09/20/2013 06:53 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

After the Syria Red Alert: Big Doings in the Pacific Pivot, but Brazil Strategy Flops

Just like that, a big crisis passes into the rear view mirror. But its impact continues, perhaps even more elsewhere.

While there is still a great deal of haggling taking place and undoubtedly yet to come, the sudden dash to war for the U.S. in Syria has been effectively halted. Although I'm loathe to call consideration, no matter how frenzied, of a widespread loss of human life to be a waste of time, what we experienced certainly was a distraction. And a frequently surrealistic and contradictory distraction at that. For while we were so deeply engaged in the Syrian melodrama, the world kept turning.

The distraction factor may not have affected some big new developments in the Asia-Pacific Pivot, our big geopolitical pivot from fateful over-engagement with the Islamic world to heightened engagement with the rising Asia-Pacific. (See Pivot Archive here.) Although there was a sizable head to head confrontation in the East China Sea between Chinese and Japanese forces which did not lead to conflict but might have unfolded differently, if it unfolded at all.

But the serious Syrian distraction undoubtedly affected another big part of Obama's geopolitical strategy, that of drawing emerging Latin American power Brazil closer to the U.S.

At the dramatic G-20 summit in Russia, Obama was late for the dinner discussion called by President Vladimir Putin on Syria because he was trying to assuage Brazilian President Dilma Roussef's concerns about American behavior. And with all that he had on his plate with regard to Syria, he was notably unsuccessful in that.

As feared, Roussef has nixed her state visit to the U.S. in October, something which has been in the works for most of this year. The Obamas have long been planning a Brazil State Dinner, the only White House state dinner of the year, in honor of Roussef's visit. But Brazilians are infuriated by the existence and scope of a massive U.S. surveillance apparatus in their country, as they had been earlier by the forcing down of the Bolivian presidential plane by NATO countries on the false rumor that ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden was aboard. Though the trip is described as "postponed," there is no new date for it.

It's no surprise that both of Obama's previous defense secretaries -- Republican Bob Gates and Democrat Leon Panetta -- are quite critical of the Syria episode, as they expressed in a discussion at a Tuesday night forum in Dallas, Texas.

Both Gates and Panetta agreed that, if he was going to attack, Obama should have launched the strike on his own authority relatively early on. That's my view, too, as readers know.

But Gates feels that there should have been no attack at all, for lack of any real stakes for American interests in Syria and plenty of opportunity for disaster and complication we don't need.

Panetta was more the moralist, in favor of humanitarian intervention. But he only wanted a relatively brief round of missile and air strikes, which Gates views as the politics of feeling in lieu of having a real strategy. (That's my paraphrase, as it's another view I share with the former defense secretary and CIA director, the only Republican ever to serve two succeeding presidents of opposite parties in the post of secretary of defense.)

My concern with what Obama was doing can also be summed up by Admiral Chester Nimitz's famed "three rules of thumb" about the advisability of a military action, which he had up on the wall of his Pearl Harbor headquarters as CINCPAC -- Commander-In-Chief Pacific -- during World War II.

"1. Is the proposed operation likely to succeed?
"2. What might be the consequences of failure?
"3. Is it in the realm of practicability in terms of matériel and supplies?"

Obama's plans were so ill-defined that it would be difficult to even answer all three questions, let alone answer them in the affirmative.

Incidentally, a new report by IHS Jane's, for many decades a leading global military forecaster and compendium of information -- Jane's Fighting Ships, Jane's All the World's Aircraft, etc. -- indicates that nearly half the Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime are either outright jihadists or very hardcore Islamists.

So Vladimir Putin, supposedly shoved aside last month by Obama for granting temporary asylum to ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden after he was not especially cleverly forced into Russia by the Obama Administration, ends up with something a lot better than the canceled mini-summit with Obama. He ends up as a very big player on the global stage. Or perhaps he was that all along, and some folks failed to notice.

The Russia-brokered deal in which the Assad regime renounces chemical weapons is moving forward, even though there was plenty of talk at the beginning of the week about building attack language into A UN Security Council resolution memorializing the deal if terms lag or are not met. The new Gallup Poll, which has the Putin plan on Syria favored by a whopping 72-18, shows how little appetite there is in this country for the U.S. missile and air strikes once promised by Obama. There's just as little appetite in Britain and France, making the tough rhetoric from the leaders bluff easily ignored by Moscow.

Yet there are good things here for Obama, too. He's out of the Syrian civil war, albeit not in a terribly elegant manner. Of course, he gets back in the Middle East soup next week at the annual UN General Assembly confab of world leaders in New York when he deals with a seeming peace feeler from the new Iranian president around that country's hotly disputed nuclear program. Will he meet with President Hassan Rouhani? He's certainly meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, evidently no fan of the new Iranian leader, whom some Israelis consider a new face on an old fist.

Even as Obama's Syrian policy teetered on the abyss, things kept moving forward on the Asia-Pacific Pivot.

Planning for two big trips into the region next month -- that of Obama and of course the latest venture of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the Cabinet member playing the lead role on the Pacific Pivot -- is well underway.

Among other things, Obama and Hagel and others will be at the annual East Asia Summit and the annual ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Summit. The U.S., China, and Russia are members of the East Asia Summit but not, of course, of the ASEAN Summit.

The U.S. Army this week began its move into the Pacific Pivot. The Marines and Navy have already made initial moves, with units moving into Darwin, Australia and Singapore. Now the Army is sending its first Pivot unit into the region, albeit into South Korea, where there is already a large and permanent build-up of forces due to the impasse with North Korea.

Of course, in my opinion, the Pivot from a military standpoint is more about naval and air forces than it is about ground forces, at least conventional ground forces, as the geography of the region would suggest.

U.S. and Philippine war games off the coast of the Philippines started this week. The two allies will work on amphibious operations, including how to dislodge an opponent which has taken over an island. Which of course describes China's threatened scenario throughout the South China Sea, virtually all of which it claims as its sovereign territory.

Obama will also make his first ever visit as president to the Philippines, now engaged in a David and Goliath dynamic over China's claims to islands off the Philippine coast.

The U.S. even enjoyed a successful Pacific missile defense test, in which a short-range ballistic missile launched from the Hawaiian of Kauai was shot down by a Navy cruiser, USS Lake Erie. Missile defense is still nowhere what was envisioned in the '80s by President Ronald Reagan when he launched the "Star Wars" program, but with the advance of technology it advances as well.

So, even though Obama is far below his once soaring Gallup Poll ratings on foreign policy and geopolitics in last week's sounding, he's avoided one huge potential quagmire in the Middle East and still has the prospect for major progress in the Asia-Pacific.

And Brazil? Well, time may help heal those wounds. Time and some adjustment of the Obama policies on global surveillance. Spying on Rouseff and her government, an ally, was probably unwise. And massive surveillance of Brazil's energy business and commercial ventures in general certainly aren't justified by the need to fight terrorism.

Fortunately for Obama, the U.S. media isn't asking him about this. So there's another plus for the administration, as this piece closes on what has to be called a determinedly positive note.

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