What on earth was Barack Obama doing this week swanning around South-east Asia barely a fortnight after his re-election, with a war having broken out in Gaza and a deal still needed to be completed in Washington to prevent the US economy falling over the precipice of tax and expenditure cuts?
It’s not as though his three-country round trip to Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia was going to achieve anything. The Burmese government has already been amply rewarded by the West for such democratic concessions as it has made. A presidential visit wasn’t going to make it go any faster.
Thailand already has strong military and economic relations with the US. Going there only serves to irritate the Chinese just before Premier Wen Jiabao visits the country. As for Obama’s attendance at the ASEAN summit, it merely embroiled America in the territorial disputes between China and Japan and the Philippines.
By any traditional standards, the President should have been back home, twisting arms, glad-handing potential allies and offering inducements to the uncommitted in an effort to get Congress to reach an all-important deal to prevent an economic catastrophe when automatic cuts to the budget are due to take place.
Obama had reached an agreement in principle with Congressional leaders before he boarded his plane last weekend but it is in the nature of Washington politics that a broad consensus means little until the nitty-gritty is decided. For that, you need the President to throw himself into the back-room negotiations. Even more is this true of a President who had barely emerged from his victory rally before his administration was mired into the sex scandal surrounding his CIA director, David Petraeus, and a continuing inquiry into the killing of the US Ambassador to Libya.
Now it is not in Obama’s nature to wheel and deal to get his way. We saw that in his first term. He’s not at home with it. In going to Asia, he was also clearly determined to show that this was to be his priority in his second term.
In a re-election campaign marked by some remarkably open criticism of China, he defined America’s future interests as lying in Asia rather than Europe and the Middle East, and made clear his determination to face up to the strategic and commercial challenge posed by Beijing.
That has important implications for America’s traditional allies, not least Britain, which has sensed the shift in the White House interest but has been loath to accept it, for all Obama’s reluctance to take part in the Libyan venture and his refusal to get involved in either the euro crisis or the problems of Palestine.
That alone should sober up America’s partners in Europe and those in the Middle East still hoping that Washington will emerge as the deus ex machina to sort out their problems.
The most clear-minded and intellectual President in a century and more, Obama has given rise to a belief that, relieved of the imperatives of another election, he will become the great president his abilities warrant. But that very lucidity of analysis also makes him see where the difficulties lie. Trotting off to Asia may be the demonstration of a new American purpose. It could also be the act of a President who wants to avoid rolling up his sleeves and getting involved where success is not certain.
The trouble is that there are difficulties wherever you look now, as the scrappy and bad-tempered conclusion of the ASEAN summit should have told him.
President Mursi has been showered with praise by Hillary Clinton and Israel for his part in bringing about the Gaza ceasefire. Egypt, they pronounce, has proved itself the acceptable face of the Middle East.
The newly elected Egyptian leader should beware the blandishments. What is wanted from Cairo is not that it develop as an independently minded leader of the Arab world, but that it be sucked into US and Israeli interests as tightly as Mursi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
If Mursi doesn’t watch out, Egypt will be held responsible for every act not just of Hamas but all the other militant groups in Palestine. Being pressured to clamp down on weapons supplies into Gaza is just the start of it.
That’s not in Egypt’s or Palestine’s interest. What Mursi should concentrate on is using his new-found influence to build on the support from Tunisia, Libya, and Turkey for Gaza as a viable place in its own right and to encourage the reconciliation of Hamas with the Palestinian Authority. Washington and Jerusalem will not be happy but that is the best hope for an eventual solution for the Middle East.