Escalating violence between Israel and the Palestinians on Sunday nearly hijacked President Obama’s postelection trip to Southeast Asia — a tour billed as a diplomatic show of force in the region and part of the administration’s attempt to pivot U.S. focus to Asia after a decade of war in the Middle East.
After Mr. Obama arrived in Thailand on Sunday, the first of three stops the president plans to make in Southeast Asia this week, Israel was threatening to invade the Gaza Strip and Mr. Obama was forced to weigh in on back-and-forth airstrikes and rocket attacks that have killed more than 40 people.
On the flight to Thailand, White House aides told reporters the president was in regular contact with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, and other leaders in the region positioned to influence Hamas, the democratically elected terrorist group that runs the Gaza Strip, and urge both sides to scale back the attacks.
As Israel’s military strikes against Hamas began their fifth day, Mr. Obama appealed to Netanyahu and to the leaders of Egypt and Turkey to find ways to ratchet down the violence. The president reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself, and said the provocation began with rockets fired at Israel from Gaza.
“Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory,” Mr. Obama said during a news conference with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. “If that can be accomplished without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza, that’s preferable. It’s not just preferable for the people of Gaza. It’s also preferable for Israelis, because if Israeli troops are in Gaza, they’re much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded.”
The statements were a far cry from the message Mr. Obama wanted to be sending on his first major trip after his re-election. The three-day tour through Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, where he will attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference, was supposed to be a victory lap of sorts, an attempt to highlight some diplomatic successes in the region — especially when it comes to Myanmar’s improved human rights record — and try to establish greater trade opportunities and a more influential U.S. role in the Pacific.
U.S. officials told reporters in Southeast Asia that during Monday’s stop in Myanmar, Mr. Obama would announce the opening of a U.S. Agency for International Development mission there and pledge $170 million in development aid over the next two years.
In a speech at Yangon University, according to advance remarks provided by the White House, Mr. Obama will hail “the flickers of progress” and “extend the hand of friendship” from the U.S., while noting that Myanmar’s transition to democracy “has just begun, and has much further to go.”
In many ways, the Obama administration’s goal — although unstated — is to shift resources and diplomatic attention to the region and away from Afghanistan and Iraq in an attempt to alert China — which holds $1.5 trillion in American debt — that the U.S. is not willing to cede ground in the region.
“Restoring American engagement in this region is a top priority,” Mr. Obama said at the Sunday news conference in Thailand.
Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spent the afternoon and early evening touring a 230-year-old Wat Po temple, home of a massive reclining Buddha statue. Led by a Buddhist monk in bright orange robes, Mr. Obama told him he could use some prayer to help reach a budget deal with Republican lawmakers to avert a fiscal crisis back in the U.S.
“We’re working on this budget. We’re going to need a lot of prayer for that,” Mr. Obama told the monk.
Later at the news conference with the Thai prime minister, he tried to explain the quip.
“I always believe in prayer,” he said. “If a Buddhist monk is wishing me well, I’m going to take whatever good vibes he can give me to try to deal with some challenges back home. I’m confident that we can get our fiscal situation dealt with.”
He then paid a visit to 84-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyade at a hospital where he has lived since 2009. Mr. Obama gave the king a photo album filled with pictures of the king posing with American presidents dating back to Dwight Eisenhower and left the last page — for a photo with himself — blank.
Later, at a dinner, Mr. Obama offered a toast, recognizing Thailand has the longest diplomatic ties to the U.S. of any other country in the region and noting how proud he is of several Thai Americans, including Ladda Tammy Duckworth, who defeated Tea Party favorite Rep. Joe Walsh, a Republican from Illinois, in early November and became the first Thai American elected to Congress.
From Bangkok, Mr. Obama was headed to Myanmar, the first president to visit the nation that was controlled for decades by an oppressive autocratic regime. Some human rights groups have criticized his trip there as premature considering the recent escalating ethnic violence that have left hundreds dead and up to 100,000 people displaced in the country.
Mr. Obama told reporters traveling with him that his visit is not an endorsement of the Myanmar government.
“This is an acknowledgment that there’s a process under way inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw,” he said.