civilian casualties begin to mount. It is a paradox of warfare instigated to end human suffering that the means of achieving this can sometimes impose substantial human suffering itself. This is not merely a theoretical statement. It is at this point at which supporters of the war who want to end suffering may turn on the political leaders for not ending suffering without cost. It should be remembered that Saddam Hussein was loathed universally but those who loathed him were frequently not willing to impose the price of overthrowing him. The Europeans in particular are sensitive to this issue.

The question then becomes the extent to which this remains an air operation, as Kosovo was, or becomes a ground operation. Kosovo is the ideal, but Gadhafi is not Slobodan Milosevic and he may not feel he has anywhere to go if he surrenders. For him the fight may be existential, whereas for Milosevic it was not. He and his followers may resist. This is the great unknown. The choice here is to maintain air operations for an extended period of time without clear results, or invade. This raises the question of whose troops would invade. Egypt appears ready but there is long animosity between the two countries, and its actions might not be viewed as liberation. The Europeans could do so. It is difficult to imagine Obama adopting a third war in Muslim world as his own. This is where the coalition is really tested.

If there is an invasion, it is likely to succeed. The question then becomes whether Gadhafi’s forces move into opposition and insurgency. This again depends on morale but also on behavior. The Americans forced an insurgency in Iraq by putting the Baathists into an untenable position. In Afghanistan the Taliban gave up formal power without having been decisively defeated. They regrouped, reformed and returned. It is not known to us what Gadhafi can do or not do. It is clear that it is the major unknown.

The problem in Iraq was not the special operations forces. It was not in the decapitation strikes or suppression of enemy air defenses. It was not in the defeat of the Iraqi army on the ground. It was in the occupation, when the enemy reformed and imposed an insurgency on the United States that it found extraordinarily difficult to deal with.

Therefore the successes of the coming day will tell us nothing. Even if Gadhafi surrenders or is killed, even if no invasion is necessary save a small occupation force to aid the insurgents, the possibility of an insurgency is there. We will not know if there will be an insurgency until after it begins. Therefore, the only thing that would be surprising about this phase of the operation is if it failed.

The decision has been made that the mission is regime change in Libya. The strategic sequence is the routine buildup to war since 1991, this time with a heavier European component. The early days will go extremely well but will not define whether or not the war is successful. The test will come if a war designed to stop human suffering begins to inflict human suffering. That is when the difficult political decisions have to be made and when we will find out whether the strategy, the mission and the political will fully match up.

The Libyan War of 2011,” is republished with permission from STRATFOR.

# # #

Editor’s note: The New York Times published, “U.S. Missiles Strike Libyan Air-Defense targets.”

Crisis Point: Iran and the Saudi's Countermove on Bahrain

By George Friedman

Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition force into Bahrain to help the government calm the unrest there. This move puts Iran in a difficult position, as Tehran had hoped to use the uprising in Bahrain to promote instability in the Persian Gulf region. Iran could refrain from acting and lose an opportunity to destabilize the region, or it could choose from several other options that do not seem particularly effective.

The Bahrain uprising consists of two parts, as all revolutions do. The first is genuine grievances by the majority Shiite population — the local issues and divisions. The second is the interests of foreign powers in Bahrain. It is not one or the other. It is both.

The Iranians clearly benefit from an uprising in Bahrain. It places the U.S. 5th Fleet’s basing in jeopardy, puts the United States in a difficult position and threatens the stability of other Persian Gulf Arab states. For the Iranians, the uprisings in North Africa and their spread to the Arabian Peninsula represent a golden opportunity for pursuing their long-standing interest (going back to the Shah and beyond) of dominating the Gulf.

The Iranians are accustomed to being able to use their covert capabilities to shape the political realities in countries. They did this effectively in Iraq and are doing it in Afghanistan. They regarded this as low risk and high reward. The Saudis, recognizing that this posed a fundamental risk to their regime and consulting with the Americans, have led a coalition force into Bahrain to halt the uprising and save the regime. Pressed by covert forces, they were forced into an overt action they were clearly reluctant to take.

We are now off the map, so to speak. The question is how the Iranians respond, and there is every reason to think that they do not know. They probably did not expect a direct military move by the Saudis, given that the Saudis prefer to act more quietly themselves. The Iranians wanted to destabilize without triggering a strong response, but they were sufficiently successful in using local issues that the Saudis felt they had no choice in the matter. It is Iran’s move.

