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.