U.S. is bogged down in the Middle East—and China knows it

By Matt Purple

Many years ago, the Obama administration had a good foreign policy idea. Remove your jaw from the floorboards and stay with me on this one.

Barack Obama was elected during a period of tense ceasefire in the Middle East. The violence in Iraq had dwindled, and new sanctions on Iran quickly rendered Tehran economically impotent. After years of immersion in Mesopotamia, it seemed we could finally move on, and so the Obama administration redirected its efforts towards East Asia.

Give the president credit: he got that much right. The recession had proven that economic power was just as important, if not more so, than military strength, and two of the world’s three largest economies lay in East Asia. Also nearby was Australia, a staunch ally that weathered the downturn better than most first-world nations. Meanwhile, China needed to be engaged, Japan needed to be bolstered, and North Korea needed to be contained. Myanmar also needed guidance as it held elections and transitioned away from its governing junta.

Early Obama gestures towards Asia seemed astute. Having inherited America’s strongest relationship with China since before the Tiananmen Square massacre, Obama set about trying to expand our channels of cooperation. Washington also joined negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the White House saw as a way to unleash commerce and, later, as a restraint on China, which wasn’t party to the talks.

This was sound policy, but it also rested on a mirage: that Obama’s overtures towards the Middle East and Asia would allow us to decamp from the former and swoop into the latter. Today, neither of those propositions has borne out: the Middle East is ablaze, East Asia is a far more dangerous neighborhood than before, and we’ve spent another eight years staring glassily into the Mesopotamian sand.

How did this happen to the world’s uncontested superpower?

Part of it has to do with events beyond the White House’s control. The Arab Spring can’t be blamed on Obama (though our daft abandonment of allies like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak certainly can), and, contra the hawks, ISIS’s rampage isn’t his fault either. Obama also isn’t culpable for our invasion of Iraq, which sparked the current Sunni-Shia cold war. All of this created instability, which has kept our boots cemented to Middle Eastern ground.

But Obama’s naiveté and missteps fueled this fire, too. When he should have been avoiding vacuums that might have been filled by jihadists, the president cheered and encouraged the Arab Spring. When he should have been worrying about al Qaeda in Northern Africa, he invaded Libya and helped depose Moammar Gaddafi, leading to a proliferation of terrorism there. Where he should have seen extremists in the Syrian rebels, he instead saw democrats, and wasted more than two years arming an al Qaeda-infested insurgency. He also assumed what was left of the war on terrorism could continue via drone, never accounting for the blowback that’s left extremists in Yemen and Afghanistan even more fortified than before.

It’s a shame. Rather than going another six rounds in Iraq, the United States should have really and truly pivoted to Asia, bolstering its relationships with Asian Pacific nations like Vietnam and South Korea, and banding them together to form a front against Chinese and North Korean aggression. That doesn’t mean doing something stupid, like provoking Beijing or starting a trade war, and it doesn’t mean a return to nation building. But it does mean strengthening our allies to check Beijing. Instead, the Middle Eastern millstone weighs around our necks and Chinese ambitions seem almost peripheral.

We have few serious interests in the Middle East, especially now that fracking has made us a petro-power. We don’t need to abandon it to its fate, but we also can’t ignore the problems mounting in East Asia, where China is building militarized islands in waters crucial for international trade, and North Korea, Beijing’s yapping little dog, has a longer leash than ever.

Encouragingly, some Asian nations are stepping up to balance the Chinese threat. Japan last year curtailed Article 9 of its post-World War II constitution, which will allow it to expand its historically pacifist military, and the Philippines, stung by Chinese encroachments into their waters, took Beijing to international court (and won!). Unfortunately, those are pebbles in the pond and they’ve only heightened Chinese aggression. Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s failure to sell the TPP to the public could scuttle an important economic counterbalance to Chinese power.

It is clear that the future of American foreign policy will be decided in Asia, not necessarily in the Middle East. But thanks to 15 years of foolish interventions and besotted idealism, that pivot is proving difficult. The next president should spin us on our heel.

Matt Purple is a fellow at Defense Priorities. 

This piece was originally published by Business Insider on September 6, 2016. Read more HERE