On Thursday, President Barack Obama and his top defense advisors unveiled new strategic guidance to direct the U.S. military as it transitions from a decade of grueling ground wars to an era of new challenges, including a rising China and looming budget cuts. The administration has adopted what is best characterized as a "pivot but hedge" strategy: The United States will pivot to the Asia-Pacific but hedge against unexpected threats elsewhere, particularly in the greater Middle East. This new guidance makes good sense in today's world, but it assumes that the Pentagon will absorb only $487 billion in budget cuts over the next decade. If far deeper cuts occur, as required by sequestration, the Department of Defense will not have the resources to execute the guidance. "Pivot but hedge" will die in its crib.
The pivot to the Asia-Pacific is essential because the region stands poised to become the centerpiece of the 21st-century global economy. By 2015, East Asian countries are expected to surpass North America and the eurozone to become the world's largest trading bloc. Market opportunities will only increase as the region swells by an additional 175 million people by 2030. As America's economic interests in the Asia-Pacific grow, its diplomatic and military presence should grow to defend against potential threats to those interests.
From the perspective of the United States and its Asian allies, China and North Korea represent the most serious military threats to regional security. China's military modernization continues to progress, and its foreign policy toward its neighbors has become increasingly aggressive over the past two years. Meanwhile, the death of Kim Jong Il means that nuclear-armed North Korea has begun a leadership transition that could lead to greater military aggressiveness as his son Kim Jong Un seeks to consolidate his power and demonstrate control. In light of these potential dangers, several Asian countries have asked the United States to strengthen its diplomatic and military presence in the region so it can remain the ultimate guarantor of peace and security. A bolstered U.S. presence will reassure allies who worry about American decline by clearly conveying an unwavering commitment to Asian security.
But while the Asia-Pacific is becoming more important, instability across the greater Middle East -- from Tunisia to Pakistan -- still makes it the most volatile region in the world. The Arab Spring unleashed a torrent of political change that has reshaped the region in previously unfathomable ways. Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons, and it has threatened recently to close the Strait of Hormuz. Trapped in the middle of the upheaval is Israel, a permanent ally and key pillar of America's regional security strategy. Meanwhile, U.S.-Pakistan relations continue to plunge toward a nadir, lessening American influence over a nuclear-armed and terrorist-infested state that is arguably the most dangerous country in the world.
Amid these dangers, U.S. interests in the greater Middle East remain largely unchanged: ensuring the free flow of petroleum from a region containing 51 percent of proven global oil reserves, halting nuclear proliferation, and guarding against the diminished but still real threat of Islamist-inspired terror attacks. Protecting these interests will unquestionably require the active involvement of the U.S. military over the next 10 years and beyond, though this certainly does not mean U.S. troops will necessarily repeat the intensive counterinsurgency campaigns of the last decade.