No political authority seems to have ordained such a redeployment. But if policy defaults, can-do strategists might end up taking charge. The framers of the strategy vow to stage preponderant combat forces in the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the Gulf for the foreseeable future, making the US Navy a squarely Asian navy. Whether the Obama administration is intellectually prepared to undertake a shift of such consequence—or even agrees that such a shift is warranted—is unclear. And parsing the language of the Maritime Strategy, it’s also unclear whether the sea services are genuinely prepared to shed longstanding commitments to focus their energies on South and East Asia. US efforts at strategy-making obscure as much as they clarify.
In 1943, as war raged across the Pacific, columnist Walter Lippmann published US Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic. This petite yet hard-hitting volume excoriated US presidents for assuming commitments of colossal scope in the Pacific following the Spanish-American War—notably annexing the Philippine Islands—without generating sufficient naval strength to defend them. (Theodore Roosevelt was an honourable exception to this rule.) They attempted to use a fleet designed to dominate the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico to uphold commitments straddling half the globe. For Lippmann, this amounted to ‘monstrous imprudence.’ Letting a chasm open between policy and strategy, he maintained, sapped US policy in the Pacific of popular support while encouraging Japanese aggression and hastening the onset of war.
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Is the United States, beset by apathy and economic malaise, again drifting toward an imprudent strategy—this time amid the vastness of the Indian Ocean? The evidence suggests so, although this time the intellectual drift is far from irreversible. At first glance, the Maritime Strategy appears to set clear geographic priorities, concentrating fleet operations in the Western Pacific, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean—in a word, in maritime Asia. The key passage:
‘Credible combat power will be continuously postured in the Western Pacific and the Arabian Gulf/Indian Ocean to protect our vital interests, assure our friends and allies of our continuing commitment to regional security, and deter and dissuade potential adversaries and peer competitors.’
But having issued a clear mandate to reposition forces to maritime Asia, the document instantly attaches a disclaimer, noting that ‘This combat power can be selectively and rapidly repositioned to meet contingencies that may arise elsewhere.’ Should some adversary attempt to disrupt or deny traffic through the maritime commons, moreover, the service chiefs reserve the right ‘to impose local sea control wherever necessary, ideally in concert with friends and allies, but by ourselves if we must.’
The commons—the waters outside the jurisdiction of any coastal state—spans the globe. To fulfil the Maritime Strategy’s directives, then, the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard must act as a global force, able to defeat enemies wherever they may be found. To describe this as ambitious is something of an understatement.