Tuesday, November 22, 2011

America's Long-Delayed Pacific Century

Published on The National Interest (http://nationalinterest.org)
Source URL (retrieved on Nov 21, 2011): http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/americas-long-delayed-pacific-century-6175

America's Long-Delayed Pacific Century

November 21, 2011
Leon Hadar [2]
When President Bill Clinton was hosting the Leaders Summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Seattle in 1993, the Middle East started to feel like old news. Resisting pressure to oust Saddam Hussein and to launch new military campaigns in the Middle East, Clinton promoted a trade-liberalization agenda in East Asia and tried to transform APEC from a "talking shop" into a pillar of an Asia-centric foreign policy.

But when President Barack Obama hosted the leaders of the APEC forum in Honolulu, Hawaii, close to two decades after the Seattle Summit, it felt like a diplomatic Groundhog Day, with U.S. officials insisting once again that the time has come to shift American global priorities from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region, proclaiming the Obama administration’s vision of “America’s Pacific Century.”

That Obama, born and raised in Hawaii, America’s self-described “first Pacific president,” is hosting the APEC leaders meeting in one of America’s territorial possessions in the Pacific was meant to symbolize these changing U.S. priorities.

“The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action,” Hillary Clinton wrote in the November issue ofForeign Policy. She added: “Harnessing Asia's growth and dynamism is central to American economic and strategic interests and a key priority for President Obama.” Clinton stressed that America’s diplomatic and economic frontiers this century lie not in the Middle East or Europe but in Asia.

And so America once again embraces an outlook that was front and center in the Bill Clinton years, before 9/11 pulled the focus of American diplomacy and national security back to the broader Middle East. The U.S. war on global terrorism necessitated a new set of priorities. Washington invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and tried to bring democracy to the Middle East.

Indeed, East Asian officials and pundits criticized Bush throughout his presidency for changing the course set in Seattle in 1993. He was scored for investing so much time and resource on the Mideast-centered war on terrorism while treating the dramatic geopolitical and economic changes in Asia as a global sideshow.

Hence, Asian diplomats were furious when former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice skipped the 2007 Association of Southeast Asian Nations' Regional Forum in Manila and instead traveled to the Middle East for discussions in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and visits to Israel and the West Bank.

Adding to those angers, President George W. Bush also postponed talks with leaders of the ten ASEAN states, scheduled in Singapore for September. Instead, Bush focused his attention on the “surge” in Iraq.

Even when Bush and Rice did spend time in Asia, much of their concentration was on terrorism. Asian leaders wondered why Americans invested so much effort to "remake" the Middle East, “restart" the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” and adjudicate the bloody Iraqi tribal wars. After all, they noted, in East Asia they did not have to invade countries in order to maintain their trade and military presence.

And while the Americans are being pulled into Middle Eastern quagmires, the Chinese, with their much less expansive defense budgets, could devote their resources to strengthening their economy.

But now most Americans are exhausted from the costly military intervention in the Middle East, and many Washington politicians recognize that a diminishing economic base is constraining America’s ability to maintain its hegemony in southwest Asia. Thus, the Obama administration has a new opportunity to reorient U.S. geostrategic priorities.

Indeed, Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said earlier this year that U.S. foreign policy needed to transition from the Middle East to Asia. “One of the most important challenges for U.S. foreign policy is to effect a transition from the immediate and vexing challenges of the Middle East to the long-term and deeply consequential issues in Asia,” Campbell said in August.

All of this sounds good to East Asians. And the Obama administration, moving beyond rhetoric, has increased its economic and military cooperation with South Korea, India, Australia and ASEAN countries that have called for the U.S. to expand its presence in the region as a counterweight to a more assertive China.

Congress recently approved a free-trade agreement with South Korea, and Obama indicated that his administration plans to speed up negotiations on the establishment of another free-trade system, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The initiative originated with a regional free-trade agreement among Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore, but negotiations now involve the United States, Australia, Peru, Malaysia and Vietnam. Japan might also join the effort.

Washington wants to ensure that the United States assumes a leading position in this new Asian free-trade arrangement, while China prefers a looser trade arrangement that includes China, Japan, South Korea and the ASEAN nations—but excludes the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Does that suggest President Obama will be listening more intently to the leaders of Singapore and other southeast Asian nations and spending less time with Levantine figures who spent so much time schmoozing with his Oval Office predecessor?

Still, it is essential to remember that the United States remains the leading global power in the Middle East and faces there ongoing challenges, including prospects for a costly diplomatic and military confrontation, this time with Iran.

This focus is tightened by the inconclusive outcomes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of two leading pro-American leaders in the region (Egypt and Tunisia). Also, America must continue to maintain the balance of power in the region and protect the interests of its leading military partners there, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing states in the Persian Gulf.

