Obama's Southeast Asia Trip All Style, No Substance
It was obvious enough from the rubelike gaffes that the president hasn't been particularly interested or attentive to the affairs of Thailand, Burma or Cambodia as he made his first trip since his re-election. It was pretty much all style over substance.
In his tour of Burma, billed as an historic first visit since Burma's 2007 move to democracy, it was clear he was in way over his head, even on small things. Obama repeatedly referred to the country's Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader Aung San Suu Kyi as Aung Yan Suu Kyi, an astonishing error given her global fame.
He also bungled the norms of Burmese polite address, calling Thein Sein, the nation's leader "President Sein," an error comparable to addressing Cambodia's Pol Pot as Mr. Pot.
But he also undermined his supposed democracy mission, first by telling the Burmese leaders that he too wished he could govern without opposition, calling into question whether he himself believed in the representative government he was advocating.
It didn't help that he ignored the real heroes who helped push Burma toward a more open system — President and Mrs. Bush, as well as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, Sens. John McCain and Mitch McConnell, seeming to take credit for it himself.
That emptiness of purpose left showy photo-ops in all three countries, with the president flirting around with Thailand's photogenic Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and visiting the Buddha statues, effectively trivializing Thailand as a tourist trap instead of a major trading partner and the U.S.'s oldest ally in Asia.
Neither trade nor military matters were addressed substantively. Obama's lecture to Thailand about its democracy needing "improvement" was a fairly strong signal that he had no intention of restoring free-trade talks with the Thais, who lost their access to that a few years ago after a military coup that has since restored democracy.
The other cornerstone of the U.S.-Thai relationship — the military — wasn't advanced either, given Obama's efforts to cut the U.S. Navy to 1918 levels even as he talks of a "strategic pivot" to Asia.
No substance, no influence. Nothing underlined this quite like the lack of crowds greeting Obama in all three nations. When a leader's visit is cause for hope and a catalyst for change — think Pope John Paul II's 1978 Poland visit — crowds turn out. Obama, supposedly representing the greatest nation on earth, couldn't draw so much as an Occupy-sized crowd. Nor did he draw respect.
On his trip to Cambodia, a country he claimed didn't deserve a visit due to its strongman government, first lady Bun Rany greeted Obama with a traditional "sampeah" pressed-hands greeting reserved for servants, a little dig that was probably lost on him but not to Asians.
So what is really Obama's tour about? Apparently a get-out-of-town photo-op all about himself as a means of avoiding pressing problems back home. The Asians deserve better — and so do the Americans.