Stumbling US Foreign Policy Breeds Concern in Asia

From almost every perspective, American foreign policy is in a mess, raising concern among many in Asia who believed that the enhanced focus on this region promised by President Barack Obama would provide a basis for their own strategic thinking.

That heightened concern revolves partly around China’s growing hegemonism in the South China Sea, where it is building its own island on Mischief Reef, 250 km west of the Philippine island of Palawan and far from China’s shores. But it is also because of the US loss of momentum on such issues as trade. The administration is partly to blame but Congress is a bigger obstacle to coherence based on a rough consensus of what is in the US national interest.

This administration, like so many before it, is prone to quick judgments that divide issues into simple black and white terms requiring the US to take sides. The latest example of this is in Yemen where it has committed itself, with Saudi Arabia, to backing a failing government against the Houthi rebels. This might be understandable if the Houthi were some form of extreme fundamentalist Taliban or El Qaida. But this is a fight with several intertwined elements – local tribalism, Sunni and Shia, secular and religious, plus the role of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who quit in 2012 after 30 years in power but remains ambitious.

Saudi involvement is now also stirring the idea that this is another Saudi/Iran, Sunni/Shia proxy war. Given the struggles underway in Syria and Iraq and the potential for sectarian conflict elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula besides Yemen, this is the last cause the US should be joining. As it is, the complexities of Middle East politics already defy coherence in US policy as de facto alliances with Iranian backed forces in Iraq show.

The US’s now-ambiguous attitude to President Bashar Assad, previously chief villain but now also fighting the new No. 1, the Islamic State, also shows the need to think through when to act rather than be pushed into imagining that US intervention for the current “good guys” can bring peace and democracy.

The Yemen intervention may also help those ganging up against the nuclear accord with Iran, a geopolitical necessity backed by almost every US ally and neutral with the exceptions of Israel and Saudi Arabia. The world watched in disbelief as the US Congress allowed itself to become the plaything of Benjamin Netanyahu, a man making good progress in furthering the expansion of an increasingly apartheid state thanks to US political support and massive Republican funding from casino king and Netanyahu backer Sheldon Adelson.

For sure, Obama finally has made clear his aversion to Israeli policies under Netanyahu but thanks to a US Congress in the pocket of vested interests and with bizarre ideas about nuclear-armed Israel. the prime minister continues to use the Iran issue as a cover for expanding Israeli settlements on Arab lands and impeding the eventual normalization of relations with Iran.

Other than Turkey and Egypt, this is the only state in the region unlikely to fall apart. This would have a wide beneficial impact on the US in the Middle East and beyond, as well an encouraging change in Iran and the economic development which will undermine the theocracy. Already Iran, unlike Saudi Arabia, is clearly more interested in economic and national interest issues than in promoting Islam or sectarianism.

Given the hostility of Russia under Putin, it makes no sense to have Iran as an enemy. Not that Washington and Brussels distinguished themselves either over Ukraine. Better understanding of the Crimea and eastern Ukraine issues might have made for more flexible policy rather than one which enabled Putin to emerge as a Russian nationalist hero.

As for the latest US diplomatic disaster – the total collapse of its efforts to limit membership of the China-driven Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the roots of this issue go back to Congress and its failure to allow capital increases for international institutions and the related US reluctance to allow China the greater international role that it sought.

Then came the current administration’s thoughtless, knee-jerk reaction to the AIIB without proper consultation with Asian allies who, although like India are often suspicious of China, saw no reason to reject the possibility of extra investment funds, and no reason to irritate China on this issue. It was better to be inside the tent.

Meanwhile the lack of a bipartisan foreign policy makes US friends worry about the future. A dysfunctional Congress has led to foreign policy issues being subjected to narrow party and ideological infighting with little relevance to the real national interests of the US.

One result is the lack of progress of the Trans Pacific Partnership, supposedly one of the cornerstones of the tilt towards Asia. It could be argued that TPP was too transparent an attempt to stem Chinese influence in Asia, or that it was simply too ambitious in its scope to make headway even among close allies such as Japan or in parts of Asia where nationalism is on the rise. But uncertainty over whether the president will get from a hostile Congress the fast-track powers to approve any deals is no incentive for others to push ahead.

The reality is that the US is not the overarching power in the world that it used to be. But it has made matters much worse for itself because of a combination of poor analysis, arrogance and, worst of all, agendas driven by stunningly ignorant and partisan politicians and media in the US.

Obama has challenged some of the more obvious idiocies – by his opening in 2011 and 2012 to Myanmar, and more lately to Cuba, including meeting President Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas, and by resisting bigger involvement in the Syrian quagmire. At least he has been on the side of looking before leaping.

But given Washington politics it is hard to see how the US can improve its record in defining and acting on its own long term interests in a more complex world whoever wins the 2016 presidency given Hillary Clinton’s apparent lack of coherent strategic views despite her years as Secretary of State and the backwoods background of several of the Republican would-be contenders.