It seems that someone in Washington is finally calling attention to the US government’s dangerous fixation on the Middle East — as freelance writer and onetime NYT correspondent Richard Halloran writes at RealClearPolitics, the Congressional Research Service has produced a report (available for downloaded here) warning that insufficient attention is being paid to the Asia-Pacific region.

For a country that’s supposedly a global superpower, the US has paid relatively scant attention in recent years to the requirement of a region that is changing rapidly. Halloran quotes two senior Asian specialists to that effect:

James Kelly, the assistant secretary who had headed the East Asia division of the State Department during President George W. Bush’s first term, said: “There is an insufficient realization that Asia has become the center of gravity,” meaning the focal point of political, economic and military power. “Policy and strategy toward East Asia,” he said, “are not easy to discern.”

Similarly, Stephen Bosworth, former U.S. ambassador to the Philippines and South Korea, asserted: “The administration can’t deal with more than one or two issues at a time.” He said that, by 2009 when the next president takes office, power in Asia “will have shifted while we were not paying attention.” [my emphasis]

Obviously Iraq is a serious problem, but if a presidential administration can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, then the unipolar “era” will crash to a halt — oh, wait. (Tom Barnett more or else makes the same point in this post on Putin’s remarks in Munich.)

The obsession with the Middle East predates, at least to some extent, 9-11, which arguably created a shift in degree of the attention given to the region, rather than a shift in quality. Of course, energy does much to explain this, but in the process of securing a stable supply of oil from the region, the US has become entrapped in pathologies of the Middle East (the messy distribution of nations across state borders, the Shia-Sunni divide, the Israel wars, etc.) and has found it impossible to extricate itself, with many within the US and abroad urging the US to stay engaged in the Israel-Palestinian question in particular, which seems like encouraging an alcoholic to have one more bender before starting AA. (A good argument for why this encouragement is silly can be found here.)

As soon as entirely possible, the US needs a period of benign neglect vis-a-vis the Middle East, and turn its focus to Asia, where the political map is changing rapidly.

My vote in 2008 will most likely be for the candidate most aware of how the Asia-Pacific is changing (and with it the US position in the region).

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