Mark Perry writes: Remember Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia”? Announced during his first term, then reinforced by Hillary Clinton’s detailed monograph on the subject one full year before his re-election, the “Pivot to Asia” was seen as Obama’s signature second term foreign policy initiative.
The pivot was not simply an acknowledgement of Asia’s growing economic power (it accounts for 25 percent of US exports and 35 percent of its imports – and supports 2.4 million jobs). It marked a break with the United States’ decade-long engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan – a hapless budget sapping adventure that yielded few benefits. So while Obama would never publicly say so, the message to the Arab world – and Israel – was clear: We have other priorities.
Or maybe not.
Just days before Obama embarked on a high profile trip to Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, which was intended to symbolise this “pivot”, Israel assassinated Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas’ military wing. The eight-day conflict that followed not only pushed Obama’s three-day Asia tour off the US’ front pages, it sent ripples of exasperation through the administration’s foreign policy establishment.
US President Obama visits Thailand
“Here we go again,” a senior State Department official told me just 24 hours after Israel’s attack. “The Middle East is like quicksand: The more you struggle to get loose, the more you get pulled back in.”
The statement is hardly an exaggeration. While Obama toured Thailand’s Wat Pho monastery, renowned for its giant reclining Buddha statue, his foreign policy staff was providing him hourly updates of the Gaza fighting – which continued even as the president met with Myanmar’s democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi.
By the time the president visited Cambodia to attend a summit organised by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the strain of focusing on the day-to-day requirements of his tour while handling a worsening Middle East crisis was beginning to take its toll. Obama’s irritability was undergirded by the barrage of questions he faced on the Gaza crisis, even as he attempted to refocus the press corps’ attention to the importance of his Asia tour.
But that proved nearly impossible. On the day before his arrival in Phnom Penh, Obama spent hours dealing with the crisis, making numerous calls to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi.
Correspondents accompanying the President learned of the phone calls and pressed Obama’s staff: Was the Gaza crisis becoming too much of a diversion? Was Asia now “on the back burner”? Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, issued a testy response: “At the risk of having a double metaphor with a pivot,” he said, “We believe that the United States can walk and chew gum at the same time.” [Continue reading…]