The Obama administration has announced that the United States will shift its defense focus to the Asia Pacific region from the Middle East, while cutting the scale of armed forces. This is utterly ridiculous. Certainly, the threat of China is growing rapidly. However, its expansionism advances not only eastward but westward as well. China can fill the vacuum of power in the Middle East through Iran and Pakistan, after US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. We must remember that none of Asian economies assume continual high growth without stability in the Middle East. They import oil from there. Also, Chinese influence prevails in Central Asia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Therefore, it is utterly naïve for Asia Pacific people to praise Obama’s pivot to Asia. Moreover, as I argued in a previous post, defense spending cut poses severe constraints to the F-35 joint strike fighter project. The Obama administration’s mess with F-35 can inflict negative impacts on the allies. From these perspectives, I would like to comment global security strategy of the Obama administration critically.
For an over view of this issue, let me mention a forum entitled "Maintaining America's Global Responsibilities in an Age of Austerity" moderated by Robert Kagan at the Foreign Policy Initiative last December. Among leading guest speakers, Senator John McCain talked about key problems of US defense and budget. In the above video, Senator McCain articulates that political leaders must convince American voters to pay for state of the art arsenals like air craft carriers and stealth fighters. On the other hand, McCain points out that lack of competition in defense industry make research and development price costly. Also, he mentioned that military personnel costs be cut to reduce waste spending and keep US forces well armed. Regarding Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, which is the focal issue of East Asian security, McCain denounces it a violation of free navigation. As to the Middle East, the Arab Spring can prevail anywhere in the world, including China, Russia, other repressive regimes, and even the United States itself as witnessed in the Occupiers. McCain asserts that the United States must endorse those political transitions. While the United States faces security challenges around the world, McCain is concerned with the rise of isolationism in the presidential election because voters are preoccupied with domestic economy. Senator McCain makes it clear that it is presidential leadership that can promote understandings of US foreign policy requirements and necessity of global commitment among voters. The problem today is European allies are less involved in global security, and even Britain is cutting defense as shown in the Strategic and Defence and Security Review in 2010. On the other hand, rising and increasingly nationalist states in the rest of the world claim great power rivalries against the West. Finally McCain urges presidential candidates to discuss more on foreign policy, since no other nations can play the role of providing global public goods as America does.
The United States needs to strengthen its presence in Asia, while facing new political challenges in the Middle East. Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told Asia strategy in such global environment in the above video. The problem is whether the United States can sustain military presence in this region, in view of drastic defense cuts. Campbell says that US defense focus needs to shift from current ground operation against terrorists to naval and air force rivalries in the Asia Pacific region. For Asia Pacific nations, strong relations with the United States will be helpful to cope with China whether they confront Chinese threat or pursue good economic ties with Beijing. While stressing interdependence between the United Sates and China, Campbell also mentions that human rights and political liberalization are critical issues of bilateral clash as geopolitical rivalry in the South China Sea is.
Having watched both videos to understand an overview, let me talk about defense budget at first. The Budget Control Act last August and the failure of super committee agreement last November pose critical restraints to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. The United States faces various global challenges including China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Islamic terrorists, and so forth. Also, drastic spending cut will curtail advanced weapons programs like stealth fighters. On the Republican side, Mitt Romney raises critical concerns with Obama’s proposed reduction in military personnel and arsenals (“Defense Secretary Panetta faces tough choices on national security in 2012”; Washington Post; January 3, 2012). In view of such defense debates, President Barack Obama announced new defense strategy at the beginning of this year. The rise of China is its primary focus, as Panetta said the United States was a traditional Pacific power. However, Iran is the most immediate threat currently, in face of nuclear proliferation and tensions around the Strait of Hormuz. Experts talk of nuclear arms reduction in order to streamline the defense and avoid further cut in conventional forces (“Obama unveiling strategy for slimmed-down military”; Boston Globe; January 5, 2012). On the Hill, Obama’s new defense strategy exacerbates partisan split on national security since the Iraq War. A key issue like defense and the budget needs a national consensus. Republicans must demand the White House to modify the strategy at the congress to defend the interest of the Unites States and the allies around the globe (“Obama military strategy: Is it bipartisan enough?”; Christian Science Monitor; January 5, 2012).
