Pivot Toward Pacific not Away from Middle East

Since the announced “pivot” to the Pacific, much hand-wringing and consternation has focused on what it means for the United States’ security relationships with Europe.

The implications of the rebalance for the Middle East are just as important.

There’s one thing to keep in mind about a “pivot;” while moving in the new direction, one foot is kept firmly planted. While the US may be turning more towards the Pacific region strategically, it remains firmly involved with the Middle East operationally.

US interest in that part of the world goes back decades. The latest round can trace its origins to US deployments in August 1990 in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. In the following two decades, US involvement has been steady through multiple operations such as Desert Fox, Northern and Southern Watch, Desert Strike, and events such as the attacks on the USS Cole and US embassies to name a few.

The US currently spends billions in the Middle East every year. Roughly 90,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are deployed in the Central Command Area of Responsibility and that doesn’t count the aircraft or ships that pass or rotate through. They aren’t leaving anytime soon. The majority of American low-density, high-demand assets, such as special operations forces, electronic attack aircraft, and combat search and rescue teams are deployed to the region.   The United States has long-term commitments, agreements, and common interests with its partners and allies in the region, including countless military-to-military exercises, agreements, and events.

The United States is not abandoning the Middle East by any stretch of the imagination. 

Downsizing? Yes, of course! The president has been quite clear on that. US forces are out of Iraq and are slated to be (mostly) out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The American footprint is getting smaller. However, downsizing is not abandonment.

The Middle East will remain of vital strategic interest to the US. Three of five of the world’s maritime chokepoints are in the region. Sixty percent of the world’s oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz alone.

And let’s not forget Iran, which is viewed as a top security threat by many nations in the region and around the world for multiple reasons, ranging from destabilizing activities throughout the region to state-sponsored terrorism to a potential nuclear weapons capability.

What this rebalance does mean is that the United States has recognized and appreciates the impact, importance, and relevance of the billions of people who live and work in the Pacific. And, just as importantly, it recognizes that these countries are quickly joining the ranks of developed economies. The United States has recognized in its National Security Strategy the sheer amount of commerce that originates, passes through, or ends in the Pacific. 

While not directly stated in the announcement of the strategic “pivot,” the United States also recognized in its National Security Strategy how much the Pacific and the Middle East interact in regards to security and commerce. 

The US is not abandoning the Middle East. Rather, the US will continue to play a vital role in the region while building up partnerships and alliances to help promote mutual security for all. Not necessarily a NATO for the Middle East, but rather a broadening of already existing coalitions through agreements and cooperation across a wide-spectrum of areas. 

The United States’ allies in the Middle East have become more technologically advanced and have greatly increased their interoperability with US forces, through numerous joint exercises—including combat operations over Libya—and with the purchase of high-tech weaponry, such as F-16 Block 60s, F-15SAs, and the munitions to go with them.

The end result? A self-sufficient coalition of nations comprised of the US and its allies, ready and able to take the lead of the defense of the commons and, just as importantly, of themselves. The future of defense is through teamwork and cooperation—and US partnerships with it friends and allies in the -Middle East are just such examples of that future.

No, the US is not abandoning the Middle East. There are simply too many areas of interest in the region for the US to lose sight or to neglect.   The US may be in the midst of rebalancing towards the Pacific, but it is most assuredly keeping itself firmly planted in the Middle East.

Lieutenant Colonel Aaron Burgstein is the Air Force fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author. They do not reflect the official position of the US government, Department of Defense, or the United States Air Force.

Image: obama-egypt-blog-1.jpg