Is Obama right that America’s Future is in Asia, not the Middle East?

(by Juan Cole)

Barack Obama, brought up in Hawaii and having lived as a child in Indonesia, is the first Pacific president, and his current trip to Asia, beginning in Japan, is meant to underline his policy of “rebalancing” toward Asia. Although the phrase has miffed some Europeans, the policy isn’t intended to substitute US European commitments for Asian ones. Europe is a bedrock of US trade and foreign policy, and the site of the most extensive set of US military alliances (Washington is pledged to go to war to defend all the NATO member states, only one of which, Turkey, is partially outside Europe, in the Middle East).

On can think of US foreign policy and trade interests as having two fields, stable, established ones in Europe and Latin America, and frontiers of a sort– Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The question for US political and economic entrepreneurs is which of the frontiers to concentrate on (the world is a big place and you can’t do everything). The Reagan and Bush administrations were fixated on the Middle East as the frontier.

Obama and his circle (with the possible exception of John Kerry) think the Middle East is a losing proposition and that the future opportunities lie in Asia. The original formulation, by Leon Panetta, perhaps had overtones of hostility to a rising China, whereas Mr. Kerry is known to be relatively friendly to China. One could say Panetta was an offensive realist on Asia, whereas Kerry is a liberal internationalist. Kerry is right that Asia is not a zero sum game. Both the US and China can make a lot of money there and can gain a lot of political traction there. Unlike in the Cold War, where the Soviet Union’s form of state socialism was inimical to and incompatible with US global trade and manufacturing, the Chinese have opened up a vast capitalist sector of their own.

The United States since the 1980s has invested enormous resources, not to mention blood and treasure, in the greater Middle East. The Reagan administration took revenge on the Soviet Union for the loss in Vietnam by deploying an Afghan jihad against Communist Afghanistan. The US navy fought a covert war against Iran in the Persian Gulf in the 1980s, as Reagan allied with Saddam Hussein of Iraq, as well. US troops were briefly committed to Lebanon.

The Clinton years saw less US entanglement in the region, but George W. Bush made the biggest impact on it since the age of colonialism, invading and occupying two major Middle Eastern countries and carrying out covert operations and engaging in close intelligence and security cooperation with many more. Oil and gas resources were part of the impetus for this profound American neo-colonialism in the Middle East, though echoes of the Cold War played a part. Thus, US involvement in Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Caucasus appears in part to have aimed at barricading Russia and ensuring that it did not reemerge as a great Power (a US and NATO aggressive strategy that is implicated in the current Ukraine crisis). And, the domestic US consideration of the wealthy and powerful Israel lobbies also pushed Bush in this direction, as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer have shown.

The enormous resources that the US invested in conquering and occupying the Middle East or in imposing itself as a hegemon there were almost completely wasted. Afghanistan is the fourth poorest country in the world, beset by narco-terrorism and facing a neo-Taliban insurgency, and it is difficult to imagine what good will come out of the long American occupation. Iraq is a basket case. An Iran-Saudi Arabia Cold War has polarized the region, with negative effects on Syria and Egypt. The far right wing Likud Party and its allies in Israel are intent on committing collective suicide by trying to absorb the West Bank into Israel, imagining they can find some way to avoid also absorbing the 4.4 million stateless Palestinians in the occupied Territories.

Getting involved in all that is almost certainly a losing game, diplomatically and militarily. As for the economic dimension, it has all the promise of air travel by blimp.

Oil and gas, the most important economic products of the Middle East, turn out to be about as good for us as drinking arsenic straight. They will decline radically as energy sources over the next 30 years and very possibly could become illegal. Oil still has value for plastics and fertilizer, but not nearly as much value as when used for fuel.

The US trade with the Middle East is only $200 billion a year, almost all of it hydrocarbons. US trade with Asia is $1.4 trillion a year. 70% of US imports from the Middle East are hydrocarbons, which will decline radically over time. In contrast, US trade with Asia is often only embryonic. India will be a vast market, in which the US at the moment has only a minor position.

