BANGKOK, Thailand (Tribune Washington Bureau) — President Barack Obama landed in Thailand on Sunday to tout his vision of “pivoting” U.S. attention and resources to Asia, but he quickly ran into the challenge faced by his predecessors — no American president can turn away from the Mideast.
As he arrived for the first stop of a three-country, three-day tour through Southeast Asia, Obama’s attention was drawn to the continuing violence between Israelis and Hamas.
White House aides said Obama was in regular contact with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and other leaders in position to pressure Hamas, all in an effort to defuse what appeared to be an escalating back-and-forth of airstrikes and rocket attacks that had killed more than 40 people.
This was not the conversation Obama intended to have on his first trip abroad after his re-election. His plans for a quick tour through Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia were aimed at highlighting diplomatic successes — particularly in the reforming Myanmar — and laying down fresh markers in the ongoing efforts to assert a greater U.S. role in the Pacific.
Obama’s strategy hinges on the “pivot” to Asia — a broad plan to shift military asset and diplomatic focus to the region after a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have consumed U.S. resources and attention.
“Restoring American engagement in this region is a top priority,” Obama said at the news conference.
Thailand continues to benefit economically from its status as a regional hub for development in Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, even as it juggles barely papered-over political divisions. At issue are perceived inequities, a monarchy that critics say is outdated and a festering wealth gap between urban dwellers who have benefited from economic development and many Thais in the rural areas who have not and feel left behind.
This has sparked a series of political crises in recent years, including a 2006 coup, the closing by protesters of Bangkok’s international airport in November 2008 and months of street demonstrations that ended after a police crackdown in early April 2009 near the capital’s Victory Monument.
The country’s elite emerged from the turmoil wary of being too closely aligned with the U.S. and leaning in China’s direction.
From Bangkok, Obama was bound for Myanmar, the first U.S. president to visit the nation that was until recently walled off by an oppressive and insular authoritarian regime. The White House argues that its policy of restoring diplomacy with the government sped the recent move toward reform and claims it as a clear victory for its broader strategy
for engagement with isolated nations.
In his remarks, Obama answered critics who argue that the president’s trip is a premature victory lap around a country still beset with ethnic conflict and where hundreds of political prisoners remain jailed. He said his visit was not “an endorsement of the Burmese government.”
“I’m not somebody who thinks that the United States should stand on the sidelines and not want to get its hands dirty when there is an opportunity to encourage the better impulses inside a country,” he said.
Obama faces similar, though quieter, complaints from human rights activists about his visit to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he’ll attend summit meetings on Tuesday.
All three destinations are caught in the tug-of-war between the U.S. and China, said Green, “In some ways, they’re sort of the three troubled children of the pivot,” he said. “Each has a complicated relationship with the U.S. and with China.”