US obsession with the M-E will only benefit China

Business Times - 10 Mar 2011

US obsession with the M-E will only benefit China


US PRESIDENT Barack Obama's 10-day trip to Asia at the end of last year was seen as an effort by his administration to demonstrate that it was placing its relationship with the rising powers of that region on the top of US foreign policy agenda.

Indeed, during most of the eight years that Mr Obama's predecessor had occupied the White House, Asian policymakers and pundits were warning that Bush Administration's post-9/11 focus on the war on terrorism, including the launching of two long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, ended up diverting American attention from the remarkable strategic and economic changes taking place in Asia that could have major impact on US economic and military interests.

At times it seemed as though the investment of so much time, energy and resources in managing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in dealing with Iran's perceived nuclear military ambitions, in trying to revive the never-ending Palestinian-Israeli peace process and to end the Israeli-Hezbollah war - not to mention the promotion of an ambitious Freedom Agenda aimed at democratising the Arab Middle East - amounted to a full-time job. In fact, it was obsession as far as President George W Bush and his top aides were concerned.

And even when President Bush had taken some time from his busy Middle East policymaking and made an effort to get more engaged in Asian issues, much of his discussions with leaders in the region seemed to focus on - you guessed it! - the war on terrorism.

President Obama entered office hoping to start withdrawing US troops from Iraq and improve US ties with Arabs and Muslims by, among other things, stressing that the campaign against terrorism is not directed against Muslims. At the same time, President Obama was making the case that restructuring the US economy and trying to make it more competitive worldwide in the aftermath of the Great Recession would require more engagement with China, India, Korea and South-east Asia. The Obama Administration has also expressed its commitment to work with India, Japan, Korea and the South-east Asian countries in trying to restrain China's military assertiveness in the region.

But after occupying the White House for two years, it seems that Mr Obama is finding himself at the same position where Mr Bush had been before he left office - fixated with the Middle East.

Not only has the Obama Administration taken steps to expand US military intervention in Afghanistan and has failed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the recent political upheaval in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East - including a bloody civil war in Libya - is actually placing Washington even more at the centre of the developments in the region. Indeed, if one listens to leading US lawmakers and pundits, Washington should be drawing up war plans, mobilising troops and amassing the financial resources aimed at bringing about regime change in Libya. Not an hour passes in the 24/7 media and political universe without US officials being asked to 'do something' about the crisis in Libya.

And the members of a noisy coalition of neoconservative and liberal interventionists are now insisting that the US has the obligation to take a leading role in helping transform the Middle East by providing more support for pro-democracy activists and by putting more pressure on the Arab autocrats - not to mention the Ayatollahs in Iran - to embrace political reform, including open and free elections, the same kind that brought to power Hamas in Palestine and strengthened Hezbollah in Lebanon while enabling Shiite political parties with ties to Iran to emerge as winners in Iraq.

This continuing American pre-occupation with the Middle East involves more than the enormous costs that the US is being forced to pay in the region at a time when its military is overstretched and its budget deficits are rising to the stratosphere. One also has to consider the strategic opportunity costs.

With much of its time and energy being consumed by the Middle East, Washington is unable to shift its strategic priorities in the direction of the Pacific Rim where the economic and military challenges posed by the rise of China, India, Korea, and South-east Asia impact directly on core US national interests more than by what is happening in the Arab states, which provides less than 15 per cent of America's energy supplies.

America's obsession of the Middle East will end up playing directly into the hands of the Chinese leaders. They can continue building up their economy and strengthening their military while the US is being drawn every deeper into Libya and the rest of the mess in the Middle East.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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