Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.08.28

Bad News Isn't Like Wine

JBPress on August 23, 2013

It seems as if there are only two important regions in U.S. foreign policy: the Middle East and East Asia. Senator John McCain, probably one of the hardest-working U.S. senators this summer, was in Egypt two weeks ago and is now visiting Japan, China and South Korea this week.

He and Senator Lindsey Graham had been asked by President Barack Obama to visit Cairo and assist in the Egyptian reconciliation process. By the time they arrived at Cairo airport, however, the situation had gotten worse with almost no prospect for a political compromise.

On August 21, Senator McCain met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo. The Senator's voluntary missions in East Asia seem to include promoting progress on the Okinawa base issues as well as easing tensions around--if not actually mediating--the souring of Japan-China and Japan-South Korea relations.

What this 2008 Republican presidential candidate and influential voice in the U.S. Senate says sounds pretty reasonable. For example, in Cairo, he said that the arrest of President Mohammad Morsi was a "coup" and that U.S. aid to Egypt must be cut off as a result.

On a CNN Sunday morning talk show, he even stated that, "There is no policy, and there is no strategy, and therefore, we react, and we react poorly," claiming that the Obama administration has lost credibility in the Arab world. Unfortunately, this is not too far from the reality in the region.

In Tokyo, referring to a congressional resolution, McCain said that "The Senkakus are Japanese territory. That is our position as a congress and as a government. I will continue to repeat that when I go to China." At least in Japan, this sounds pretty reasonable and encouraging.

He also said that he and Prime Minister Abe had discussed Abe's constitutional reform initiative and agreed that it would strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance and reinforce Japan's national security. No matter how politically incorrect it may sound, there is a lot of truth in the Senator's remarks.

Although some officials in the Obama administration's second term may keep silent on these points, it is gratifying to know that at least some influential members of the U.S. Congress voice strong support for U.S. allies in the western Pacific.

But questions still remain. That was McCain, but where is President Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry? What are their views on the Egyptian crisis and the rising tensions in the western Pacific? Why are they so reactive and passive that they left important missions to the Arizona senator this summer?

There are other critical questions. Has the Middle East become more unstable after the U.S. began rebalancing to Asia? Should the U.S. continue to 'pivot' to Asia or stay in the Middle East? The answer is that the U.S. should maintain its presence in both regions.

It is time for us to change our mindset. The Middle East and East Asia are not two separate regions anymore. East Asia's critical sea lanes of communication run from Tokyo, Tianjin and Pusan through the Indian Ocean all the way to Doha, Jubail and Bandar Abbas in the Gulf.

This simply means that the Middle East and East Asia are becoming a single theater of operations, not only militarily but also politically. We need a group of gifted young people, as future policy makers, who understand the Middle East and East Asia equally and simultaneously.

We also have to address the inertia of President Obama's foreign policy. While it is understandable that he has to focus on the domestic agenda, it is wrong for the U.S. to be too reluctant to be proactive in, if not to intervene in, troubled areas or critical issues in the world.

Unfortunately, this only provides golden opportunities for destabilizing forces elsewhere, although the prudence and cautiousness of the U.S. are not necessarily causing the tension and turmoil in and around areas like the Senkakus, the Spratlys, Egypt or Syria.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration's stance will not only exacerbate already unstable situations in those areas but also pave the way for and even create future instabilities in other parts of the world.

General Colin Powell once said, "Bad news isn't wine. It doesn't improve with age." Unfortunately, the bad news in the Middle East or in East Asia will not be solved automatically by waiting, either. Only collective proactive measures with appropriate timing and determination can get the job done.