By William Pfaff

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in Kabul at the start of June talking about withdrawal -- or non-withdrawal -- from Afghanistan, but before he went home he stopped through Singapore to talk about an enlarged American military engagement in Asia. That was a speech to an International Institute for Strategic Studies meeting, in support of "a robust [U.S.] military presence in Asia." He said that one of the "principal security challenges" for the United States is that some nation would try to keep it out of Asia.

He said that for some time American Naval and Air Force chiefs "have been concerned about anti-access and area denial scenarios," and have been planning how to overcome any effort to block American free movement and deployment "in defense of our allies and vital interests." This was despite "myopic souls" at home, isolationist spirits, daunted citizens, who doubt the American nation's strength and determination, and might not support America's place as a "21st century Asia-Pacific nation," imposing itself wherever it will, despite whatever obstacle.

He ended the Singapore talk by telling a questioner who doubted the permanence of quasi-proprietary U.S. oversight of the South China Sea and other Chinese foreign preoccupations in the region, including the Taiwan relationship and the North Korean problem, that he would wager 100 dollars that the influence of the United States in Asia would be stronger five years from now than it is today.

Now 100 dollars is not a great deal of money, especially to Mr. Gates, who is accustomed to spending trillions of dollars in military expenditures connected with the global U.S base system, as well as running three simultaneously ongoing wars, or less-than-ended wars, or prospective wars, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

Perhaps that bet should not be taken too seriously; Gates is well paid and can afford to lose. Yet he could win. Five years are a short period in the life of an empire, and the United States is now a militarized and militarist empire of benevolent intention in the minds of the people who have been running it under both Democrats and Republicans since the end of the Cold War. Before that it was a fortress nation focused on a big single threat and a few auxiliary troublemakers. Now it goes in for civilization wars, globally utopian ideologies and altruistic dominion.

The permanence of this undertaking depends upon the American people, who have shown that they can suddenly change their majority minds. This was an isolated and isolationist society from early after its founding. Despite minor episodes of aggression in Mexico and the splendid little war with Spain, the latter seen in Washington, as well as in Iowa and Oregon, as an exercise in political clarification of the incomprehensible Caribbean, and of naval coaling stations and Christian missionaries in the western Pacific, the American nation took until 1917 to really want to go to war again. Woodrow Wilson held the presidency in 1916 on the slogan that "He Kept Us Out of War," but he and the people immediately afterwards decided that getting into the war would actually be rather glamorous.

The Second World War left the public determined to bring the troops home in a heedless rush, reversed just as quickly when Russia posed a menace. Vietnam ended in a shameless precipitation and lies, the conscripts who had fought there getting punished by their elders for having done so. Creation of an all-volunteer army afterwards guaranteed that such sunshine patriots and parasitic careerists as Richard Cheney would never again be personally inconvenienced by a national priority.

Now America's perpetual wars can be conducted by profitable corporations mostly behind the public's back, while members of Congress conduct their private affairs and pick up their envelopes at K Street addresses. But what if the people awakened from their torpor and realized what was going on?

This is not impossible. The secretary of defense's Singapore press conference last week was alive with questions of a single tenor: Will you protect us if China threatens us? That is why Secretary Gates and the service chiefs make so much of "access" and scenarios of "area denial." They are thinking of going to war against China. What would those Asian reporters in Singapore think of that? What would an awakened American public think of it? General Douglas MacArthur, a man of greater experience than Mr. Gates, advised against it, but then again Mr. Gates is about to leave the government.


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