PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — For all the attention wrenched elsewhere in recent days — on new violence in the Middle East, the fiscal cliff back home — President Barack Obama's speedy trip to Southeast Asia achieved a major goal: It was clearly seen in the region as a validation of Asia's strategic importance as the U.S. refocuses its foreign policy to counter China's clout.
It wasn't easy. Even in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand, Obama could not escape the budget woes waiting for him back home. And his historic visit to Myanmar was all but drowned out by the rocket fire and missile strikes between Israel and Gaza. But he came away from his trip to this corner of the world — a place once defined by a cloistered and shunned nation like Myanmar or by Khmer Rouge killing fields —with at least the hope that the example of U.S. democracy can effect change and strengthen America's hand.
It's worked for us for over 200 years now, and I think it's going to work for Thailand and it's going to work for this entire region, he said. And the alternative, I think, is a false hope that, over time, I think erodes and collapses under the weight of people whose aspirations are not being met.
Just by making the trip — and by making it his first after his re-election — Obama made a point about the importance the U.S. attaches to the region.
He was greeted by large crowds chanting his name in Thailand and in Myanmar, a country less than two years removed from a repressive military dictatorship where such assemblies were long forbidden. The reception was more muted in neighboring Cambodia, a staunch ally of China that pointedly displayed a sign at the presidential palace welcoming Chinese premier Wen Jiabao but nothing for Obama. Still, there was a message for Asia in Obama's mere presence. The president was attending an annual summit of Southeast Asian leaders in Phnom Penh, yet another indication of U.S. intentions to pay a bigger role in the region.
The trip marked the first time a U.S. president had visited Myanmar and Cambodia.