The United States Central Command (CENTCOM), based at MacDill air force base in Tampa, Florida, covers the Middle East from Egypt through the Persian Gulf to Central Asia. With an area of responsibility that includes Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, CENTCOM is geographically the smallest but politically the most explosive of the Pentagon's six area combat commands.
CENTCOM experienced its first serious trial by fire just ten months after being established, when on October 23, 1983, an Iranian suicide bomber killed 241 Marines, soldiers, and sailors who were on a peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. Also, the 1991 liberation of Kuwait (Desert Storm), the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan (Enduring Freedom), and the 2003 invasion of Iraq (Desert Shield) were all CENTCOM operations.
No one can doubt the heroism and professionalism of CENTCOM personnel. And the effectiveness of CENTCOM as a fighting force is amply demonstrated by the results it has achieved. But that doesn't mean that it's in the national interest for the United States to continue to put enormous military resources into CENTCOM’s area of operations. Is the Middle East really that important to American foreign policy?
Oil and Terrorists
When it comes down to it, ensuring the free flow of oil and fighting terrorism are America's two big reasons for being in the region. The area is an economic backwater composed mainly of profoundly undemocratic countries whose populations are thoroughly anti-American. The only country in the region to which these generalizations do not apply is Israel, and Israel has consistently proven that it can take care of itself.
People with long memories may believe that the United States is dependent on Middle East oil, but in reality, the oil crises of the 1970s were an aberration. Throughout most of its history, the United States has been an oil exporter, from the days of whale oil and Moby Dick to today's fracking revolution. And over the last two decades, the United States has developed more effective ways to combat terrorism than with large-scale military operations.
Perhaps the United States has such broad global interests that even a region as unimportant and remote as the Middle East warrants its own area command. But America’s political leadership should be looking to shift resources to those areas of the world where they are most needed to promote the country’s interests. Top of the list for a beef-up is the Indo-Pacific region.
The American Lake
The Pacific Ocean has been strategically important for American commerce since the early nineteenth century. It has been a virtual American lake since the Spanish-American War of 1898. Japan’s panicked and ultimately quixotic attempt to change that fact in World War II never got past Midway Island, despite a first-mover advantage, the element of surprise, and Roosevelt’s decision to devote the lion’s share of American resources to the war in Europe.
But the Pacific is a big lake, and costly to patrol. Moreover, there are many security hot spots along its shores. Russia’s Pacific fleet is busy modernizing its ballistic missile submarines. North Korea's unpredictable Kim Jong-un is armed to the teeth and playing a never-ending game of nuclear brinksmanship. Indonesia and the Philippines need help fighting low-level Islamist insurgencies. And then there's China.
As a global challenger to American national interests, no other country comes close to China. China repeatedly protests, harasses and threatens U.S. Navy ships operating off its coasts. It has built and militarized several artificial islands in the South China Sea in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which it is a signatory. And it has begun to systematically challenge the legitimacy of the rule of law in international and commercial relations more broadly.
The China challenge is important, not just to the region or the world as a whole, but specifically to the United States. American economic networks spin out across the Pacific in a dense web of technological and production networks. American high-technology products and services like the iPhone and Google depend on deeply integrated trans-Pacific production networks. Ironically, many of these networks rely on China itself. But they all rely on peaceful, orderly international relations throughout the entire Pacific basin.
And Now India
The Pacific is the heart of America’s new economy. The then-Senator (and later Secretary of State) John Seward foresaw in 1852 that “the Pacific Ocean, its shores, its islands, and the vast regions beyond, will become the chief theatre of events in the World’s great Hereafter.” More than a century and a half later, the Pacific has been fully integrated into American economic networks, which are now extending into Seward’s “vast regions beyond”—namely, to India.
Fast-growing India now has the world’s fifth largest economy, and with China increasingly closed to American technology companies, India has become their most important newly-emerging market. India has long been a major center for high-technology services, and now it is emerging as a center for high-technology manufacturing as well. Yet India faces serious security challenges, most importantly from China and one of China's closest allies, Pakistan.
Pakistan marks the eastern edge of CENTCOM, India the Western edge of the newly rechristened United States Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM). Though the United States once had close relations with the Pakistani military and tilted somewhat in favor of Pakistan, those days are now long gone. Free, democratic India is the coming country, and American economic interests in India dwarf those in Pakistan.
An American pivot in Asia, from Western Asia’s CENTCOM to eastern Asia's INDOPACOM, makes economic and political sense. The ties that bind the United States to democracies like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and India will ultimately prove stronger than the coalitions of the willing that the United States is able to assemble in the Middle East. More importantly, the American national interest is much more closely bound up with the Indo-Pacific region than with the Middle East. As technology advances and oil becomes obsolete, America’s footprint in Asia should shift east, from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region.
Salvatore Babones is the author of The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts.