Has Foggy Bottom Forgotten Asia?

Yes, Mr. Secretary, we get that you want to fix the Middle East. But remember that whole 'pivot' thing?

For an illustration of Secretary of State John Kerry's commitment to Asia -- or lack thereof -- look no further than his travel schedule. On July 1, he arrived in the tiny nation of Brunei for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum, an annual multilateral dialogue. In the weeks prior, Kerry canceled inaugural stops in Indonesia and Vietnam so he could return to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel for the second, third, and fourth time as secretary, respectively. Then, instead of holding important meetings with Asian allies and partners in Brunei on the evening of June 30 and morning of July 1 as originally scheduled, Kerry decided to stay an extra day in Israel. This disregard for U.S. interests in Asia is unacceptable.

Kerry's agenda at the State Department has been dominated by crises in Syria, Iran, and the Arab world -- at the expense of Asia. In diplomacy you vote with your feet, and since taking office in February, all but one of Kerry's overseas trips have included a visit to either Europe or the Middle East. Before Brunei, his lone venture to East Asia came in April. According to people familiar with the matter, he piqued the Chinese with Saturday meetings and initially planned to cram his stop in Japan -- one of America's most important allies -- into a Sunday afternoon. (He ended up allowing Tokyo part of a Monday as well.) Four days after returning to Washington, Kerry was back on a plane to Turkey for meetings with the Syrian opposition.

Yes, Kerry's personal commitment to Syria, attention to Iran, and efforts to kick-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process are commendable. But diplomats and policymakers in Washington and throughout Asia are beginning to doubt Kerry's dedication to the principal foreign-policy innovation of President Barack Obama's first term: the rebalancing, or "pivot," of U.S. attention and resources to the Asia-Pacific region after more than a decade of war in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Even before Kerry was nominated to be secretary of state in December, there was already widespread concern in Asia that the new leadership in the State Department would shift its focus away from the region.

Asian officials and scholars visiting Washington over the last year have all been asking the same question: Will the pivot endure into Obama 2.0? A Southeast Asian ambassador to the United States told me recently that there was "a lot of anxiety" among his colleagues about the current State Department's commitment to the region. By giving short shrift to Asia since taking office, Kerry has done little to reassure them.

Asia's importance is so obvious it barely needs stating. It is home to more than half the world's population, several important U.S. allies, the world's largest democracy, two of the three largest economies, and the most populous Muslim-majority nation. No region is more crucial than Asia in revitalizing the U.S. economy, while a nuclear North Korea and a rising China present challenges that demand Washington's attention.  

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is faithfully executing the president's policy on Asia by strengthening ties with allies, building deeper relationships with new partners like Vietnam and Burma, and maintaining a robust bilateral and multilateral engagement calendar. The State Department should be complementing the powerful U.S. military presence in the region with economic, diplomatic, and cultural dimensions. But Kerry's inattention to Asia means that the rebalance's most prominent player is the U.S. military. As a result, the United States runs the risk of overplaying its hand on security issues, provoking China and alienating emerging partners who do not want to be seen as picking sides in the region. 

The answer is not for the Defense Department to slow down, but for Foggy Bottom to catch up. Yes, filling key vacancies like the post of assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, open since the influential Kurt Campbell left in February, will ameliorate Kerry's Asian attention deficit. But unless the secretary himself is seen as personally committed to the region, U.S. diplomats in Asia (not to mention those on the 7th floor) will have a difficult time making the case that they represent the leadership and will of the State Department.  

Asian officials need to remind Kerry and top State Department brass that, in diplomacy, showing up is half the battle and that the U.S. absence is having both immediate and long-term implications for U.S. interests. The time for diplomatic courtesy has passed.

It is too early to tell if Kerry's stopover in Brunei will assuage concerns. That his first bilateral meeting in Brunei was with the European Union's foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, presumably to discuss Syria and Iran, was not helpful. A longer and more robust trip to Asia, instead of parachuting in and out of multilateral meetings between stops in the Middle East, would be a good start. On July 1 in Brunei, responding to a question that his actions seem to indicate a policy shift in the State Department toward the Middle East and Europe, Kerry said "I look forward to being back here and back here and back here. And we'll get to know each other pretty well, I hope." That sounds well and good, but Kerry has to follow through. A pivot this big and important doesn't turn on hope alone.



The Man on Horseback

Egypt's top general holds the fate of the country in his hands, but even the Army may not be able to restore order in Cairo.

Pity the man on horseback. Egypt's defense minister, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is all saddled up, but he knows not where to ride. On July 1, he delivered an ultimatum giving the civilian government 48 hours to "meet the demands of the people" or the military would step in and implement a "road map" for the country's future.

