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Editor’s Note: For almost two decades, and through the administrations of three very different presidents, the United States has tried to focus more on Asia and less on the Middle East. This change has proved easy in theory but hard in practice. Ali Wyne, of the Eurasia Group, describes past U.S. efforts to shift away from the Middle East toward Asia and argues that it is critical for the Biden administration to succeed where others failed.
One of the Biden administration’s foremost challenges, and greatest opportunities, will be to cement a strategic shift that prior administrations have struggled to effect for the past two decades—rebalancing U.S. foreign policy away from the convulsions of the Middle East toward the resurgence of the Asia-Pacific.
The George W. Bush administration took office intending to change priorities. Nina Silove, a distinguished scholar of U.S. grand strategy, traces “the origins of the idea of reorienting toward Asia … to early 2001” and notes that, despite 9/11, the Bush administration “had planned a military-diplomatic reorientation toward Asia” by 2004. The administration made significant contributions to advancing the U.S.-India relationship, and with his “responsible stakeholder” address in September 2005, then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick introduced a concept that continues to inform how the United States discusses China’s interactions with the postwar order. Even so, counterterrorism in the Middle East became the administration’s overarching priority after 9/11, with the 2003 Iraq War and the difficult occupation that followed keeping the United States committed to, or perhaps entrapped in, the region. President Bush described his administration’s March 2006 national security strategy as a “wartime” document, a nod to increasingly strong insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While Barack Obama and Donald Trump had significantly different foreign policy outlooks, each came to office determined to reduce America’s focus on the Middle East.
Arguing that America’s intervention in Iraq had undercut its original post-9/11 focus, President Obama explained in March 2009 that the United States should pursue “a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” Despite his misgivings about the possibility of a durable military solution in Afghanistan, he ultimately oversaw an increase in U.S. troop levels there from 36,000 when he took office to a peak of 100,000 in May 2011. Though that number had fallen to 8,400 by the time his presidency concluded, other crises in the Middle East had unfolded, among them a series of revolutions across the Arab world, the devolution of Syria and Libya into civil war, and the rise of the Islamic State. The president authorized the deployment of 275 troops to Iraq to counter the Islamic State in June 2014, and that figure is estimated to have risen to some 5,000 by April 2016, when he announced that Washington would deploy an additional 250 Special Forces fighters to Syria. On balance, then, while the Obama administration sought to retrain America’s sights eastward—the Pentagon announced in January 2012 that the U.S. military would “of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region”—it was unable to recalibrate as much as it would have liked.
In his February 2019 State of the Union address, President Trump declared that “[g]reat nations do not fight endless wars.” A report in October of that year, though, noted that there were more U.S. forces deployed to the Middle East than when he had taken office. The Trump administration pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and, as tensions between Washington and Tehran grew, deployed roughly 14,000 additional troops to the Gulf between May and October 2019. In addition, on the eve of the 2020 presidential election, there were still some 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, only slightly fewer than there had been at the end of the Obama administration.
Like its predecessors, the Biden administration is hoping to change course. Politico journalists Natasha Bertrand and Lara Seligman explain that its determination to prioritize the Asia-Pacific is rooted in “a sense of exasperation that U.S. foreign policy frequently becomes overwhelmed by quagmires in the Gulf”—a sense that Presidents Trump and Obama no doubt shared. The White House’s interim national security strategic guidance argues that America’s “aim will be to de-escalate regional tensions” in the Middle East. President Biden announced earlier this month that he would end America’s longest war, explaining that the United States “cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal, and expecting a different result.” The Indo-Pacific directorate of the administration’s National Security Council, meanwhile, will be the body’s largest, with up to 20 members once it is fully staffed. And President Biden’s recent virtual summit with his counterparts in Australia, India, and Japan suggests that revitalizing the “Quad” will be a core effort of his administration’s foreign policy.
Most, if not all, of the world’s major powers agree that the locus of geopolitics is shifting eastward. The Pentagon stated in June 2019 that “[t]he Indo-Pacific is the single most consequential region for America’s future.” France, Germany, and the Netherlands are drafting a European Union strategy to enhance the role that Brussels plays there. And the United Kingdom has signaled a “tilt” toward the region. In addition to containing more than 60 percent of the world’s people, the Asia-Pacific is home to the second- and third-largest economies (China’s and Japan’s, respectively) and five of the top 15 defense spenders. The region drives more than two-thirds of global growth and, on current trendlines, will account for two-thirds of gross world product in a decade.
