But, Rhodes explained on Monday, the desire to pivot to Asia has, in fact, been driving the administration’s approach to other issues all along.
Rhodes made the remarks in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg at the Aspen Ideas Festival. The comments helped pull together the disparate set of issues Rhodes addressed, offering a common lens for interpreting the administration’s actions on a range of controversial issues.
With Burma, Cuba, and now Iran, the Obama administration has sought to put old fights behind it, freeing the U.S. government to focus on emerging challenges in Asia and the rise of China. And Rhodes resisted suggestions that these nations continue to pose challenges to vital U.S. interests in ways that merit continued focus. Asked, for example, about Burma’s “genocide against its Muslim minority,” he shot back, “I wouldn’t use that term.” Instead, he framed the slaughter of the Rohingya as more of an internal challenge, with the U.S. role restricted to finding “constituencies in Burma who recognize that it affects the entire country when there are local actors who are exploiting intolerance.”
Similarly, Rhodes, who led the secret negotiations that have opened the way for normalizing U.S. ties with Cuba, explained that one breakthrough involved convincing the Cubans that the United States was interested in “sending a message to the world that we’re willing to leave the past behind.” Normalization, he said, was a means of defusing a relationship that had left the United States isolated in its own hemisphere. The challenge, in fact, was persuading the Cubans to put the conflict behind them. “The idea of reestablishing diplomatic relations was not something that was immediately attractive to them,” he said. “They are very comfortable being in an adversarial position to the United States.”
And now, the effort to withdraw resources from the Middle East, and to avoid committing more, is shaping the Obama administration’s responses to Iran’s nuclear program, the collapse of Syria, and the rise of the Islamic State. For example, that effort guided the administration’s emphasis on using negotiations, and not military force, to resolve an international dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. “We don’t have to accept another pull into another war in the Middle East if we can resolve this issue diplomatically,” Rhodes said.
He resisted a suggestion that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps poses a direct threat to Americans. ISIS, he conceded, does pose a “constant threat” as “an organization that has as one of its objectives killing Americans wherever they are.” But Rhodes emphasized the need for “partners on the ground fighting,” suggesting that the success or failure of ISIS on any particular front is, as much as anything, a function of local commitment. And America will continue “to degrade ISIL significantly” in support of those partners, he said, using another acronym for the Islamic State.