US can’t pivot to Asia-Pacific with feet still bogged down in Middle East

By David Bell Mislan Source:Global Times Published: 2013-3-20 18:13:01

For better or worse, the "pivot to the Asia-Pacific" has gained worldwide attention. This shift in focus away from Europe and the Middle East and toward the Pacific would not only reorganize the broad goals and resources of the US, but it could also reorder the balance of power in East Asia. 

It is no wonder, then, that so much attention has been paid to the appointment of more cautious foreign policy leaders at the start of US President Barack Obama's second term. 

While it seems that the appointment of John Kerry at the Department of State and Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon indicate a change of heart, it is more likely that the White House is coming to terms with the fact that the Asia pivot will be more difficult than it had initially thought. 

While the desire in the White House to refocus on the Pacific remains strong, events in the Middle East will continue to make the pivot more of a dream than a reality.

Since the late 1970s, regional stability and access to energy resources have been at the heart of US policy toward the Middle East, and have been deemed central to the national interest.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were intended to achieve these goals and enhance national security, yet they have only produced contradictory effects. Sectarian politics continue to threaten to pull apart the Iraqi state, and the Taliban will remain influential after the last US troops leave Afghanistan next year. 

The rest of the Middle East is not doing any better. The Syrian civil war could become a regional conflict; Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons, while Israel threatens a preventive strike in response; and the revolutions of the Arab Spring have done little to diffuse long-standing grievances among the region's disaffected. 

Any of these problems could turn into nightmare scenarios that would require an US or allied military response, lest they throw the entire region into chaos.

After four years of trying to look past the Middle East and toward an Asian future, the Obama administration seems resigned to the fact that while it cannot fix the Middle East's problems, it cannot ignore them, either. Nor can it hold the region together without substantial help from others.  

Thus, Kerry's first trip abroad was more about conferring with European allies than it was about immediately addressing the crises in Syria and Egypt. This is a welcome sign among those on both sides of the Atlantic that wish to see a more constructive and closer cooperation on foreign policy. It was less exciting for those who want to refocus the US gaze on the Pacific.  

Even if the Middle East were to stabilize in the next few years, it is uncertain if there is enough domestic support to reprioritize US foreign policy goals. Americans are deeply divided over the future of US foreign policy. Three big ideas, idealism, pragmatism and isolationism, historically push and pull foreign policy in different directions, and the current era is no different.

While Americans deeply desire a consistent "big picture" strategy, their disagreements over what it should be and how to achieve it present one from materializing. The pivot, never fully accepted by all and never truly specified, will continue to be more of a dream than a reality.

Instead of a pivot, we should think of pivotal US interests in Asia. The US needs East and Southeast Asian shipping lanes to be open and unfettered to all. It wants a peaceful resolution to the island disputes among Japan, China, and South Korea, and it has 28,000 soldiers in South Korea that it needs to protect from a nuclear and bellicose North Korea. 

These are not just items on a wish list, but are top priorities that are inclined toward the status quo. The good news for the US and Asia is that these pivotal interests can be achieved without a full strategic shift.

Considering the myriad international and domestic challenges that the Obama administration faces, pursing these pivotal interests will be a better alternative to the full pivot.

The author is an assistant professor at American University School of International Service, Washington.

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