x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

US pivot to Asia slowed by basic policy realities

US support of human rights in Myanmar is laudable. The muted response to Israel's bombardment of civilians in Gaza stands in stark contrast.

US President Barack Obama's first visit overseas after his re-election is meant to convey a clear message. The so-called "pivot to Asia" of American policy, with the unstated implication of a pivot away from the Middle East, is central to Mr Obama's foreign policy, in theory at least.

The South-east Asia tour will be welcomed by some, and seen as an implicit threat by others. As the US president meets Asian leaders in Cambodia today at the East Asia Summit, his presence will be seen as a counterbalance to Chinese influence in the region. The "pivot" is often seemed as a manoeuvre to contain Beijing's increasingly aggressive foreign policy.

In Myanmar, crowds greeted Mr Obama on his historic visit. To whatever extent that he can urge reform in the country, as it slowly opens up after five decades of military dictatorship, Mr Obama's overture should be welcomed. As violence continues to plague the country - with hundreds of Muslim Rohingya killed since summer - international pressure is crucial. On Sunday, Myanmar's President Thein Sein promised that he would end the violence that has often been perpetrated by local security forces. It is a promise to which he must be held.

There is, however, something of a false note in Mr Obama’s comments during this junket. To be sure, he began the trip with statements not about East Asia but the Middle East. Yet while focussing on the assault on the Gaza Strip, Mr Obama noted with remarkable understatement that the violence was harmful to the peace process.

US support of human rights in Myanmar is laudable. The muted response to Israel's bombardment of civilians in Gaza, however, stands in stark contrast. The US role as a defender of human rights has always been plagued by this inconsistency - denouncing crimes where it is convenient, but often looking the other way as its "friends" commit the same.

That is realpolitik, of course, and unfortunately to be expected. But Mr Obama's statements reveal an underlying reality to Washington's pivot to Asia. Despite Americans weariness after more than a decade of war, the country remains deeply wedded to the Middle East and wider region. This includes its counterproductive support of Israel as well as broader geostrategic goals.

Certainly Washington will be watching Beijing carefully in coming years, and continuing American influence in East Asia will be welcomed.

The thunder over Gaza is a timely reminder, however, of Washington's responsibilities in this region. There is little doubt its blind backing of Israel will continue. But should not American foreign policy also include justice for the Palestinian people?