When President Obama announced the United States would pivot to Asia from the Middle East, it sounded as if he had decided the issue of Middle Eastern radicalism would be best ignored. The terminology he used implied that too much attention had been paid to the latter region and its terrorist breeding grounds than was appropriate at this time. While the statement sounded quite strategic — as it was supposed to — it lacked tactical reality. It was pure hokum.
Where the Obama foreign security brain trust happened upon the idea that the United States of America could unilaterally decide what was important in world affairs was more of a hope than reality. This certainly should have been obvious. Aside from the highly questionable premise that the U.S. can change the focus of international affairs at will, Washington no longer has the singular superpower clout that so troubled the world the previous two decades.
The animosities and ambitions of the Middle East far precede the relatively recent emergence of American involvement. The devastating events of 9/11 were calculated to punish America for its previous transgressions such as placing troops on “sacred” Saudi soil and continuing support for the state of Israel. If the al Qaeda terrorists’ intent was to coerce Washington to abandon involvement in the Middle East, the physical attacks on U.S. soil were clearly counter-productive. One suspects that Osama bin Laden knew that and intended the action to drag the Americans into direct confrontation.
Presidential candidate Obama repeatedly indicated that there was not adequate justification for the U.S. to invade Iraq. The eventual lack of discovery of weapons of mass destruction has been used as the justification for that position. Now after winning a second term President Obama decided he could minimize the concept of the importance of the Middle East after using the first four years in an aggressive show of force in Afghanistan, including a program of drone-driven individual assassination. He took credit for a many year program begun by the previous two administrations to find and kill Osama bin Laden to enhance his “tough guy” image.
None of this squared with his original claims of peaceful devices as key to showing that he would handle Middle Eastern matters far better than his predecessor. After successfully following George Bush’s military lead, Obama’s political strategy as far as his domestic audience was concerned has been to edge the U.S. public’s attention toward Asia, specifically China. The war supposedly was over in Islamic lands and now the U.S. could proceed to the more strategically important Far East. What world has he been looking at in between fundraisers and golf games? It certainly hasn’t been the one showing a rise in terrorist activity in North Africa, including the destruction of the American official mission in Benghazi, and the killing of four U.S. government employees including the American ambassador.
The problem is that other than North Korea there is no aggressively belligerent opponent to the United States in Asia. China may have the capability to launch a nuclear-tipped ICBM at the continental U.S., and want to be recognized as the dominant regional power, but as Xi Jinping undoubtedly emphasized in his California summit of happiness, business and finance is China’s real interest. It is clear that the contest between the United States and China is one of intellectual rights and national security in the form of scientific and technological cyber intercepts. That is serious enough, but it doesn’t equate to the acts of aggression, actual and threatened, currently in the Middle East.
In wanting to avoid U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern religiously divided conflicts, the Administration has stretched international strategic logic to the breaking point. As Barack Obama and Xi Jinping apparently have agreed, it is far more important that Washington develop and maintain close relations with Beijing in order to gain whatever leverage possible over the paranoiac and innately aggressive North Korea. Yet no matter how dangerous Pyongyang’s plans and actions may be, the immediacy of the reality of the Middle East has now morphed in Syria into another full-blown international crisis.
Xi Jinping appears to have satisfied Barack Obama that Beijing will keep a firm grip on Pyongyang and renewed talks between North and South Korea is the physical and political proof. Where China stands on the Syrian situation is not at all clear at this juncture. The Russians have refused the role as a peace partner with the U.S. and EU. Moscow has firmly stood by its commitment to supply Bashar al-Assad with a full range of weaponry. One will have to wait to see if China continues to abstain in the vigorous UN efforts to arrange peace negotiations.
Washington cannot overlook the fact that Israel has been drawn into the Syrian conflict not only by its proximity, but by the participation of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Meanwhile, Iran sends units of trained special forces to aid their Shia brethren against the primarily Sunni rebels. Of course, this latter group is in danger of being taken over by one of the al Qaeda-trained Sunni factions from the region. Jordan is under extreme stress as a result of the influx of tens of thousands of refugees. And to top off this entire Mideastern mess, Israel has threatened to attack Russian ships delivering arms and equipment to Syria that might be passed on to Hezbollah.
President Barack Obama needn’t agonize any longer over shifting America’s strategic attention to Asia. The decision has already been made — by the Islamic world. Radical Islam still spawns terrorism as a theme and a continuing mode of warfare. U.S. drones still work effectively as standoff killers and “boots-on-the-ground” is no longer considered. China has promised to stop cyber-hacking (that it swears it’s never done) if the U.S. will do the same, and Beijing happily will buy U.S. debt. Washington really isn’t interested in the discrimination against the Rohingya Muslems who are being cleansed from the Burmese ethnic scene by the dominant Buddhists. Aung San Suu Kyi and Hillary Clinton apparently don’t care much about that issue either.
So there it is: The shift to the Far East stopped mid-pivot. But then there is only about two and a half years before the next presidential contest will begin and the candidates will discover increasing U.S. debt, growing Russian power in the Middle East, renewed Islamic terrorism and the imminence of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear weapon stockpiles — if they haven’t already done so. Oh, and Barack Obama by then will have pivoted into a lame duck!