The “pivot to Asia,” also known as the “rebalance,” is the most important geopolitical shift in U.S. strategy since the declaration of the “long war” (against terrorism) after September 11, 2001. Yet try as it might, the U.S. seems permanently bogged down in the Middle East. As Fred Kaplan has noted, the campaign against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) has “already lost its way.” After just a month, the U.S. already seems adrift; it is becoming painfully clear that America is once again fighting a war in the Middle East with no clear goal, strategy, or exit pathway. There is growing talk of a ground intervention that would suck the U.S. much more deeply into Iraqi, Syrian, and regional affairs. If this all seems familiar, it should. This has been the U.S. way of war in the region for more than two decades.
Why is this relevant to the pivot? Because it illustrates a major U.S. foreign policy trend I think will permanently hobble America’s ability to rebalance toward Asia: the post-9/11 U.S. seems simply incapable of abstaining from Middle East conflicts. The U.S. foreign policy establish is deeply committed to the Middle East (for questionable reasons at best) and to the regular use of force there. As Martin Indyk put it in an article baldly titled “The Re-Pivot” (just a year after the “rebalance” was announced): “Forget Asia. It’s time for Obama to put his focus back on the Middle East… Thank goodness President Barack Obama overcame his pivot penchant to Asia.” Even wars as obviously paranoia-driven, thrown-together, and only dimly related to U.S. security as this anti-ISIS struggle, seem all but unavoidable. William Kristol captured this blasé, “of course we’ll be fighting in the Middle East indefinitely” attitude perfectly when he famously said “we should just bomb ISIS for a while and see what happens.”
Try as he did to avoid it, Obama has been sucked into Syria, practically the definition of a quagmire. And Obama is arguably the most “restrained” U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower. Almost all of his likely successors – both Democrat and Republican – are far more hawkish and interventionist than he. A President Clinton, Christie, Bush, and so on are far more likely to use greater force in Syria and Iraq, or against Iran, and otherwise deepen American regional involvement. One could easily imagine the U.S. getting sucked into similar conflicts in the Middle East were similar state collapses to occur in places like Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, or even Saudi Arabia or Egypt (should Islamist insurgencies there materialize). In short, the U.S. is constantly tempted to intervene in the Middle East, usually gives in to that temptation, and, in intervening so frequently, makes it that much harder to get out, much less pivot to another region.
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