Why McHale is wrong about the pivot

Why McHale is wrong about the pivot

By Shawn Brimley

Best Defense strategic respondent

I read with interest your link to Paul McHale’s comments on the so-called "Pacific Pivot." I was surprised to read his argument that President Obama’s Asia team has "grounded the pivot in its military strategy, as revealed in the document released in January [2012] "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century Defense."

That comment would surprise not only the authors of that defense strategy, but the hundreds of diplomats and civilian strategists at the White House and other agencies who formulated this approach starting in early 2009. It would probably also surprise the president, who has consistently focused on the need for the United States to embrace its role as a resident, Pacific power. There are literally hundreds of Cabinet-level interactions, trips, and regional forums that have provided the groundwork for the most sustained U.S. engagement in Asia in many years. Just as one example, President Obama has met with Hu Jintao, the outgoing Chinese president, a dozen times since 2009. Thanks to the efforts of diplomats such as Kurt Campbell and White House strategists such as Jeff Bader, Danny Russell, and Evan Medeiros, the United States has consistently leaned forward in Asia since the day President Obama took office. From joining the East Asia Summit, adding a permanent U.S. mission to ASEAN in Jakarta, to securing trade deals with the Republic of Korea and joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it is hard to argue that our engagement in Asia "fails to distinguish threat and opportunity," as McHale argues. 

And even on a purely military basis, I disagree that focusing on ways to work with allies and partners in Asia to buttress their military capabilities and to find ways to be more present in Asia sends the wrong signal to our partners in the Middle East. I find it hard to believe that a small contingent of U.S. Marines in Darwin, Australia, or four Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore, are causing serious heartburn for Saudi Arabia (with whom we signed a massive arms deal in 2011) or Israel (with whom our military aid is at record highs). And I doubt that Iranian strategists are comforted at night thinking of the massive U.S. air and naval presence in and around the Persian Gulf. Finally, the assertion that a military strategy that adds some focus to the Asia-Pacific somehow skews procurement and planning of weapons systems to the detriment of plausible contingencies in the Middle East is odd. In fact the types of military trends we see in Asia are very much applicable to the Persian Gulf, where military planners must contend with the proliferation of capabilities that can potentially put U.S. power projection capabilities at risk.   

The Asia rebalancing strategy is not perfect — no strategic initiative can be. But having witnessed the formulation of this approach, from my time at the Pentagon and at the White House, I am convinced that the president deserves credit for conceiving the strategy, and civilian strategists, diplomats, and defense officials and officers that have implemented it over the last four years should be proud of what they have done and will continue to accomplish over the next four years.  

Shawn Brimley is a jolly good Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Until recently he was director for strategic planning on the National Security Council staff at the White House.