- The Washington Times - Friday, November 9, 2012

With less than two months left for Washington to avoid an impending fiscal crisis that could drive economic recovery into a tailspin, President Obama will break away from negotiations to spend four days on a diplomatic trip to Southeast Asia.

Two days after Mr. Obama won re-election, the White House confirmed that the president will travel from Nov. 17 through 20 to Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, where he will attend the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and meet with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The trip to Myanmar will mark a breakthrough as the long-isolated country attempts to open up its political system and economy.

White House officials on Friday tried to dismiss questions of whether the four-day trip could complicate efforts to work with lawmakers on a budget deal to avoid a looming fiscal cliff of tax rate increases and spending cuts.

The swing through Asia for the regional summit was in the works before Mr. Obama’s re-election, and administration officials argue it will be anything but a victory lap.

The White House billed the trip as an opportunity to “discuss a broad range of issues, including economic prosperity and job creation through increased trade and partnerships, energy and security cooperation, human rights, shared values” and other issues.

When asked whether the timing of the trip was appropriate considering the Dec. 31 deadline to stave off the fiscal cliff, Mr. Carney told reporters that negotiations among the White House, Senate Democrats and House Republicans will continue in Mr. Obama’s absence.

“The president, as he announced today, will be meeting with members of Congress before his trip,” he said. “And I am absolutely certain that the work that is begun there will continue while he is traveling.”

Mr. Carney also said the trip is part of the president’s broader agenda of “expanding our presence in Asia, and the positive economic impact of doing that will be felt for years to come.”

But critics said the focus on foreign affairs seemed particularly ill-timed after the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office’s Thursday release of a report warning of the serious economic aftershocks of failing to reach a budget deal.

The report said the automatic spending cuts and tax increases set to kick in at the end of the year would gin up the jobless rate to 9.1 percent and cause the economy to shrivel by 0.5 percent.

“I can understand why it would be a valuable trip,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “That said, it’s a question on whether it’s critical time in the negotiations. Even though you are connected by the phone, there is something to sitting down and meeting and having a conversation face to face.”

Even though Mr. Ellis doesn’t expect a deal before December, he said the president should be prepared to cancel the trip depending on progress on the negotiations and where things stand by the end of next week.

“It’s a very critical time to be going to the other side of the globe,” he said.

Foreign-policy specialists, meanwhile, laud the trip as a sign of Mr. Obama’s commitment to strengthening U.S.-Asia-Pacific partnerships as a way to encourage China to play by international trade rules.

“The itinerary is based on strategic intent and requires the political courage of a leader with a mandate,” wrote Ernest Bower, a senior adviser for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in an essay this week.

Mr. Obama will be the first president to travel to Cambodia and Myanmar. Human rights groups have criticized him for visiting countries that still have political prisoners and serious human rights problems, thereby undercutting efforts to pressure for change.

When it comes to Myanmar, Mr. Carney said the president will use his historic visit “precisely to continue to press for democratic reform, national reconciliation, economic growth and improvements in the bilateral relationships.

“There has been extraordinary progress made since President Obama announced our opening to [Myanmar] last year, but much more work remains to be done to advance and consolidate democratic change,” he said. “Supporting democracy and human rights is a fundamental principle behind the president’s policy in the region and the world, and he will carry that message on this trip.”

The post-election travel marks the second time in a year that Mr. Obama made a major trip to Asia. Last November, he flew to Hawaii to host the APEC summit, then visited Australia and ended his trip in Bali for another summit aimed at boosting security and anti-terrorism initiatives with Pacific Rim nations.

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