The Pivot Under Pressure

Recent Features

Features | Diplomacy

The Pivot Under Pressure

It’s not just the canceled trip. Other factors are limiting the ability of the U.S. to focus on the Asia-Pacific.

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.”

This shift will only renew the multiplying doubts in the region about his commitment to the pivot. So too will the fiscal policy drama currently being played out in Washington, which regardless of its precise outcome, looks certain to end up codifying the sequestration’s deep budget cuts that have disproportionally affected defense spending. Already the drama in Washington has prompted him to cancel his Asia visit. Meanwhile, many in Asia are questioning whether the administration has the fiscal wherewithal to undertake its promised Asia pivot, including the military aspect.

The budget squeeze is already cutting into military readiness (see, for example, here and here). The U.S. Navy is slated to play a central part in the buildup, but two thirds of its non-deployed ships and aviation units reportedly don’t meet readiness goals, and the frequency of naval deployments has been noticeably pared back. The Air Force has grounded a third of its fighter squadrons and “Red Flag,” its premier combat training exercise, was canceled for the fiscal year that just ended. Deep reductions in Army and Marine Corps ground forces are in the offing, and joint exercises involving U.S. forces and their Asian counterparts have been scaled back.

Moreover, a senior officer working on strategic planning for the Pentagon’s Joint Staff recently acknowledged the difficulty of militarily disengaging from the Middle East and re-directing forces to Asia. As Defense News reported:

“‘We’ve been consumed by that arc of instability from Morocco to Pakistan for the last 10 years,’ Rear Adm. Robert Thomas said. And while the senior staffs at the Pentagon are dutifully discussing how they are rebalancing to the Pacific, ‘I suspect, though, for the next five years, just as the last 10 years, we will have this constant pull into the’ Middle East.”

“Over the next several years, he continued, ‘I think that you’re going to continue to talk about a rebalance to Asia, and you’re going to do some preparatory work in the environment, but the lion’s share of the emphasis will still be in that arc of instability.’”

Thomas also predicted a constant tug for resources between the U.S. military commands responsible for Asia and the Middle East. This strain may explain why the Pentagon has yet to develop a comprehensive game plan for the military buildup in Asia.

Likewise in doubt is U.S. resolve on the TTP, which involves 12 Pacific Rim countries that together account for a third of the world’s trade. The Obama administration, having already missed the initial November 2011 deadline it set for completion, was hoping to have a basic agreement in place in time for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit that convened in Indonesia on the weekend. But there has been slow progress in the negotiations (see here, here and here for background), and even the revised deadline looks likely to slip.

Moreover, the White House has not even moved to formally request so-called “trade promotion authority,” a traditional indicator of serious intent because it puts trade deals on a quick path to Congressional approval. The administration announced more than a year ago that it would request this authority from Congress but Michael Froman, the new U.S. Trade Representative, recently stated there is “no particular deadline in mind.”  Nor has the White House used its political capital to address rising domestic opposition (here and here) to the trade deal.

Washington will continue to proclaim the Obama administration’s steadfastness to the Asia pivot. But U.S. allies and friends now have even more reason to think otherwise.

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm. His blog on U.S. foreign policy is Monsters Abroad.