Senior U.S. administration officials have been at pains in recent weeks to demonstrate how Washington’s strategic focus is shifting from the military quagmires of the greater Middle East to the dynamism of Asia. It’s a tough sell, and there is reason to doubt that America’s allies and friends in the region are buying it.
Even before the cancellation of President Barack Obama’s Asia trip, which would have included the APEC and East Asia summits, doubts about U.S. focus were rising. Take Obama’s address before the UN General Assembly earlier this month. Its core takeaway is that the manifold problems of the Middle East have once more re-asserted their claim on Washington’s attention.
Unveiled with much fanfare (here and here) two years ago, the so-called Asia pivot is all about shoring up the U.S. presence in a vital region that is increasingly under the sway of an ascendant China. Obama dubbed himself “America’s first Pacific president” and declared that Asia is where “the action’s going to be.” Vowing that the future would be “America’s Pacific Century,” his lieutenants rolled out two specific initiatives: 1.) A buildup of military forces that is plainly directed against China; and 2.) An ambitious set of trade and investment negotiations known as the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP) that would contest Beijing’s economic hegemony in East Asia.
But the pivot – or the “strategic rebalance,” as administration officials now prefer to call it – was birthed with two congenital defects: It was unveiled just as the convulsions of the Arab Spring began tearing apart the decades-old political order in the Middle East, and just as an era of severe austerity in U.S. defense budgeting was taking shape.
Until a few weeks ago, Obama gave every appearance of a man wishing the problems of the Middle East would just go away. But much like the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction, the region refuses to be ignored. For all the talk about turning the page on years of military and diplomatic activism in the region, Obama keeps having to take notice. Indeed, he was forcefully reminded of its combustibility when the outbreak of fighting in Gaza between Israel and Palestinian militants intruded on his last trip to Asia a year ago. And despite his stubborn determination to steer clear of it, he now finds himself sucked into Syria’s maelstrom.
The president’s General Assembly address underscores the power of this gravitational pull. In it, Mr. Obama affirmed: “We will be engaged in the region for the long haul,” and outlined the security interests that he is prepared to use military action to protect. He reiterated his intention to see through the uncertain prospect of Syria’s chemical disarmament and then staked his prestige on two long-shot projects: stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program and brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
He also pledged renewed focus on sectarian conflicts and humanitarian tragedies like the Syrian civil war. This marks quite an evolution in Obama’s thinking from earlier in the year when he justified his Hamlet-like ambivalence on Syria by pondering: “And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”
In all, Obama’s remarks last month mark a noticeable change in his foreign policy agenda. As the New York Times noted:
“For a president who has sought to refocus American foreign policy on Asia, it was a significant concession that the Middle East is likely to remain a major preoccupation for the rest of his term, if not that of his successor. Mr. Obama mentioned Asia only once, as an exemplar of the kind of economic development that has eluded the Arab world.”