The Times West Virginian

Headline News

November 21, 2012

Courting Asia, Obama finds that major challenges intrude

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — For all the attention wrenched elsewhere in recent days — on new violence in the Middle East, the “fiscal cliff” back home — President Barack Obama’s speedy trip to Southeast Asia achieved a major goal: It was clearly seen in the region as a validation of Asia’s strategic importance as the U.S. refocuses its foreign policy to counter China’s clout.

It wasn’t easy. Even in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand, Obama could not escape the budget woes waiting for him back home. And his historic visit to Myanmar was all but drowned out by the rocket fire and missile strikes between Israel and Gaza. He went half a world away to promote U.S.-style democracy but couldn’t leave his troubles behind.

Even as Obama traipsed in stocking feet through a temple in the heart of Bangkok, a monk wished him luck negotiating the deficit-reduction challenge awaiting him in Washington. And the bloodshed in the Middle East, exploding as he toured Southeast Asia for three days, illustrated the limits of U.S. foreign policy even as he tried to display its influence and reach.

But he came away from his trip to this corner of the world — a place once defined by a cloistered and shunned nation like Myanmar or by Khmer Rouge “killing fields” or by Chinese power —with at least the hope that the example of U.S. democracy can effect change and strengthen America’s hand.

He made his case clearly during a Bangkok news conference:

“It’s worked for us for over 200 years now, and I think it’s going to work for Thailand and it’s going to work for this entire region,” he said. “And the alternative, I think, is a false hope that, over time, I think erodes and collapses under the weight of people whose aspirations are not being met.”

Establishing a bigger, more influential presence in the Asia-Pacific region has long been an Obama objective, a goal driven by 21st century geopolitical considerations and by the Hawaiian-born president’s own self-identity as the first Pacific president.

Just by making the trip — and by making it his first after his re-election — Obama made a point about the importance the U.S. attaches to the region.

He was greeted by large crowds chanting his name in Thailand and in Myanmar, a country less than two years removed from a repressive military dictatorship where such assemblies were long forbidden. The English-language Myanmar Times newspaper heralded the arrival of “O-Burma” on its front page, while Thai newspapers praised his apparent interest in the native brand of Buddhism following his monastery visit.

The reception was more muted in neighboring Cambodia, a staunch ally of China that pointedly displayed a sign at the presidential palace welcoming Chinese premier Wen Jiabao but nothing for Obama. Still, there was a message for Asia in Obama’s mere presence. The president was attending an annual summit of Southeast Asian leaders in Phnom Penh, yet another indication of U.S. intentions to pay a bigger role in the region.

The trip marked the first time a U.S. president had visited Myanmar and Cambodia.

For decades, Myanmar, despite its alluring pagodas and verdant countryside, was an international outcast with a repressive military junta accused of gross human rights abuses. But last year it began to shift toward democracy, and Obama went there to welcome the change and encourage more.

His motorcade sped to the lakeside home of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who spent the better part of 20 years under house arrest. He embraced her and praised her as an “icon of democracy.”

Obama’s aides hoped that image would dominate back in the United States, but news events and coverage didn’t go quite as planned. Hostilities in Israel and Gaza overshadowed the president’s trip. He spent every day monitoring developments. Monday night he was on the phone until 2:30 from Phnom Penh, calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi twice.

By Tuesday morning he had dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had been traveling with him in Southeast Asia, to the Mideast to engage directly in Jerusalem and Cairo. And he called Morsi again from Air Force One on the way home.

Efforts to break a stalemate with Congress over a deficit-reduction package also dogged him, even as congressional and White House staffs worked to frame details that Obama and legislative leaders could begin negotiating next week.

After the monk surprised him by wishing him well on the fiscal cliff at the Wat Pho monastery, Obama still could not escape it, facing a question about it during his Thailand press conference. No problem, the Americans said.

“We believe the United States can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Tuesday in Phnom Penh. The shift of resources and attention to Asia will occur with or without diversions, he said. “We’ll continue to move forward with our pivot even as we manage the inevitable crises and challenges that will come up in other regions.”