If Iran simply does nothing, then the wave that has been moving in its favor might be stopped and reversed. They could lose a historic opportunity. At the same time, the door remains open in Iraq, and that is the main prize here. They might simply accept the reversal and pursue their main line. But even there things are murky. There are rumors in Washington that U.S. President Barack Obama has decided to slow down, halt or even reverse the withdrawal from Iraq. Rumors are merely rumors, but these make sense. Completing the withdrawal now would tilt the balance in Iraq to Iran, a strategic disaster.

Therefore, the Iranians are facing a counter-offensive that threatens the project they have been pursuing for years just when it appeared to be coming to fruition. Of course, it is just before a project succeeds that opposition mobilizes, so they should not be surprised that resistance has grown so strong. But surprised or not, they now have a strategic decision to make and not very long to make it.

They can up the ante by increasing resistance in Bahrain and forcing fighting on the ground. It is not clear that the Bahraini opposition is prepared to take that risk on behalf of Iran, but it is a potential option. They have the option of trying to increase unrest elsewhere in order to spread the Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council forces, weakening their impact. It is not clear how much leverage the Iranians have in other countries. The Iranians could try to create problems in Saudi Arabia, but given the Saudis’ actions in Bahrain, this becomes more difficult.

Finally, they can attempt an overt intervention, either in Bahrain or elsewhere, such as Iraq or Afghanistan. A naval movement against Bahrain is not impossible, but if the U.S. Navy intervenes, which it likely would, it would be a disaster for the Iranians. Operations in Iraq or Afghanistan might be more fruitful. It is possible that Shiite insurgents will operate in Iraq, but that would guarantee a halt of the U.S. withdrawal without clearly increasing the Iranians’ advantage there. They want U.S. forces to leave, not give them a reason to stay.

There is then the indirect option, which is to trigger a war with Israel. The killings in the West Bank and Israeli concerns about Hezbollah might be some of Iran’s doing, with the emphasis on “might.” But it is not clear how a Hezbollah confrontation with Israel would help Iran’s position relative to Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf. It diverts attention, but the Saudis know the stakes and they will not be easily diverted.

The logic, therefore, is that Iran retreats and waits. But the Saudi move shifts the flow of events, and time is not on Iran’s side.

There is also the domestic Iranian political situation to consider. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been strong in part because of his successful handling of foreign policy. The massive failure of a destabilization plan would give his political opponents the ammunition needed to weaken him domestically. We do not mean a democratic revolution in Iran, but his 

enemies among the clergy who see him as a threat to their position, and hard-liners in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who want an even more aggressive stand.

Ahmadinejad finds himself in a difficult position. The Saudis have moved decisively. If he does nothing, his position can unravel and with it his domestic political strength. Yet none of the counters he might use seem effective or workable. In the end, his best option is to create a crisis in Iraq, forcing the United States to consider how deeply it wants to be drawn back into Iraq. He might find weakness there that he can translate into some sort of political deal.

At the moment we suspect the Iranians do not know how they will respond. The first issue will have to be determining whether they can create violent resistance to the Saudis in Bahrain, to both tie them down and increase the cost of occupation. It is simply unclear whether the Bahrainis are prepared to pay the price. The opposition does seem to want fundamental change in Bahrain, but it is not clear that they have reached the point where they are prepared to resist and die en masse.

That is undoubtedly what the Iranians are exploring now. If they find that this is not an option, then none of their other options are particularly good. All of them involve risk and difficulty. It also requires that Iran commit itself to confrontations that it has tried to avoid. It prefers covert action that is deniable to overt action that is not.

As we move into the evening, we expect the Iranians are in intense discussions of their next move. Domestic politics are affecting regional strategy, as would be the case in any country. But the clear roadmap the Iranians were working from has now collapsed. The Saudis have called their hand, and they are trying to find out if they have a real or a busted flush. They will have to act quickly before the Saudi action simply becomes a solid reality. But it is not clear what they can do quickly. For the moment, the Saudis have the upper hand. But the Iranians are clever and tenacious. There are no predictions possible. We doubt even the Iranians know what they will do.

Iran and the Saudis’ Countermove on Bahrain,” Republished with permission from STRATFOR.

Aquino on Warpath against travel advisories

The Inquirer published that President Aquino confronted President Obama and other APEC leaders with regard to travel advisories:

Mr. Aquino said he was able to speak with Obama on the sidelines of the 18th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, which ended Sunday.

“We mentioned to President Obama our displeasure with the US travel advisory and he promised that he would look into it and pleaded for understanding,” Mr. Aquino said.

Obama was the second leader that President Aquino had confronted over the issue of the travel advisory while attending the APEC forum. On Saturday, he raised the issue with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper during their bilateral talks.

Mr. Aquino has been on the warpath since the United States and Canada, along with France, Australia, New Zealand and Britain, issued on Nov. 2 warnings of an imminent attack for the first time in shopping malls in Metro Manila. Japan later issued a toned down version of the travel advisory.

