Pivot or Fake Pivot?

Thomas F. Stephenson (Ambassador to Portugal, 2007-2009)


Part of President Obama’s so called “Asia-Pacific pivot” was driven by legitimate concerns for current and future challenges emanating for the United States in that region.  The escalating threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities and the bellicose actions by its new leader are certainly of major concern.  So are China’s apparent cyber attacks on U.S. citizen, government and business entities, its rapid expansion of military resources and its intentionally disruptive naval actions in the South China Sea.  India with its huge and growing population and difficult relations with China and Pakistan is another area of legitimate concern.  Part of the objective of the “pivot,” however, appears to have been political as well, namely to redirect domestic focus from the numerous and daunting challenges we face in the Middle East and the Maghreb area of North Africa during the presidential election season.  The sad truth is that neither jihadist terrorism nor the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation know any meaningful geographic boundaries and will require various stages of vigilance on our part around the world.

It would appear that former Senator Kerry’s initial trip as Secretary to the Middle East reconfirms the critical nature of this area to the United States and the free world and suggests a reversion to more focus on this region.  “Leading from behind” is an oxymoron and as former Secretary Clinton pointed out in her Senate testimony regarding Benghazi, the world desperately needs strong leadership from the United States in this area and elsewhere around the world.  Our failure to provide stronger leadership throughout North Africa and the Middle East during the entirety of the “Arab Awakening” has been a tragedy to observe.  Leadership doesn’t mean the commitment of U.S. ground forces to any particular area, but it does mean thinking and acting far more strategically and tactically about how to address the opportunities to foster and spread freedom and democracy than what we saw in the first term of the Obama administration.  Secretaries Gates, Panetta and Clinton appeared to have many of the right instincts, but had little support or consent from the White House for constructive action.  The challenges in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Iran are formidable to say the least, but there are numerous ways in which stronger American leadership could have and still can make a huge difference.

Syria and Iran are, in my judgment, the two most critical areas in the region requiring more forceful leadership from the United States.  An Israeli-Palestinian settlement is unlikely to make much headway until we reach some resolution to the escalating conflict and human tragedy unfolding in Syria and we take more effective steps to contain the rising risk of a nuclear Iran.  Again, none of this will be easy.  In Syria we have been dithering for two years while somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 Syrians have been killed by the Assad regime and more than one million may have fled the country, putting untold pressure on neighboring countries to provide food and shelter and subjecting these neighbors to the risk of attack by Assad forces.  There is, no doubt, some risk that if we provide arms to the rebels, some of these arms will fall into the hands of jihadists, but we can no longer justify negligible action nor stand by and let the regime win a war of attrition.  Russia and Iran are providing weapons to Assad’s forces and we need desperately to sort out and support the most legitimate elements of the resistance.  Certainly a “no fly zone,” even if we only provide the logistical support for it as we did in Libya, would make a huge difference to the rebels.

In the case of Iran, we have made some important progress in imposing escalating economic sanctions that are having a significant negative impact on the Iranian economy. Russia and China have blocked many of our efforts to have the UN join in the imposition of even more constraining sanctions, but the U.S. and the EU, acting in consort, have imposed a stiff economic price on Iran for its actions. Unfortunately, while we have upped the economic ante for Iran, we have not maintained a credible military threat if Iran does not cease and desist from all activities leading to a nuclear weapons capability.  Once again, Iran is playing a stalling game by holding out just enough hope of a diplomatic solution to forestall any sort of military action.  It will be difficult, if not impossible, to contain Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations without a credible threat of military intervention.  This administration, through various internal leaks and inactions, has lost this credibility and must seek to change that perception through not only a change in rhetoric, but also through some sort of limited military response when an opportunity presents itself.  The response could be nothing more than some more bellicose appearing naval or air maneuvers in the Persian Gulf, but Iran will not back down until they are convinced  that our threat of a military response is real.

Secretary Kerry has spent a lot of time in this part of the world during his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, knows most of the players well and seemed to demonstrate the appropriate instincts during his recent visit. Let’s hope that he can and will try to convince the Commander in Chief that a more activist and engaged approach is required if we are to make progress in promoting peace and stability in this volatile and dangerous region.