Obama trip to Asia light on tourism for a presidential jaunt

AP News
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Posted: Nov 13, 2015 5:08 PM
Obama trip to Asia light on tourism for a presidential jaunt

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House has gone to great lengths to show that President Barack Obama isn't a lame duck. It's less worried about showing he's not a lame tourist.

Departing on Saturday on a trip that will take him to Turkey, the Philippines and Malaysia, the president will experience the beauty of the Turkish Riviera and bustle of Southeast Asian capitals — largely from the inside of heavily secured hotels and convention centers.

Obama's nine-day schedule leaves little room for the light sightseeing or "cultural stops" typically part of presidential travel.

There appears to be no visit through the Roman ruins at Aspendos or time to gawk at shining gold shrines at Batu Caves. There are, however, at least eight bilateral meetings with foreign leaders, a series of working lunches and dinners, and four summits.

The "all work and no play" itinerary is notable for a president — the son of an anthropologist — who often tries to soak up some of the local flavor when he travels.

This is the president who found time to walk barefoot up the steps of the Shwedagon Pagoda during a six-hour stop in Myanmar in 2012. He surprised some of his own staff by diverting his departure from a NATO summit last year to visit Stonehenge. ("Knocked it off the bucket list," he said.)

In 2013, Obama capped a Mideast trip with a visit to the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. Photos from Obama's trip to the Arctic circle this fall look like tourism board advertising.

This trip shows few signs of Obama embracing his globe-trotter-in-chief status.

The White House says it has planned time for what it calls "people-to-people" exchanges. The president is to meet with young people at a town hall in Kuala Lumpur, part of an initiative to influence young leaders, and visit a refugee center there in an effort to draw attention to displaced people around the globe.

In the Philippines, he's due to speak at a "coastal facility" to promote maritime cooperation.

"It's very important — and I think the way the president looks at foreign policy is — that in addition to the meetings that take place in convention centers, that he's engaging people, that he's reaching out to different sectors of society that we're visiting," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.

Still, the meetings in convention centers are the heart of next week's trip.

Obama is headed first to Antalya, Turkey, the site of Group of 20 economic summit. But talk of the Syrian war is likely to dominate.

Obama will meet with the leaders of Germany, Britain, Italy and France in hopes of making "incremental progress" in the fight against the Islamic State group.

One leader Obama won't be meeting with is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Still, national security adviser Susan Rice said Obama and Putin would have "ample opportunity for discussion" during informal run-ins at the summit.

Security at the Turkish resort town is expected to be tight. Turkey has detained dozens of IS suspects in recent weeks, including some 20 in or near Antalya.

"If I was Obama or his security people, I would be terribly worried," said Henri Barkey, Middle East program director and Turkey expert at the Wilson Center.

Obama may find it easier to squeeze in time for tourism in Asia, where he is hardly a newcomer.

The president has made frequent and extended visits to the region a key part of his "pivot" of diplomatic, economic and military resources toward Asia.

Obama will use the trip to promote a major piece of the strategy — the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

That promotion began Friday, when Obama gathered prominent former diplomats at the White House to show off bipartisan support for the deal.

"If we're going to continue to succeed in securing our nation and our allies, then we're going to have to be a player," Obama said, sitting between former Secretaries of State James Baker and Henry Kissinger.

The U.S. has been "working hard to increase the U.S. presence," Obama said. That means increasing Obama's presence in Asia, his advisers note.

"It really matters to attend these summits at the level of the leader," Rhodes said. "Because we want the United States to be at the table at the Asia-Pacific in shaping the future of the region and signaling that we're going to be present. When we're not at the table, we're on the menu."

Another working lunch.

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Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.