DENVER – For two years, President Barack Obama’s administration has tried to convey a narrative in which it is winding up wars in Southwest Asia and turning America’s attention to its longer-term – and arguably more important – relationships in East Asia and the Pacific. In recent months, that narrative has gained the virtue of actually being true.
Now, the task will be to balance the need for responsible military drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan with a responsible buildup of activities in East Asia. And that means putting to rest fears that the United States is gearing up for confrontation with China.
Obama’s decision to break off talks with Iraq’s government for a new agreement on the status of US forces there means that, after eight years, those troops are finally coming home (perhaps in time for Christmas). Since US politics no longer stops at the water’s edge, Obama’s decision was greeted with howls of derision by those who argued that he was “uncommitted” to the Iraq venture and somehow did not make his best effort to keep troops there. Never mind that Vice President Joe Biden, the chief negotiator, traveled to Iraq more times than any senior US leader has traveled to any previous war zone.
Nonetheless, critics claimed that Obama’s administration had offered up Iraq to the Iranians. The “proof” was that Iraq’s Shia prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki – a leader who may be called many things, but certainly not pliable or pliant – did not deliver the rest of the country’s political class to an agreement.
Early in the process, Maliki signaled two points to his American guests: he would like to see a continuing US troop presence in Iraq, but was unwilling to bear the entire political burden. He expected support from other Iraqi politicians; none came.
Sunni leaders, who tend to be grouped under the banner of the Iraqi National Party, Iraqiya, made clear that they would not support the continuation of US troops on Iraqi soil, denying Maliki the backing that he needed to forge a broad-based coalition. Sunni leaders have often expressed support for US forces’ presence in their country, but also believe that Iraq should no longer be a host to foreign troops. Polling data in Iraq, such as they are, reveal strong sentiments of the same kind: Iraqis appreciate US forces and what they have done, but nonetheless want them to leave.
The American writer Mark Twain once said: “Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” Indeed, Iraq’s implacable anti-American radicals are now both astonished and confused. Iraq’s Sunni and Shia extremists agree on little, but one point of unison had been that the Americans would never leave their country voluntarily. Yet that is what is happening today.
Whether Americans will ever return to Iraq for exercises and training missions that exceed the scope of embassy-sponsored security-assistance initiatives remains to be determined. Iraq needs continued training programs to manage its airspace, and its land forces must still overcome the Soviet model of massed artillery and armored formations. But potential future missions, if they materialize, would be understood as emanating from a sovereign Iraqi decision, not as making a virtue out of a fact on the ground.
And so, with America’s withdrawal from Iraq paving the way for the administration’s tectonic policy shift on Asia, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed west, confident that they would have a smooth journey. They did not.
To the extent that Americans regard any foreign-policy speech as having relevance to their lives, Obama’s economic message at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Hawaii was on message and on target: jobs, jobs, jobs.
But, soon after, when Obama arrived in Australia and Clinton landed in the Philippines, what looked like a clean narrative about the economy abruptly unraveled: Obama promised his Australian hosts that the US would station fewer than a brigade of US Marines in far-off Darwin to train and exercise. No one could possibly believe that this step would be sufficient to allay whatever concerns the Obama administration and America’s Asian allies have about China’s growing military power, but that is how the US press played it.
When combined with Clinton’s crowd-pleasing appearance on a warship in Manila Bay, and her use of the term “West Philippine Sea,” the economic narrative stood little chance. The new storyline was that the US had started pulling out of Southwest Asia for the purpose of confronting China. Even the administration’s deft and courageous move to send Clinton to Burma, following Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from detention and decision to rejoin the political system, was portrayed as another effort to poke China in the eye.
America’s reengagement in the Asia-Pacific region is welcome and overdue. Some of America’s partners in that part of the world ask very little, except for the US to pay attention now and again, attend meetings, and respect their consensual approach to problem solving. Just showing up, as the old aphorism goes, is half of life. In the Asia-Pacific region, it is sometimes even more than that.
But reengagement will come at too high a cost if it is widely seen as a path to confrontation with China, rather than overdue attention to everyone else. The US and the Asia-Pacific countries need to maintain productive relationships with China, which is becoming more complicated for everyone as China plunges into a period of internal introspection about its future.
How China emerges from this process, and how it behaves in its neighborhood – and globally – will determine much about what the world will look like in the medium and long term. We need to avoid creating self-fulfilling prophecies that stem from our deepest fears.