Getting Rebalancing Right

Four key issues that will define President Obama's second-term pivot to Asia.

During the recently concluded presidential election campaign, the foreign policy debate largely turned on events in the Middle East and North Africa -- a region that is once again at the fore in light of continuing violence in Gaza and Israel. But the region that will likely have the greatest impact on U.S. economic and security interests in this century was conspicuously absent: the Asia-Pacific. Accounting for half the world's population and gross domestic product -- and nearly half of global trade -- Asia is undergoing a fundamental shift in the balance of power. With the rise of China and India, the United States has a unique leadership role to play in underwriting the stability of this critical region. President Barack Obama's ongoing trip to Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand -- his first overseas trip since re-election -- highlights the importance his administration places on "rebalancing" to Asia. It also provides a timely opportunity to assess the implications of this policy going into the president's second term.

Over the past four years, the Obama administration has intensified diplomacy in the region, expanded bilateral partnerships, and rebalanced military resources to Asia. The administration has sought to deepen relationships with treaty allies like Australia, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand -- which the president visited over the weekend to discuss trade and security cooperation. It has also sought to broaden ties with key partners such as India and Vietnam, and invest in the region's key multilateral forums. Last year, Obama was the first U.S. president to attend the East Asia Summit, which brings together all of the region's major and emerging powers to discuss a wide range of regional concerns, including energy and the environment, maritime security, non-proliferation, and disaster response. This year, as the summit kicks off in Phnom Penh, he will be in attendance again, underscoring his consistent message that the United States sees itself as a resident power in Asia.

The administration's military strategy in Asia has bolstered regional partnerships, enhancing our work with partners throughout Southeast Asia to build their defense capacities. It is also beginning to revamp U.S. defense posture in the region -- with initiatives such as shifting more of our naval fleet to Asia, stationing littoral combat ships in Singapore, and rotating up to 2,500 Marines through Australia -- to make our posture more strategically relevant, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable. In addition, the Pentagon's January 2012 strategic guidance called for increased investment in future capabilities to safeguard the U.S. freedom of maneuver in the face of so-called "anti-access and area denial" threats.

This rebalancing has drawn criticism from both ends of the spectrum, however. Some have labeled these changes more rhetorical than substantive; others have mischaracterized the approach as an aggressive effort to contain China.

While nether is true, the administration's Asia policy will undoubtedly require continued calibration. However, rebalancing to Asia is about far more than U.S. security interests. It is driven first and foremost by the reality of U.S. economic interdependence with the region as a whole. To that end, the Obama administration has appropriately made the promotion of trade and investment a central plank of its Asia policy. Over the past four years, the administration signed a Free Trade Agreement with South Korea; announced $10 billion in trade deals during the president's November 2010 visit to India; hosted the largest-ever U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) business forum; and is currently negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which spans nine countries and represents one of the world's most expansive trade agreements.

So what are the key issues that will influence the U.S. rebalancing to Asia in a second Obama administration?

The first is the inextricable link between the U.S. economy and Asia. A strong U.S. economy is vital to its ability to project power and influence in Asia. The outcome of the ongoing budget talks and potential sequestration cuts will have a direct effect on diplomatic and military resources that can be committed to the region. Moreover, widening the economic lens on Asia from the campaign focus on currency issues with China to how the United States can tap the broader export market across Asia is essential to growing the U.S. economy and creating jobs.

Second, with a new Chinese leadership assuming power this month, there is some question as to the future direction of Beijing's foreign policy. While a radical shift is unlikely, there is some risk that China's economic slowdown will spark additional internal unrest which may tempt the new leadership to tap into nationalistic sentiment on foreign affairs in order to rally popular support for the regime. The new Chinese leadership thus has a balancing act before it, particularly in dealing with its neighbors on contested maritime claims, and in asserting its interests without generating regional instability that could encumber its economy and diminish its strategic position.

Third, the Chinese do not have a monopoly on nationalism. Other countries in the region have experienced outcries of nationalist sentiment in their disputes with China in the South and East China Seas, and also with each other (think Japan and Korea in the Sea of Japan). Given the potential for such disputes to ratchet up tensions and entangle the United States in conflict, the United States should continue to emphasize the importance of resolving these disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law.

Fourth, the administration's ability to credibly encourage the resolution of maritime disputes -- a key element of regional stability -- argues for revisiting the ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea in the second term. Doing so would shore up U.S. credibility to push back on expansive maritime claims and preserve critical freedom of navigation and resource exploration rights in the region.

