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World & Nation

Seven years on, deeper U.S. commitment to Asia eludes Obama

Asia summit in the Philippines

One of many new cars that will be used during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in the Philippines this month is polished in Manila on Nov. 8. President Obama and other world leaders are due to attend the summit.

(Jay Directo / AFP/Getty Images)

President Obama will cross the globe next week to sell his landmark Pacific trade deal and burnish relations with allies at summits in the Philippines and Malaysia. But first he must tackle an urgent problem at a stop in Turkey: the chaos of the Syrian civil war and the ensuing refugee crisis.

Obama’s itinerary illustrates the foreign policy conundrum of his presidency. As he strives to fulfill his campaign pledge to end wars in the Middle East and turn to the opportunities of the Far East, a full shift from one theater to the other eludes him.

When he crafted the so-called Asia pivot years ago, Obama conceived of it as a grand realignment in the way the U.S. would approach the rest of the world.

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As it turns out, advisors are coming to realize, it is instead a quotidian exercise of time, energy and resource management that Obama must simply practice over and over again.

Thus this week’s trip, says one senior aide, is the “literal manifestation” of Obama’s foreign policy objectives.

“We have to balance very broad global interests that include the situation in Syria and counter-terrorism but, by definition as a global leader, must include the Asia Pacific,” said Ben Rhodes, longtime deputy national security advisor to Obama.

“That, in many respects,” he said, “is what the president’s foreign policy has been about.”

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Indeed, Obama is keeping a trim schedule in Turkey, where he’ll attend the two-day Group of 20 summit before taking off for nearly a week in Asia. He’s scheduling most of his one-on-one meetings there even though several of the same world leaders will be in Turkey too.

And instead of visiting one of the refugee camps in the Middle East or Europe, where the crisis has dominated headlines, he’s going instead to a refugee center in Malaysia to draw attention to Asian migration problems.

Obama has been a regular attendee at the yearly Asian summits to signal to leaders there, as well as to Americans, that this is where the future lies.

Some analysts question how effective the realignment has been over the seven years of his presidency. It’s unclear, for example, whether diplomacy with China has progressed, nor whether democracy is prospering in the region, said Michael Green, a former director for Asian affairs in President George W. Bush’s White House and now senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“For the rebalance to be sustained, we need democracy and governance to move forward,” Green said. “And the president is going at a time when there’s very rough terrain in the state of many of these partners.... Neither of these is measurable or solvable on this trip, but they hang over it in terms of the longer-term goals I think the president is trying to achieve.”

To be sure, a commitment to Asian policy was never based on ignoring the Middle East. White House officials instead are trying to transform U.S. involvement in that troubled region.

The large military presence of Bush’s presidency has been replaced by a force a fraction of the size. U.S. forces in the region now serve in what the Obama administration says are primarily advisory positions.

Still, the rise of the Islamic State extremists means that a lot of Obama’s time and attention remain focused on the Middle East. At the G-20 summit in Turkey, leaders will take stock of the campaign against the militants and confront the refugee crisis at Turkey’s back door – though Obama’s team isn’t expecting major changes in strategy.

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“These issues are hugely complex and fraught. If they weren’t, they would have been resolved a long time ago,” National Security Advisor Susan Rice told reporters.

Obama aides view ending the wars and countering terrorism as prioritizing problems the president inherited, and reorienting U.S. policy toward Asia is something he can call his own, even if it does take time, said Evan Medeiros, formerly Obama’s senior director for Asian affairs and now a managing director at the Eurasia Group consulting firm.

“It’s not a process where on Jan. 20, 2017, you’re going to say the rebalancing is done,” Medeiros said. “Obama initiated a generational challenge. What’s so significant is that Obama reoriented the aircraft carrier of American foreign policy to the part of the world that intensely affects out growth and security.”

Still, there is concern -- even among those who helped devise the pivot strategy -- that it is falling short.

Although the administration has tangible achievements including strengthening alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines and normalizing relations with Myanmar, the economic strategy “that should be driving U.S. engagement has had few specific accomplishments,” Jeffrey Bader, another former Asia advisor to Obama, wrote with analyst David Dollar in a new column for the Brookings Institution.

U.S.-China negotiations on a bilateral investment treaty are on a slow track because of Chinese reluctance to further open up its economy, they wrote, and the future of the Export-Import Bank, a U.S. lending institution for foreign investment, is “tied up in ideological wars in the Republican congressional caucus.”

Congressional passage of the sweeping new Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal “is vital if the rebalance is to be seen by states in the region as being economically relevant,” Bader and Dollar wrote.

Advisors to Obama are reluctant to cast the stakes in such dire terms, at least explicitly. But their plans for the week include several high-profile events to promote the trade pact and its importance, with hopes that a U.S. audience takes note.

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Their argument in favor of the trade deal mirrors their argument for the pivot itself: that through sustained engagement and physical presence, the U.S. ensures it can help shape the geopolitical agenda in Asia.

“If we’re not at the table,” as Rhodes puts it, “we’re on the menu.”

For more White House coverage, follow @cparsons and @mikememoli.

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