America Turns East, China Turns West
“Bugging out” is exactly what our friends and foes alike in the greater Middle East think the United States is doing after more than a decade of war in the region. And perceptions are just as important as realities in international politics. Players in the region saw that the United States withdrew its forces from Iraq in 2011 only to have the country return to the grips of sectarian violence. Many anticipate that the United States is soon to do the same by leaving few, if any, forces in Afghanistan to significantly increase the prospects for an upswing in Taliban violence.
To jaded observers, President Obama is bugging out of the Middle East under the guise of a strategic “pivot” to Asia. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton publicly launched the administration’s pivot in the pages of Foreign Policy in October 2011. Although administration officials subsequently have tried to talk about “rebalancing” rather than pivoting, the later term still lingers. The president’s national-security adviser, Susan Rice, in a November 2013 speech at Georgetown University, claimed that “…rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific remains a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.” This so-called “cornerstone” of President Obama’s foreign policy looms large in the future of American grand strategy and warrants critical appraisal.
Arab states once bubbling with expectation that President Obama, after his 2009 Cairo speech, would arm twist the Israelis into a peace agreement with the Palestinians, have had their hopes deflated. They see Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent diplomatic efforts as a solo show, not energetically backed by his boss. The Arab states, moreover, have had their attentions diverted from the Palestinian issue by the painful aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring. The Arab Gulf states, in particular, are furious that the United States abandoned a long-term security partner in Egypt for the sake of a democracy-promotion agenda.
Both Arab Gulf state and Israeli confidence in American power in the Middle East was shattered by President Obama’s lack of leadership and engagement as Syria has been destroyed by civil war. Obama seemingly has been unmoved—strategically or emotionally—by the civil war that has destroyed Syria, killed more than one hundred thousand people, and made millions more refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Washington has dithered for three years and not nurtured a militarily-capable and politically moderate opposition to Assad’s brutal regime. The Arab Gulf states, absent American policy assertiveness, have backed the Sunnis jihadists to wage sectarian war against the Iranian and Hezbollah-backed Damascus regime.
Both Arab Gulf states and Israel were alarmed that Syria crossed President Obama’s “red line” and used chemical weapons only to have President Obama renege on his public threat to use American force against Damascus. Instead, the international process to rid Syria of chemical weapons has served only to politically legitimize the Syrian regime, delegitimize insurgents, and take any military options against Syria “off the table.”
In Middle Eastern eyes, American indecisiveness bodes ill for countering Iranian influence in the region. They reason that if Washington lacked the grit to use military force against Syria, President Obama has no stomach for militarily moving against Iran’s nuclear program Instead, he has played into Tehran’s hands by negotiating to give the regime political legitimacy, an easing of crushing international sanctions, and the preservation of its extensive nuclear fuel cycle infrastructure, and has effectively taken the viable threat of force against Iran “off the table.” In short, the Arab Gulf states and Israel are alarmed that they have no American security backing against Iran, which they commonly see as the gravest security threat to the Middle East.
To add insult to injury, American security partners in the Middle East know that President Obama’s bug out sits comfortably with the sentiment of the American public A recent Pew poll found that for the first time since 1964, fifty-two percent of those surveyed agreed that the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” President Obama seems all too content to follow American public opinion rather than to exercise leadership to shape it back to supporting assertive American foreign policy.
The Obama administration argues that United States has strategically neglected Asia, but the facts belie that notion. We have tragically lost more than 6,750 service men and women over the past decade in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As horrendous as these losses are, they pale in comparison to those the United States suffered in the past century in Asia. Almost as a precursor to the 11 September 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the homeland, the Japanese surprise attack on 7 December 1941 at Pearl Harbor killed more than 3,000 servicemen.