Finally, personalities matter in diplomacy. To the extent that the rebalancing has been successful, it has been propelled by the continued focus and energy of a group of dedicated senior officials who have prioritized showing up consistently in key forums and engaging widely across the region. The administration's next team will need to sustain these efforts.

As the United States emerges from a decade of war in the Middle East and South Asia, President Obama has rightly stated that the United States is at a strategic inflection point: it has an opportunity to shift more of its attention and resources to the region that will drive economic prosperity and security more than any other in the 21st century. Critically important imperatives exist alongside -- such as continued U.S. attention to and leadership in the Middle East, as underscored by the events unfolding in Gaza. Yet President Obama's rebalancing to Asia, while not risk-free and still taking full form, is vital to long-term U.S. interests. The president's ongoing trip is an important continuation of that effort -- one that will have implications not only in his second term but also for administrations to come.



Still Think Middle East Peace Doesn't Matter?

Gaza's radiating instability proves once again that Palestine is at the center of the region's problems.

Everyone knew it was coming. Once the giddy days of the Arab uprising had passed, it was the subject of discussion at almost every roundtable, panel discussion, and bull session among Middle East analysts: What about Gaza?

How would Arab governments, newly responsive to their people, handle a replay of Israel's Operation Cast Lead, the bloody offensive in Gaza that commenced almost exactly four years ago? At the time, U.S. President George W. Bush's administration and President-elect Barack Obama's team could rely on figures like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II to help contain the conflict and ensure that the status quo remained, even after the Israel Defense Forces withdrew their tanks and the rockets stopped flying.

That was another era. The dynamics of the Israel-Hamas conflict that led to the current fighting are similar to those of 2008, but nothing else is. With citizens throughout the region demanding a reversal of the policies of the past, observers of the region implicitly understood that the Arab world's leaders -- both old and new -- would face great pressure to demonstrate that they are responsive to public opinion and hold Israel and the United States "accountable" for their actions.

At those bull sessions -- invariably called, "The Middle East Undergoing Change: Strategic Implications" or something equally snooze-inducing -- the response to a new Gaza war was often shrugs, sighs, and raised eyebrows. The body language meant: "Let's hope nothing happens so that we don't have to think about it." So despite the endless questions about what would happen, nobody succeeded in coming up with any answers. Yet when Israel assassinated Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari -- the keeper of the uneasy Israel-Hamas cease-fire over the last four years -- last week, suddenly the conflict came roaring back to the forefront of Washington's collective consciousness.

This is, indeed, a dangerous moment -- but the sky hasn't fallen yet. In Egypt, the new leadership has engaged in full-throated rhetorical support for Hamas, but at the same time has played a central role in diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the current fighting. This carries domestic political risks should diplomacy fail, but so far President Mohamed Morsy and his handpicked spy chief, Mohamed Shehata, have burnished their credentials as mediators. Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil's Nov. 16 visit to Gaza was particularly instructive: Qandil arrived in the strip to express solidarity with the Palestinians, but his visit was also aimed at providing a lull in the fighting to open an opportunity for negotiations.

The conflict has also not yet wreaked havoc on Israel's other borders. Hezbollah has not opened a second front. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's dubious effort to deflect attention from his murderous campaign against his own people fell on deaf ears throughout the region. Jordan's large demonstration last week over fuel price hikes, which included groundbreaking calls for King Abdullah II to step down, has not morphed into protests against Israel's military operations in Gaza.

The fact that cooler heads seem to have prevailed is a relief for those fearing an escalation of wider regional violence. Yet, there is no denying that the Arab uprisings have altered the dynamics of the Israel-Hamas relationship. The visits of Arab foreign ministers, Egypt's prime minister, and the Arab League secretary-general, as well as even reports that the Moroccans are planning on setting up a field hospital in Gaza, may all be symbolic, but this is important symbolism. For the first time since Israel came to control the Gaza Strip in June 1967 -- and no doubt a good deal of time before then, when Egypt was in control of the territory -- Gazans are no longer alone. Still, as Egyptian officials try to hammer out a truce, the operative word is "yet" -- as in, "the sky has not fallen ... yet."

What if diplomacy fails? What if, while 90 percent of a deal is worked out, Hamas's rocketeers actually hit something of tangible value inside Israel and kill a lot of people? What if Israel's not-so-surgical strikes kill 50, 60, or 100 people in an instant, instead of the three, four, or five victims that they have so far? What if the Israelis launch a ground invasion of Gaza? That's the nightmare scenario, but it doesn't seem so far-fetched in light of the last six days of violence.

