For President Barack Obama, an Asia trip jolted by turmoil in the Middle East was a preview of the clear foreign policy legacy he seeks and the messier one he may end up with.
Obama journeyed to the region just two weeks after his re-election triumph to make a simple point: America’s destiny is in Asia.
“The United States of America is a Pacific nation. We see our future as bound to those nations and peoples to our West. As our economy recovers, this is where we will find growth,” he said.
“As we end the wars that have dominated our foreign policy for a decade, this region will be a focus of our efforts to build a prosperous peace,” he said in Myanmar, on a trip that also took in Thailand and Cambodia. But repeatedly, Obama’s mind was dragged from the region where he sees the most potential for the United States, to the one which holds the deepest peril, as war raged between Israel and Hamas.
The Gaza crisis is not even his most intractable problem in the Middle East, which threatens to cloud the big foreign policy ambitions for his second term. Syria’s bloody uprising is threatening to burst its borders, Libya is close to anarchy, and soon Obama will face a fateful decision on whether to attack Iran’s nuclear program.
Obama’s tour saw him huddle with leaders at an East Asia summit in Phnom Penh, then stay up till 2.30 a.m. Tuesday working on a cease-fire pact with Israeli and Egyptian leaders.
Officials insist that there is no reason why boiling crises elsewhere should detract from the US “pivot” to Asia — a movement of military resources and concentrated engagement with key regional powers and organizations.
“We believe the United States can walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy US national security adviser.
“We will continue to move forward with our pivot, even as we manage the inevitable crisis and challenges that come up in other regions.” Senior US officials privately however admit that the US government, military and diplomatic machines have only so much bandwidth — and a decision to strike Iran if diplomacy fails would likely consume much of Obama’s second term.
Obama clearly relishes his trips to Asia — he has now made five as president — and he may have more capacity to shape the region than he does the Middle East, where the grandiose hopes of his early first term foundered. Soon after taking office, the president and his secretary of state Hillary Clinton were quick to spot concern in Southeast Asia about China’s rise, and carved out a role which seems welcomed in the region. But the pivot to Asia also brings risks.
While it seeks to widen its footprint in the region, Washington must be careful not to encourage the very nationalist urges within China that most threaten its neighbors. And some in the US capital fret at the thought that the US navy could be drawn into clashes amid Beijing’s festering maritime disputes with its neighbors.
In Myanmar on Monday, coaxing the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein to embrace true democratic reform, Obama drew tens of thousands of people onto the streets in a joyfully explosive welcome.
Increasingly, Obama is offering emerging Asian nations a model of politics that is uniquely American — distinct from the competing vision of state-ordered development advanced by the ubiquitous China. He argued that Myanmar should look to the US model of freedoms to vote, worship and avoid want and fear.
Obama also used Myanmar’s emergence from the dark era of military rule as an example to other authoritarian states.
“Here, in Rangoon, I want to send a message across Asia: we need not be defined by the prisons of the past,” he said, offering North Korea a path to peace if it abandoned nuclear weapons.
Later Obama told Cambodian strongman Hun Sen that the new US relationship with Myanmar showed “positive benefits” countries could expect if they respected human rights.