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 of Foreign 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).