Adrian Hamilton: Obama should be back home doing deals

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 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.

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.

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 challenge posed by Beijing.

That has important implications for America's traditional allies, not least Britain, who have sensed the shift in the White House interest but have 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, 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 could 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.

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