Saturday, October 06, 2012

No Retreat. Just a Pivot

Should we have announced a pivot to Asia when increasingly it seems only to be an excuse for the Obama administration to pivot away from CENTCOM?

Our grandly announced pivot to Asia is alarming China and reassuring friends there.

But we already have a lot of military power in the Asia-Pacific region. In fact, the amount of military power redeploying to the Pacific over the next decade or so is really quite small.

The pivot is mostly hype, and simply reflects a trend going on since the end of the Cold War and our NATO-first focus.

Not that the effect of reassuring our friends in Asia isn't worthwhile. That encourages them to defend themselves and align with us--creating more power to resist China apart from what we do. But even with the hype of our pivot announcement, many wonder if we can carry out that welcome pivot given our financial problems.

This worry is based on the false premise that we are rushing forces to the Pacific and that we might not be able to finish this plan. We have plenty out there, as our deputy secretary of defense states:

In the first pages of this year’s edition of Strategic Asia, which I did have the chance to peruse, you ask whether the United States has the ability to meet the objectives we’ve set for ourselves in the rebalance. It is fair question, given our fiscal realities. And today I want to tell you how it is that we do have the capacity to resource the rebalance and meet our commitments.

With our allies and partners, I think you’ll see, we are, in fact, across the Asia-Pacific region able to invest to sustain peace and prosperity. In other words, we are not just talking the talk, we are walking the walk. And I’d ask if you don’t believe us, to just watch our steps over coming months and years, and you’ll see us implement the rebalance.

And today I want to tell you a bit about those steps, at least the steps we in the Pentagon are taking as part of what is a broader government-wide rebalancing.

The overall strategic context in which the rebalance takes place is important. And let me start with that. We in the United States find ourselves in national defense at a moment of great transition.

After 11 years of conflict since September 11th, 2001, one war has ended, in Iraq. The other, in Afghanistan, has for sure not ended, but is transitioning to Afghan lead, and thanks to the superb effort of U.S., coalition, and Afghan forces, will wind down in coming years.

And while we've been focused on fighting insurgency in two places and terrorism world-wide, the world has not stood still. Our friends and enemies have not stood still. And technology has not stood still.

And so this for us is a time to look up, look around, and look forward at what the world will need from us next – to the security challenges that will define our future after Iraq and Afghanistan.

That is the great transition upon which we are embarked in defense. And we would need to make this strategic transition no matter what. But we are also subject to a second great source of change. And that is the need to keep the United States’s fiscal house in order, as outlined in the Budget Control Act, which Congress passed last year, and which required our Department to remove $487 billion dollars from our budget plans over this next ten years.

There's a lot in that. One, we have the resources to continue to shift forces to the Pacific. This is true. As I said, the pivot is really about a small slice of our power moving to the western Pacific. We could do that even with a shrinking military.

Since the pivot is mostly for propaganda effect (speaking loudly and carrying a slightly bigger stick), the worry that we can't continue it is of course a hit in the propaganda sense. But the reality is that our fleet has been rebalancing to the Pacific for about twenty years.

Two, as a nation we have focused on counter-insurgency because of Afghanistan and Iraq, and need to think about high-intensity land, sea, and air warfare seriously once more. The toughest prospects for all of those fights are in Asia, so it makes sense that we think more about Asia and how to confront military problems there.

But the most important part of the quoted section is the reason given for pivoting to Asia--that the wars in CENTCOM are coming to an end.

This is no reason for our loud pivot. As I said, the pivot has been going on for many years in reaction to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of China.

So for our president, who simply doesn't want to fight Islamist radicalism in the Middle East--or admit there is a war on terror--pivoting to Asia--which is already taking place--was really about pivoting away from the Middle East. It is repackaging an unwillingness to fight the war we are currently in as a strategy of preparing for the next war (or preventing it with strength).

But it is way too early to pivot away from the Middle East.

The September 11 embassy attacks, Iranian nuclear ambitions, revolution in Syria, chaos in Yemen and Somalia, the uncertain future of Iraq, Egyptian instability, Gaza and Hezbollah, and Iranian threats to oil exports all remind us that the need to remain active in the Middle East is crucial. Killing Osama bin Laden--while a very good thing--didn't end the long war on terror.

We could have continued to confront our enemies in the Middle East while rebalancing our forces for conventional combat and continuing a quiet shift to the Pacific and quietly reassure our allies about our moves to bolster their capabilities.

That policy of continuity also would have had the nuance of not focusing on China and making them feel like they are in the cross hairs of our decisions. We say the pivot isn't about China, but China can be forgiven for not believing that it isn't given the high profile we've given it.

But the funny thing is, I don't think the administration is misleading when they say that for them it really isn't about China. I agree. For the Obama administration the pivot is all about having an excuse to walk away from the Middle East dressed up as grand strategy.

Of course, this has long been a staple of our left wing's foreign policy.

Is that the smart part of our new diplomacy or the nuanced part?