Osama Down, Obama will Pivot

Killing Osama bin Laden (OBL) will deliver more than an existential sense of justice served 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. 

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 genealogical credible aspirations to become the “first Pacific president” can find roots and flourish.  Look to the United States to move to wind down war fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and continue to shift the Libya lift to NATO allies. 

President George W. Bush described Southeast Asia as the “second front in the war on terror.”  As we can see from the reactions of Southeast Asia’s leaders to the news of OBL’s demise, the threat from radicals in the region remains very real and there is hard-core, near-term vigilance aimed at preventing or foiling retribution attacks by these radicalized groups.  However, President Obama is well aware of the useful efforts that have been made, starting under the Bush administration, to expand cooperation with regional militaries and counterterrorism colleagues ranging from the courts to civil society.  It is time to fight terrorism in Asia locally and with community awareness and economic development.  This new approach will complement American soft power and support an enduring renewal of U.S. engagement in the region.

This new approach and new focus on Asia should see resources redirected from hard power to soft power, from global warfare to local community building including expanding health care, education, entrepreneurial activity, and connectedness. America has the tools to support this shift, and the new fight will expose radicals as outsiders in their villages, communities, and countries.  Al Qaeda in Southeast Asia will fear this type of approach far more than guns, drones, or grenades. 

Osama bin Laden’s death is an important step to reasserting U.S. interests in the Asia Pacific, specifically and especially in Southeast Asia.  

Ernest Z. Bower