Kevin Ferris: Israel-Hamas could force rethink of 'Pacific pivot'

Members of Hamas youth movement march as part of Hamas activities to mark the upcoming 25 anniversary of its foundation in the Jebaliya refugee camp, Gaza Strip, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
Members of Hamas youth movement march as part of Hamas activities to mark the upcoming 25 anniversary of its foundation in the Jebaliya refugee camp, Gaza Strip, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa) (Hatem Moussa)
Posted: December 03, 2012

The recent hostilities between Israel and Hamas are a chance for the United States to think strategically. Or, better yet, rethink - specifically the Obama administration's "pivot to the Pacific."

The challenge was issued - "respectfully but forcefully" - by Paul McHale, who has been a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania (1993-99) and an assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense (2003-09), and is a retired Marine colonel whose most recent deployment was to Afghanistan in 2007.

At a recent gathering of defense experts in Colorado Springs, Colo., sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, McHale made clear that President Obama "should be commended for recognizing that for too many years our country has paid too little attention to the Pacific region."

The mistake the administration made, McHale says, was grounding the pivot in its military strategy, as revealed in the document released in January, "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for the 21st Century Defense."

"The administration's strategy fails because it does not distinguish between threat and opportunity," McHale said. "Make no mistake, the United States has an enormous diplomatic interest in Southeast Asia and along the Pacific Rim. . . . In terms of economic and trade opportunities, the United States confronts a region of tremendous potential. And the intelligence challenges, particularly as they relate to China's evolving military intent and operational capability, are vital to our national security.

"But, from a U.S. military perspective, the risk of war in the Pacific is far lower than the risk of our involvement in a war at multiple foreseeable locations throughout the greater Mideast and Southwest Asia."

Had the "pivot" been done through the Departments of State or Commerce, or official visits, such as the president's recent trip to Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar, McHale said, "I would . . . without reservation, applaud such an initiative."

By pivoting as part of the nation's long-term military strategy, though, the administration not only downplays the potential for conflict in Central Command, the area from Egypt to Afghanistan, but it signals to the defense community that planning and procurement of new weapons systems must focus on the Pacific Rim.

"Does it make sense for the United States Army to prepare for a protracted land war against China?" McHale asks. "Should the Army really be focused on North Korea while paying insufficient attention to Iran? And if a post-2014 civil war in Afghanistan spills over the Durand Line and threatens the stability of Pakistan's government, are there any issues in Myanmar that trump the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Taliban?"

Some moves made as part of this pivot, such as deploying 2,500 Marines to Australia, were described recently by the Congressional Research Service as "relatively small scale," "fairly modest," and "designed to have a largely symbolic impact."

"Our military strategy should not be a rhetorical and largely symbolic expression of our renewed regional interest in the Pacific," McHale said. "Our military strategy must provide the clear guidance from the president and secretary of defense that allows our military commanders to realistically plan for the most important and likely war-fighting contingencies."

Engage the Pacific, he stressed, but the focus of the nation's military strategy must be on the Centcom area of operations, which McHale described as "an arc of instability and violence, rationalized by Islamic fundamentalism and nurtured by historic tribal rivalries."

The hostilities then going on between Israel and Hamas underscored the urgency.

"This is the moment to consider the ramifications associated with Iran's ongoing quest for nuclear weapons, ramifications of profound importance, for Israel's peace, peace throughout the Middle East region, and even the peace and security of the global community, most especially the United States," McHale said.

"As conventional Iranian rockets now fall on Israel, is it reasonable to expect that Israel can or will tolerate an Iranian nuclear capability?" he asked. "Is it reasonable to assume that the persistent Iranian threat to regional and world peace will go away anytime soon?"


Contact Kevin Ferris at kf@phillynews.com or 215-854-5305.

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