Pivot?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

A successful “pivot” away from the Middle East would require understanding the reasons for failure there, and the mending of one’s ways.

U.S. foreign policy’s failure in the Middle East has been a classic case of insolvency—commitments in excess of the means devoted to fulfilling them. There never was enough U.S. power to cajole Egypt into any of the images that U.S. officials imagined, or to do so in Syria, or to prevent Iran from going nuclear, never mind to “solve” the Muslim world’s resolve to destroy Israel.

A “pivot” to the Pacific Rim would have to be serious about the problems to be confronted there, what U.S. interests require, and what force it would take to secure them. But team Obama defined its “pivot” simply as “more frequent personal trips to the region by ranking U.S. officials, more robust relationships with friends and allies, more engagement in Asian regional organizations, and more attention to regional issues.”

Meanwhile our army and navy continue to shrink, our capacity to defend against any but token ballistic missile threats is non-existent, and urgent calls from Japan, the Philippines, never mind Taiwan, for support against increasing Chinese pressure continue to be answered by wishful statements about how, surely, China knows that it must behave responsibly.

For America to be taken seriously by Asians who would like nothing better than to do so, U.S. officials would have to be clear about what limits they are willing to place on China’s reach, as well as about the means by which we mean to enforce those limits.

Seriousness means being able to defend Japan against all kinds of missiles, including Chinese ones. By technical necessity, such devices would defend America as well. Also, we would have to come to terms with the fact that a U.S. Navy of some 280 ships is little more than half the size of what is needed to keep Japan from going nuclear.

Reassuring the peoples of the Pacific Rim will also require the U.S. to defend Taiwan because, if China can bend Taiwan to its will, others will feel compelled to follow. But defending Taiwan requires more than a missile defense and a navy, because Taiwan lies well within the optimal range of China’s strategy of controlling the sea from the land. China’s weapons are optimized to sink carriers, while its aircraft would have the advantage over American ones fighting at extreme ranges from Guam.

Therefore any serious attempt to set limits to China’s expansion in the southern Pacific—the first aim of which is Taiwan—would have to be based on Taiwan.

That, like the rest, would be provocative. But the combination of ends and means would be solvent. By contrast, the Obamians’ “pivot” resembles the last several administrations’ policies in the Middle East: grandiose objectives without visible means of support.