Hagel: US has no plans to retreat from global affairs

US defence secretary travels to Arabian Gulf on Friday and says America still has a role to play in the Middle East, despite rise of China, a change in strategy from Washington and defence spending cuts.

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New York // The US defence secretary says his country has no plans to retreat from any part of the world, as he departs for Bahrain to attend the Manama Dialogue, followed by a visit to Doha for talks with Qatari leaders.

Chuck Hagel made his remarks after the Pentagon announced a 20 per cent cut to the pentagon headquarters budget, a first step to reign in budgets as the department faces a US$1 trillion (Dh3.67 trillion) cut over the next decade.

“Last week we entered our thirteenth year of combat in Afghanistan, while simultaneously delivering much-needed relief supplies in the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, and while maintaining a steady state of presence in the Arabian Gulf” and elsewhere, Mr Hagel said on Wednesday.

Mr Hagel also spoke with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, by phone on Thursday as he travelled to Manama, underscoring “the US commitment to the security of the United Arab Emirates and its allies and partners in the Gulf”, according to a Pentagon readout of the phone call.

Sheikh Mohammed and Mr Hagel agreed to cooperate closely on “shared security challenges in the region, including Iran and Syria”.

At the Manama Dialogue, where attendees will address these key issues as well as Egypt, sectarianism and GCC integration, Mr Hagel will likely spend much time reassuring audiences that the US does not plan to turn a blind eye to Iran’s destabilising regional activities if a nuclear deal is struck.

The negotiations have alarmed Washington’s traditional Gulf Arab allies. A deal that does not halt all Iranian nuclear enrichment is seen by some as unacceptable and would provide cover for Iran to redouble support for its proxies such as Hizbollah and the Syrian government.

Tehran, which has been on a charm offensive in the Arab Gulf to convince its neighbours that its intentions are good, is also sending a foreign ministry official to the Bahrain dialogue, Kuwait News Agency reported.

The US budget cuts come as the administration of US President Barack Obama has made clear it sees balancing growing Chinese power in East Asia as the country’s top strategic priority and is working to limit its traditional foreign policy focus on the Middle East.

“We can’t just be consumed 24/7 by one region, important as it is,” Mr Obama’s top national security adviser, Susan Rice, said in October.

The Obama administration completed a summer-long review of police in the Middle East that resulted in what she said would be a more modest approach focused on diplomacy and multilateralism, while moving away from military force after more than a decade of war in the region.

Senior US administration and military officials have been at pains to underline that more focus on Asia does not equal abandonment of Middle East allies, but that they hope Washington’s regional partners will shoulder more of the security and diplomatic burden.

Mr Hagel emphasised this position on Wednesday, saying, “the United States of America’s interests, are the world’s interests” and “are not defined by one region”.

Perhaps the most stark example of this new posture is the US-led efforts to negotiate a deal that would put an end to Iran’s nuclear programme, which Gulf Arab states, the West and other world powers claim is being used to develop a nuclear weapon.

The negotiations began in secret between Iran and the US before culminating in last month’s interim deal, which will freeze and roll back Tehran’s nuclear enrichment while offering some relief from the international sanctions that have crippled its economy, as a final deal is negotiated.