The Panetta idea of the US containing China or challenging it in Asia is an unwise one, though it is also true that China is beginning to abandon some of its earlier wisdom in seeking good relations with neighbors, in favor of making claims on islands also claimed by the Philippines and Japan. Mostly those islands have no real value, so it seems just to be throwing weight around a la George W. Bush. For this reason, even the right wing government of Shinzo Abe in Japan has abruptly ceased agitating to end US bases in Okinawa. The real question for Japan and the Philippines is how much they can depend on the US to stand up for their territorial integrity versus Beijing. The US would be better advised to attempt to broker diplomatic resolutions to those competing claims, and would likely have more success there than in Israel-Palestine.

The future of US trade is in Asia, not the Middle East. The future of energy is in Chinese and Japanese and American technological innovation in solar panels, wind turbines, wave and geothermal. The really promising opportunities for diplomacy and problem-solving are in Asia.

Obama is right. The Beltway Bandits, oilmen, arms lobbyists and domestic constituencies for US war-making in the Middle East have taken this country down a primrose path that turns out to be strewn with land mines.

Go east, young nation.


Related video:

AP “Obama Reassures Japan on China”

15 Responses

  1. It’s a little too late in the Presidency to be taken as serious policy I would say. But then, given the aggression and fatalism of the Middle East ….

  2. Don’t underestimate the role technology plays here. As our ability to tap non-petroleum sources of energy grows, the US strategic interest in the Mideast will ebb even more. The only trading partner in the region worth much is Israel, due to its technology sophistication.

    • CAUTION: The myth of Israeli “technology” is just a worthless myth. In the REAL WORLD there is vastly more and better technology coming out of Asia, Europe and the US than out of Israel. I am a technologist and am well aware of what parts of the world are contributing the most technology and the reality is Israel contributes almost zero compared to Asia. Germany and Spain have far more advanced solar technology than Israel. In the real world, Israel has little value to the US.

      • Waalll them folks sure are vaunted about their military hardware and a lot of kill-everything nuclear weapons and various forms of crowd control (snerk snicker )…

        • In the REAL world, Israeli military war toys are no better than any other countries. Per CJ Chivers, there are over 100 million AK-47s and equivalent weapons on earth with thousands more being made each and every day of the month. Today a reasonably accurate (within 50 meters) missile guidance system can be made for less than US$ 1000 (Actually I can make a nice one out of four US$ 35 Raspberry Pis running a stripped down version of Linux). Antitank weapons are easy and cheap to build and can easily kill any Israeli (or US for that matter) tank. That is why the US military had to go to MRAPS to try and keep some of its soldiers alive. And the list of stuff that can mess up the IDF goes on. Then there are the tens of thousands of battle hardened Muslims that will slice through Israeli defenses, just like they sliced through US defenses in Iraq and Afghanistan. As for nukes, the REALITY that few seem to understand is that nukes are only good for ONE THING – committing suicide. The first country that uses nukes will have a terrible future. At a minimum, the country will starve from economic devastation, but the more likely situation will be nuclear devastation. Thanks to the PC revolution and the Internet, it is now easy to produce thousands of very effective, reasonably accurate weapons for very little cost.. If Israel starts a war, its enemies will run out of stuff to turn into rubble heaps before the run out of things to throw at Israel. Israel is far out on the plank over a deadly pool of boiling oil and they still believe their own myths. Israel is NOT going to like the results of the next war. BTW – If you have not already read “the Gun” by CJ Chivers, you might want to pick up a copy – it is a well documented, chilling read about the state of personal warfare these days.

        • Spy guy, I should have added a snark flag to my comment. Thanks for the additional light on the subject. The Likudniks are indeed suicidal but seem to want to take everyone else down with them. As to “advances in personal armament,” it begins to seem that “market forces” are making it ever easier for more of us sick humans to do the same. But of course those Guns are so so sexy, now aren’t they? So pleasing to our fantasies ? So freed from restraints of decency ? Yeah,a few of those idiots believe their own myths. Have they studied the videos at Stupid humans.

  3. “Is Amerca’s future in Asia?” What does that even mean?