The military's soaring popularity would seem to provide Sisi with sufficient leverage to force the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsy, to bend to his will. The armed forces now boast an approval rating of 94 percent, according to a Zogby poll conducted from April to May. This is a remarkable change of fortune and a high-water mark for the military's popularity: Approval had been in a steady slide following the February 2011 ouster of President Hosni Mubarak as a result of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi's clumsy and ill-fated leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). By contrast, support for Morsy has been in steep decline, falling from 57 percent to 28 percent, according to the Zogby poll.

But what does the general plan to do with his newfound leverage? Lest there be any misunderstanding that he aspires to the classic "officer on horseback" role of running the state directly, his spokesperson "clarified" within hours of the July 1 declaration that the military had no intent of seizing power in a coup d'état -- raising the question of how, then, it would implement its "road map" to political recovery. The experience of the SCAF, after all, had carried a clear lesson to the officer corps that direct political action is best left to others.

This ambiguity over the military's precise role and objectives could of course be purposeful, intended to keep its opponents off balance. More likely, however, it reflects Sisi's real dilemma of how to use his powers without undermining them -- and even the country he claims to be saving. The potential costs of a coup, however it is dressed up, are substantial: Egyptians take pride in their country's long history of at least nominal constitutionalism, and a military takeover would be at least a-constitutional, if not outright unconstitutional. No doubt the military high command is concerned that a profound violation of even the rather dubious Egyptian Constitution could come back to haunt it, both politically and legally.

A full-fledged coup would also risk the military's vital relationship with Washington. U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has been consistent and outspoken in its opposition to direct military rule since Mubarak's fall, even though it has been willing to accept a pretty thin civilian fig leaf. U.S. officials have reportedly warned the Egyptian generals that a military coup could result in the cutting of all U.S. aid to the country.

The military's coercive power is also too blunt an instrument to use in the political arena, especially against those as well organized as the Islamists. The street-level organization of the Muslim Brotherhood alone is now further reinforced by penetration and at least partial control of some state entities, including the Interior Ministry. Unlike in 1954, when Gamal Abdel Nasser and his officer colleagues met virtually no resistance when they rounded up Brotherhood activists, the military would certainly face a different situation today. Deploying heavy weapons against civilians would cross so many red lines it is basically unimaginable, while deploying troops would invite myriad problems when the military's civilian opponents are spread over the length and breadth of the country. And the Brotherhood, mindful of its past struggles with the military, would be far more likely to fight back.

As for the military's widespread popularity, that too is potentially ephemeral. An essential ingredient in the military's high standing has been its political neutrality, which it would find difficult if not impossible to square with direct rule. Even more challenging would be actually guiding the ship of state, which is going off an economic cliff as the political drama unfolds. Much of Morsy's unpopularity is due to the economic crisis and its various manifestations -- all of which would remain were the military to seize power, and none of which can be quickly resolved.

The military is well aware that it can't count on the loyalty of the crowds that cheered the Army helicopters that buzzed over Tahrir Square Monday, July 1. Among the secular opposition, distaste for military rule is widespread -- and indeed is the very factor that caused many to vote for Morsy in the second round of the presidential election last year when he faced off against his military-backed opponent, Ahmed Shafiq. While the secular opposition would welcome the military pushing the Brothers out of power, such support would quickly dissipate if the military then sought to rule.

The question of "to coup or not to coup" is made even more difficult by the internal politics of the military itself. Sisi, after all, was appointed by Morsy and is himself an Islamist in outlook, as demonstrated by his writings and statements while attending the U.S. Army War College. Under his leadership, the ban on Brotherhood members entering Egypt's military academy has been lifted, and at least one close family member, his nephew, is an activist in the organization. For the armed forces commander, an ignominious collapse of the Egyptian Islamist project -- with its negative ramifications for Arab Islamism more generally -- would be difficult to countenance. Clearly, he would like Morsy and his Islamist supporters to get their act together and provide effective governance.

While Islamism enjoys support within the officer corps, it also has its opponents. More important than political leanings, however, are officers' institutional loyalties and their self-image as ultimate defenders of the nation. Sisi thus risks losing the support of his own officers if he seems to be sacrificing the good of the nation for the cause of Islamists. He can only cut them so much slack before his position becomes untenable.

In sum, Sisi confronts a grave political crisis that could degenerate into profound violence were he to make the wrong move, or perhaps even if he made no move at all. He cannot count on the loyalty of the Egyptian Army if he decides to give the Brothers much more time to come to terms with their opponents and manage the country effectively. And he cannot count on Washington's support if his actions are effectively portrayed as anti-democratic or if they precipitate a breakdown in order. Sisi may seem like he has Egypt in the palm of his hand, but the truth is far different. Pity the man on horseback as he contemplates the challenging ride ahead.