Obama pivots to Syria from Asia
Allies are starting to suspect that Washington is no longer looking their way


Article Highlights

  • Ghosts of crises past continue to disturb Mr. Obama's dreams

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  • The Syrian issue is another nail in the coffin for Mr. Obama's much hyped "pivot" strategy

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President Obama apparently has decided to avoid the messy and entangling route of United Nations authorizations for the use of force in Syria, going the messy and entangling route of congressional authorization instead. Commentators are focusing on what this means for Middle East policy more broadly. But spare a thought for Asia, too, where the Syrian issue is another nail in the coffin for Mr. Obama's much hyped "pivot" strategy.

Punishing Syria's Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons against his citizens is the right thing to do. But the prospect of military action in Syria risks riling up a far more worrisome power. China has joined Russia in warning Mr. Obama not to employ the U.S. military. Meanwhile, American allies in Asia might soon stumble across a startling realization, if they haven't already: A superpower that implicitly admitted it feels incapable of focusing on more than one area at a time — hence the need for a pivot toward Asia, away from somewhere else — is now not as focused on Asia, after all.

The pivot was always primarily a rhetorical approach, coated over with a thin dusting of new initiatives. While focusing on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks and attending the East Asian Summit were certainly good ideas, Mr. Obama had less success convincing both friends and skeptics alike that Washington would really be doing anything different in Asia. A few more ships, the promise of more airplanes, opening a few new temporary bases was about it. All of that was worthy, to be sure, but it fell short of the grandiose claims made about the rebalance of U.S. resources to the world's most dynamic region.

Instead, while the Administration was claiming a new era in U.S. foreign policy, the ghosts of crises past continue to disturb Mr. Obama's dreams. Renewed violence in Iraq and the complexities of not losing all gains in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2014 were perhaps highest on the list of unfinished business. Yet more concerning were the brewing crises: Iran's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and the bloody Syrian civil war.

The real world intrusions of failing U.S. diplomacy spell trouble for Mr. Obama's pivot in two crucial ways. First, as the decade-plus of war on terror showed, even a U.S. military with massive war funding needed to pull in troops and materiel from all around the globe. For years, U.S. commanders and senior leaders of Pacific Command had to send sailors and airmen to the Middle East, along with ships and planes. Privately, they would talk about how difficult that made keeping up their own missions after several years.

In today's era of budget cuts, the services are going to be pushed to their utmost, and quite likely beyond, to sustain military operations. If even more materiel is required, it can come from only one of the Global Combatant Commands: Pacific Command, which has by far the most ships, planes and service personnel. It is entirely likely that long-term deployments of Pacific-based units to the Middle East could be needed to ensure that Syria's war does not spill over.

A nuclear-capable Iran would pose another level of threat that would demand a credible U.S. military presence in both friendly Middle Eastern countries and in Europe, from where much of any U.S. military response would be launched. The result is the same for Pacific Command: the likelihood of being stripped of some number of assets for the unforeseeable future.

Second, Mr. Obama is fond of saying that his pivot to Asia is not about containing China; he wants to use it, so he says, to help create better relations with Beijing. Well, the Chinese leadership has been unhappy about the rebalance from the beginning, seeing it precisely as a way to encircle China with new U.S. partnerships. The fact that Mr. Obama is now at odds with China over Syria gives the impression that the Chinese were right all along—China is increasingly at odds with America's strategic goals.

Now, by taking action in Syria, Mr. Obama will face Chinese opprobrium, and almost certainly increased resistance to any U.S. policies in Asia that seek to dial down tensions over maritime territorial claims, pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program, and the like. Beijing will be happy to get U.S. technology to help clean up its polluted skies, but Mr. Obama should give up any notions of real progress on helping Asians increase cooperation and a sense of security.

This leaves not only American policy in Asia in doubt, but also increases the worry of Washington's allies and partners. They fear any rise in tensions between America and China, but equally do not want to be left alone to face China's growing power and sense of entitlement. Syria shows that Mr. Obama is stretched in keeping both promises and commitments around the globe. Far from making Asia more stable, the pivot may well wind up alienating both friends and competitors alike.

Mr. Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a columnist for wsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin.

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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on wsj.com. His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

    Follow Michael Auslin on Twitter.

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