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U.S. Pivot to Asia

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The term "Pivot to Asia", which has almost become a household word, was first used by then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in fall 2011. However, global events and the U.S. reaction to them have more or less determined that the so-called pivot currently remains more of an aspiration rather than a reality. It is quite plausible that the U.S., after its setbacks in both Iraq and Afghanistan -- countries that remain far from being pacified -- make it eager to wash its hands of similar involvement in the greater Middle East.

That was far from being the only reason for the U.S. to change its focus from a region over which it had diminishing influence. After the demise of the Soviet Union, the Middle East was no longer an area of Cold War contention. The US' main foreign policy objectives, i.e. maintaining the free flow of oil to the Western bloc and maintaining almost unvarnished support to Israel, had been largely accomplished. The U.S.' allies in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in particular, with their massive oil reserves had been quite eager and willing to do business with the West. The issue of Israel's security had also more or less been resolved by the fact that Israel had managed to become the most powerful country militarily and economically in the Middle East. The US and the EU had helped it to achieve this predominance.

However, the law of unintended consequences, which is not far away from the horizon of international affairs, came back to prevent the U.S. from withdrawing its focus from the region in favor of East Asia. The civil war in Syria worsened in terms of casualties and refugees. Current estimates suggest that over 150,000 Syrians have been killed so far and millions have become refugees. President Assad, far from being weakened, has, thanks to unstinted support from Iran, Russia, and the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah, managed to turn the tables on the disparate groups trying to oust him. Last summer, following a chemical weapons attack allegedly launched by Syrian government forces on rebel formations near Damascus, Obama seriously contemplated a military strike. Assad had allegedly crossed a red-line publicly mentioned by Obama. In the event, lack of support from Congress and an exhausted public opinion reeling from the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, forced Obama to change course, when offered the lifeline ironically by President Putin of Russia that Assad would dismantle his chemical weapons.

Many U.S. politicians feel that Obama should have carried out his resolve, in concert with France of striking at Assad's infrastructure. This could have, their arguments suggest weakened Assad to the point of being ousted. This was what the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, among other countries wanted. Instead, as subsequent events have shown, Obama has largely been reduced, along with other Western countries, to issuing anodyne statements and basically wringing their hands. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah have been strengthened while Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the major backers of the rebels, have been weakened. The reported supply of U.S. weapons to the "moderate" rebels is most probably yet another example of "too little, too late".

The Israeli-Palestinian talks, despite the persistent mediatory efforts of John Kerry have reached an impasse. While supporters of the two-state solution continue to hope against hope that somehow someday the Israelis and Palestinians can be persuaded to live side-by-side peacefully in two independent states, but events on the ground dictate that this possibility is a receding mirage. Israel has now been in occupation of the territories that were supposed to constitute an independent Palestinian state for nearly half a century. There are no signs that this situation is likely to change anytime soon.

The Arab Spring which optimists felt would usher in a new period of democracy and respect for the rule of law, has fallen far short of the Arab people's aspirations and expectations of the international community. The major Arab country, Egypt, whose people had succeeded after valiant efforts and sacrifices in toppling the Mubarak dictatorship, has yet to become a democratic law-abiding country. Instead it has been torn by internal dissension. The Egyptian military is now calling the shots and the former chief of the army, Field Marshal Abdul Fatah al-Sisi is now the favorite to become the next president. Tunisia is arguably the only Arab country which has made the most progress in trying to achieve the ideals and objectives of the Arab Spring. Yemen is facing a serious insurgency with al-Qaeda affiliated elements, which have also, alarmingly from the point of view of the U.S., shown their presence in Algeria, Mali, and elsewhere in North Africa.

The above scenario means that U.S. interests dictate that it will remain committed to the Middle East. The conditions in the region are such that it just cannot afford to pull up its stakes and move eastward to the more peaceful and economically alluring prospects of East Asia. This is not to say that serious political problems are not bubbling under the surface in that region. The rise of China is one such issue. Chinese leaders have frequently repeated that its intentions toward its neighbors in East Asia are benign and that it is not interested in becoming the regional hegemon. This may be correct but it deflects from the fact that China, Japan, the Philippines, and other countries have territorial problems in the East and South China seas with China. If these problems remain unresolved and tensions continue to rise, armed clashes between China and its neighbors cannot be ruled out. This eventuality would pose another fundamental choice on the United States: should it or should it not intervene militarily on behalf of its allies (Japan and the Philippines) against China? Or should it remain neutral despite the provisions of the Japanese peace treaty which enjoins the U.S. to support Japan if it is militarily attacked? These are issues which do not admit of easy solutions. They will continue to be a preoccupation among Washington's policy makers. The best overall outcome would be for the United States not to fish in the troubled waters but to emphasize to all the East Asian countries, to resolve their disputes peacefully according to the mechanisms available to them under the UN Charter.