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One of the core strategic beliefs of the Obama administration has been that their Bush predecessors overreacted to the attacks of 9/11 and became obsessively focused on the greater Middle East at the expense of East Asia or the “Asia-Pacific,” where the rise of China and India presages a new constellation of global great powers. This, perhaps more than Russia policy, has been Obama’s idea of a strategic “reset” for the future.
Now, with the decisions to retreat in full from Iraq and to begin to retreat in Afghanistan, the killings of Osama bin Laden, and the buck about passed on the “Arab Spring” – and let’s not talk about those Iranians – the administration is talking up this supposed shift in American strategy. The campaign will climax, no doubt, with President Obama’s trip to Australia in November.
First to bat was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In a lengthy piece in Foreign Policy magazine, Clinton trumpeted “America’s Pacific Century.” The piece is a sensible attempt to sustain the tradition of American leadership in the region, but suffers from emphasizing processes (all the usual suspects appear: “Smart power,” “engagement,” and so on) over purposes (like defining a desirable balance of power).
“There’s very little practical difference between “reset” and retreat.” — Thomas Donnelly
Most of all, Clinton plays Polonius on China. Or perhaps more accurately, she’s been infected with the president’s delight in building and burning down rhetorical straw men. Thus: “Some in our country see China’s progress as a threat to the United States; some in China worry that America seeks to constrain China’s growth.” Predictably: “We reject both those views.” Neither a borrower nor a lender be.
Much of the rest of the article is a recitation of what’s up with all the various “dialogues” and “partnerships” that represent what passes for modern statecraft. Secretary Clinton and her lieutenants have been busy. The region is rife with all sorts of organizations, formal and less formal – though, God forbid, no NATO-like alliance! – always preparing for the upcoming meeting.
No doubt those in Asia who have come to rely upon and prosper from the American-imposed international order are pleased to be mentioned in dispatches. But they’ve heard this before, both from this administration and from the Bush administration prior to 9/11. Yet it’s undeniably the case that happy talk of renewed commitment is no substitute for action. Asian geopolitical “markets” have already anticipated China’s rise, well beyond the value of Beijing’s actual power.
The problem is that – as is plain to see – the Obama administration is not planning what Clinton describes as a strategic “pivot” from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific. It’s just retreating from the Middle East and reducing the U.S. military.
This puts the administration’s number two hitter, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in the position of a good-field, no-hit shortstop trying just to move the runner over; Eddie Brinkman is filling the line-up spot that used to be Frank Howard’s. (You Senators fans will get the reference.) Panetta is on his first trip to East Asia as Pentagon chief, and finds himself having to insist that the United States can both substantially reduce defense budgets and “strengthen our presence in the Pacific.”
It sounds, from press reports, however, that the Asians are not buying this logic. “There’s no question that those concerns [about American military power in the region] have been expressed,” Panetta told a press gaggle at the meeting of the defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. “I’ve made it clear that even with the budget constraints we are facing in the United States,” there is “no question that in discussions within the Pentagon, and discussions in the White House, that the Pacific will be a priority for the United States of America.”
Even the New York Times was forced to admit that “Mr. Panetta offered no specifics” beyond that the United States would maintain its “force projection” in the region, which the paper then equated with the small permanent garrisons in South Korea and Japan. It may be that Panetta’s heart is in the right place – he increasingly expresses his concern about China’s military build-up – but it’s not reflected in administration policies; the supposed $350 billion in Pentagon cuts under the Budget Control Act has blossomed, thanks entirely to White House decisions, into a $489 billion reduction.
Thus, by the time President Obama steps to the plate in November, one swing of the bat won’t save the game. There’s very little practical difference between “reset” and retreat. Indeed, “pivot” sounds like George McClellan’s “change of base” rationale for withdrawal from Richmond in 1862.
But just as the road to Richmond went through Vicksburg and Atlanta, so the path to an American “Pacific century” may wind indirectly through places like the greater Middle East, Africa, and even Latin America. Beyond the failure to back up a shift in policy focus with sufficient military resources, Obama’s reset misses the essential quality of American strategy making: it’s a global whole, not an aggregation of regional interests. The wise men of the Obama administration most resemble a kids’ soccer team, all following the bouncing ball without regard to overall positioning.
By contrast, it’s the Chinese who appear to be thinking a few moves ahead, looking not only to recover Taiwan or dominate the “first island chain” or engineering a Chinese “Pacific century” but to become a great power in a globalized world. No one would argue that the United States does not need to buttress its position and military presence in the Asia-Pacific. But even if it proves possible to do so within the constraints of a reduced defense establishment – and the cuts in prospect will be most ruinous to the few weapons modernization programs not yet terminated by the Obama administration – it is unlikely to produce a net grand strategic gain.
Thomas Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies at AEI
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