Global Insight

November 19, 2012 2:22 pm

Obama’s focus is still on Middle East

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A visit to Asia-Pacific is no proof of a policy shift
(L-R) Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, US President Barack Obama, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, and Indonesia's President Susilo BambangYudhoyono, join hands for a group photo at the 4th ASEAN-US Leaders' Meeting©EPA

It seems another lifetime ago, but it is only four weeks since Barack Obama and Mitt Romney debated foreign policy. In the course of 90 minutes, they mentioned the Middle East 24 times and Israel on 35 occasions. And Asia? A solitary two mentions.

As President Obama makes what is effectively the first trip of his second term, Gaza is in flames, Jordan on edge and the war in Syria still grinding on. Yet Mr Obama has made a post-election beeline for southeast Asia.

The symbolism of the trip is important because one of the more intriguing suggestions about Mr Obama’s second term is that, despite all the rhetoric of the debate, he will start to engineer a subtle downgrading of the importance the US places on the Middle East, in favour of a more intense focus on the Asia-Pacific region.

The Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia has already been taking shape for at least two years. Officials never tire of pointing out that the Asia-Pacific is the most dynamic region in the world, while in private they recognise that China’s rise presents the biggest challenge to the US-led international order since the cold war.

“The US is a Pacific power whose interests are inextricably linked with Asia’s economic, security and political order,” as Tom Donilon, the White House national security adviser, put it last week. “America’s success in the 21st century is tied to the success of Asia.”

The prospect of a gradual retreat from the Middle East is one that appeals to many realists, who are weary of policing the region’s toxic politics, and to progressives who hope for a chance to scale back the US’ imperial imprint as the era of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars comes to an end.

The seismic shifts in the global oil trade are beginning to make the idea seem more imaginable. The International Energy Agency predicted last week that the US will be almost self-sufficient in energy in two decades’ time. At the same time, about 90 per cent of the oil produced in the Middle East is destined to go to Asia, especially China.

Why should the US spend all that time and money ensuring oil tankers can flow through the Strait of Hormuz, some are beginning to ask, when the direct economic link between the US and the Middle East is slowly being severed? It can easily feel like one of those moments when the geopolitical landscape starts to rapidly change.

Yet as the old Yiddish phrase goes, the US should be so lucky. Appealing as it might seem, Washington cannot turn its back so easily on the Middle East. If the US really wants to consolidate its position as the enduring Pacific power, as Mr Donilon suggests, then Washington will find itself as connected as ever to the Middle East oil trade.

America’s influence in Asia is rooted in its core alliances with Japan and South Korea. Yet China is not the only big Asian customer of Middle East oil: Japan and South Korea are also dependent on exports from the region. If Tokyo and Seoul thought that the US would no longer guarantee the safety of Middle East oil imports, their strategic calculations might start to change.

Globalisation is also its own form of indirect exposure. Every flatscreen TV bought in Best Buy and every new iPad contain plastics and other products that use oil in their manufacture. The Asian supply networks at the heart of the global economy are sustained by Middle East oil.

The Atlantic mindset thinks of the Middle East as starting at the Suez Canal. “There is an east coast view of the Middle East that is all about history and mandates, and the US picking up the British and French role,” says Jon Alterman, Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But the view of the Middle East from the Pacific coast is very different. It starts at the Gulf, passes India on its way to East Asia’s factories and ends with the American consumer. If Washington wants to remain central to Asia, there is no getting around the reality of Asian reliance on Middle East oil. The pivot to Asia does not pull America away from the Middle East. It takes it back by a different route.

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