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In Asia, Obama keeps focus off terrorism

As the ailing economy becomes the nation's biggest fear, China replaces Al Qaeda as a top concern, and joint efforts on economic growth, security and other such issues take center stage.

November 19, 2011|By Peter Nicholas and Christi Parsons, Los Angeles Times
  • Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and President Obama attend a regional summit on Bali in Indonesia. The two spoke at a dinner Friday, and Wen asked to continue the discussion, so they met again privately Saturday.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and President Obama attend a regional summit… (Beawiharta, European Pressphoto…)

Reporting from Bali, Indonesia —  

Touring the Asia Pacific region last week, President Obama appeared before cameras with one national leader after another to praise joint efforts on economic growth, maritime security, copyright protection and other concerns. Conspicuously absent was a buzzword of these kinds of news conferences for the last decade: terrorism.

That silence speaks volumes for the Obama administration's efforts to shift the U.S. focus away from a single-minded battle against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Although that fight continues, it increasingly has receded into the shadows, with wars fought by Predator drones, CIA operatives and special operations forces.

The change in the White House message stems, in part, from recognition that, barring a major domestic attack, terrorism isn't an election issue. Fear of the economy has replaced fear of terrorism as the chief worry both in America and around the world.

As a result, with U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan coming to a close, Washington is refocusing on the fast-growing Pacific region to curb the influence of a rising China, an issue that does resonate with voters.

That change of focus from conflicts in the Middle East to strategic and economic interests in Asia, and from unilateralism to a new balance-of-power diplomacy, "may be the most important shift in America's global stance since the end of the Cold War," said David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of a history of the National Security Council. "It is really a new vision of America's role in the world."

Obama never had much use for President George W. Bush's lexicon of terrorism. One of his first acts in office was to abolish the Bush-era phrase "global war on terror," replacing it with "overseas contingency operation," which sounds like a banking transaction.

"It's a branding based on what they see as the failures of the Bush administration," said Mike Green, who served as senior Asia policy advisor in the Bush White House. "The Obama critique during the election and in office is that the Bush foreign policy was determined too much by terrorism. They argue … they had a smarter approach."

After Navy SEALs killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May, White House aides studiously avoided saying anything like "mission accomplished," the notorious banner that flapped behind Bush when he visited a U.S. warship after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The last U.S. combat troops will leave Iraq next month, and no one is likely to say it then either.

The closest Obama came last week was a single line in a lengthy speech Thursday to Australia's Parliament. Al Qaeda, he said, is "on the path to defeat."

Territorial disputes in the resource-rich South China Sea and other security concerns were the focus when Obama and 17 other leaders gathered at the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations summit on the island of Bali in Indonesia. It was the final stop on his trip.

Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation, and it has suffered horrific violence. Islamist suicide bombers killed more than 220 people in attacks at nightclubs and hotels in Bali in 2002 and 2005. More than 20 people were killed in bombings at a hotel and the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, the capital, in 2003 and 2004.

Asked why terrorism wasn't a larger theme of the trip, national security advisor Tom Donilon said the White House focus on Al Qaeda remains undiminished, if less public.

"Is a terrorist threat defeated? No," Donilon said Saturday in Bali before the president began the 25-hour flight back to Washington. "Have we made a lot of progress? I think we have, frankly, in the last three years. But it is a priority every single day of the week for all of us in the national security team and for the president, absolutely."

But Donilon emphasized the message that Obama drove home at every stop: The U.S. is "all in" when it comes to the Pacific Rim.

"What we've seen in this trip is the implementation of a substantial and important reorientation in American global strategy," Donilon said. "That is, the rebalancing of our efforts towards the challenges and opportunities in Asia on the part of the United States."

Obama flies home with several agreements that may help the U.S. exert more influence in the region.

He announced plans to station 2,500 Marines in northern Australia for regional training missions and military exercises and to help protect vital sea lanes in the South China Sea. He also enhanced military ties with the Philippines, which worries about China's growing claims on undersea oil and gas reserves near its archipelago.

Obama also reached out to the long-isolated nation of Myanmar, a Chinese ally that has signaled it wants closer ties to Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will meet senior leaders and opposition figures there next month, becoming the highest-ranking American to visit the country in half a century.

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