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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

USA: Leading from the Rear

During former US president Obama’s period, some of the Western media and think tanks coined a new sarcastic phrase, “US leading from the rear”, instead of staying in the lead on most of the global issues. The sarcasm was hardly justified as Obama was a man who preferred prudence over haste with slow and steady follow up on his ‘Asia-Pacific rebalance policy’9 renamed from ‘Pivot to Asia policy’). Nevertheless, the said idiom came to be more relevant and true as demonstrated through President Trump’s impetuous decisions with respect to many security, economic and domestic issues. Under the influence of deep state, Trump had to abandon most of his pre election slogans and commitments; besides, walking away from ‘Asia-Pacific Rebalancing’ by renaming US Pacific command as ‘ Indo-pacific command’….obviously to woe and please India to take a lead in the region on behalf of USA vis-à-vis China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategic response. This initiative takes into account American Four lines of effort by 2025: (1) Washington needs to continue aligning Asia strategy within the U.S. government and with allies and partners; (2) U.S. leaders should accelerate efforts to strengthen ally and partner capability, capacity, resilience, and interoperability; (3) the United States should sustain and expand U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region; and (4) the United States should accelerate development of innovative capabilities and concepts for U.S. forces. However, with Trump’s slogan of ‘America First’ most of the Asia-Pacific has become a major source of strategic uncertainty. While Susan Thornton, the acting assistant secretary of state, announced that the Obama administration’s “rebalance to the Asia-Pacific” is no longer the policy of the United States, the Trump administration has yet to clearly and authoritatively describe its regional strategy in any degree of detail.

Indeed, the Trump administration has made clear only two aspects of its approach to the Asia-Pacific. First is a renewed focus on bilateral trade agreements following the decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — an agreement, it should be noted, that would have had a profound geopolitical impact in Southeast Asia. The lack of an economic component to the U.S. regional strategy has been felt by pro-America countries in the region. The other clear aspect to the Trump administration’s approach to the region is the high priority it has given to the North Korea issue. In fact, Trump has seemingly placed the issue at the center of U.S.-China relations — a designation that many across the Asia-Pacific interpret as downgrading the importance of other issues (such as the South China Sea, Taiwan, and human rights) for the United States. This is especially problematic in the regional setting, where North Korea is often regarded as far away and somewhat tertiary to the other challenges that plague the region. Likewise, in Europe, walking away from Trans-Atlantic Partnership and asking NATO partners to economically contribute more has put to test the very existence of NATO as a potent military alliance and EU as an effective economic coalition with respect to relationship with USA.

How does an “America first” national security strategy manifest on ground? In April 2018, US National Security Adviser John Bolton asked Arab nations, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to supply ground forces to replace U.S. troops in Syria. (This came only weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump announced his desire to “bring our troops back home.”). This new initiative meant that rather than putting American lives at risk, the United States would work “by, with, and through” local forces to achieve its national security objectives as a better (and cheaper) means of fighting wars and winning the peace than sending U.S. troops into harm’s way. Working with local partners is not a new model: the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama both relied heavily on local partners to fight the “war on terror,” whether through major efforts to develop national armies and police forces in Iraq and Afghanistan or through more limited partnerships across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Today, however, it has assumed a new centrality as Trump seeks to wind down U.S. military commitments abroad. Commander US CENTCOM, General Joseph Votel also stated that the ‘by-with-through model’ now underpins U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.

Pakistan’s current geo-strategic disposition i.e. role in war against terrorism, Afghanistan’s neighborhood vis-à-vis American unending demands and outlandish hopes, Strategic partnership with China especially for success of ‘One Belt One Road’ strategic initiative through CPEC completion, stumbling block to US supported Indian hegemonic dreams in the region, delicate balance maintained in preserving good relations both with Iran and Saudi Arabia, economic frailty and dependence on IFIs, US skepticism on Pakistan’s Nuclear Capability, political polarization and multi-fronts challenges on the whole get further accentuated by Trump administration’s reliance on local partners under slogans based strategies like ‘America First’ and ‘Make America Great Again’. Pakistan needs to boldly follow a cool headed strategic approach of adjusting to fresh global rebalancing of strategic partners, alliances and initiatives based on cold facts and figures rather than following old-fashioned, emotions based, or foolhardy overzealous religious, ethnic or petty interests based attachments with unreliable countries. Pakistan’s confused approach in following national interests by sending its proud armed forces abroad for some unenviable UN missions that mostly takes care of western interests or for protection of Arab dynasties in the name of whatever, seriously undermines our national pride and honour as a nation as well as proud armed forces; besides, raising concerns with neighbouring countries. While many Muslim countries look up towards Pakistan as saviour, it is unfortunately Pakistan’s leadership and slavish bureaucracy that has lost the pride in leading from the front being unable to realize own national strengths. It is time that we stand on our own feet and restore national pride by discarding fears of unknown and by following simple national interest i.e. ‘security and well being of Pakistani people’……other things can wait out.

Brigadier (R) Saleem Qamar Butt, SI (M) is experienced in International Relations, Defence and Warfare Studies with expertise in Executive Management, Military & Intelligence Diplomacy, Strategic Analysis and Forecast. (

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