It is becoming fashionable to say—as Leon Panetta just did during his trip to Asia—that America’s withdrawal from Iraq, soon to be followed presumably by a departure from Afghanistan, will allow us to focus on the far-more-important Asia-Pacific region. I cannot deny the importance of Asia, where we face our only near-peer competitor in the world (China), but it is simplistic in the extreme to say that our drawdown in the Middle East will make us stronger farther east.
American power in the Far East, as elsewhere in the world, rests in large part on American credibility. That credibility has been hurt by our impending departure from Iraq, which will leave a nascent democratic state at the mercy of its enemies. It will be hurt even further if we pull most of our troops out of Afghanistan before that country has been stabilized—as President Obama is likely to do. That is a lesson that allies in Asia, such as Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea will learn from—as will China, which will have fresh cause to doubt American staying power in the fight for freedom.
Beyond credibility there is the issue of resources: It may be plausible to say that we will be able to focus scarce defense dollars on Asia, but the reality is that the entire defense budget is rapidly contracting: already this year we have seen more than $450 billion in cuts, with another $600 billion potentially coming down the pike. This means that, even if we devote more of our budget to East Asia (which means more spending on the Air Force and Navy, less on the Army and Marine Corps), in absolute terms, our commitment is likely to shrink. Certainly our resources will not grow as fast as China’s—Beijing is increasing defense spending by double digits every year.
Keep in mind what happened after the Vietnam War: Our departure from Vietnam did not make us stronger anywhere—not in the rest of Asia, not in Europe, not in Latin America, and not in the Middle East. As our defense budget fell, along with our prestige and the morale of our military, our enemies rejoiced and took the opportunity to challenge our power—whether it was the 1975 Mayaguez incident (when the Khmer Rouge seized an American cargo ship) or the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, Sandinista takeover in Nicaragua, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. We were seen as a helpless giant.
To avoid a similar fate in the near-future, we must assure a good outcome in Afghanistan and Iraq, which will require a long-term troop commitment in both cases—and we must avoid cutting the defense budget any further. Unfortunately, neither condition is likely to be met as long as Obama remains in office.