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With Obama's Asia Trip, An Attempted Focus Shift


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Rachel Martin.

President Obama is making his first foreign trip since winning re-election. He's in Thailand today. And tomorrow, he'll make a visit to Myanmar, the country also known as Burma, before he goes on to a regional summit in Cambodia. Last year, the White House announced what it called a strategic pivot to the Pacific, a renewed foreign policy focus on Asia. That shift has been waylaid by U.S. domestic issues, especially during the presidential election, and now the conflict in Israel and Gaza.

For more, we're joined by NPR's Scott Horsley. He's traveling with the president and is on the line from Bangkok.

Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, good to be with you.

MARTIN: OK. So, the president has just finished a meeting with the prime minister of Thailand, I understand. I'm sure they tried to focus on regional matters, but did the president have had something to say about the violence in Israel and Gaza?

HORSLEY: Well, he did, Rachel. He was asked about that during his post-meeting press conference with the prime minister. And, of course, Mr. Obama has been monitoring developments in the Middle East throughout his trip. He stressed that in the U.S. government's view, the immediate source of the conflict in Gaza has been the rockets fired from Gaza into populated parts of Israel, and he reaffirmed Israel's right to defend itself.

He also said he's been talking daily with the prime minister of Israel and he's also spoken to leaders of neighboring Egypt and Turkey, all in an effort to deescalate the fighting.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My message to all of them was that Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory. If that can be accomplished without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza, that's preferable. That's not just preferable for the people of Gaza, it's also preferable for Israelis.

HORSLEY: And Secretary of State Clinton, who's traveling with the president, is also, of course, keeping close tabs on the situation in the Middle East.

MARTIN: So, Scott, we alluded to the strategic pivot the White House has tried to make to Asia. I'm wondering if you're picking up from aides you've been talking to in the White House, any sense of frustration that the president's visit to Southeast Asia is being overshadowed now by the Middle East?

HORSLEY: Well, Rachel, unfortunately this is not unusual. You know, Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, gave a speech a few days ago in anticipation of this trip. And he talked about the president's sort of macro Asia strategy. And then Donilon said one of the great challenges in executing foreign policy is to prevent the daily challenges, the cascading crises from crowding out the development of a broader strategy in pursuit of long-term interests. This trip is a classic illustration of that challenge.

Mr. Obama is trying to carry out a long-term strategy refocusing attention on Asia. And, of course, the daily challenges and cascading crises are a constant distraction from the Middle East.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the rest of the president's trip, though. Tomorrow he goes to Myanmar, then off to Cambodia after that. He's the first sitting U.S. president to visit either of these countries. What is he hoping to get from these visits?

HORSLEY: Well, the trip to Myanmar, or Burma, is truly historic. It's intended both as a reward for the dramatic democratic reforms in that country, reforms that the president said would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago. Opposition figure Ang San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest. She's now sitting in parliament. And earlier this year, the administration lifted some economic sanctions that have been imposed on Myanmar.

But the White House acknowledges, look, there's still a lot of work to be done in that country. There are still political prisoners being held there, although several hundred prisoners were released just this week. There are still ethnic tensions in Burma, including between the majority Buddhist and a Muslim minority group that's resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of people. There's still corruption to be dealt with.

So the administration is saying to the Burmese regime: Look, you're on the right path but we know it's an uphill path. And this visit is intended to sort of nudge them to keep going.

Then in Cambodia, the president will be taking part in a regional summit with leaders from throughout the Asia-Pacific. Again, trying to make the point to a sometimes skeptical global community that the U.S. has both the staying power and the attention span to be a big player in this region.

MARTIN: Many people have suggested the president's strategic pivot to Asia is really all about China. We should note, though, the president not visiting China on this trip.

HORSLEY: No. But, of course, China is always the Asian elephant in the room. And, you know, when we talk about trying to overcome those constant crises and daily distractions, bear in mind that the Chinese government is surely taking a long view and Mr. Obama wants to match that.

MARTIN: NPR's Scott Horsley on the line from Thailand. Thanks so much, Scott.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.