While many conservatives can name the laundry list of Obama administration polices they hated — Obamacare, the economic stimulus, “leading from behind” and so on — there is one policy in the realm of foreign affairs that almost all center-right policy experts and politicians agreed with the then President on: the “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia.
And for good reason. If you accept the argument that the 21st century will indeed be a Pacific century, and perhaps an Indo-Pacific century, Washington needs to ensure that Asia is front and center in its foreign policy thinking, and I would argue an “Asia first” strategy would be the best approach for President Trump. From economics and the jobs that could be created, to a rising China that could upend the status quo, to a North Korea hellbent on building more and more nuclear weapons, Asia begs.
But the siren song of the Middle East – this time in the form of the Syrian civil war— is crying out once again, and this time right as President Xi Jinping was visiting the United States last week. While many, including myself, applaud President Trump’s sense of morality when it comes to protecting innocent civilians in Syria from chemical weapons attacks, such actions could make the situation worse— especially if Russian soldiers were killed accidently. And some prominent experts in the pentagon and state department worry that actions in Syria could move us even further away from making Asia the top foreign policy priority.
“The Middle East Is a Tinder Box”
“Look, no one disputes Syria is important, but we need to keep the focus on Asia,” explained a senior pentagon official speaking in a personal capacity but who asked not to be identified. “We have proven time and time again that the Middle East is a tinder box. Clearly we can do very little to impose real positive change, democracy or some sort of everlasting peace – thoughts like that are the worst kind of wishful thinking. No one wants to see babies die of a chemical weapons strike – but we can’t bomb our way to peace.”
He added: “The parties in Syria must want peace themselves – we can’t impose it on them. Russia must want peace. Iran must want peace. If they don’t, well, we are one more party to a bloody conflict who is going to get hurt in the process and just make things worse.”
Another senior pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity was even more blunt, stating: “Syria could be the graveyard of American power – and we can do little to change the outcome there. We have spent enough blood and treasure in the Middle East. From Afghanistan to Iraq and Libya. Where does it end?”
The official pressed his case, noting that America “has not done enough in Asia” over the last few years and that “critical allies are already questioning if we will be trapped once again in another Middle East mess.” His message was clear: “The future of the planet is being decided in the Asia-Pacific region. We need to devote resources there to ensure that China does indeed rise peacefully and does not transform the region into their own sphere of influence. We need to make sure North Korea does not continue pursing even more powerful weapons. We need to start making smart strategic choices. International affairs are a tough business and taking a buffet-style approach, that we can do a little everywhere, accomplishes nothing – that is a strategy for disaster.”
“China is Real Winner When We Attack Syria”
While military officials at the pentagon were disheartened over America getting involved in another Middle East conflict, multiple State Department officials, speaking on background, were even more adamant about what they collectively felt was America’s possible mistaken strategic direction.
“There is only one nation that wins the more we bomb Syria – and it is clearly not the Syrian opposition or the innocent people who are dying there. And that is China,” explained a senior State Department official.”
A career state department staffer echoed the same sentiments. “The only way to ‘solve’ Syria is to march 200,000 troops into Damascus, throw Assad out, and try and rebuild the country. Keep in mind, in Iraq, there was no Russia. We need to think carefully – that plan did not work well in 2003, and it won’t work now.”
What Happens Next?
It’s hard to disagree with such logic from US officials. From the South China Sea to Taiwan, the East China Sea and North Korea, so many of the world’s geopolitical and geostrategic hot spots are in Asia. Also, with most of the world’s economic growth coming from the region and the world’s top three economies (America, China and Japan – if you use GDP as your measure) also being in Asia, it would make sense for America to place most of its foreign policy efforts there. But it never seems to work out, with crisis after crisis, most times coming out of the Middle East, taking Washington away from making such an important shift in priorities.
But there seems to be some hope. With President Trump recently declaring that “we’re not going to Syria”, there is at least some room for optimism that America won’t make a bad situation worse – albeit he seems to have forgotten an inconvenient fact: Washington already has troops there.