President Clinton's efforts to refocus U.S. attention on Asia took place at a time when Washington could maintain American hegemony in the Middle East on the cheap. He could walk in the Middle East and chew gum in Asia at the same time. It is not clear that Obama can repeat that performance at a time when America is only starting to withdraw from Iraq and has yet to reassess its strategy in Afghanistan and when the White House is under pressure from Israel and Saudi Arabia—as well from both Democrats and Republicans—to take military action against Iran. America's Pacific Century, alluring as it is, may have to wait.

Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and global affairs analyst, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

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Source URL (retrieved on Nov 21, 2011): http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/americas-long-delayed-pacific-century-6175
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[2] http://nationalinterest.org/profile/leon-hadar

When leaders fail to lead

Business Times - 23 Nov 2011

When leaders fail to lead

America's politicians have not been able to muster the will to make unpopular and painful decisions


TO no one's surprise, the US congressional Super Committee ended its effort to put America's fiscal house in order ended with a whimper. The Democratic and Republican members of the special deficit-reduction committee admitted that after three months of work, they had failed to meet the deadline for an agreement on cutting about US$1.2 trillion from the US national debt - which topped US$15 trillion last week. The mountain could not even give birth to a mouse.

In a way, not unlike their counterparts in the eurozone, the members of the America's political class have not been able to muster the will to make the unpopular and painful decisions that require slashing government spending (by eliminating public services) and raising new revenues (by increasing the tax burden), displaying once again a profile of political cowardice.

In Greece and Italy, the politicians have decided to shift the responsibility for making these choices to a group of apolitical technocrats. In Washington, the politicians had first tried to square the fiscal circle through the creation of the bipartisan Super Committee.

The move came following the political and legislative battles of the summer over the issue of raising the debt ceiling and the decision by the credit agency Standard & Poor's to downgrade US debt after concluding that 'America's governance and policymaking is becoming less stable, less effective'.

The 12 respected Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the Super Committee were granted enormous legislative power to fashion a plan that had to win only seven votes and then be either rejected or approved - but not altered - by Congress before the end of this year.

But the deep ideological divisions between the Democrats and the Republicans that were on display during the debate over the debt ceiling has made it also impossible to overcome the differences between the representatives of the two political parties in the Super Committee.

Indeed, the stalemate in this deficit reduction body only helped to accentuate these differences as the two sides tried unsuccessfully to chart a common fiscal policy. The Republicans members insisted that most of the cuts in the debt would have to come from reducing spending on cherished social and economic programmes - including the government-backed retirement and health insurance plans - and that a very small amount of government revenues involving a few changes in the tax rates will contribute to the deficit-cutting process.

But the Democrats rejected any major cuts in the Social Security and Medicare programmes without corresponding increases in taxes on the wealthy, including by eliminating the tax cuts on households making more than US$250,000 a year that were enacted during the administration of former Republican president George W Bush.

While a failure to resolve the debate over the debt ceiling in the summer could have forced the federal government into bankruptcy and devastate the financial markets, the current Congressional deadlock should have only limited short-term economic impact. The lawmakers had ensured that if the Super Committee had failed to reach a compromise, a set of automatic trigger mechanisms would lead to US$1.2 trillion in cuts next year, divided almost equally between domestic and defence spending.

Yet some Republican lawmakers are trying now to make those automatic trigger mechanisms less, well, automatic, by proposing new legislation that could save the defence budget from major cuts. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has also argued that US military capabilities will be undermined by the proposed reductions to the Pentagon budget.

In any case, Democrats and Republicans have already started to blame the other side for the failure on the part of the Super Committee to reach a deal. Both sides - and that includes Democratic President Barack Obama - are planning to turn the debate over how to reduce the federal debt into the central theme of next year's presidential and congressional elections.

'Fairness' agenda

The White House and the Democrats are hoping that a changing public mood, reflected in the support for the Occupy Wall Street Movement, will be more in tune with their 'fairness' agenda that stresses the need to change social economic priorities by getting the wealthiest one per cent of Americans to help support a long-term plan to cut the federal deficit and ensure that the interests of the members of the middle class (the 99 per cent) will be protected in the process.

Republicans, on the other hand, continue to espouse the anti-Washington rhetoric of the Tea Party movement and argue that only drastic cuts in government spending would resolve the deficit crisis; and that raising taxes on Americans will only diminish economic growth and constrain the ability of businesses to increase production and hire new workers.

If President Obama and the Democrats are expected to portray the Republicans as the puppets of the 'fat cats' in Wall Street, the Republicans will accuse their political rivals of protecting the interests of the 'bureaucrats' in Washington.

Hence, each side is hoping that the results of the 2012 election will provide the political mandate that it needs to pursue the kind of fiscal policies that are in line with the interests and the values of most Americans.

From that perspective, the Super Committee may be ending its work with a whimper. But its failure also marks the start of an election campaign that may - or may not - end with a big political bang.

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