Well before incurring 2013’s embarrassments vis a vis Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran, Obama &co. had lost confidence in their ability to deal with the problems coming America’s way from the Middle East. Long since having blurred the lines between “politics as a game of perception and policy as the pursuit of national objectives” (Bret Stephens), and trying to cut their PR losses at home, the Obamians decided to “pivot” US policy away from the Middle East to more tractable and important regions – principally the Western Pacific.
Containing as it does a couple of billion highly productive people, the Pacific Rim is surely of far greater importance than the Middle East, mired as that is in rent-seeking economics and self-destructive social practices. Other regions, chiefly Latin America, are vital to America for other reasons. Yet “pivoting” US policy to Asia or the Americas makes no sense because the problems there are no more tractable than the ones in the Middle East. They are so in no small part because the character of US foreign policy and the means that it brings to any and all problems it confronts are the very ones that brought failure and discredit in the Middle East.
No more than individuals can nations run from failure. Doing the same things elsewhere makes the same results likely. Previously earned reputation guarantees them. That is why a successful “pivot” away from the Middle East would require understanding the reasons for failure there, and the mending of one’s ways.
US foreign policy’s failure in the Middle East has been a classic case of insolvency – commitments in excess of the means devoted to fulfilling them. There never was enough US power to cajole Egypt into any of the images that US officials imagined, or Syria for that matter, nor to prevent Iran from going nuclear, never mind to “solve” the Muslim world’s resolve to destroy Israel.
A “pivot” to the Pacific Rim would have to be serious about the problems to be confronted there, what US interests require, and what force it would take to secure them.
From Sakhalin to the Straits of Malacca and beyond to India and Australia, very different peoples are afraid of China and are asking America for help. But team Obama defined its “pivot” simply as “more frequent personal trips to the region by ranking US officials, more robust relationships with friends and allies, more engagement in Asian regional organizations, and more attention to regional issues.” It also set up an Army headquarters in Australia, and moved a few ships to Pacific home ports.
But our Army and navy continue to shrink, our capacity to defend against any but token ballistic missile threats is non-existent, and urgent calls from Japan, the Philippines, never mind Taiwan, for support against increasing Chinese pressure continue to be answered by wishful statements about how, surely, China knows that it must behave responsibly.
This only reminds the locals of what America has done in the part of the world where it has focused for the past generation, namely making sonorous declarations, dribbling forces in, but ending up spending trillions of dollars, losing thousands of dead and crippled, then rushing for the exits with tail between legs. Oh yes. That had happened in Vietnam as well.
China’s growing shadow is not the only reason why its neighbors well-nigh crave US military power and commitment. Racial prejudices and historical memories lead many to fear and often loathe one another. Japanese and Koreans, Filipinos and Indonesians Vietnamese and Khmers would much prefer faraway America as hegemon than any local power.
What would it take for America to be taken seriously by the billions of Asians who would like nothing better than to do so? First, US officials would have to be clear in their own minds, and with the American people, about just what limits they are willing to place on China’s (and everyone else’s) reach, as well as about the means by which we mean to enforce those limits.
Why even consider such serious commitments? Because in their absence the locals’ own means of dealing with Chinese pressure will be more disconcerting to America than anything that can come from the Middle East.
For example, although the Japanese people would like nothing better than to continue living under American protection, China’s looming power and North Korea’s additional capacity to hit the islands with nuclear weapons leads more and more Japanese to opt for self protection. That means a world class nuclear arsenal and missile defense. Notably, Japan’s younger generation seems fascinated with their Samurai past.
To preclude having to deal with the wars that “Japan as a normal nation” might bring to the Pacific, America would have to defend Japan with serious defenses against all kinds of missiles, including Chinese ones. By technical necessity, such devices would defend America as well against Russian missiles too. Doing that is a step our bipartisan ruling class has refused to take for a half-century. Also, we would have to come to terms with the fact that a US Navy of some 280 ships is only about half the size of what is needed to keep Japan from going nuclear.
But American missile defense and a big navy would not be enough to reassure peoples along the southern Pacific Rim. If growing Chinese power can bend Taiwan to its will, others will feel compelled to bend as well. It is by no means clear that Taiwan can be defended simply from the sea.
China’s maritime strategy is all about controlling the sea from the shore. Taiwan lies well within the range in which this strategy has all the advantages. Current US strategy relies on aircraft carriers, and on land-based aircraft from Guam. The first are sinkable – and Chinese weapons are optimized to sink them – while the second are few and operating at extreme ranges. Therefore any serious attempt to set limits to China’s expansion in the southern Pacific –the first instance of which would be Taiwan – would have to be based on Taiwan.
That, like the rest, would require exertions that the US government is likely to regard as excessive and provocative. But such is the price of seriousness. The opposite carries a price as well.
All of the above is to point out of what a serious “pivot” would have to consist. That is because the Obamians’ version thereof resembles the last several administrations’ policies in the Middle East: insolvent combinations of grandiose objectives inadequately defined and supported, foredoomed to disaster.