The trouble with pivoting to Asia while the Middle East burns

The optics would be crystal clear: Only days after Barack Obama’s reelection — and just as China underwent a once-in-a-decade leadership transition —  the top national security officials in the country would pack their bags and make a beeline for Asia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would travel to Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia; ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The optics would be crystal clear: Only days after Barack Obama's reelection -- and just as China underwent a once-in-a-decade leadership transition --  the top national security officials in the country would pack their bags and make a beeline for Asia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would travel to Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia; Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta would visit Australia, Thailand, and Cambodia; and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey would swing through South Korea and Australia. To cap it all off, Obama would head to Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia, visiting the latter two countries for the first time and attending an East Asia summit in Phnom Penh.

Obama's "decision to travel to Asia so soon after his reelection speaks to the importance that he places on the region and its centrality to so many of our national security interests and priorities," National Security Advisor Tom Donilon explained in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday. Go to the State and Defense Department websites, and you'll see top stories on Clinton emphasizing America's economic and security ties with Australia, and Panetta meeting with Southeast Asian leaders.   

The trouble, however, is that the White House is stepping up its pivot (or, as the administration would put it, "rebalancing") to the Asia-Pacific region just as the Middle East -- the very region the United States is fitfully trying to pivot away from -- grows more volatile by the day. Israel is calling up reservists and massing tanks and troops outside the Gaza Strip in a possible prelude to a ground invasion. Post-revolutionary Egypt is facing its first major foreign-policy test as it seeks to defuse the escalating conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza. The United States is under pressure to follow the lead of countries like France, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey and formally recognize the Syrian opposition's new umbrella organization, as concerns grow about the security of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are busy investigating the Benghazi attack. Anti-government protests have gripped Jordan.

The optics would be crystal clear: Only days after Barack Obama’s reelection — and just as China underwent a once-in-a-decade leadership transition —  the top national security officials in the country would pack their bags and make a beeline for Asia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would travel to Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia; Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta would visit Australia, Thailand, and Cambodia; and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey would swing through South Korea and Australia. To cap it all off, Obama would head to Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia, visiting the latter two countries for the first time and attending an East Asia summit in Phnom Penh.

Obama’s "decision to travel to Asia so soon after his reelection speaks to the importance that he places on the region and its centrality to so many of our national security interests and priorities," National Security Advisor Tom Donilon explained in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday. Go to the State and Defense Department websites, and you’ll see top stories on Clinton emphasizing America’s economic and security ties with Australia, and Panetta meeting with Southeast Asian leaders.   

The trouble, however, is that the White House is stepping up its pivot (or, as the administration would put it, "rebalancing") to the Asia-Pacific region just as the Middle East — the very region the United States is fitfully trying to pivot away from — grows more volatile by the day. Israel is calling up reservists and massing tanks and troops outside the Gaza Strip in a possible prelude to a ground invasion. Post-revolutionary Egypt is facing its first major foreign-policy test as it seeks to defuse the escalating conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza. The United States is under pressure to follow the lead of countries like France, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey and formally recognize the Syrian opposition’s new umbrella organization, as concerns grow about the security of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are busy investigating the Benghazi attack. Anti-government protests have gripped Jordan.

As these storylines develop over the next several days, America’s commander-in-chief and secretary of state will both be out of the country in Asia. In the spring of 2011, you may recall, Obama cut short a trip to Latin America (one intended to emphasize regional economic and security ties) because of the recently launched military intervention in Libya. Will events in the Middle East once again sidetrack a carefully orchestrated diplomatic offensive?

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.