The trouble with pivoting to Asia while the Middle East burns

The optics would be crystal clear: Only days after Barack Obama's reelection -- and just as China underwent a once-in-a-decade leadership transition --  the top national security officials in the country would pack their bags and make a beeline for Asia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would travel to Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia; Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta would visit Australia, Thailand, and Cambodia; and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey would swing through South Korea and Australia. To cap it all off, Obama would head to Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia, visiting the latter two countries for the first time and attending an East Asia summit in Phnom Penh.

Obama's "decision to travel to Asia so soon after his reelection speaks to the importance that he places on the region and its centrality to so many of our national security interests and priorities," National Security Advisor Tom Donilon explained in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday. Go to the State and Defense Department websites, and you'll see top stories on Clinton emphasizing America's economic and security ties with Australia, and Panetta meeting with Southeast Asian leaders.   

The trouble, however, is that the White House is stepping up its pivot (or, as the administration would put it, "rebalancing") to the Asia-Pacific region just as the Middle East -- the very region the United States is fitfully trying to pivot away from -- grows more volatile by the day. Israel is calling up reservists and massing tanks and troops outside the Gaza Strip in a possible prelude to a ground invasion. Post-revolutionary Egypt is facing its first major foreign-policy test as it seeks to defuse the escalating conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza. The United States is under pressure to follow the lead of countries like France, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey and formally recognize the Syrian opposition's new umbrella organization, as concerns grow about the security of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are busy investigating the Benghazi attack. Anti-government protests have gripped Jordan.

As these storylines develop over the next several days, America's commander-in-chief and secretary of state will both be out of the country in Asia. In the spring of 2011, you may recall, Obama cut short a trip to Latin America (one intended to emphasize regional economic and security ties) because of the recently launched military intervention in Libya. Will events in the Middle East once again sidetrack a carefully orchestrated diplomatic offensive?

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