PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - It may have sounded good on paper: Win re-election, fly to Asia, soak up the adulation of fellow world leaders, then go home with at least a few tangible rewards to show for a legacy-shaping U.S. strategic shift eastwards.
But U.S. President Barack Obama’s first post-election trip abroad did not work out exactly according to plan.
To be sure, he had a chance to tout a foreign policy success with a landmark visit to the former pariah state of Myanmar, demonstrate he was serious about improved U.S. ties with nations in China’s backyard and take in a travelogue’s worth of iconic religious and cultural sights.
But even as Obama sought to strengthen his administration’s “Asia pivot,” he came face-to-face with the tough realities of what it will take to counter China’s influence in the region.
At the same time, he found his attention constantly diverted back to the world’s biggest hotspot, the Middle East, where a Gaza crisis raged on.
As if that weren’t enough, Obama was reminded regularly of the biggest problem facing him back home - a looming “fiscal cliff” of year-end tax increases and spending cuts that would shake the U.S. economy and reverberate worldwide, including economically dynamic Asia - unless he and Congress can avert it.
As a result, Obama’s three-day tour, which ended on Tuesday, seemed be more symbolism than substance.
At a regional summit in Phnom Penh, Asian leaders no longer seemed starry-eyed in his presence, as they did when he first swept into took office and was feted globally like a rock star.
Though Obama was roundly congratulated on his re-election, which would appear to strengthen his hand internationally, no one seemed eager to offer up major concessions.
A one-on-one meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who will retire next year, yielded no immediate sign of progress on economic issues that have especially bedeviled relations between the world’s two biggest economies.
And China sometimes looked like the one setting the agenda at the East Asia summit.
Obama urged Asian leaders to reduce tensions in the South China Sea and other disputed territory, but stopped short of firmly backing allies Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam in their disputes with China.
Possibly not wanting to further antagonize China in the midst of its once-in-a-generation leadership change, he steered clear of the kind of tough public rhetoric he used against Beijing during his last Asia tour a year ago.
Obama did give what the White House described as closed-door browbeating to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen over the need to improve his human rights record just minutes before the long-ruling authoritarian leader opened the summit on Monday night.
But Obama aides offered no sign that Hun Sen had promised any major reforms like the ones that Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government undertook to win suspension of U.S. sanctions and a first-ever U.S. presidential visit.
The summit was not a complete bust. Progress was made of efforts to forge a trans-Pacific trade area, promises were issues against protectionism and there was talk of fighting climate change.
However, actual concrete gains for Obama were limited.
It was the Gaza conflict that may have crystallized for Obama that despite his preferred focus on fast-growing Asia after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, his global agenda in his second term may be destined to be usurped by one Middle East crisis after another.
After dining with Asian leaders on Monday, Obama stayed up until 2:30 a.m. working the phones on Gaza amid growing U.S. alarm that Israel would follow through on its threat to launch a ground invasion of the Hamas-ruled Palestinian enclave.
He finally decided to dispatch Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday for talks in the Middle East.
Asked whether this was distracting Obama from his Asia focus, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters: “We believe that the United States can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
But the fact remains the time a president can devote to foreign policy is limited by domestic reality, and the Middle East is continuing to gobble up a large portion of his schedule.
Also dogging Obama’s travels was uncertainty about whether he will be able to put America’s fiscal house in order after bouts of political dysfunction shook international confidence
Obama took time on his Asia trip to call senior corporate chieftains, including JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon and legendary investor Warren Buffett, to lobby them to back his fiscal plans.
But there was a definite undercurrent of concern. A development bank official who addressed the leaders on Tuesday spoke of the fiscal cliff as a threat to the world economy.
And even an aide to a monk who guided Obama in a tour of the centuries-old Wat Pho temple in Bangkok on Sunday sympathized with Obama’s fiscal challenges, telling him: “Good luck with the fiscal cliff.”
Reporting By Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Ron Popeski