17 January 2013
On November 21, 2012, in the midst of President Obama’s historic trip to Myanmar and embrace of Aung San Suu Kyi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to urgently reroute to the Middle East in order to help negotiate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas before the attacks spun further out of control. This disruption of the carefully choreographed, high-visibility Asia trip revealed the impossibility of our pivoting to Asia if it means neglecting the Middle East. Our conduct in Asia and Middle East are both critical, and the successes in both regions are intertwined.
In December 2011, in an op-ed for Singapore’s Strait Times, I made the case for boosting American engagement with Asia. The economic rationale for this is clear: the exceptional opportunities and competitive threats that the economic dynamism of Asia presents; and the need to astutely and proactively respond to China’s growing economic, political, and military footprint. The United States under its Hawaii-born President should indeed revitalize its engagement on the Pacific frontier.
The President’s visit to Myanmar/Burma reminded me of President Nixon’s historic visit to China. Both watershed events heralded cooperation that would have been difficult to envision through conventional lenses. The differences were also notable. For Nixon, it was about building a relationship with the political elite in China’s one-party state; for Obama, the focus was on easing the grip of a Myanmar’s military dictatorship and the articulation of democratic values underpinning a new economic partnership in China’s neighborhood.
Nurturing democratic aspirations may well be a theme that can bring coherence to our strategic narrative in both Asia and the Middle East. The Arab Spring has activated many dormant and marginalized voices into the political discourse. These are also unprecedented social movements with profound and uncertain outcomes.
In this context, the U.S. must address three critical questions. First, how will we reset our relationships with the awakened Arab publics and their governments? Second, how will we credibly advance peace with justice among Israelis and Palestinians? Finally, how will our actions influence which version of Islamism (progressive or reactionary) gains dominance in the Middle East? As a Muslim American of Asian origin who has extensively traveled in the Middle East, I believe events in the Middle East will have spill-over consequences in Asia.
The large Muslim populations of Asia feel great affinity to the Middle East as the historic spiritual home of Islam and as an icon of their own identity. Thus, how American policies and behaviors are experienced and narrated in the Middle East has the potential to inspire or enrage the public not only in Muslim-majority countries spanning from Afghanistan to Bangladesh to Indonesia, but also in countries such as India, China, Burma, Philippines, and Thailand where Muslims are politically awakening minorities. If the anti-Muslim biases attributed to the U.S. can be erased, the second Obama Administration will be in the enviable position to not only deepen our alliances with Muslim nations in both the Middle East and Asia, but also play a valuable catalytic role in helping both regions advance the practice of democratic values and religious tolerance. A zero-sum pivot away from the Middle East towards Asia is a fanciful and counterproductive proposition.
M. Osman Siddique is an American politician and former United States Ambassador to the Republic of Fiji, to the Republic of Nauru, to the Kingdom of Tonga, and to Tuvalu.
Official White House photo by Pete Souza.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's January/February 2013 print edition.