The Pacific or the Middle East? For the United States, that is now the primary strategic question. The violence in Gaza, coming as President Barack Obama was meeting Asia’s leaders in Phnom Penh, perfectly encapsulates America’s dilemma. Instead of being able to focus on U.S. foreign policy’s “pivot” to Asia, Obama was forced to spend many hours in conversation with the leaders of Egypt and Israel, and to dispatch Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from Asia, in order to facilitate a cease-fire in Gaza.
Of the two geopolitical focal points demanding America’s attention, one represents the future and the other the past. Whereas Asia played an important role in a U.S. presidential election campaign that was marked by often-heated references to China’s rise, the Middle East has kept the U.S. bogged down for decades. In addition to the eternal Israel-Palestine conflict, Iraq’s instability, the Arab Spring, Syria’s civil war, and the ongoing nuclear standoff with Iran all demand America’s attention.
If the Iran crisis were to boil over, the pivot to Asia would no longer be America’s main foreign-policy priority. But if the dispute with Iran is resolved diplomatically, the Middle East might, perhaps, be relegated to a position of lesser importance, as Obama clearly desires. The question, therefore, is whether the U.S. will find itself drawn into another war in a region on which it depends less and less for energy.