1 March 2014

America Turns East, China Turns West

February 28, 2014 

“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. 

Obama Packing Up American Security Bags in the Greater Middle East 

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. 

Obama’s Strategic Neglect of Asia Fallacy 

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. 

The American Pacific campaign of archipelago hopping across the Pacific Ocean toward Japan was a series of nasty, brutal, and bloody battles. At Tarawa in November 1943 of the 5,000 Marines who went ashore first day, about 1,500 were casualties by nightfall. At Iwo Jima in February-March 1945, the Marines suffered 6,891 killed. At the month-long battle of Okinawa in June 1945, the army suffered 7,374 soldiers killed. The United State went on to suffer in Korea and Vietnam with the deaths of about 50,000 servicemen in each war. These horrific losses show that Obama administration is ahistorical in its argument that we have neglected Asia. 

The legacy of war has left the United States with huge security commitments in the Pacific. The United States has formal treaty obligations to defend Japan and South Korea, which are backed up by American forces hosted in both countries to deter attacks, and should deterrence fail, to wage war against any aggressor. The United States today still has some 28,500 troops deployed to South Korea and another 39,000 based in Japan. 

Notwithstanding the Obama administration’s narrative, the United States does not have comparable treaty obligations in the greater Middle East. The United States has a broad array of security understandings and agreements with Arab states and Israel, but they are executive and bilateral agreements and not formal treaty obligations like those we have with South Korea, Japan, and NATO in Europe. After the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in 2011 and the likely similar withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the United States will not have any permanently garrisoned troops in the greater Middle East as part and parcel of formal defense treaties the likes of which we have in Asia. 

The crown jewels of American navy power lie in the Pacific, and not in the Middle East contrary to President Obama’s “neglect of Asia” narrative. The most important naval base the United States has in the world today is at Pearl Harbor just as it was on the eve Japan’s surprise attack in 1941. It is home of the Seventh Fleet, commanded by a four-star admiral, and arguably the most prestigious command in the navy second only to the chief of naval operations. The American Navy institutionally sees itself as a “blue water” one. In stark contrast, the American military presence in Manama, Bahrain, the home of the Fifth Fleet, commanded by a three-star admiral, is considered a lesser command. The American Navy institutionally looks down on “brown water” littoral operations the likes of which it has been conducting, largely against Iranian forces, over the past three decades in the Middle East. 

The Obama administration cites plans for the long-term redeployment of naval forces from the Atlantic to the Pacific as concrete evidence of a strategic pivot. Contrary to the hoopla, the redeployment would be marginal because most of the best and most modern naval assets already are in the Pacific. Former defense secretary Leon Panetta in 2013 said that the U.S. was going to reconfigure its naval force deployments from a 50-50 split between the Atlantic and Pacific to a 40-60 split. That ten percent shift might have meant something during the Cold War days when the Reagan administration was pushing for a six-hundred-ship navy. But today our navy is less than three hundred ships. Moving thirty more to the Pacific is not going to put China’s strategic planners into cardiac arrest. As the saying goes, “quantity has its own quality.” What the Chinese navy lacks in experience and technology, it can make up for by sailing more ships in future face offs with the American navy. 

Nor will the United States be significantly redeploying air or ground forces to the Pacific, if only because it will have less of these forces to move. The Air Force, Army and Marines are beginning the long and painful process of downsizing. This downsizing is eerily reminiscent of the drastic cuts in force structure that the United States undertook in the aftermath of every major conflict in the last century, only to have to painfully rebuild them in haste at the onset of subsequent conflicts we swore to ourselves we would never have to fight. 

While Obama Pivots Eastward, Chinese Look Westward to Gulf Power Vacuum 

If President Obama is loudly proclaiming his pivot to Asia, the Chinese without fanfare are moving into the political-military vacuums that the United States is creating in the Middle East. If Obama plays basketball and pivots only in one direction, the Chinese play soccer and move into open spaces throughout the geopolitical playing field. 

The Chinese enjoy a political-diplomatic advantage over the United States in the greater Middle East because they are not encumbered with a democracy-promotion agenda. The Chinese are uniquely positioned to maintain diplomatic, economic and security ties to both Saudi Arabia and Iran, even while both are engaged in sectarian proxy warfare in the region. The Americans pay little heed that the Chinese and the Saudis have quietly developed their security ties—which date back to the 1980s, when Beijing sold Riyadh intermediate-range ballistic missiles unbeknownst to Washington. The Saudis no doubt want to modernize those missile forces as Iran increases its ballistic missile capabilities. Similarly, Chinese firms have been doing business with an array of Iranian companies associated with Iran’s suspected weapons of mass destruction programs. 

The Chinese are slowly, but steadily, taking up security-related activities in the Middle East. They have dispatched peacekeeping forces to Lebanon and have made unprecedented naval port visits in the Persian Gulf, for example. The Chinese are modernizing and building-up their naval forces, which the Obama administration narrowly sees in terms of the political-military competition in Asia. But the Chinese undoubtedly want “blue water” naval power projection to reach from Asia into the Middle East to secure sea-lanes of communication. The Chinese are heavily reliant on Iranian and Arab Gulf oil to fuel their growing industrial base, as well as their military power. The Chinese are very vulnerable to American naval supremacy, which today could readily sever China’s sea links to the Gulf. But the Chinese naval build-up in the years ahead will make that an increasingly more difficult strategic proposition. 

Middle Eastern and Asian Perils Ahead 

The Obama administration shows little sense of the history or American grand strategy. The United States has been strategically wedded to Asia since World War II as evidenced by the enormous sacrifices made in war and the longstanding military posture in the region. Asia’s rivalries and competitions for power have merely been simmering while those in the Middle East have been white hot. No matter how much President Obama wants to be rid of security challenges in the Middle East, they are going to keep festering, and even worsen, without American political, diplomatic, and military engagement. 

Asia with its long, bitter, and nasty history of armed conflict in the past century, however, could return to its old ways in short order notwithstanding the Obama administration’s “milk and honey” visions of Asia’s economic promise. Asian economic prosperity and the allure of future business opportunities mask the storm clouds gathering. China’s military modernization coupled with growing political-military assertiveness over disputed islands, declarations of air defense zones, and surging nationalism have alarmed America’s Asian allies. Meanwhile, the behavior of North Korea is increasingly erratic and unpredictable. Even though the country is impoverished and its armed forces probably akin to Potemkin villages, North Korea still could wreak havoc against South Korea should a future crisis slip over the edge into war. 

In a world of galloping globalization, the regions of the world cannot be hermetically sealed. Security challenges in the Middle East will seep into the security environment in Asia and vice versa. The strategic reality is such that if war between major powers should come again to Asia in the years ahead, it spillover into the strategic landscape of the Middle East. The Chinese would need to fuel their war machine with the oil from Iran and the Arab Gulf states. In short, despite the Obama administration’s illusions, what happens in the Middle East won’t stay there. Nor will the looming security challenges in Asia stay there. Tragically, both are likely to bleed into one another. 

Richard L. Russell teaches for the Security Studies PhD program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Central Florida.

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