Asia Pivot: Obama’s Ticket out of Middle East?

Ever since the United States’ “pivot” to Asia was announced in 2011, there has been lively debate over its content, its potential effects on U.S.-China relations, and, more recently, whether or not it will actually happen.

The motivation for the pivot seems clear: the global “center of gravity” is shifting toward the Asia-Pacific region, and the United States needs to respond. We argue that this geostrategic motivation is not the only reason for the pivot: equally important is President Obama’s desire to exchange the long, costly, and increasingly politically unpopular war in Afghanistan, as well as the broader focus on the unstable, violent Middle East, for the relative stability of East Asia.

The President’s desire to get out of Afghanistan can be seen in his approach to the war in Iraq. Eleven years ago, then-State Senator Barack Obama launched his national political career with a speech claiming that the upcoming invasion of Iraq was “rash,” irresponsible, and downright “dumb.” Saddam Hussein did not pose an immediate threat to the United States, Obama argued, and the war would require an occupation “of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” The song by the Scottish indie rock group, Camera Obscura, expresses the strategy perfectly: “let’s get out of this country.”

While the president was never as vocally opposed to the war in Afghanistan, his views on it today are very similar to his picture of pre-war Iraq: the Taliban, by itself, does not pose an immediate threat to the U.S. homeland, and after twelve years of occupation, we still face an Afghan civil war of undetermined length, cost, and consequences. The solution? We leave as quickly as we can without a complete collapse of the Afghan government.

To be fair, Afghanistan isn’t the only country where the U.S. is engaged in the Middle East, especially if we draw it like Vali Nasr does, extending from Pakistan to Morocco. Pakistan, the fifth largest nuclear state, has a marginally competent government and is aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan while ineffectively fighting its own set of Islamist militants; Iran is creeping closer to a nuclear weapon and refuses to respond to U.S. pressure; and the United States has been largely unable to shape events in Syria and Egypt. The U.S. has not fared well in the Middle East over the last ten years, and from a political perspective, a shift in focus is completely understandable.

But why “rebalance” to Asia, instead of simply bringing the troops home? One answer is the usual geostrategic one: we must maintain our alliance and economic interests in the area and help ensure that China’s rise to power is as peaceful as possible. That may be true five years from now, but there are political reasons that may be more important today.

First, while the Obama administration has little taste for costly counterinsurgencies, the president clearly does believe in a foreign policy of global engagement, and is willing to undertake relatively politically safe interventions that don’t directly risk American lives, such as the NATO air campaign in Libya. The pivot is even safer: while there are real international tensions in Asia, the possibility of the newly deployed U.S. Marines in Australia or the large American bases in Korea and Japan coming under attack is nearly nonexistent.

Second, engagement in the Asia-Pacific region allows the U.S. military to play to its strengths: air and naval forces oriented toward other major powers. The United States enjoys enormous advantages in air and sea power over any other military, but during the last twelve years of asymmetric ground wars, the allocation of defense resources shifted away from this traditional focus, with the Air Force and Navy’s share of the defense budget dropping from 54 percent in 2000 to just 41 percent in 2008. Today, while the Army and Marine Corps are facing major cuts, the Navy and Air Force budgets are holding steady. And while growing Chinese anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities reduce American military superiority in this realm, naval and aerial competition remains far more palatable than continued ground-based conflict for an American president and public weary of war. Further, the majority of the U.S. military as a whole wants to stop fighting these draining and frustrating wars, and welcomes a return to a region chock-full of genuine allies like South Korea, the Philippines, and Japan.

But why does the motivation behind the pivot matter, if the strategy is already being implemented? The more dependent the pivot is on President Obama’s personal convictions, the need to generate political cover for the departure from Afghanistan, and the whims of U.S. public opinion, the more likely it is to evaporate the moment President Obama leaves the White House, or even before. This is a problem because the pivot is meant to reassure American allies in Asia of continued U.S. engagement and manage the gradual rise of China–and a short pivot, or even a pivot that Asian leaders believe will be short, cannot accomplish those goals. The pivot is already frequently depicted as a paper tiger, and if the pivot is more about getting out of Afghanistan than about long-term engagement in Asia, this critique will be proven right.

If there is a price to pay, it will not occur on Obama’s watch. The spread of extremism to Pakistan, and then to India—a new version of the domino theory—may be reading too much into the situation, but it is a reasonable scenario to consider. Crises between India and Pakistan are also likely to recur, and we still believe as a government that Pakistan belongs to Af-Pak and the Middle East, rather than to South Asia. It is natural to think “Let’s get out of this country,” but it is also poor statecraft. The real question is: how can the resources of the rising powers, China and India, be brought to bear on the weaknesses and fragility of the Middle East and Pakistan? This is a question ignored by this administration as it purports to undertake a major shift in U.S. strategy, and we will probably have to wait for another president to see it asked again.