Asia Pivot: Obama’s Ticket out of Middle East?
Image Credit: REUTERS/Larry Downing

Asia Pivot: Obama’s Ticket out of Middle East?


Ever since the United States’ “pivot” to Asia was announced in 2011, there has been lively debate over its content, its potential effects on U.S.-China relations, and, more recently, whether or not it will actually happen.

The motivation for the pivot seems clear: the global “center of gravity” is shifting toward the Asia-Pacific region, and the United States needs to respond. We argue that this geostrategic motivation is not the only reason for the pivot: equally important is President Obama’s desire to exchange the long, costly, and increasingly politically unpopular war in Afghanistan, as well as the broader focus on the unstable, violent Middle East, for the relative stability of East Asia.

The President’s desire to get out of Afghanistan can be seen in his approach to the war in Iraq. Eleven years ago, then-State Senator Barack Obama launched his national political career with a speech claiming that the upcoming invasion of Iraq was “rash,” irresponsible, and downright “dumb.” Saddam Hussein did not pose an immediate threat to the United States, Obama argued, and the war would require an occupation “of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” The song by the Scottish indie rock group, Camera Obscura, expresses the strategy perfectly: “let’s get out of this country.”

While the president was never as vocally opposed to the war in Afghanistan, his views on it today are very similar to his picture of pre-war Iraq: the Taliban, by itself, does not pose an immediate threat to the U.S. homeland, and after twelve years of occupation, we still face an Afghan civil war of undetermined length, cost, and consequences. The solution? We leave as quickly as we can without a complete collapse of the Afghan government.

To be fair, Afghanistan isn’t the only country where the U.S. is engaged in the Middle East, especially if we draw it like Vali Nasr does, extending from Pakistan to Morocco. Pakistan, the fifth largest nuclear state, has a marginally competent government and is aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan while ineffectively fighting its own set of Islamist militants; Iran is creeping closer to a nuclear weapon and refuses to respond to U.S. pressure; and the United States has been largely unable to shape events in Syria and Egypt. The U.S. has not fared well in the Middle East over the last ten years, and from a political perspective, a shift in focus is completely understandable.

But why “rebalance” to Asia, instead of simply bringing the troops home? One answer is the usual geostrategic one: we must maintain our alliance and economic interests in the area and help ensure that China’s rise to power is as peaceful as possible. That may be true five years from now, but there are political reasons that may be more important today.

First, while the Obama administration has little taste for costly counterinsurgencies, the president clearly does believe in a foreign policy of global engagement, and is willing to undertake relatively politically safe interventions that don’t directly risk American lives, such as the NATO air campaign in Libya. The pivot is even safer: while there are real international tensions in Asia, the possibility of the newly deployed U.S. Marines in Australia or the large American bases in Korea and Japan coming under attack is nearly nonexistent.

Tony theJ
August 24, 2013 at 16:17

@TDOG The victorious feel good arena you are talking about is The Forgotten War where we fought the N koreans and Chinese to a bloody stalemate which cost the US 36000 souls and the Vietnam War. In reality the only countries I can see the US starting a war or proxy in are Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia and the only reason is the untapped resources. The Chinese will not commit suicide by attacking Japan, Thailand, Sth Korea etc. The Second World War of large scale armies fighting each other are over. The Nuclear bomb changed all this. So all we will see are wars like Russia in Georgia. Nato in Libiya even the coalition of  the willing in Iraq,

August 22, 2013 at 14:01

I agree.

India has been able to project power towards South China Sea and ASEAN because it is not preoccupied with Pakistan. Coalition troops engaged Pakistan's best weapon in Afghanistan for 12 years from 2001 to 2013. However, all this is going to end next year. A resurgent AQ/Taliban will certainly be free from its Afghan "obligations" to concentrate on India which is the perfect target.

Unresolved Kashmir problem will be another priority area for redundent militants.

August 22, 2013 at 10:43

China will build 12 aircraft carriers to uphold global commons, but that will take time. You have to wait for now.

August 22, 2013 at 10:14

we keep forgetting that the "pivot"  is also about trade and relationships.  It makes sense to orient Americans towards the part of the world which already plays a huge role in the American economy.  It is idstressing the the pundits and media focus so much on the drama of potential conflict when the most important part of the pivot is about trade, markets, and retaining the sort of influence and relationships that support such trade.


Americans and our Canadian cousins are now very Eurocentric but as Europe plays an increasingly smaller role in the world we need to shift our Eurocentrism to a greater understanding and awareness of the Indo Asian Pacific.

August 22, 2013 at 07:57

US pivot has a good and smooth start is vastly because China new leader chose a new direction for their expansion and strategy towards the west from India, Pakistan, Africa to Europe and US.

Giving South East Asia a missed maybe a biggest mistake in their foreign policy. In Asia, many used to lookup to China’s growth and connectivities. This send a message to Asians that China interest in this region is now secondary and their pivot now lies southward. Except for those that still enjoy China’s aid in South East Asia the rest might or have beginning to hsve a second though. With the US stepping in the slot is easily replace.

In the earlier day, many would have chose not to take side in the event a conflict do occur between US and China but now perhaps the mindset of Asian leaders may begin to they ponders about their relationship begins to slowly moving to a distance.

August 22, 2013 at 01:07

An insightful article that characterizes our foreign policy succinctly if not plainly: we are pivoting to Asia because it makes the Pentagon feel good about itself.  Finally, here is an arena in which the vaunted American military doesn't get frustrated, entangled, and ultimately feels the need to depart the field of battle under circumstances less than victorious.

AirSea Battle, the pivot to the Pacific… these are not policies, these are wish lists for the Pentagon.  The US is allowing the Pentagon to dictate foreign policy and certainly more comprehensively than the PLA dictates Chinese foreign policy at times.  And the end result is not the famous dictum "if you want peace, prepare for war," but "if you want war, pretend you're preparing for peace." 

August 22, 2013 at 00:45

The pivot should fix its pole near to or at Fuku. Level three if possible.

August 22, 2013 at 00:03

The Pivot has already been undercut by the recent Administration suggestion that we should drastically cut the Navy further down to only eight carriers from the 12 we had just a few years back. Obama is going to do with Asia what he has done with Libya where he did just enough to topple Gadaffi but then ignored his Ambassador to the point of getting him killed. Obama is going to ignore the China threat until it become a massive problem. He's done the same thing with Al Qaeda. Look at how many countries in the Mideast are now under threat. And China is continuing to sieze vast amounts of territory because they know Obama is a professor with big theories but no guts. Obama tells every enemy we are going to run away and is then surprised when they attack. Libya is a failed state. Egypt is headed that way after Obama was suckered into believing the Muslum Brotherhood. Just too pathetic. I hope we do survive until the next President can have a chance.

August 21, 2013 at 23:03

Since CHINA buy near half of the oil Irag produced and won more lucratice contracts. It time for CHINA to step up and not being a free-rider or parasite to free world market system.

China should start with 20 divisions ground troops in Iraq tomorrow  

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