“…We will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.”–
Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense
The strategic guidance for the Department of Defense released in January 2012 clearly emphasizes pivoting to focus on the Asia-Pacific realm. While it notes that the Middle East is still an area of concern, the guidance largely adheres to the Obama administration efforts to shift diplomatic, economic and military strategic focus to the Far East, ending a decade of predominant focus on the Middle East.
But can the United States truly afford to refocus to the Asia-Pacific realm amidst the chaos of the Middle East? Recent events highlight a deeply unsettling trend. Iran is adamant that it will pursue nuclear technology; Israel is just as adamant that it will not permit this to happen. Gulf States are warily following the Iranian progress and ramping up their own weapons acquisitions in the event that Iran acquires nuclear weapons technology.
The United States is leading a coalition of more than thirty nations in an International Mine Countermeasures exercise in the Persian Gulf right now, seeking to sharpen skills as fears of Iranian attempts to mine the Strait of Hormuz reach new highs. Two carriers have been sent to the region to provide “95,000 tons of diplomacy” and act as a reminder of the potent strike potential the US can bring to bear.
Following the riots that led to the recent death of the US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, the Commander in Chief sent Marine anti-terrorist units and two Arleigh Burke class destroyers to patrol off the coast of Libya. Rioting spread like wildfire throughout North Africa and the Middle East- stretching to countries as widespread as Tunisia, Sudan and even staunch ally Saudi Arabia. Intense diplomatic and military efforts took place to quell violence and halt further action against America.
Ironically, the most violent riots were in countries that received the strongest US support during the last year’s Arab Spring revolts. Countries that were lifted from the yoke of dictatorship- under brutal regimes such as that of Muammar Qaddafi- and given billions of dollars in economic, military and diplomatic assistance have now violently turned on the US. Far from the peaceful, democratic nations we had hoped would emerge, the region is at the brink of turmoil and chaos. US interests may be in a worse state now than under the authoritarian regimes we helped to overthrow.
Even Afghanistan is posing serious challenges just as the ISAF prepares to draw down forces. Taliban focus on disrupting the handover process has been all too successful, generating mistrust as infiltrated Afghan national forces are accused of killing dozens of their international trainers. It remains questionable whether or not the Afghans will be able to emerge with a stable government or slip into chaos following America’s withdrawal.
Regardless of how one views democracy building, we must accept the governments that have formed in the region. We must further understand what this means for US interests aboard- and how it changes our strategic outlook. One of the most basic questions to ask when determining a national security strategy is whether or not the resources exist- or will exist- to enact such a plan. This poses a challenge to a military facing an era of fiscal austerity, stretched by multiple demands on limited resources.
While the Obama administration announced that US strategy would entail a rebalance to Asia, the reality is far more complicated. Though the Asia pivot has garnered immense attention, it is not an entirely new strategy. America never left Asia. Yet it serves to realign focus and resources towards the region on a broad front- economically, diplomatically and militarily. Antiquated focus on the Middle East- including unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be shifted to a more modern outlook.
This pivot reflects the belief that Asia is the future- and rightly so. Asia is home to five of our treaty allies and six of the ten most powerful economies in the world. As globalization dominates international trends, our economic success is tied inexorably to that of our Asian trading partners. Asia has emerged as the top economic region in the world, with increasing trade and global impact. The future is in Asia and our national strategy must reflect that.
Yet we may not be able to rebalance just yet. While Asia is clearly the region of the future, recent events have demonstrated that the US cannot leave the Middle East in its current state of turmoil without serious implications for national security. America is quietly amassing naval forces in the 5th Fleet Area of Responsibility (AOR). The Pentagon announced the rapid redeployment this fall of the John C. Stennis Strike Group after it returned in March from a Middle East deployment. Instead of the planned Western Pacific deployment, the ship will proceed four months early to Central Command.
Despite strategic focus on Asia, the Middle East is simply too tumultuous to leave. With our current fiscal constraints and limited resources, this means that forces heading to Asia will potentially keep on transiting west to arrive on station in the Middle East.
Despite our best efforts to aid democratic movements and stabilize the region, the Middle East is rapidly approaching a crisis point. With the Department of Defense facing tremendous budget cuts, the amount of resources available are limited. American forces simply are not resourced to handle multiple significant crises simultaneously. Assets from Asia must be pulled to help stabilize the Middle East in the short term. This should serve as a poignant reminder that even though the Asia pivot is clearly in our best long term interest, ultimately fiscal limitations and rising regional tensions may prevent truly rebalancing until the Middle East has stabilized.