WASHINGTON: The Pentagon has started to caveat its grand strategic mantra of a “pivot to Asia” – i.e. shifting from the land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to preparing for “AirSea Battle” against China.

In the Defense Budget Priorities released yesterday and, most critically, in Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s press conference explaining them, the emphasis was on not one region but on two, rhetorically joined at the hip: Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. Panetta coupled the two regions in the same sentence three times and six times in the the priorities document. The number of references to Asia or the Pacific by itself in either the speech or document? One. That’s a significant shift in emphasis from the President’s strategic guidance issued only three weeks ago. The shift implies a recognition that, even after leaving Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. can’t downgrade the Mideast to just another region among many.

This is particularly good news for the Army because Panetta specifically promised the U.S. won’t walk away from the ground presence it’s had in the Middle East since 1990, when the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in Saudi Arabia to deter Saddam Hussein. While the strategic guidance does say the overall U.S. military presence will “become increasingly maritime” – i.e. more Navy – as ground forces leave Afghanistan; the continued Middle Eastern commitment isn’t just about the Army.

But on the flipside, Panetta went out of his way to emphasize repeatedly the Army’s presence in the Navy-dominated Pacific theater as well. What’s more, he mentioned the ground-force presence in the Gulf in the same breath as the six-decade commitment to South Korea. “The Army will maintain its significant force structure in the Pacific, including on the Korean Peninsula,” the Defense Secretary said, “and will maintain an operationally responsive peacetime presence in the Middle East as well.” Yes, that means U.S. ground troops will remain, indefinitely, in Arab countries – not Iraq anymore, obviously, but in Kuwait and other Gulf States. Irony alert: It was the presence of infidel ground forces in the “land of the two mosques,” Mecca and Medina, which got the late Osama bin Laden on the warpath against the U.S. in the first place. Looks like we outlasted him after all.