Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears at least to be trying to restore American prestige abroad. Talking tough in Asia last week, she stared across the DMZ and told the North Koreans to back off. In Vietnam she asserted that the United States still had a “national interest” in the region. She intimated that America would not allow China to bully ASEAN nations into giving up their rights in the South China Sea or restrict our freedom of navigation through one of the world’s busiest oceans. It is striking that Clinton, the most liberal Secretary of State since Cyrus Vance, is the most hawkish member of the administration’s national security team.
Unfortunately, while Clinton was attempting to reassert a modicum of American power through her globe-trotting diplomacy, she was being totally undercut in Washington as the administration announced that it was decommissioning another eight warships from the United States Navy.
Among the ships being inactivated are the nuclear attack submarine Memphis and the amphibious assault ship Nassau, as well as two amphibious docking ships, Dubuque and Cleveland. Of course, these are just the type of ships that the Marines would require if a major dispute arose over the Spratly Islands, the current source of contention in Asia. The Marine’s famous amphibious capability is being steadily and seriously degraded and the latest announcement is a further sad step in that direction.
Taking note of American declining blue water navy, instead of listening to Clinton’s mere words, the Chinese told her to butt out in less-than-polite terms. The People’s Liberation Army immediately announced that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the entire South China Sea. No doubt they are speeding up their well-publicized aircraft carrier and nuclear submarine building programs to be in a position to enforce the edict.
Not to be left out of the game, Vladimir Putin this week struck a deal with Nicholas Sarkozy for France to build Russia two brand new Mistral-class helicopter carrier assault ships loaded with Western technology. These are the same type of robust warships the US is busy scrapping. Not content with its purchase of high-end NATO warships, Russia also announced that it is refurbishing and upgrading three of its massive Kirov class “battlecruisers” and launching three new Kilo class submarines.
Joining the fray, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Admiral Mortezi Safari now claims that his force has 100 vessels to attack each US ship that might pose a threat to Iran. It is unknown how many small craft and speed boats the Revolutionary Guard could deploy in the Persian Gulf but the number is certainly large.
Meanwhile, as the US fleet continues to shrink, Navy Secretary Mabus proudly trumpets his “green” initiatives — contracting for solar energy panels for on shore Navy and Marine bases and developing algae-based jet fuel to improve the Navy’s “environmental performance.” Apparently, these initiatives have not yet caught on among America’s adversaries, who are instead focused on expanding their fleets.
Unless the US reverses the decline of its Navy in very short order, by among other measures, stopping the decommissioning of key warships, Secretary Clinton’s lonely efforts to maintain some American influence on the diplomatic front will be of little use as our adversaries (and friends) watch the administration’s actions and discount her words.
Robert C. O’Brien is the Managing Partner of the LA office of Arent Fox LLP and served as a US Representative to the 60th Session of the UN General Assembly.