The current hostilities between the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas, combined with the political changes across the region, belie the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a central strategic concern of the United States. Belittling the conflict's importance had been the refuge of observers bereft of ideas on how to forge a settlement in the Middle East, and it was often invoked in Washington to deride peace-process dead-enders -- analysts who saw an opportunity to "restart negotiations" where others saw nothing but hopelessness.

Let's not kid ourselves -- the prospects for a peace agreement look as dismal as ever. It is extraordinarily unlikely that there is an opportunity for talks now after militants in Gaza threatened Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with rocket fire. For the minority of Israelis who have not already done so, huddling in safe rooms and bomb shelters in Rishon LeZion, Ashkelon, and Herzliya will convince them that an Israeli withdrawal from territory in the West Bank, which peace would require, is foolish.

But it is impossible to ignore the inconvenient fact that this conflict lies at the heart of U.S. interests in the Middle East. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decides he has no choice but to send in ground forces, Washington will likely express its support for Israel's right to self-defense -- and Egypt's president will not be able to continue on his current constructive path. That may be a principled and politically sound position for the Obama administration to take, but it would not look that way from Cairo. This would place Morsy -- a lifelong enemy of Zionism -- in the position of having to take a tougher stand, which could ultimately lead to the unraveling of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

That should be enough for U.S. policymakers to sit up and take notice. The treaty has been a cornerstone of the U.S. position in the Middle East for the last 33 years -- and by calling it into question, Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense has placed U.S. interests are at stake in Gaza.

Even if the Egyptians manage to avoid a bloodier conflict this time around, the result in Gaza will only be further deadlock. An updated version of the cease-fire that was shattered last week buys a few years of relative quiet, but it will not alter the dynamics of the Israel-Hamas relationship. In time, the Palestinians will rearm, someone will take a shot at someone, and the Israelis will unleash a fury in the service of bitachon (security) and re-establishing their eroding deterrent. This short-term stability -- punctuated by ferocious but ultimately containable fighting -- may have been an acceptable outcome when Mubarak was pharaoh, but it is unsustainable in a world where Arabs have seemingly perfected the impact of "people power."

It is true that Egyptians, Libyans, Tunisians, and others in the Middle East have myriad domestic, political, and economic problems to which they must attend, so much so that what happens in Gaza is (rhetoric aside) actually a low priority. Yet Palestine is a domestic political issue, especially in a country like Egypt where the uprising was in large part about restoring national dignity.

What does this all mean for the United States? For starters, it means Washington lacks a reliable ally who can balance the interests of Israelis and Palestinians, while also accommodating U.S. interests. This is why Mubarak was central to Washington and Jerusalem. Morsy will never play that role; Jordan's king has his own problems; the Israelis don't trust the Turks; Qatar has only cash to offer; and the Saudis are too circumspect to step into the breach.

The easy answer for observers is that the United States should recalibrate its approach to the conflict. In other words, it should move away from unreserved support for Israel in favor of a policy that directly pressures its ally to come to a peace agreement with the Palestinians. That sounds eminently reasonable, but there is an air of unreality to this recommendation. Analysts might point to President Ronald Reagan's delay of F-16s to Israel in 1981 over the devastating bombing of Beirut as proof that at least a modulation of U.S. policy is possible, but three decades later the narrative is dramatically different. Regardless of the asymmetry in casualty count and cries of disproportionality among Israel's critics, the U.S. domestic politics of the conflict in Gaza will always line up in Israel's favor.

There are also other strategic considerations -- such as the confrontation over Iran's nuclear program. In the iterated game that is foreign affairs, the United States could never hope to restrain Israel from a unilateral strike on Tehran's uranium-enrichment facilities if Washington did not support Jerusalem at a moment when millions of Israelis are under the direct threat of rocket attack.

Where does all this leave us? In a novel and uncomfortable situation where the United States must take the disposition of the Palestinian people into great account if it hopes to secure its interests in the Middle East. Even as this becomes abundantly clear, what to do about it remains elusive.

The United States is caught between a rock and a hard place: If it alters its approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, it threatens to disrupt U.S.-Israel relations, which are important politically and strategically. Supporting Israel to the hilt, however, is likely to damage America's position in a greatly changed Arab world. Observers have warned before that the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem could hurt the United States. It never turned out to be true, but now it actually seems possible. The new Middle East, indeed.

-/AFP/Getty Images