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Friday, June 21, 2013
President Obama’s decision to try negotiations regarding Syria instead of military intervention is consistent with his altered view of worldwide U.S. national interests. On this assessment, he parts company with predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
A year and a half ago, when Obama announced a reorientation of U.S. strategic policy toward the Asia-Pacific region, the implication was that Europe and the Middle East would receive a lower priority in military planning.
The Pentagon soon revealed that American forces in Europe, especially Germany, would be reduced, and Middle East leaders questioned whether Washington would withdraw its major presence in that region.
Clinton continued to give Europe a high priority in foreign policy even after the Cold War ended. In the early 2000s, Bush saw the Middle East as a vital national interest. He launched an invasion of Iraq in 2003 to bolster U.S. power in the region and to warn Iran not to pursue a nuclear weapons policy. He also pressed Israel’s government and the Palestinian Authority to reach a peace settlement.
Both Clinton and Bush promoted expanded trade relations with China and sought to build good political ties with Beijing’s leadership.
When Obama entered the White House in 2009, the international climate had changed. America was fighting two inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, little progress was seen in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.S. economy was reeling from financial crisis brought on by the September 2008 banking and credit panic, and apprehension arose that a resurgent China was pressuring neighbors along its East Asian periphery.
In his first term, Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq when its government declined to provide assurances regarding legal rights for a residual force. He laid plans to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, with the expectation that agreement would be reached for a small training force to remain.
However, lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian relations added to Obama’s view that America’s ability to induce major changes in the Middle East was limited and that greater involvement carried high risks if it included ground forces.
Obama’s summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in California this month and Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent negotiations in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Syria suggest that a fundamental shift is under way in the United States’ view of its vital national interests as well as altered national strategy.
Reinforcement of this new U.S. strategic outlook was given by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on June 1. By 2020, the Navy will base 60 percent of its assets in the Pacific. The Air Force had already moved 60 percent of its overseas forces to the Asia-Pacific region.
From the perspective of Obama, Kerry and Hagel, the key architects of U.S. strategy, the world situation currently looks roughly like this:
* Europe is peaceful, and Russia shows no sign of intimidating NATO’s East European members. Germany is the dominant economic power in the EU and is persuading euro states to accept its budget prescriptions for their economies.
* The Middle East is a political quagmire, and America should not waste troops and treasure by intervening in Syria or any Arab state. Under U.S. pressure, Israel seems willing to make concessions to achieve peace with the Palestinians in return for firm U.S. assurances that it will use force to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.
* U.S. long-term vital interests now lie in East Asia and the Pacific for two reasons: First, U.S. trade with China, Japan, South Korea and countries in Southeast Asia are huge. Second, a resurgent China is the principal challenge to U.S. interests in Asia. China dreams of re-establishing its own political hegemony in the region and believes that America will gradually withdraw.
Obama’s meeting with Xi tested whether he can persuade the Chinese leader that America will remain fully involved politically and militarily in East Asia and will defend its allies.
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