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Is the Obama Administration in over Its Head on Foreign Policy?

The US and China continue to bicker about hacking, and on the surface relations with China remain tense. This is a problem in itself but also a problem because of what it says about China’s response to Obama’s vaunted “pivot to Asia”: China is hanging tough and pushing the US where it thinks it can.

The Obama administration appears to have announced the pivot in the belief that things were going reasonably well in the Middle East. Wars were winding down, al-Qaeda was marginalized, the Arab Spring was settling into moderate, if Islamist-tinged, governments that the US could work with, and sanctions were pushing Iran toward concessions.

Under those circumstances, the pivot meant that the US could make substantial defense cuts even while making some modest increases in Asia.

But China’s tough reaction and probing attitude in the Far East means that the US will have to put more on the table to keep the pivot from looking like a hollow bluff, and the current mess in the Middle East makes the optimism of last year look pretty shortsighted.

We’ve talked about this before as a matter of money. The gap between budget and foreign policy commitments will have to be addressed, but it’s also a matter of politics and emphasis. It looks as if the Obama administration is going to have to do more things and face tougher trade-offs than it expected. Foreign policy issues will be taking up more bandwidth at the White House. And Europe could still melt down into a new global financial crisis.

This administration once wanted to reduce American responsibilities and commitments around the world—especially in the Middle East—and turn America’s focus on Asia. It’s going to have a hard time following through.

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