Mr. Aquino has complained that there was no basis for the alerts and that his government was not consulted.

The 2nd ASEAN-U.S. Summit: What’s on the Menu in Manhattan?

The 2nd ASEAN-U.S. Summit: What’s on the Menu in Manhattan?
By Ernest Bower, Director, South East Asia Program-CSIS


President Barack Obama will host 8 of the 10 leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam—in New York City on Friday, September 24, at the second U.S.-ASEAN Summit. The meeting underlines renewed U.S. policy energy being invested in Southeast Asia. Headlines from the discussion will likely focus on three areas:

1. Security alignment—including restatement of a common position on the South China Sea;

2. Economic growth and trade—particularly ASEAN’s leaders are seeking an update from Obama on the health of the U.S. economy and a read on whether the mid-term U.S. congressional elections might be an inflection point after which the United States can return to a proactive posture on trade; and

3. Burma—specifically exploring how the United States and ASEAN can encourage Burma’s leaders to create political space in the November elections and beyond.

The fact that the meeting is taking place in September in the United States is important in that it institutionalizes renewed U.S. engagement in ASEAN ahead of key steps forward in creating new regional security and trade architecture in Asia.

On the other hand, the fact that the summit is taking place in New York, not Washington, and without the leader of ASEAN’s largest country and economy, Indonesia, underlines the fact that while the policy intent is clearly substantive engagement, there is still much work to be done to align the United States and ASEAN.

Despite the best intentions of the principals, the meeting will certainly be viewed through the prism of perceived increased tension between China and its Asian neighbors, particularly related to disputed maritime territories.

Q1: Who is meeting and what is the agenda?

A1: President Obama will host the summit over lunch at a hotel in New York City from 12 noon to 2:30 p.m. on Friday, September 24. Eight of the 10 ASEAN leaders are confirmed to join him, except for President Susilio Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia and Prime Minister Thein Sein of Burma. The ASEAN secretary general, Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, will also join the meeting. The only surprise is Yudhoyono’s absence, and that is significant (see below). The Burmese were not expected to send their head of state due to poor relations with the United States and the sanctions regime currently in place. Indonesia’s President Yudhoyono will be represented by Vice President Boediono, and Burma’s Prime Minister Thein Sein will be represented by Foreign Minister U Nyan Win. The leaders will be accompanied in most cases by their ministers of foreign affairs, ambassadors to the United States and/or the United Nations, and other senior officials.

Q2: Why isn’t President Yudhoyono attending, and what are the implications of his absence?

A2: President Yudhuyono notified the White House that he could not accept President Obama’s invitation to come to New York due to domestic issues in Jakarta. Insiders confirm that Yudhoyono decided he could not come to New York because of a confluence of issues—including the fact that Obama has had to postpone planned travel to Indonesia three times since taking office and the short notice given by the White House (not quite a month in advance of the meeting). Had the summit been held in Washington, D.C., and in early October, so Yudhoyono and the other ASEAN leaders could have come on either side of their long planned visit to Brussels for the Asia-Europe Summit, the Indonesian leader would probably have come.

Yudhoyono’s absence sends a strong signal that although the U.S.-ASEAN relationship is moving in the right direction, there is work still to be done to improve alignment. Indonesia is ASEAN’s largest country and has the largest economy, both more than twice the size of the next member. It is also ASEAN’s incoming chairman for 2011. It is likely that the United States and ASEAN will get back on track next year when Indonesia hosts the third U.S.-ASEAN Summit, and after President Obama finally is able to make his long-awaited visit to Indonesia. There are quiet plans for him to visit Jakarta during his Asia trip after U.S. mid-term elections in November. That trip would include India, Indonesia, Korea for the G-20 Summit, and Japan for the APEC Leaders Summit. In sum, Yudhoyono’s absence doesn’t fully diminish the importance of the meeting in New York on Friday, but it lays down the marker that the U.S.-ASEAN relationship is trending well, but remains a work in progress. (I explore the gap between U.S. policy intentions toward ASEAN and the realities of domestic politics revealed by Yudhoyono’s absence from New York on the CSIS Southeast Asia policy blog. Click here for the article.)

Q3: What is the on the security agenda and will the South China Sea be a focus?