    The post is a masterful exegesis of various parts of the Current Situation and Some Possibilities. But the underlying frame seems mostly mercantile and commercial, a straight extension of the kinds of institutional behaviors that are killing Freedom’n’Liberty ™ and plain old habitability for ordinary people everywhere. The corporate entities and their “government” appendixes that “Go East” advice is directed to are scarcely “America,” which was only an exceptional dreamstate masking a gestating Empire anyway. That mash-up of corporate power and wealth, “US trade,” is trans- and post- and supra-national, Friedman’s “Flat Earth” racing to the bottom. “We” should be happy that Obama’s crew are still trying to shove the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement up our noses? Maybe happy that Abe is feeling his own oats at the moment? link to

    And the US military-state-security thingie, busily linking up “interoperably” with local militaries and security-police forces, link to, is beyond national loyalty and into hegemonics that serve corporate interests first and foremost (“War – the REAL nature of the Enterprise — is a racket,” remember?), and the advancement and clout-building and second-career interests of its Battlespace Managers. link to

    “America” has taken runs at Asia before, on various models that have helped build war-based economies and massive consumption and prolongation of the Great Game in all its forms. link to What part of “America,” particularly the part where ordinary people live and too often go along with or feel powerless to resist the Giant Squeeze Play being run by the wider post-national kleptocracy, link to ,will benefit from a “pivot” or “re-balancing” or other BS euphemism cover for the cancer that is Business As Usual?

    Our votes, and our belief, and trust, and the wealth we create and are compelled to keep creating to pay the debts the Few write against our future, and our resignation, are what create the pool of “legitimacy” that these barstids float their ships on. Where’s the payback for making possible the megayachts and gigabuck CEO wealth transfers and HST and derivatives and this stuff, link to ? Where’s the “pivot” toward a sustainable structure that provides Maslow’s basics to all us ordinary people, in Tampa and Ann Arbor and such, who are about to lose our puny-person net access, and may have to pay corporations not to pollute us into sickness and early death? link to And solar power: how long before that’s a crushing franchise too, with “ownership” and unenforceable “rights” in the mix? link to

    As in Wm. Randolph Hearst and Horace Greeley’ day, the “East” is actually “West.” Right out there on the Horizon of our Manifest Destiny, right? And just who gains from pursuit of that Destiny, again?

  4. Thank you for this insightful and as usual blunt and courageous column. In the midst of a wave of short-sighted and dangerous misinformation about Russia and Ukraine, it is important to point out that the Western push towards Russian borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been aimed at “barricading Russia and ensuring it did not reemerge as a great Power…” Putin’s efforts during the past few years to establish a Eurasian Union (comprising Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, with the hope of the eventual membership of Armenia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and it was hoped Ukraine) in order to compete with the EU, as well as the issue of replacing US oil and gas for Russian supplies to Europe, are as important in the crisis in Ukraine as any desire for democracy on the part of the West or helping the Russian speakers in Ukraine on the part of Russia. Ukraine’s membership in the Eurasian Union could have made a big difference in its viability, and this is something that the West wished to prevent.

    On the other hand, China with a population bigger than that of the United States and Europe combined, with an economy that is expected to surpass that of the United States in less than a decade, and a with a more assertive military is a major issue of concern to America. Unlike Europe that laid the foundations of the United States, and even unlike the Middle East that has mainly the same worldview with the West due to the shared legacy of Abrahamic religions and also centuries of contact in Eastern Europe and the Middle East itself, the Chinese culture and worldview is a total mystery and puzzle to the West. The West does not exactly know what to do with that mysterious colossus that is emerging in the East. This is why President Obama’s policy of transfer to the East makes a great deal of sense, provided that America is not looking for a new enemy to replace the Soviet Union and does not look at relations with Asia as a zero sum game, pushing Russia and China closer together.

  5. Obama is correct about Asia being the future of the world. It is the only place any realistic leadership comes from anymore. “Capitalism” has abandoned the non-wealthy to a cruel and deprived fate, leaving only the State fascists of Beijing to do anything which in the slightest benefits the little guys.

