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Obama’s ‘Flat-Footed’ Pivot

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New Leaders Forum

Obama’s ‘Flat-Footed’ Pivot

If the U.S. wants to successfully ‘pivot’ to Asia, the Obama Administration needs a more consistent approach.

In the aftermath of the failed Russian re-set, much has been written about the Obama Administration's inability to convince Moscow to support Washington's diplomatic priorities. Nowhere is this more evident than Syria, where Russia's third veto at the United Nations' Security Council was widely portrayed as Moscow's support of Assad's reign of terror.

The Obama Administration was right to diplomatically confront Russia, however weak, for its support of an illegitimate regime willing to bomb its own people. The problem is that China, who also used its veto, has not been held to task for its unwillingness to denounce the Syrian regime. Why then the double standard?

In large part, the fault lies directly with the Obama Administration. They have demonized Russia in press conferences but held their tongue on China. One can only surmise that this reflects their strategic decision to passively accommodate rather than actively confront a rising China.

The South China Sea is a great example of the U.S.' timidity. When the U.S. closed its bases in the Philippines, America lost its hard power leverage in the region. A power vacuum was created and ASEAN could not match the strategic influence of the U.S. forward presence. China then responded by challenging the status quo and threatening its Southeast Asian neighbors with use of force by its growing navy.

The Obama Administration was caught flat-footed but nevertheless tried to pivot. Their late response was to wage a high-level diplomatic campaign against Chinese aggression in the region. They also announced a new basing agreement in Darwin, Australia for a small contingent of U.S. Marines.

The problem is that these small efforts fail to address the strategic root of the problem — the U.S. lacks the sufficient forward presence in the Western Pacific to disincentive China from threatening use of force against its neighbors. And U.S. allies are concerned.

To be fair the new basing agreement in Darwin is a step in the right direction. But, a few thousand Marines are more of a symbolic nuisance than a strategic deterrent for the Chinese. This undermines the very rhetoric voiced by the Pentagon and State Department.

The Obama Administration must also rethink its overall defense strategy. Over the last four years, they have promoted the development of an agile, Special Forces-oriented military backed with top-secret strategic assets based far from the battlefield.

Such assets might be appropriate for killing terrorists or waging a nuclear war but they do little in the way of addressing Chinese aggression in Asia. Why? Because no one really believes that the U.S. is going to risk nuclear war over a conflict in the South China Sea unless American (or possibly its allies') forces are attacked.

If the U.S. wants to counter Chinese aggression in Asia, the Obama Administration needs to be more consistent in their approach against strategic adversaries and back-up its diplomatic rhetoric against China with hard power leverage. And, the first step should be to increase the American military's forward presence in Asia.

Richard Grenell was the director of communications and spokesman for four U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations from 2001-08. Follow him on Twitter.
Eddie Walsh is an accredited senior foreign correspondent. He currently serves as a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. He also writes extensively and speaks regularly on Asia-Pacific Affairs. Follow him on Twitter and Tumblr. The views expressed are his own.