Indeed, after spending months mired in a biting presidential campaign, Obama appeared to revel in being back on the world stage.

The trip was poignant, too. It marked his last overseas tour alongside Clinton, his former rival turned partner. Clinton has long said she plans to leave the administration ahead of Obama’s second term, or shortly after it is under way.

Obama and Clinton flew across Southeast Asia together on Air Force One and walked down the plane’s front steps together in Myanmar and Cambodia.

He singled her out at Suu Kyi’s home. “I could not be more grateful, not only for your service, Hillary, but also for the powerful message that you and Aung San Suu Kyi send about the importance of women — and men — everywhere embracing and promoting democratic values and human rights,” Obama said.

Aides said the two reminisced aboard the presidential plane flying back from Myanmar to Cambodia.

Clinton herself said traveling with Obama one last time was “bittersweet, nostalgic, all the things you would expect.”

———

Follow Jim Kuhnhenn at http://twitter.com/jkuhnhenn and Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC .

 

1
Text Only
Headline News
  • Supreme Court: Michigan affirmative action ban OK

    A state’s voters are free to outlaw the use of race as a factor in college admissions, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a blow to affirmative action that also laid bare tensions among the justices about a continuing need for programs that address racial inequality in America.

    April 23, 2014

  • Court critical of law punishing campaign lies

    The Supreme Court appears to be highly skeptical of laws that try to police false statements during political campaigns, raising doubts about the viability of such laws in more than 15 states.

    April 23, 2014

  • U.S.: Russia has ‘days, not weeks’ to follow by an international accord for Ukraine

    Russia has “days, not weeks” to abide by an international accord aimed at stemming the crisis in Ukraine, the top U.S. diplomat in Kiev warned Monday as Vice President Joe Biden launched a high-profile show of support for the pro-Western Ukrainian government. Russia in turn accused authorities in Kiev of flagrantly violating the pact and declared their actions would not stand.

    April 22, 2014

  • U.S. weighing military exercises

    The United States is considering deploying about 150 soldiers for military exercises to begin in Poland and Estonia in the next few weeks, a Western official said Saturday. The exercises would follow Russia’s buildup of forces near its border with Ukraine and its annexation last month of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

    April 21, 2014

  • Ukraine, Russia trade blame for shootout

    Within hours of an Easter morning shootout at a checkpoint manned by pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement blaming militant Ukrainian nationalists and Russian state television stations aired pictures of supposed proof of their involvement in the attack that left at least three people dead.

    April 20, 2014

  • Governor: Closing Boston amid bomber hunt ‘tough’

    Several days after the Boston Marathon bombing, Gov. Deval Patrick received a call in the pre-dawn hours from a top aide telling him that police officers outside the city had just engaged in a ferocious gun battle with the two men suspected of setting the bombs and that one was dead and the other had fled.

    April 20, 2014

  • Everest avalanche reminder of risks Sherpas face

    The rescuers moved quickly, just minutes after the first block of ice tore loose from Mount Everest and started an avalanche that roared down the mountain, ripping through teams of guides hauling gear.
    But they couldn’t get there quickly enough.

    April 20, 2014

  • Colorado deaths stoke worries about pot edibles

    A college student eats more than the recommended dose of a marijuana-laced cookie and jumps to his death from a hotel balcony. A husband with no history of violence is accused of shooting his wife in the head, possibly after eating pot-infused candy.

    April 19, 2014

  • Everest avalanche kills at least 12

    An avalanche swept down a climbing route on Mount Everest early Friday, killing at least 12 Nepalese guides and leaving four missing in the deadliest disaster on the world’s highest peak. Several more were injured.

    April 19, 2014

  • Diplomacy doesn’t move insurgents in Ukraine

    Pro-Russian insurgents defiantly refused Friday to surrender their weapons or give up government buildings in eastern Ukraine, despite a diplomatic accord reached in Geneva and overtures from the government in Kiev.

    April 19, 2014

House Ads
Featured Ads