Why is Barack Obama swanning around Asia as the Middle East goes up in flames?

The most clear-sighted and intellectual President in a century or more is in the wrong place. Also, below: the challenge for Egypt's newly elected President Morsi

Share

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.

Egypt should beware the plaudits

President Morsi 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 Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.

If Morsi 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 Morsi should concentrate on is using his new-found influence to build on the support from Tunisia, Libya, Qatar 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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Buyer / Planner

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity has ar...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Manager

£40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity working ...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Journals Manager

£33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The prime focus of the role is to assist...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The era of graduates from the university conveyor belt is over

Hamish McRae
The UCAS clearing house call centre in Cheltenham, England  

Ucas should share its data on students from poor backgrounds so we can get a clearer picture of social mobility

Conor Ryan
Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks