Many of you have been asking me through Twitter, Facebook and iReport, why the U.S. is so invested in the Middle East. Some of you, citing the Global Public Square interview with Kishore Mahbubani, ask whether this focus is causing America to pay too little attention to Asia. Here’s my response:
I think that America is invested in the Middle East for three reasons. Oil is number one without any question. Israel is number two. History and legacy is number three. There is a tendency among U.S. policymakers to believe that this is part of what we do. We police the Strait of Hormuz. We try to make sure there’s stability in oil-producing states and across the region.
I agree profoundly with Kishore that this leads to a huge over-investment in the region and that we should absolutely be shifting our attention to East Asia. To be fair, this is what Obama wants to do and has been trying to do. If you look at his reluctance and the constraints he’s placed around the Libyan operation, clearly that is one of the concerns of the Administration.
But the real acid test will be whether Obama makes sure that we get even more decidedly out of Iraq, draw down troops in Afghanistan and recognize more generally that in the Yemens of the world - or any of these places - the U.S. does not need a massive amount of military commitment. The U.S. should try to use the military in a strategic way that is really counterterrorism focused and that allows the U.S. to devote the bulk of its resources and energy to maintaining and strengthening America’s role in the Pacific.
I would only make one qualification on this. When people say the United States doesn’t pay enough attention to Asia: Remember, the United States is still a huge military power in Asia. We have 100,000 troops in Asia. We are devoting a fair amount of time and energy to Asia. We’re giving major Asian countries like China and India enormous amounts of respect and have encouraged them to enter the councils of global power and influence, giving them platforms and seats.
The truth is that Asia is not in crisis like the Middle East is in crisis. There are not a lot of Libyas in Asia. So it's not that the United States is making a strategic decision to invest more time, energy and resources in the Middle East. It’s that they keep having fires in the Middle East whereas Asia is slowly, brick-by-brick, building a huge edifice. That tends to attract or require less active American involvement.