Nothing quite says the start of a new war than Marines hitting the beach, so the news this week that the first of 2,500 Marines hit the beach in northwest Australia put some substance to the Obama administration’s declaration of a “pivot” to Asia.
The shift – refocusing U.S. foreign and military policy away from its fixation on the Middle East – is partly a public relations ploy, partly “strategic,” but there is also a cynical element: The national security establishment and big spenders yearn for an old school problem to tackle, one where classic geopolitics rule and Red is Red. The only problem – the only problem? – is that declaring China the next enemy more likely makes it so. And that’s idiotic.
The good news here is that after declaring its eternal commitment to Afghanistan and the terror war, the pivot can and should be read as the true desire on the part of the establishment to extricate the United States from the Middle East quagmire. I’m not saying that the U.S. will give up on fighting terrorism or abandon Israel; the United States has declared everything from al Qaeda to the Arctic strategic and seems to be unable to have it any other way. But the last big declaration of national military strategy — that everything was being dropped to focus singularly on counter-insurgency (COIN) and irregular warfare – seems to be in the process of being supplanted. Not only didn’t COIN sit well with many traditionalists, but it also didn’t provide enough script to engage the entire cast. After all, how many ships and bombers are needed to muck about in the jungle?
So, the United States and Australia are beefing up their cooperation under the guise of joint exercises, and there’s even talk of stationing ships or submarines down under. The Australian government assures its public that the U.S. won’t have permanent bases in the country, as if somehow that’s the issue.
Meanwhile, Guam is being stuffed with more air, naval, and Marine forces; and Japan is fully wired into the anti-North Korea-cum-China missile defense shield. Military cooperation with Indonesia is on the rise; the Singapore Defense Minister is in Washington this week; a submarine and tender are publicly in port in Malaysia. Other Asian nations are being enlisted in the nascent efforts to “contain” China.
There’s a scene is George Bush the elder’s book with Brent Scowcroft – A World Transformed – where the two end their chapter on Desert Storm, the first war with Iraq under Saddam Hussein in 1990-1991: after only four days of ground combat, the Republican Guards have been routed, a ceasefire has been agreed to at Safwan, the coalition has triumphed. The next chapter gets back to the situation in a crumbling Soviet Union, and it is abundantly clear that the two couldn’t wait to get off their Middle East detour and get back to the men’s work that they were so familiar with.
“The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay,” President Obama declared last November when he visited Australia. It is a declaration that has a feel of impatience for a president who came to office promising to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan and so many other things that he hasn’t been able to maneuver.
Here to stay is so much more homey and stable, and in the pivot to Asia – to China – Obama can collect together many happy allies: In Washington, the Congress, think tanks, lobbyists, and opinion-shapers are all game. The new cyber warriors can hardly wait to get to their keyboards. In the U.S. military, there is a strong Pacific legacy and institutional bloc, even after 10 plus years of war they are far more powerful than the junior varsity at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the rather unglamorous command headquarters stuck in Florida and under lock-down in Qatar. Success at pivoting takes the heat off of the white hot poker of Iran. It even disses those arrogant collective annoying do-gooders in Europe, making it clear that America is a global power while they are, as Rumsfeld once said, just old. And in the public mind, though I can’t prove it, China – even if it might be confusing why we would pick a fight or militarize our relationship with them – represents a more dignified and clear-cut peer competitor. The Middle East in contrast is so messy and unresolved.
One can write, almost without thinking twice, the words that the Asian-Pacific region offers greater threats and opportunities to American security (and economic) interests than do Iraq or Afghanistan. Serious thinkers and armchair strategists are writing variations of this more and more frequently. China’s nukes, China’s economy, China’s spreading influence beyond Asia; it’s all there the ingredients for a good-ole Cold War.