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Foreign Policy

Asia-Pacific Pivot Handicapped in Troubled World

Aug 26 , 2014

President Obama must have a lot on his mind lately after the world entered what has been called an “eventful summer”. A number of international and domestic crises are threatening to throw his “rebalancing to Asia-Pacific” strategy off balance.

First, the Ukrainian crisis worsened after a Malaysian passenger plane was shot down over the country’s eastern area. The event aggravated the confrontation between the United States and Russia, leaving Eastern Europe in greater instability, which in turn distracted Washington in its overall diplomatic strategy.

The US and the EU joined hands to impose sanctions against Russia, targeting its energy, banking and military industries. Instead of yielding to the pressure, Russian President Vladimir Putin staged resolute counterattacks. Moscow allowed former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden to stay in the country for three more years while imposing sanctions on agricultural products from Western countries. It also resumed deployment of massive forces along the border with Ukraine. Commenting on the confrontation, former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, in a rare move, jointly wrote an article for the New York Times to warn of the threat of a “new Cold War”, arguing that tensions in eastern Ukraine could further rise and even escalate into a direct military conflict between NATO and Russia.

Second, the “Arab Spring” has plunged West Asia and North Africa into an utter chaos. The US had intended to fish in the troubled waters but only to see the Middle East political changes spiral out of control to its disappointment.

In Syria, the US supported the rebel forces in an attempt to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s government. But the civil war led to rampant growth of terrorist forces. The Syrian battlefield has become “the best training camp” for international terrorists, who are now plaguing Iraq and harassing Lebanon. Muslim extremists from the US, Europe, South Asia and Southeast Asia who battled alongside Syrian rebels are bringing threats to their home countries.

In Libya, the US-led subversion of the Gadhafi regime has begun to demonstrate its ill effect as battles between Tripoli and Benghazi militias intensified threatening an all-round civil war. Washington was forced to shut down its embassy in the country.

Third, extremist ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Levant) forces won their battles against the Iraqi government troops to take many cities, forcing the US to send troops to Iraq again.

The US invaded Iraq in 2003 in disregard of worldwide opposition. After causing tremendous human casualties, the US troops withdrew from Iraq in 2010, leaving the country in a shambles. Much to Washington’s dismay, the extremist forces that began thriving in the Syrian war have grown into a formidable force in Iraq. Gaining advantages in sectarian conflicts and tribal rivalries, they committed one after another genocide and threatened to overthrow the Baghdad government. Haunted by the scenario of Iraq falling apart and “terrorized”, Obama began to take action. He announced on August 7th that he had authorized American troops to launch air strikes on ISIS forces so as to help the government rescue the people trapped by the rebels.

Fourth, the flames of war raged again in the Gaza Strip with the US finding itself no longer able to control the Israel-Palestine conflicts. After three Jewish teenagers were killed by Hamas forces, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched massive attacks on Palestinians in disregard of Washington’s dissuasion. The military offensives caused heavy casualties, creating a serious humanitarian crisis. The US tried to mediate but failed to achieve any result, leaving itself in isolation in the international community. Israel lashed out at Washington’s efforts with “the most scathing remarks” with some officials calling Secretary of State John Kerry “a traitor” and blaming him for “having ruined the Israel-US relations.”

Fifth, Afghanistan continues to suffer from chaos, leaving Washington’s withdrawal plan in doubt. After the 9-11 disaster, the US invaded Afghanistan to plunge itself into “the longest war in American history”. Pessimistic about the prospect of the war and post-war reconstruction and “democratic reform”, Obama was eager to have US troops withdrawn from the country as early as possible. Unfortunately, the Kabul regime failed to live up to Washington’s expectations while Taliban forces showed signs of coming back menacing. The killing of a US major general by extremists in the Afghan government troops signals the high possibility of the country being ruled by Taliban once again.

Sixth, a domestic finance in dire straits forced the White House to slash the military budget while the enmity between Democrats and Republicans keeps hampering Obama’s foreign policies.

The public is more and more dissatisfied with their president’s foreign policies. Media opinions pointed out that Obama’s poor performance in diplomacy may help Republicans win both the House and Senate in the mid-term elections. At present, Obama even faces the possibility of being prosecuted by the House speaker for “abusing power and violating Constitution.”

With the aforementioned “six major constraints”, the “pivot to Asia-Pacific” strategy will lead nowhere. The root cause of its failure lies in the fact that Washington’s ambition goes far beyond its real ability. To make it worse, both of the allies the US pins its hope on for the “pivot” strategy – Japan and the Philippines – have proven to be out-and-out troublemakers.

Chen Xiangyang is Deputy Director & Research Fellow at World Politics Research Institute, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

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