The right kind of pivot in foreign policy

The U.S. should avoid military involvement in East Asia

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If one accepts the questionable assumption that the United States needs to be actively involved in some external part of the world to be happy and successful, President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia, away from the expensively war-prone Middle East, makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is for the United States to concern itself militarily with some of Asia’s tired, centuries-old rivalries and petty scraps. I put squarely in that category the current mini-duel between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu pieces of rock sticking out of the East China Sea and the U.S. military response (a B-52 flyover) to China’s claim that it controls the air space above them.

U.S. involvement in this quarrel is the moral equivalent of the NCAA intervening in an offside-penalty call in a football game between two small South Dakota high schools.

China’s and Japan’s problems with each other date back at least to the 19th century. America’s are more recent, as follows.

The Department of Defense is in a state because it can see budget cuts coming down the pike after the new year, perhaps $20 billion more due to continued sequestration than it initially anticipated. It thus needs to justify undoing the cuts based on what it will claim as heated-up tensions in East Asia — now that the war in Iraq is over and the one in Afghanistan is winding down, in spite of efforts to keep the United States mired there through an unbelievable 2024.

The matter in East Asia is complicated further by the inter-service rivalry for money among the U.S. Navy, Air Force and Army. The Army and Air Force largely fought — and got the money for — the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Navy was sort of dealt out of the game, not playing a particularly visible or expensive role.

The Navy sees — from a military and budgetary point of view — the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” as a mother’s dream. All that water, all those distances, all the ships and planes that would be required to enable the United States to play on that board — a veritable miracle in justification for more ships and planes for a “neglected” service. Never mind the belabored taxpayer.

And never mind the question of why, exactly, the United States has to play a major military role in East Asia.

I grasp that the United States continues to have interests in East Asia. But they are overwhelmingly economic and commercial in nature. And Mr. Obama is in some ways the best-suited American president yet to play a diplomatic and political role in Asia, having lived there, albeit briefly.

Trying to deal America into old intra-Asian rivalries militarily is unrealistic and just flat irresponsible, given the global nature of American interests, the state of the U.S. economy and the unsuitability of the United States to understand, much less meddle effectively in, East Asian conflicts.

When I watch us fiddling around over bits of rock in the sea between China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and other countries, I also have the awful feeling that we learned absolutely nothing from the stalemated Korean War of the 1950s or from our painful, costly defeat in the Vietnam War of the 1960s and ’70s. I know that Mr. Obama and most of his resident geniuses are not old enough to remember those wars, but it would be nice to think that their knowledge of U.S. military history goes back before the wars of this century that put them into the White House.

Having the United States embroiled in wars in the Middle East, in the midst of ancient rivalries between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Persians and Arabs, Jews and Muslims, Arabs and Berbers, and with Christians lingering among them as a now-unviable religious minority, underlines our unsuitability to be seriously involved in trying to move the furniture around in that region. Our involvement during just this century has cost us thousands of American lives and many billions in taxpayer money.

Is there any reason to think that a comparable investment of guns, lives and aid in East Asia would produce any better rewards for Americans?

The differences among East Asian nations are easily as complicated as those in the Middle East. The Chinese go into orbit every time some senior Japanese official worships at the Yasukuni Shinto shrine where some World War II Japanese war leaders are buried. The Chinese consider some of them to be war criminals. Some of them were tried and executed for just that, but it is worth wondering how much of Chinese dudgeon about Yasukuni is aimed at discouraging Japan from rearming.

We don’t think of East Asia as being as bedeviled by religious differences as the Middle East, but it nonetheless is the home of militant Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Islam and Shintoism that can at their worst lead to the same kind of extremist behavior found in the Middle East.

So let’s go with the pivot to Asia. But let’s keep it commercial, economic and financial — peaceful — and not get into zooming B-52s over each potential trouble spot. These matters are not our affair, we can’t afford to make them so and we will get nothing in return if we stumble into them.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1976).

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