The problem is whether the United States can pick and choose its defense focus. Remember that America faces multiple threats around the globe. Among key regions, the most problematic one in the new Obama strategy is the Middle East. The War on Terror has not completed, and Arab nations need more American involvement. To begin with, I would like to mention a comment by Jamie Fly, Executive Director at the Foreign Policy Initiative. President Obama ruined his achievement to kill Osama bin Laden last May, as he announced withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan before successfully nullifying extremists that threaten stability in both countries. Obama is too reckless to retreat from the Middle East when Arab nations are in the midst of political transition and American presence is required in the region (“Did the leader of the free world actually lead?”; Shadow Government; December 30, 2011). Is 2011 a missed opportunity for American leadership in the Middle East? Though security challenges in East Asia cannot be underscored in view of China and North Korea, Buck McKeon, Republican Member of the House of Representatives, comments “It’s baffling that, in this fiscal environment, the President would be talking about a pivot to Asia before our work is done in the Middle East.” Congressman McKeon also points out that there is no guarantee that a smaller armed force can act more flexible and agile to cope with various global crisis from Libya to Japan (“America’s new defense strategy: a Q&A with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon”; AEI Interview; January 5, 2012). In addition, Russia is building up nuclear capabilities. At the end of the last year, President Dmitry Medvedev announced to deploy long awaited Bulava SLBM (“Bulava missile ready to deploy”; RIA Novosti; December 27, 2011). Furthermore, Russia plans 11 ICBM test this year (“Russia Schedules 11 ICBM Tests for 2012”; Global Security Newswire; January 5, 2012). The New START has not reset US-Russian relations. Now, Russia articulates its position to challenge US hegemony while the Obama administration cuts the size of US forces.
The most critical decision Obama has made is withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. Senator John McCain comments that the United States retreated from Iraq unilaterally. McCain criticizes that the Obama administration has rejected to reassure security and political stability in Iraq that US troop presence could have done. He also points out that US withdrawal will provoke further turmoil in Afghanistan. Afghan leaders may be tempted to appease anti-American neighbors and terrorists, if US security umbrella is not guaranteed. Ultimately, this will embolden US enemies in the region (“John McCain on Iraq: Losing the peace”; AEI Interview; December 22, 2011). As to US role in the Middle East, we should not dismiss Iran. In view of the tension over the Strait of Hormuz, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper urged the global community, even including Russia and China, to act resolutely against Iran because it was the greatest threat to the world (“Iran is the ‘world’s most serious threat to international peace’: Stephen Harper”; National Post; January 5, 2012). It is far from sufficient to manage Iranian threat simply through providing bunker buster bombs to the United Arab Emirates. China can fill the vacuum of power after US pull out. More importantly, the economy of Asian allies depends on oil import from the Middle East. Therefore, the pivot to Asia does not guarantee peace and prosperity in the Asia Pacific region.
Let me mention global reaction to the new Obama strategy. While Obama’s troop cut in the Middle East and Europe raises concerns in those regions, Australia welcomes the pivot to Asia. The idea of cost efficient, small, agile, and flexible armed forces is nothing new. As launched by Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, structural reform of US military has been a key policy agenda in the post Cold War era. The problem is, the Obama administration’s down sizing is too rapid (“World reacts to Obama's new military focus on Asia”; Christian Science Monitor; January 6, 2012). As Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates articulated in his farewell speech, the size of armed forces must be maintained for global operational requirements. Obama’s shift to Asia intensifies alert among Chinese experts, and the South China Sea has become the primary focus of Sino-American geopolitical rivalry (“China stays cool as new US defense strategy targets Asia”; Christian Science Monitor; January 6, 2012).
It is nothing wrong to keep more alert against Chinese expansionism. But the Obama administration should keep in mind that it is overall strength of US military power that can deter Chinese ambition rather than relative focus on Asia. Certainly, the allies must build up their own defense power as Obama says. However, current mess with the F-35 fighter project reveals that the Obama administration’s defense policy is utterly incoherent. How can allies make their own effort to arm up by themselves, if new stealth fighters are unavailable? More importantly, it seems that President Obama does not understand the fundamental structure of current world politics and the role of the United States. Robert Kagan, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, points out that policymakers are preoccupied with new trends such as globalization, the rise of Asia, the decline of the West, the end of ideological rivalries, and so forth. However, he says that most of the key global agendas present days are so familiar for many years. The clash between democracy and autocracy will be intensified, and democracy promotion in the Middle East, North Korea, and Myanmar will be a vital issue this year. Long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have led to “demilitarizing” psychology of US foreign policy, but Kagan argues that soft power can work under secure protection of hard power. In the war in Libya, allied forces provided security for civilians. He also comments that none of BRICS plus Turkey can provide global public goods, which America and Europe do (“New Year, old problems”; Washington Post; January 6, 2011). Kagan mentions good points. In current financial crisis in Europe, none of rising economies suggest resolutions but simply worry the loss of their export market. The Obama strategy announced at the beginning of this year is too reactive to supposed changes in global politics, which makes it utterly incoherent as shown in the case of F-35. As Senator McCain comments, waste spending must be reviewed critically, before cutting necessary defense arsenals. Obama’s “pivot to Asia” does not bolster American presence in Asia, but simply lowers US influence in global security. Can Republicans on the Hill modify this strategy? How will Obama’s opponents argue the new defense strategy for the presidential election?