A3: The United States and ASEAN are working with other countries, including Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and Russia, to create new regional security architecture in Asia. To this end, the United States and Russia will be invited to join the East Asia Summit (EAS) this October during its meeting in Hanoi. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will represent the United States at the meeting and accept the invitation. The United States will then ideally be represented by President Obama at the next EAS hosted by Indonesia in 2011 (it is likely that the U.S.-ASEAN Summit will be held in proximity). As part of its calculus in deciding to join the EAS, the United States recognized that it must strengthen its security and political ties with ASEAN and invest in supporting ASEAN’s self-defined goals to firm up its foundation through economic, political, and socioeconomic integration, as outlined in the ASEAN Charter. To this end, the United States has been moving to normalize military ties with Indonesia and to enhance military relations with Vietnam, as well as committing to join the ASEAN Defense Minister Meeting + 8 (which includes the same countries listed above who are/will be members of the EAS).

In this context, one of the existential challenges for Asia is to create structures and use diplomacy to encourage China’s peaceful rise as a major world power. The South China Sea represents a major challenge in this process. China has been very effective in its “charm offensive,” begun during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, writing a script as an engaged and committed neighbor promising economic dynamism through expanded trade and investment and regional economic integration. However, China’s geopolitical interests are the other side of that coin. China’s definition of its “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea, in response to Secretary of State Clinton’s reiteration of long-standing U.S. goals for maritime dispute resolution and freedom of navigation in the area based on international law and a multilateral approach, has uncovered atavistic anxieties about China’s intentions among the Southeast Asian countries. Therefore, ASEAN has welcomed a strong U.S. voice on security concerns in the South China Sea, and this has come at a time—ahead of a Chinese political cycle that will identify the country’s next generation of leaders in 2012—of heightened nationalism in China.

Neither the United States nor ASEAN wants to provoke Chinese nationalists, but both recognize the importance of being firm and sustaining a commitment to a multilateral approach to dispute resolution. Therefore, it is likely that the summit in New York will result in a joint statement that addresses the issue by reiterating the intent and direction of Secretary Clinton’s remarks at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi with a focus on China.

Q4: How about economic growth and trade?

A4: ASEAN is concerned about the health and direction of the U.S. economy and hopes that President Obama can assure them that a recovery is underway and that he will be able to move the United States toward a more proactive posture on trade after the U.S. mid-term elections in November. These issues are fundamentally important to ASEAN because the United States is its largest overseas market (particularly when you consider the fact that many ASEAN exports go through China as part of a supply chain that ends up with products delivered to the United States), and because the United States remains one of the top and qualitatively most valuable sources of investment and technology for the region. ASEAN is collectively the most trade dependent formal grouping of nations in the world, with trade accounting for nearly 100 percent of aggregate gross domestic product. So if trade stagnates, ASEAN is the global canary in the coal mine and it suffers first and most significantly.

ASEAN will be watching the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement closely as the benchmark indicator for whether Obama will use the political chits necessary to kick-start trade and make the case to Americans that long-term recovery is dependent on U.S. engagement in ASEAN, Asia, and the world. ASEAN is the United States’ fourth-largest overseas market and one that promises high-level growth for the coming years. ASEAN wants to know if the mid-term elections will be an inflection point for the U.S. stance on global trade. (Read more on the disconnect between policy and politics on trade with ASEAN in cogitASIA )

Q5: What about Burma?

A5: With Burmese elections coming up on November 7, Burma is sure to be high on the summit agenda—at least for the Unites States. While ASEAN would prefer not to have to carry the weight of Burma’s cloistered and intransigent military junta, it recognizes that having made the commitment to bring Burma into its membership it must work with the United States and others to try to encourage the creation of political space there. The Obama administration deserves credit for its courage and foresight in espousing an engagement strategy toward Burma that allowed it to reengage with ASEAN and hold meetings such as this summit. While the engagement has not produced results in Burma, the United States has changed its paradigm with ASEAN. The administration can and likely will tighten sanctions on Burma by focusing on its leaders, their families, and companies they are associated with—measures outlined in the Lantos Act. ASEAN needs to do its part and increase its normative focus on Burma to pressure the regime to create more political openness so it can truly engage in the core elements of integration defined in the ASEAN Charter. If ASEAN begins to focus on Burma, pressure may increase on China and India to refocus their current mercantilist and military policies that enable the hard-line domestic political stance of the junta and to play a role as responsible stakeholders encouraging positive change in the country.

Q6: What next?

A6: ASEAN hopes that President Obama will announce his candidate as the first U.S. ambassador to ASEAN to be resident in Jakarta. A candidate’s name is reportedly pending review and due diligence, though it is not likely that name can be announced on Friday. Additionally, the United States and ASEAN are expecting to name an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to provide guidance and leadership for the relationship. These names have also not been announced yet.

After the New York summit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be in visiting Hanoi for the EAS, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will visit Vietnam for the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting + 8. President Obama is planning to visit Indonesia in November as mentioned above.


Ernest Bower is a senior adviser and director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).