With Eye On Mideast, Obama Tours Asia

President Obama was in Thailand Sunday at the start of a brief tour of Southeast Asia. The trip is supposed to show Obama's commitment to shifting U.S. focus onto Asia and the Pacific, but events in the Middle East and Washington threaten to overshadow the tour. Guy Raz Scott Horsley

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Let's turn to another story we're following today: President Obama's visit to Asia. He's in Thailand today, the first stop on a three-country tour of Southeast Asia that will take him to Myanmar, the country also known as Burma.

NPR's Scott Horsley is traveling with the president and joins us now. And, Scott, the president obviously trying to shine the spotlight on Asia, but all in the midst of escalating violence in the Middle East. How is he staying on top of it?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The president's been speaking just about daily with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. He's also talked by telephone with the leaders of Egypt and Turkey. Secretary of State Clinton is traveling along with him, and she's staying in touch with her counterparts. And the president made clear that in the U.S. view, what has sparked this latest round of fighting in the region is rockets fired from Gaza into populated parts of Israel.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.

HORSLEY: So on the one hand, the president's defending Israel's right to self-defense but also pushing for de-escalation. All of this as he's trying, as you say, keep the focus on Asia. So once again, the president's kind of carrying out a sort of juggling act to keep a lot of multiple balls in the air.

RAZ: Why try to juggle it? I mean, why did he make this trip to Asia in the midst of that crisis?

HORSLEY: Well, this is part of a long-term strategy that the president has had to reemphasize the U.S. presence as a Pacific nation. Asia has some of the world's fastest growing economies. It's also going to account for a huge portion of economic growth in the years to come as Europe slows down. And, of course, in geopolitical terms, the U.S. wants to serve as sort of a counterweight in this region to China's growing power.

It's going to be repositioning some military assets to Asia. And the president's also trying to cut a larger figure in international organizations like the East Asia Summit that he'll be meeting with in Cambodia.

RAZ: Now he's going to first visit Myanmar or Burma. That's a country that has seen pretty dramatic changes over the past year.

HORSLEY: Yeah. Change, as the president said, would have been almost unimaginable two years ago. Who would have thought back then that Aung San Suu Kyi would be in parliament instead of under house arrest? A number of political prisoners have been released in Myanmar.

So the president's meeting with the leaders in that country, both the government leaders and the opposition leaders, is both to recognize the efforts Myanmar has made towards democratic reform, but also to say, look, there's still a long way to go. There are still prisoners being held in that country. There are still ethnic conflicts that have resulted in tens of thousands of people being displaced.

So the administration says they want to both recognize the progress that's been made but also put a marker down on what Myanmar still needs to do.

RAZ: This is the president's first foreign trip since he won re-election two weeks ago. How does that factor into what he says or how he's received in some of these countries?

HORSLEY: Well, you know, when he meets with these East Asian leaders in Cambodia later this week, he'll be one of the few who's not a lame duck. China has been going through its own power transition. Both the U.S. and China have been somewhat internally focused during their own processes. But there's no question that President Obama is in a stronger position coming into this international meeting.

He has four more years to focus on that goal of building the U.S. presence in Asia. And that kind of continuity is important because we see with the flare-up in the Middle East this week just how difficult it can be to carry out a long-term mission like that.

RAZ: That's NPR's Scott Horsley traveling with the president in Asia. Scott, thanks.

HORSLEY: Guy, good to be with you.

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