The decision by the Obama Administration to make the Asia-Pacific region the focus of its new defense strategy took a lot of experts by surprise. Yes, China has been building up its military, particularly so-called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities designed to force the U.S. military to retreat from the Western Pacific. And yes, the Asia-Pacific region has become the global economy’s engine and the center of manufacturing capability. Also, the U.S. has a number of key friends and allies in this region that need continuing support.
But why pivot now? It will be years, probably decades before China is really a military superpower. North Korea remains an irritant but its economy and military capabilities continue to deteriorate. Our position in the region has been improving over the past decade with a number of countries in the region. The growth of China’s military and its increasingly belligerent behavior is sending regional parties fleeing into America’s arms. The U.S. needs to invest in the means of defeating A2/AD challenges wherever they arise, not just in Asia. But where is the change in the international security system that necessitated the pivot?
In reality, our major national security problems lie elsewhere. One region that ought to be of primary concern to U.S. defense planners is the Middle East. The attack on the consulate in Benghazi and the subsequent flood of information makes it clear that Islamist terrorism is taking hold in Libya. Similar groups are taking control over vast swathes of North Africa. Syria is in the midst of a protracted civil war which is already spilling over into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, a NATO ally. The standoff with Iran may be resolved peacefully. But then again, it may not. One rocket from Gaza landing on an Israeli school or hospital and we will see another war break out.
Another region of concern is Eastern Europe and Russia. Despite the administration’s efforts to reset relations with Russia the reality is that the government in Moscow is becoming increasingly authoritarian and anti-American. Even if we do not see Russia as a threat, their leaders see the United States and NATO as Russia’s chief opponent. Russian officials have threatened to employ their nuclear weapons against the Obama Administration’s European theater missile defense system in the event of a crisis with NATO, despite the fact that the system is no threat to Russia’s strategic deterrent. The parts of Eastern Europe not in the European Union and/or NATO are in danger of drifting into Moscow’s orbit, recreating much of the old Soviet Union.
It is more important to maintain adequate forces in these regions than to shift increasingly scarce assets to the Far East. The current plan is to reduce the U.S. presence in Europe by two brigades. We haven’t maintained a carrier battle group in the Mediterranean for some years. It is already a struggle to preserve the necessary forces in CENTCOM to address all the possible conflicts and crises. A pivot now will make it harder to protect our vital national interests in Europe and the Middle East. The pivot can wait.