Defense & National Security

America accepts Mideast risk for Asia-Pacific rebalance

America accepts Mideast risk for Asia-Pacific rebalance
President Obama "douses eleven flames" as he tours the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar.

The latest Israeli-Hamas fighting is a reminder that American regional interests coincide with the Jewish state’s larger regional concerns and they should remain that way especially now that the U.S. accepts more risk in the Mideast in order to rebalance the Asia-Pacific.

Hamas, a U.S. State Department designated terrorist organization, provoked the current violence by launching Qassam rockets into Israeli territory, and Israeli aircraft responded with raids on Gaza.  This is the latest in the ongoing conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis since before Israel became a state in 1948.

A White House spokesman said President Barack Obama supports Israel’s “right to defend itself” against attack and deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agree that “de-escalation is preferred,” provided Hamas stops launching rockets into Israel.

This crisis will soon pass but other Mideast crises will inevitably grab headlines, threatening Israel and/or our regional interests.  Those crises will typically fall into one of these categories: terrorism, nuclear proliferation, Islamic extremism, or threats to free markets.  But America’s ability to address such future Mideast crises is changing, which means regional and West European allies must accept more responsibility.

President Obama changed America’s future level of Mideast involvement earlier this year when he announced plans to rebalance American efforts to the Asia-Pacific, something that should have been done following the Cold War, but were delayed with a series of Mideast crises such as Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and al Qaeda’s 2001 attack on America.

“Our relationships with Asian allies and key partners are critical to the future stability and growth of the region,” according to Obama’s 2012 defense strategy.  The Asia-Pacific region incorporates 52 percent of the Earth’s surface areas and 40 percent of the world’s population and most importantly, it includes the world’s second leading economy and a rising super power, the People’s Republic of China.   The Asia-Pacific, according to Obama, warrants significant attention and more resources.

That is why President Obama made his first postelection trip this past weekend to three South Asian countries – Thailand, Burma (or, Myanmar) and Cambodia.  “We see this (rebalance) as an opportunity to dramatically increase U.S. exports, to increase U.S. leadership in the fastest growing part of the world, and in advancing our values as well as our interests, ” Obama adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters.

Obama’s Asia-Pacific rebalance means a shifting of resources and, out of fiscal necessity, accepting more risk elsewhere, particularly in the volatile Mideast.  We accept more risk in the Mideast by relying on likeminded allies such as Israel to pick-up more responsibility for local crises.

We can accept that risk because those likeminded allies share our values and thus are likely to support our general interests.  They tend to be democratic republics with free market economies founded on Judeo-Christian ethics.

Those underlying shared values are in stark contrast to values evidenced across most of the Mideast, which fuel the inevitable crises.  That region is brimming with antagonistic Islamic and/or totalitarian regimes that are harsh to non-Muslims, tend to tolerate or support terror groups and are fueled by mostly poor, agrarian-based economies supplemented by oil revenues and Western aid.

America’s rebalancing will not be easy but we must purposefully say “no” to most future Mideast crises and pass responsibility to likeminded allies to fill the gap or to selectively ignore them.

Infrequently America will intervene but then only after satisfying itself with the answers to three simple questions.   Specifically, does this crisis potentially create significant economic problems for America?  Does this crisis create an unacceptable security threat for America?  Finally, can our allies appropriately address the crisis without American leadership?

Answering these questions for three current Mideast crises will help the reader appreciate the proposed policy approach.  Understand that intervention decisions are seldom this simple, but America had better start saying “no” or we will continue to be overextended and ignore more pressing interests.

First, Syria is in a civil war that so far has claimed 40,000 lives, could spread to other countries, and worse might end up putting chemical arms in terrorist hands.   There is no compelling reason for America to intervene in Syria.

Answers to the policy questions indicate the Syrian civil war presents no economic problem for America.  It does not create “an unacceptable security threat” unless chemical arms fall into transnational terrorist hands that then threaten America.  There are a variety of regional and international organizations ready to provide leadership, such as the Arab League.  Further, we are intervening diplomatically, but doing so with American troops could lead to a multi-year stabilization fight similar to Kosovo thus hurting our ability to rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.

Second, Iran has a nuclear program that the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency says may include the development of a weapon.  That country’s top leaders threaten to “wipe Israel off the map” and Iran responded to international economic sanctions meant to compel its cooperation by threatening to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the world’s seaborne petroleum must pass.   There is compelling reason for America to intervene in the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Answers to the policy questions indicate Iran potentially creates an unacceptable economic problem for America, that is, global oil supplies could be disrupted.   A nuclear armed Iran could also create a security threat for America and spark a regional arms race.  Therefore, the U.S. should consider intervention.

Further, allied leadership alone is unlikely to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  Therefore, the U.S. should consider taking a leadership role, as it has, and be prepared to intervene economically and diplomatically, as it has, or militarily as it threatens.  The only question is the scope of the threatened intervention which could seriously slow our Asia-Pacific rebalance.

Finally, America joined a North Atlantic Treaty Organization coalition that helped Libyan rebels remove their former dictator.  Today, that nation struggles to stabilize itself as former regime loyalists, criminal militia groups, and Islamic extremists run amuck. There is no compelling reason for America to intervene in Libya.

Answers to the policy questions indicate the stabilization of Libya does not create an economic problem for America nor at this point does it create a security threat aside from the al Qaeda-associated group that attacked our Benghazi consulate on Sept. 11, 2012.  Certainly other Western partners with historic stakes in Libya, such as the British and French, can provide leadership to help the Libyans transition.

Intervening in Mideast crises doesn’t necessarily always require troops.  We can lend our diplomatic attention which is relatively inexpensive and our economic leverage can be especially persuasive — ask the Iranians.  However, we must be especially cautious when we invest our dwindling, very expensive military resources.

President Obama’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific is necessary economically, politically and in terms of American security.   Meanwhile, future Mideast crises should be addressed by others or let them run their course.

America can ill afford to police every future Mideast crises much less address challenges in other regions given our limited resources.  We must accept risk and prioritize our interventions by asking tough questions that must be answered by “no” more often than “yes” while ensuring strong and unwavering support to Israel.

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