With Osama Down, Obama Can Pivot to Focus on Asia

By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser and Director of the Southeast Asia Program, CSIS

President Obama and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in the White House Situation Room during Sunday's operation. U.S. Government work in the public domain.

Killing Osama bin Laden (OBL) will deliver more than an existential sense of justice to families whose innocent mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons were butchered by him and his al Qaeda terrorists: it will provide an important and historical pivot point for President Obama. The turn will be from the quagmire of a “war on terrorism,” dominated by a focus on the Middle East, to a new paradigm for security and growth in Asia.

This move will put America on new footing: less defensive and more strategic. The fight against terrorism and specifically al Qaeda is far from over, as the president said in his remarks the day after Navy SEALS took OBL down in Abbottabad. However, the way that fight is engaged will now change. The new approach is vitally important for America’s future national security and economic growth, two core interests that for the twenty-first century are intrinsically intertwined and anchored in Asia.

I made the case for this shift from the Middle East to Asia when I spoke with Ryan Lizza last month as he researched his well-read essay in last week’s issue of the New Yorker, and was glad to see my friend Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, quoted in the essay saying much the same thing. (Ryan made the same points again on Tuesday following the death of OBL).

The paradigm shift is coming not a moment too soon. The United States has sacrificed promoting its interests in Asia for over a decade now, focusing on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, China, which has benefited handsomely from an enormous U.S. commitment to secure peace and prosperity in Asia following World War II, has smartly taken advantage of the situation and built its economic influence, specifically in Southeast Asia and in the Asia Pacific more generally. China is now the top trading partner for most countries in the region; it is pouring tied aid into the region, building infrastructure and using a system that supports its companies and injects Chinese labor into regional markets. After more than a decade of relative inattention from the United States, China has begun to view Southeast Asia through its own version of the Monroe Doctrine.

All of Asia has welcomed China’s rise for the prosperity it can bring through new markets, new investment, and a new engine for Asian economic integration. At the same time, the rest of Asia has real concerns about China’s intentions. China’s handling of maritime territorial disputes from the South China Sea to the Senkaku Islands has triggered age-old regional anxieties about a regional hegemon with unclear intentions and values.

Killing OBL provides President Obama with the credibility to move on from Iraq and Afghanistan and refocus on the Asia Pacific, where his historically credible aspirations to become the “First Pacific President” can find roots and flourish.


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