Visiting Asia to emphasize that U.S. foreign policy is looking East after years of focusing on the Middle East, President Obama was forced by events to keep close watch on the turmoil there.
President Obama flew around the world to visit a giant reclining Buddha and pay a courtesy call on a hospitalized king — all to make a point.
After too many years of being obsessed with the Middle East, Obama argues, it is time for the United States to focus on the rise of Asia. The only problem? The Middle East is not cooperating.
Obama had not even landed here in Thailand on Sunday before finding his four-day, three-country Asia tour shadowed by the new crisis in Israel and Gaza. Aides have been briefing him on the latest in the conflict, and he has been working the phones with the leaders of Israel, Egypt and Turkey. Even his joint appearance with Thailand’s prime minister was partly consumed by the Gaza question.
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The confluence of events serves as a vivid reminder that the presidency is an exercise in juggling priorities. But the peculiar timing also underscores why Asia has often taken a back seat in U.S. policy to the more volatile areas of the world, not just under this president, but under the past six.
The logic behind Obama’s so-called Asia pivot draws little dispute: By many measures, it is the region of the future, the area that will see nearly half of the world’s economic growth outside of the United States over the next five years. To compete globally, the thinking goes, the United States will need to assert itself as an economic and strategic power in the Pacific.
Inside the Situation Room, though, long-term logic invariably falls victim to short-term crises, which are the specialty of places like the Middle East.
“One of the great challenges in the implementation and execution of foreign policy is to prevent the daily challenges, cascading crises, from crowding out the development of broader strategies in pursuit of the United States’ long-term interests,” Tom Donilon, the president’s national-security adviser, said in a speech before leaving Washington.
It was in service of that goal that Obama scheduled his Asia trip. As his first overseas journey after re-election, it was meant to send a signal that his second term would focus on moving beyond the past, particularly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He visited the region several times in his first term, but twice canceled Asia trips because domestic issues took priority.
After a day in Thailand, Obama landed in Myanmar on Monday for a historic visit highlighting the emergence of that isolated country, long known as Burma, from decades of repressive military rule. He was to meet with President Thein Sein, who has orchestrated the change, and the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Along the way were planned announcements that he would send a new mission from the U.S. Agency for International Development to Myanmar and devote $170 million to aid projects over the next two years, according to aides.
“One of the things that we can do as an international community is make sure that the people of Burma know we’re paying attention to them, we’re listening to them, we care about them,” Obama said in Bangkok. “And this visit allows me to do that in a fairly dramatic fashion.”
Yet not as dramatic as Hamas lobbing rockets into Israel or Israel responding with punishing airstrikes and the threat of invasion.
Asia is not the only other region that finds it tough to compete for attention. Obama was in Latin America when he launched the air and naval campaign that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.
“There is now war between Israel and Hamas in addition to a proxy war with Iran in Syria; there are huge demonstrations against the king in Jordan; and the IAEA last week said Iran had doubled its capacity to enrich uranium,” said Elliott Abrams, who was President George W. Bush’s Middle East adviser and is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The only way to pivot away from all that is to move to Mars — Myanmar isn’t far enough.”
Moreover, even Asia is inextricably linked to events in the Middle East, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The reality is this — the more you pivot toward Asia, the more you have to care about the Middle East, because Asia gets so much of its energy from the Middle East,” he said. “Our Asia pivot doesn’t get us out of the Middle East. It just gets us into the Middle East from the other side.”
Obama’s advisers say they understand that. Rather than a zero-sum game, they said, Obama must find ways to focus on Asia even as older conflicts demand his attention.
“The rebalancing doesn’t mean our short-term military requirements in the Middle East will diminish,” said Jeffrey Bader, the president’s former Asia adviser, who is now at the Brookings Institution.
Obama began his trip Sunday with a stop in Thailand, America’s oldest ally in Asia. Joined by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for their final foreign trip together before she steps down, Obama visited the Wat Pho Royal Monastery, one of the country’s most revered cultural outposts, where both Americans took off their shoes and inspected the famed giant reclining Buddha.
Even domestic issues followed the president, as he found himself talking about the so-called fiscal cliff back home with a monk before asking him to pray for his success in resolving the problem.
“If a Buddhist monk is wishing me well, I’m going to take whatever good vibes he can give me to try to deal with some challenges back home,” Obama said lightly.
The president and Clinton then headed to Siriraj Hospital to pay respects to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the 84-year-old monarch, who has been ailing. From there, they went to the Government House for meetings and dinner with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who came to office in 2011, five years after her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, was deposed in a military coup.
“We have historically been an Asia-Pacific power, and I wanted to make sure that all our friends and partners throughout the region understood that we see this as a central region for our growth and our prosperity,” Obama said. “It’s not one that we can neglect.”
Even if he has to keep one eye on the Middle East at the same time.