Near East and Far East: Not So Distant

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Near East and Far East: Not So Distant

The U.S. should not treat its Asia commitments as distinct from its role in the Middle East.

Near East and Far East: Not So Distant
Credit: REUTERS/Larry Downing

Many observations about the Near and Far East view them as if they were worlds apart. Thus, the U.S. pivot is typically understood to entail moving forces, funding and attention from one region to another. Some U.S. warships, we are told, are to be moved from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, and some Marines from Afghanistan to Australia. More generally, the pivot is reported as involving a withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and strenuously avoiding engaging in the Syrian civil war, while simultaneously forming new military alliances with Vietnam, seeking a return of U.S. forces to the former Naval Base Subic Bay in the Philippines, and clarifying that the United States-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security extends to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. In short, curtailing U.S. commitments and involvement in the Near East and extending them in the Far East.

Actually, there is a profound link between the two theaters: namely whatever takes place in the Middle East greatly affects what takes place in Southeast and East Asia. The more the United States turns out to be a fickle, unreliable ally of its longstanding friends in the Middle East—especially Saudi Arabia and Israel—the more the leaders of South Korea and Japan will worry whether they can rely on the United States’ defense umbrella. Similarly, the more Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain must worry about the backing of the U.S.—the more Vietnam and the Philippines are likely to worry about being trampled as the elephant and tiger rumble.

Israel would not have been born without the United States’ support. Since 1948, a succession of American presidents, a wide array of public leaders from both parties, and the media have treated Israel as a close and critical ally of the United States. The House Foreign Affairs Committee recently approved a bill that would designate Israel a “major strategic ally,” a label afforded to no other country. In a speech to “the people of Israel” in March 2013, President Barack Obama stated that “the security relationship between the United States and Israel has never been stronger.”

However, mistrust of the U.S. is now widespread in Israel. Many believe that Obama and large portions of the American public are keen to avoid any new entanglements in the Middle East, come what may. Many Israelis fear that the deal that is now being negotiated with Iran will lead to the breakdown of the sanction regime; that Iran will continued its clandestine development of nuclear arms; and that it will dash to assemble a handful of nuclear weapons just as the Obama administration is packing to leave. Indeed, the Israelis cannot help but note that many American observers, including some highly regarded ones, already argue that the United States could contain a nuclear Iran just as it contained the U.S.SR and that doing so is a better option than starting a war to avoid an Iranian nuclear bomb.

Saudi Arabia has been celebrated for decades as an important United States ally—as a scholar at the Middle East Institute put it, it is “vital to the strategic and economic interests of the United States.” Although it may seem odd at first blush, the Saudis feel even more abandoned and beleaguered than Israel. Israel has nuclear arms and a strong military of its own to deter Iran; Saudi Arabia has a relatively weak and inexperienced military and no nuclear weapons. Moreover, the Saudi regime is challenged from within, as are all authoritarian regimes in the region; Israel does not face this issue. The Saudis also witness, with great dismay, that the United States not only acquiesced to rise of the Muslim Brotherhood but in effect helped to oust President Hosni Mubarak—whose regime the Saudis note was similar to their own. Moreover, as Iran gains ground in Iraq, strengthens its foothold in Lebanon, supports fighting in Syria, and increases its influence in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia sees itself as engaged in a mortal fight between Sunnis and Shias—with the Sunnis on the weaker side. And they hear American voices increasingly arguing that given the development of new forms and sources of energy, the whole Middle East is losing its importance to the United States.

Much depends on what happens next. The United States may well be forced to re-pivot back to the Middle East; a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil originating in the region may well have such an effect. The same holds true if Pakistan’s government collapses or other reasons emerge to fear the Taliban’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Disruptions to the flow of oil could force the U.S. to act, if only because its European allies and the already fragile global economy would suffer greatly otherwise. The collapse of Jordan’s regime or a victory of forces allied with Iran in Syria might also precipitate U.S. action. However, if the United States continues to in effect disengage from the Middle East, tolerate the rising influence of Iran in the region, and appear to abandon Israel and Saudi Arabia—Japan and South Korea cannot help but take notice and act in response.

Much depends on how history next unfolds in the Middle East (recognizing that the world’s attention is for the time being focused on Crimea). If Iran abides by an agreement to limit its nuclear program to peaceful purposes, the Lebanese army countervails Hezbollah, the Syrian conflict ends with a partition or coalition government, and Jordan holds—the Near East challenge to U.S. credibility may remain limited. However, if these events unfold in ways that now many suspect, leaving little doubt that nations better fend for themselves than trust the U.S. to protect them—Japan is likely to move more expeditiously to arm itself, not just “reinterpreting” but revising its pacifist constitution. Nor can one disregard that if Japan chose to become a nuclear power, it could do so in a short order given that it has very sizable stores of plutonium. At the same time, South Korea is likely to further extend its current trend of following its own agenda rather than closely dovetailing it with U.S. positions.

In short, whatever happens in the Near East next will have significant consequences in the Far East. There are two realms but only one U.S.A. Its weakness—and challenged credibility—in one theater is likely to have significant repercussions in the other.

Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. He served as a senior adviser to the Carter White House and taught at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.