President Barack Obama’s decision to step up military operations against Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria raises fresh doubts about the “Pacific pivot” — a shift of military and diplomatic resources to a region Washington feels is the highest U.S. priority in decades to come.
Defense experts say it’s too early to know whether the new U.S. commitment in the Middle East — from where resources were being shifted to the Pacific — will stunt the ongoing rebalance. The boost in America’s economic, diplomatic and military presence is well under way in the Pacific, a “whole-of-government” approach that the analysts say likely won’t diminish with months of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
But the military already has been dealing with force reductions with the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan amid deep budget cuts including across-the-board reductions imposed under sequestration. Without a major reversal of such cuts, the military is already headed toward tough decisions on what it can afford to do.
In his Sept. 10 speech to the nation, President Barack Obama seemed to be preparing the country for another long slog, calling the escalating U.S.-led military campaign against the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq a “steady, relentless effort” that he likened to the slow process of eradicating cancer.
No one, including Obama, really knows what that will end up entailing. An air campaign is one thing. If down the road the campaign fails, involvement almost certainly would have to be stepped up, regardless of “no boots on the ground” statements today.
Obama came around reluctantly to military reengagement in Iraq, particularly since he spent his first three years in office pulling the last U.S. troops out of the country to make good his campaign promise.
His hesitancy undoubtedly reflects concern over the fate of one of his highest priorities: the reinvigoration of American influence in the Asia-Pacific, where the U.S. has more important interests than in the Middle East.
America’s partners, allies and adversaries in Asia could interpret the move in Iraq in dramatically different ways, experts say, regardless of reality.
Perception versus reality has plagued the rebalance initiative since it was first articulated by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a speech to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in July 2010.
Questions about the actual scope of the rebalance — about what it is and isn’t — have swirled since then.
“With each new personnel move in the Obama administration or crisis in another region come the perennial questions about waning American attention to the Asia-Pacific and whether the ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ is ephemeral in nature,” wrote Kurt Campbell, head of The Asia Group and a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, last year.
Some Asian countries are now wondering the same, asking “whether the United States must necessarily pay less attention to Asia if we’re paying more attention to the Middle East,” said Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu who focuses on Pacific security.
Their doubts come in part from how the administration originally “sold” the Asia shift as a “pivot,” implying that the U.S. was “going to start putting less emphasis on the Middle East because the war’s winding down there, and therefore we’re going to put more attention on Asia,“ Denny said.
“That was probably an inaccurate and probably unwise characterization to begin with, but that helps to reinforce the idea that there’s only a limited amount of U.S. attention to go around.”
Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., has been critical of the “rebalance” terminology since it was first used because “it suggested that we had basically neglected Asia for a decade while we focused on the Middle East and now we can neglect the Middle East in order to focus on Asia, with the assumption that we cannot both walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Still, the implications for rebalance — or “reinvigoration,” as he prefers to call it — in light of the U.S. back in Iraq are “complicated,” Lieberthal said.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of any effort that goes into one part of the world has to be taken away in that measure from some other part of the world,” he said. “I think what has always been at issue here is American statecraft, our ability to make smart decisions and execute them effectively, our focus, and the extent to which the issues that we are engaging in are seen to be at least broadly of interest, in this case, for those in East and Southeast Asia.”
China, which has criticized the rebalance as an attempt to contain its growth, sees the strengthening of Sunni fundamentalism in Iraq and Syria as exacerbating its own domestic terrorist threat in its northwest province, Lieberthal said. China also has assets to protect in Afghanistan and has invested heavily in Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, he said.
“I don’t think they see our dealing with Sunni radicalism in the Middle East as being either against their interests there or as an indication of our overall weakness or decline or inability to devote attention to East Asia,” he said.
Jihadist terror groups have operated in one degree or another for the past 15 years in the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, which was the scene of deadly bombings on the island of Bali in 2002 and 2005.
“I think countries in Southeast Asia are also paying a lot of attention to how we deal with this threat, who joins with us, and how smart we are — or not smart,” he said.
Of course, deeper involvement in Iraq by the U.S. could be cheered for all the wrong reasons. In commentary published this month in The Diplomat, Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo, concluded, “For Beijing and Pyongyang, however, the more resources Americans invest in the War of the Iraqi Succession, the better it will be for them.”
Army Col. Bryan Truesdell, a former fellow at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, where this summer he authored an analysis of the military’s role in the rebalance, said America’s Asian partners look at actions more than rhetoric in judging the endurance of the rebalance.
At the operational levels of the pivot, “it is typically our actions and where we place our funding, where we build facilities, where we have provided cooperation” that are measured by other countries. Those efforts are now several years in the making and unlikely to be sidetracked by Iraq operations.
As to whether Iraq — and possibly the Ukraine region — will siphon off resources that otherwise would have been devoted to Asia, “the jury is still out,” but the U.S. is still projecting its national power into the region economically, diplomatically and militarily, Truesdell said.
“I think we’re doing as well as we can to balance all of those approaches while we rebalance -- certainly the Department of Defense is -- toward the area that the president has deemed his highest priority, second only to the defense of the homeland,” he said.