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Obama’s Asia trip viewed as validating area’s import

Global problems keep president’s attention diverted

President Obama departed Phnom Penh Tuesday after attending an Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

President Obama departed Phnom Penh Tuesday after attending an Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

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 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 United State refocuses its foreign policy to counter China’s clout.

It was not 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. He went half a world away to promote US-style democracy but could not leave his troubles behind.

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Even as Obama traipsed in stocking feet through a temple in the heart of Bangkok, a monk wished him luck negotiating the deficit-reduction challenge awaiting him in Washington. And the bloodshed in the Middle East, exploding as he toured Southeast Asia for three days, illustrated the limits of US foreign policy even as he tried to display its influence.

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’’ or by Chinese power — with at least the hope that the example of US democracy can effect change and strengthen America’s hand.

He made his case clearly during a Bangkok news conference: ‘‘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. ‘

Establishing a more influential presence in the Asia-Pacific region has long been an Obama objective, a goal driven by geopolitical considerations and by the Hawaiian-born president’s own self-identity as the first Pacific president.

Just by making the trip Obama made a point about the importance the United States attaches to the region.

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He was greeted by large crowds 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 trip marked the first time a US president had visited Myanmar and Cambodia.

For decades, Myanmar was an international outcast with a repressive military junta accused of gross human rights abuses. But last year it began to shift toward democracy, and Obama went there to welcome the change and encourage more.

His motorcade sped to the lakeside home of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who spent the better part of 20 years under house arrest. He embraced her and praised her as an ‘‘icon of democracy.’’

Obama’s aides hoped that image would dominate in the United States, but news events and coverage didn’t go quite as planned. Hostilities in Israel and Gaza overshadowed the president’s trip. He spent every day monitoring developments. Monday night he was on the phone until 2:30 from Phnom Penh, calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi twice.

By Tuesday morning he had dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had been traveling with him in Southeast Asia, to the Mideast to engage directly in Jerusalem and Cairo. And he called Morsi again from Air Force One on the way home.

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