US musn’t disengage from region: Petraeus

The former commander of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, says it was a mistake for the Obama administration to encourage the impression the so-called pivot to Asia meant the US was disengaging with the Middle East.

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Mr Petraeus, a former CIA director, has told a gathering in Sydney that President Barack Obama’s announcement of a re-balancing of Washington’s strategic interests, including the rotating of marines through Darwin, had resulted in a number of unintended consequences.

“First, it unsettled many of our friends and partners in the Middle East at a moment when there were already doubts about America’s intentions and wherewithal as we exited Iraq and as the Arab Spring convulsed in the region,” the retired general said as he delivered the annual Lowy Lecture on Wednesday night.

He said that when the crises in the Middle East later flared up, and then demanded US attention, the reaction from Washington was seen by some in Asia as evidence that the commitment to the rebalance “was flagging”.

“The result was that we arguably ended up raising, rather than resolving, questions about American commitment and credibility in both the Middle East and Asia,” he said.

Mr Petraeus said that over the past several years the US had “too often fallen into the trap of treating our involvement in these parts of the world as a kind of zero sum game – encouraging the impression that, in order to be successful on one side of the Asian land mass, we must by necessity downgrade or curtail our activities in the other”.

“My view is that this is a mistake,” he said.

“The fact is that the United States has absolutely vital national interests in both these regions.”

Mr Petraeus said the two regions were more intertwined than was typically acknowledged.

“We therefore cannot afford to disengage or withdraw from either.”

At the same time, Mr Petraeus said, the world was facing a Russia under President Vladimir Putin that was using military force to redraw international borders, “grab pieces of neighbouring countries, and attempt to reassert a sphere of influence”.

“The despicable shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 by separatists armed and supported by Russia – and Russia’s ongoing efforts thwart an international investigation into this atrocity, in which so many innocent Australians lost their lives – is only the most graphic illustration of this,” he said.