    • I think you should look into the working and ecological conditions in China before you declare the Chinese Government cares about the little guy.

      • Maybe since their “revolutions” are a little more recent and a lot more violent, the Rulers there have to pay a tiny bit more attention to keeping the pain level just below the threshold where anarchy and anomie seem preferable. Via oppressive control mechanisms, and “just enough to eat-ism.” You can bet that the kleptocratic portion of the Ruling Class is just like our own, knowing the real deep truth that they will live lives of extraordinary luxury and indulgence, and die and be beyond any kind of consequences, retribution or restitution, before the s__t hits the fan… “Apres nous le deluge,” “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone,” all that… link to Nothing new here, of course. Very few of us humans, given the option, actually seem to “care about the little guy.”

  6. In his latest column, China Matters took the opposite point of view. “Maybe the End of the American Century Starts Here.”

    President Obama is set to visit Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and South Korea, but not China. All four of those countries, especially the Philippines and Japan, are having BIG territorial disputes with China.

    China Matters sees Obama’s trip as “dedicated to the containment of the People’s Republic of China.”

    • Teh Stupid is entrenched, and cannot end well… especially for us ordinary people who just foolishly want to go along and get along in our tiny little lives. Not that the Chinese rulership and oligarchs seem to have any interest in better lives for most people either.

    • The US is providing unquestioning backing for the seizure of Chinese islands by Imperial Japan in its expansionist phase. During the same years Japan seized Taiwan and tightened its grip on Korea. This Japanese aggression continued for nearly fifty years and resulted in slavery and death for millions of Asians – many Chinese.

      Now the Japanese leaders visit the shrine containing war criminals and right wing Japanese deny the atrocities of the Imperial Japanese Army ever took place.

      The territorial dispute -at least between China and Japan – is not one to charge in to simply because Japan is currently an ally.

  7. Yes. Anyone who has read even a few of its clauses realizes it is not about free trade – in fact it is about the opposite: seeing that the current status of power is fixed, so that all the current mega-corporations maintain their hierarchical power status and no new innovations or entrepreneurs are allowed to rock the boat – forever.
    It is also about making sure that no locality – whether it be a town, state, nation, continent, or global movement – ever has the right to pass laws regarding its clean water, clean air, pollution, ethical labor laws, or even ethical beliefs (even when these arise from the beliefs of virtually the entire population of a country and underlie its culture and religion, for instance Malaysia’s laws trying to regulate or reduce the open import of alcohol, or meat that is proscribed or has not met the standards the rest of the country is expected to pass).
    Americans who defer to the “free trade” label should not be fooled. Treaties of this type are not meant to make things fair for anyone but the mega-interests that control much of what happens in the world now, and who want to be sure they can continue to control at least as much in future. They don’t ever want to see their grasp on resources and power diminish. Their worst nightmare, it seems, is for the majority of those living in that space, or any locality, to have any say in what its land, forests, minerals, agricultural potential, energy wealth, or even investment potential may be – whether that be in increasing or prohibiting development.
    They will affect our most-cherished freedoms. If these treaties continue to make headway, we will no longer have a say as to whether the destruction of our communities’ air, land, and water are things we’re willing to live with. We will have no choice. We will not be able to prevent extractive industries from fracking our land, selling our groundwater, or polluting our natural capital since to do so would be “taking” from them profits they had expected to earn under the new laws.
    And in the new globalized legal world they’ve created, they will win – and already have.
    It is not enough to try to create pockets of local resistance to the larger economic-legal infrastructure that has been solidifying around us. Creating alternatives and local refuges where this system does not prevail are key, but they will not be able to survive in a larger system dedicated to their demise.
    Civic society will have to fight this onslaught both locally and globally – even at the same time that it is attempting to create alternative models for future societies. Thankfully, this is being explored widely – globally, and in depth – across many disciplines: economics, ecology, political economy, permaculture, engineering, appropriate technology, sustainability, agroforestry, and many more.
    Do what we can, where we can. We live in interesting times.

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