The United States would not be quitting the Middle East were it to pursue a rebalance. With an unrivaled network of military assets and a number of defense cooperation agreements with countries in the Gulf, Washington has a regional presence that is not only substantial but also sticky—not one, in other words, that it can unwind quickly. As such, rebalancing would not—and could not—entail a hasty departure from the Middle East; it would instead involve a gradual reorientation toward the Asia-Pacific.
As for concerns that America’s principal strategic competitors might steal a march on the Middle East, China will find it increasingly challenging to avoid entanglement in regional rivalries as it seeks to extend its Belt and Road Initiative and secure greater energy supplies. In addition, the substantial component of Washington’s presence in the region that would remain even if it were to rebalance in earnest toward the Asia-Pacific would give the United States enduring leverage vis-a-vis China in the Middle East. Russia’s involvement in Syria, meanwhile, imposes a significant burden on its finances at a time when Moscow is dealing with increasingly severe economic challenges at home. The Middle East is riven by overlapping sources of instability, including civil wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen; the Islamic State, which maintains a limited presence; and a protracted stagnation of oil prices that is draining the coffers of many governments. It strains credulity to believe that any external actor could control the region, even the world’s lone superpower.
If the United States cannot sustainably shift its focus from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific, even those of Beijing’s neighbors that have apprehensions about its conduct will wonder whether Washington can overcome its foreign policy inertia. After all, the Asia-Pacific’s evolution over the past two decades is much more than the story of China’s resurgence. The 1997-1998 currency crisis compelled many countries in the region to question the soundness of U.S. macroeconomic stewardship—skepticism that gained further traction with the global financial crisis a decade later. Both events accelerated a push for what the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Evan Feigenbaum calls “pan-Asian regionalism.” America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership did not sink the agreement; Japan led the way in organizing the remaining signatories and finalizing a Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). And the recently concluded Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), while a significant symbolic victory for China, was spearheaded by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
How, then, might the Biden administration further signal its intent to rebalance?
The administration should articulate and proceed from three propositions: America’s principal regional focus is the Asia-Pacific; the United States has often allowed perturbations outside of that region, particularly in the Middle East, to undercut that focus; and Washington will henceforth address security crises and pursue its national interests in the Middle East within the context of an eastward-oriented strategic framework.
The ultimate litmus test for the United States, though, will be the extent to which it can bolster its economic and technological competitiveness. Washington does not belong to either of the two major trade agreements that are spurring the Asia-Pacific’s integration, the CPTPP and RCEP. In addition, Beijing is more central to global growth and supply chains than it was before the pandemic. The Biden administration has proposed major domestic investments in frontier technologies, announced “The Quad Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group,” and signaled, more broadly, that it seeks to organize different groupings of like-minded partners around different categories of technology (such as artificial intelligence and next-generation communications). These are promising initiatives. Given China’s current and projected proportions, the administration will need to embed them within a broader effort to integrate America’s economy with those of its friends in and beyond the Asia-Pacific.
Efforts by the Biden administration to rebalance would likely elicit the kind of unease that America’s Gulf partners experienced when the Obama administration introduced its own initiative. Arab Center Washington DC’s Charles Dunne warns that “Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states could distance themselves from Washington and seek closer ties with Russia and China. They might exploit any sense that Washington is not paying attention by indulging in the type of policy entrepreneurship that led to the disastrous war in Yemen and the multipronged conflict in Libya.”
While there are no facile rejoinders, there are at least two propositions that merit consideration. First, even if one believes that a reorientation of America’s strategic focus would further inflame the region, it is difficult to argue that periods of intense U.S. involvement in the Middle East over the past two decades have advanced U.S. national interests. The unfortunate reality is that U.S. agency in the region is limited. Philip Gordon, now deputy national security adviser to Vice President Harris, observes in his newest book that “the U.S. policy debate about the Middle East suffers from the fallacy that there is an external American solution to every problem, even when decades of painful experience suggest that this is not the case.” Second, if the United States does not rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific, it will see a relative diminution of its influence in the region that will be most decisive in shaping this century’s geopolitics. Strategic clarity requires difficult trade-offs, even for the world’s foremost power. There is no threshold of capability beyond which a country can escape the necessity for choice.