By Harlan Ullman
When Britain and France launched pre-emptive military strikes last year that would eventually depose Libyan leader Muramar Qaddafi and his regime, one of President Barack Obama’s most senior advisors described U.S. involvement as “leading from behind,” a most unfortunate descriptor that haunted the administration much as George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” label early in the 2003 Iraq war repeatedly hounded him. Then, this January, in announcing a new defense strategy, the White House made another blunder. This strategy was proclaimed as “a strategic pivot to Asia.”
Almost immediately, the administration reversed gears. No one easily accepts responsibility for a major gaffe and “rebalancing” became the palliative excuse. Yet, the damage was done. And the real reason for the pivot, namely an “emerging” China—another offensive reference— was as unmentioned by the White House much as a bizarre relative is hidden in the attic so as not to frighten the kiddies.
Allies and friends in Europe read this pivot as a major erosion in long-standing U.S. European priorities. But given large European defense reductions, allies were too polite to complain even as the U.S. cut two brigade combat teams permanently based on the continent. Other seemingly insignificant changes such as terminating the National Defense University’s Center for Transatlantic Security Studies likewise reinforced this perception of downgrading Europe. China clearly was not pleased. And friends and allies in Asia were uncertain as to what this pivot meant since the U.S. has been a Pacific power for well over a century.
The underlying argument for this pivot was no secret. Economic power is rapidly shifting to Asia. China is strengthening its military (and some in Washington as well as the Romney camp view Beijing as the emerging military threat). Further, long standing regional rivalries over territorial claims, resources and North Korea’s hostility and unpredictability are potential flash points.
Part of the strategic calculus, although not prominently featured at first, included the Middle East in general and the Persian Gulf in particular. Given Iran’s revolutionary fervor that is unsettling its neighbors; its uncertain nuclear weapons ambitions (despite strict denials) and what Israel may or may not do to eliminate that potential, with its massive oil reserves, this region remains vital to U.S., Western and Asian interests. Currently, the U.S. is conducting a massive naval exercise in the Gulf presumably to deter or convince Iran’s leaders that pursuit of nuclear weapons is unacceptable.
A common thread in this flawed strategic thinking links the miscalculations of the Bush 43 administration in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the Obama pivot. While Bush had little alternative after the attacks of September 11th except to strike Osama bin Laden and his Afghan sanctuary, the “what next?” question was never asked or addressed. This initial failure was dwarfed by the abdication of strategic thinking in planning for the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom once the Iraqi military was destroyed. Irrespective of believing (or wishing) that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, the “what next question” remained totally ignored and Iraq descended into chaos that still persists today.
This latest strategic pivot follows this fundamental lapse in America’s strategic ability to think beyond first order issues and ask what next, including Obama’s original “AfPak” study. Worse, as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq forced the Pentagon to become the default setting and surrogate for the missing diplomatic, economic, political and social tools necessary for achieving at least a partially successful outcome, the same, predictable phenomenon could occur in the Pacific. One agonizing dilemma of this strategic lacunae is how not to provoke China to respond in ways that will inflame and exacerbate the many tensions already present in Asia. Thus far, no explanation to this quandary has been offered.
Is this geostrategic miscalculation remedial? Should Mitt Romney win the election, his current and far from clear policies suggest that China will be treated harshly. If he is true to his word, on the ex-governor’s first day in office he will brand China as a “currency manipulator.” Of course, Bill Clinton campaigned against “the butchers of Beijing.” And then he conveniently ignored that charge after winning in 1992.
If President Obama is re-elected, will his administration have a learning curve? George W. Bush did although the cost of that education was unaffordable and came far too late. The jury is out. However, the administration has no real strategic thinkers in the White House and the president’s closest advisors come from domestic political backgrounds and trusted friendships. And with a large turnover in his national security team assured, no one knows who the new appointees will be.
But make no mistake. This is a strategic pivot to nowhere. Unless it is redirected, do not be surprised by the consequences. And few will be good.
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at Washington DC’s Atlantic Council.