Business Times - 11 May 2011
'First Pacific' president stuck in the Middle East
While Obama wants to focus more on China, US will remain 'underweighted' in East Asia
By LEON HADAR
AT THE centre of US President Barack Obama's geostrategic thinking has been the recognition that in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the devastating financial meltdown, 'America needed to rebuild its reputation, extricate itself from the Middle East and Afghanistan, and turn its attention towards Asia and China's unchecked influence in the (Asia-Pacific) region', according to a much-discussed article about Mr Obama's foreign policy that was published in The New Yorker magazine recently.
According to Ryan Lizza, the author of the article, Mr Obama and his advisers concluded upon entering office that America was 'overweighted' in the Middle East and 'underweighted' in East Asia.
'We've been on a little bit of a Middle East detour over the course of the last 10 years,' Mr Lizza quoted Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who also said that 'our future will be dominated utterly and fundamentally by developments in Asia and the Pacific region'.
That makes a lot of strategic sense, certainly from the perspective of America's trade and diplomatic partners in Southeast Asia, who have been concerned that Washington's preoccupation with the Middle East since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept 11, 2001 has allowed China to drive towards unchallenged hegemony in East Asia, marginalising the US position.
And President Obama - who was born in Hawaii and who described himself as the 'first Pacific' US president - has taken some steps in moving in the direction of more American activism in East Asia. For example, his administration expanded the scope of the annual China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue to cover foreign policy as well as economic issues. He also adopted a tougher position in dealing with the territorial disputes between China and its neighbours in the South China Sea.
However, the problem with grand strategic plans is that they sometimes run against realities abroad while encountering the resistance of powerful interest groups at home. Hence, the never-ending crises in the Middle East including the continuing Israeli-Palestinian impasse and the current political upheaval in the Arab Middle East have made it impossible for the Obama administration to move in the direction of reducing the US diplomatic and military footprint in the region.
If anything, pressure from the generals in the Pentagon have forced Mr Obama to actually increase the US military presence in Afghanistan and to slow down the pullout from Iraq. Meanwhile, the influence of the axis of liberal humanitarian interventionists and the members of the old neoconservative crew have pushed the US into a new military quagmire in Libya.
At the same time, the Obama administration has had to contend with growing unease in Israel and Saudi Arabia over what they see as an eroding US influence in the Middle East. Washington has also had to face demands from around the world that it embrace a more activist strategy aimed at reviving the stalemated Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Indeed, under these conditions, the Obama administration has become even more 'overweighted' in the region. 'The US keeps getting stuck in the Middle East' is the way Mr Lizza put it in his article.
Yet if one takes into consideration that the initial push for expanding US intervention in the Middle East was driven by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it may be appropriate to now raise the following question: in the wake of the killing of Osama Bin Laden - who was, after all, the instigator of 9/11 - would the Obama administration be in a more commanding position to declare victory in the war against terrorism and reset US strategy by shifting its focus from the Middle East towards East Asia and, in particular, its relationship with China?
In a way, the convening of the third annual China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington this week - when, for the first time, top military leaders from both nations are participating in an effort to ease tensions between the two nations that were heightened last year by US arms sales to Taiwan - may serve as a good opportunity for reassessing US policies in the Middle East and East Asia.
Unfortunately, much of the two-day talks will involve the familiar topics of China's currency exchange rate, intellectual property protection, North Korea, Taiwan, and human rights. There will be no serious attempt to place the Sino-American relationship in the context of the post-Osama global realities.
In any case, it is not clear if the killing of Osama will bring about a major transformation of US global strategy anytime soon. It is possible that the fight against terrorism will cease to be the top US strategic priority - but it will still remain important. Indeed, pressure from Congress, the bureaucracy and interest groups in Washington - there is now a very powerful 'anti-terrorism-industrial complex' that has evolved since 9/11 - makes it likely that fighting Middle East terrorism will continue to preoccupy officials, lawmakers and the media for a very long time.
Any change in US policy is going to be slow - and, for many, unwelcome.
While it is true that the factors that make it difficult for the US to continue maintaining its hegemonic position in the Middle East - an overstretched military and an eroding economic base - will have some impact on US policies in the aftermath of the recent victory against Al-Qaeda, it will not be significant.
So, while President Obama and some of his aides would like to see attention being shifted to East Asia and China ASAP, the foreign policy elites in Washington are not going to let that happen.
They will insist that the US should still continue playing an active role in containing Iran, advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace and strengthening Arab democracy - ensuring that America will continue to be 'underweighted' in East Asia.
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