Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

US Foreign Policy: Obama and Beyond: Elliott Abrams Predicts an Increase in American Military Capacity and a More Assertive Role in International Affairs

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

US Foreign Policy: Obama and Beyond: Elliott Abrams Predicts an Increase in American Military Capacity and a More Assertive Role in International Affairs

Article excerpt

The major theme of Barack Obama's presidency has been to diminish American commitments overseas and to re-make America's role. His policy has been to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or rather, to end the American role in them, and famously then to 'pivot to Asia'. These represent the end of a swing in a pendulum. A swing back can now be anticipated. Military spending will increase under the next president, whoever that may be. Even before the presidential election in 2016 we will see a more aggressive US policy in the Middle East against ISIS, from a president who has greatly resisted this.

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On 2 August 2015, we marked the 25th anniversary of the day in 1990 when 100,000 Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait. It is a good moment to reflect on what that event and the American reaction to it meant for American foreign policy--and to reflect on American foreign policy in the next 25 years.

I doubt that many Americans thought, 25 years ago, that the country would henceforth be ensnared in the politics of the Middle East in a way that it never had been before.

But since that day, it has been the Middle East where crises have most demanded American leadership and American military commitments--not Europe and Asia, where the United States had previously fought all of its major foreign wars. As the analyst Vance Serchuk has written,

   While challenges elsewhere would compete for Washington's attention
   in the years after Desert Storm--including the disintegration of
   Yugoslavia, periodic tensions with North Korea, and the rise of
   China--it has been the problems of the Middle East that, rightfully
   or not, have dominated the U.S. diplomatic and security agenda
   during this period.

It is a bit hard to recall this fact, but prior to that day in August 1990 the United States had not been much involved in the Middle East militarily. The British had pulled back from the region and the United States had steadily emerged as the replacement to British imperial hegemony, but it was not until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that the Carter administration established a joint military task force for the region, an arrangement that would grow into US Central Command (CENTCOM).

Twenty-five years ago, then, we began to see the United States pivot from Asia and Europe to the Middle East. Men, machines, bases, headquarters, expenditures and new alliances followed. As Serchuk wrote, 'The American military marched into the Gulf in late 1990 to evict the Iraqis from Kuwait, and it has never really left.'

Successful campaign

There can be little doubt that President Obama decided it was time to leave, and campaigned and won office on that policy idea. His policy has been to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or rather, to end the American role in them, and famously then to 'pivot to Asia'.

Of course, that pivot is, so far, not a very impressive thing to behold. For one thing, how can one pivot forcefully when American military budgets keep declining and the forces available are fewer? For another, the pivot has been delayed by the rise of jihadism --principally ISIS, the Islamic State--and the obvious need to combat it.

I would suggest that the 'pivot to Asia' is in any event a minor theme in Obama policy. The major theme has been to diminish American commitments overseas and to re-make America's role. Obama viewed that role as wrong in two ways. It was too large, thus spending money he wanted to spend at home--'nationbuilding here at home', he called it in 2012. And, it was not sufficiently progressive. Over the years we had overthrown progressive regimes, acted aggressively, been on the wrong side of history. This would change. We would now 'extend a hand', in Obama's words, to enemies such as Cuba and Iran--and he has done so. He has also apologised for past US actions in Iran, Cuba, and elsewhere. American foreign policy has done less rather than more--less in Afghanistan and Iraq, less in Syria, less in confronting Putin. …

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