Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 00:59 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 00:59 | SYDNEY

Bin Laden and the Asia Pacific century


Sam Roggeveen


3 May 2011 16:06

The notion that the US and the rest of the Western world face an 'existential threat' from al Qaeda and Islamist terrorism has been terrifically damaging. It's an idea that inspired two of the great own goals of modern international politics, the bloody and expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The threat from al Qaeda and its supporters was never serious enough to warrant such a reaction.

President Obama recognises how unsustainable the Bush Administration's counter-terrorism policies are. His primary mission as president has been to restore America's economy and its standing in the world, and since the two wars started by George W Bush are a drain on both, Obama is winding down the US mission in Iraq and has signaled that he will do the same in Afghanistan.

Now, thanks to an important essay in the New Yorker, we have an additional clue about Obama's foreign policy doctrine: Obama believes that the future of the global order will be determined in the Asia Pacific. Here's a key quote from the article (my emphasis):

One of (National Security Advisor Thomas) Donilon’s overriding beliefs, which Obama adopted as his own, was that America needed to rebuild its reputation, extricate itself from the Middle East and Afghanistan, and turn its attention toward Asia and China’s unchecked influence in the region. America was “overweighted” in the former and “underweighted” in the latter, Donilon told me. “We’ve been on a little bit of a Middle East detour over the course of the last ten years,” Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said. “And our future will be dominated utterly and fundamentally by developments in Asia and the Pacific region.”

If this description of Obama's beliefs is accurate, then we can see his management of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in a slightly different light: he is winding down these wars not only in order to rebuild America's economy and improve its international standing, but also so that he can recalibrate US foreign policy toward an Asia Pacific future.

Not all the evidence points towards this conclusion. After all, Obama did order a troop surge in Afghanistan, and he has involved the US in a third Middle Eastern war, in Libya. Those are hardly the actions of a president who wants to wash his hands of American military involvement in the Middle East. But the Afghanistan surge can be read as a ploy to appease Republicans and the Pentagon on the way an eventual withdrawal, and the Libya operation was quickly outsourced to the Europeans.

Then there's the subtle shift in Obama's language compared to that of the Bush Administration — Obama last night referred several times to a 'war against al Qaida', but never a 'war against terrorism'. We may look back and say that Obama is slowly moving Americans toward a new definition of the terrorist threat, one which does not demand an endless ideological crusade against militant Islam but which instead calls for a persistent but low-level policing of what is a serious but manageable risk.

The death of Usama bin Laden gives Obama the freedom to attempt such a shift, since it insulates him from Republican charges of 'weakness' and will help him to convince Americans that it is safe and responsible to withdraw from Afghanistan. For America to marshal the resources and intellectual energy for the Asia Pacific century, Obama will have to make this leap, and take America with him.