Stephen Yates: Revival of America as a force for good in Asia

3 mn read

Last week US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a pivotal speech at the American University in Cairo titled, “A Force for Good: America Reinvigorated in the Middle East.” While the speech was a political and policy counterpoint to the one delivered by former President Barack Obama in 2009, it contains key points that transcend partisanship and the region to which the message was addressed.

Secretary Pompeo covered a great deal of historical and policy ground with regard to America’s role in the region, past and present, speaking candidly from his point of view about our lessons learned, adjustments currently underway, and an upbeat forecast for continued positive coalition building to meet the challenges ahead. To be fair, this is a task to be expected of any effective and dutiful secretary of state, in the role of top executive articulator of a president’s foreign policy.

There are two passages from Pompeo’s Cairo remarks that stood out as particularly relevant to understanding the Trump Administration’s vision for America’s role in the world, informed by an emphasis on realism, reciprocity, and results.

“The U.S. knows that we can’t, and shouldn’t, fight every fight or sustain every economy. No nation wants to be dependent on another. Our aim is to partner with our friends and vigorously oppose our enemies, because a strong, secure, and economically vibrant Middle East is in our national interest, and it’s in yours as well.”

“America has been criticized for doing too much in the Middle East, and we’ve been criticized for doing too little. But one thing we’ve never been is an empire-builder or an oppressor.”

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In reading each of these passages, one could just as easily replace “Middle East” with “Asia” or “Indo-Pacific” and the underlying message would be the same. Note the pragmatism about not fighting every fight or sustaining every economy. That is not isolationism. It is a humble acknowledgment of reality. But knowing this, the US still remains actively engaged to “partner with our friends and vigorously oppose our enemies.” That is not a revival of neoconservative interventionism, it is a basic definition of purpose behind coalition building in vital regions, where enemies are less defined by ethnicity or nationality, but more so by dangerous ideologies and coercion (or worse) against those who resist.

The second point rings true as well. While the United States at one point did have a colony in Asia, that exception does not disprove that over two centuries of engagement in Asia, America has always strived to be a unique force for good. This continues to be our goal to this day, with a recognition that America is the only power capable of balancing against the only power in Asia for whom the terms “empire-builder” and “oppressor” most certainly apply: the People’s Republic of China.

It’s easy to forget, among the endless bias and negativity propagated by supposed expert commentators and former officials, that America plays a vital, and positive, role in the region. I strongly support the idea of Secretary Pompeo visiting Asia and giving a similarly titled speech, with a focus on the positive impact America has had there.

Toxic political commentary should not cloud our vision when it comes to the preeminent challenge to our national security and domestic institutions. In the struggle for a secure, prosperous, and free future for the United States’ allies in Asia, neutrality is not an option and isolationism is not an option. Secretary Pompeo’s remarks are a helpful reminder that America remains committed to partnerships with our friends and building coalitions to pass along security, prosperity, and freedom to the next generation.

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Stephen J. Yates was Deputy National Security Adviser to the Vice President to Dick Cheney from 2001 to 2005 and a past Idaho Republican Party Chair from 2014 to 2017. He is the CEO of consulting firm DC International Advisory, in that role since 2006.

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