No-show by US leaders hints at shift in focus of White House

CONDOLEEZZA RICE TO SKIP ASEAN FORUM

Asean on the backburner as Iraq, Middle East take centrestage in final months of Bush presidency

UNITED States-Asean ties seemed set to suffer another blow with indications that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will not attend next month’s Asean Regional Forum (ARF) in Manila.

Though no announcement has been made, well-placed sources here and the Philippines’ National Security Advisor Norberto Gonzales confirmed that Dr Rice will not be going to Manila.

Her no-show, which follows a decision by President George W. Bush to reschedule a planned summit with the regional grouping in Singapore, is bound to upset Asean countries.

Taken together, they also bolster perceptions that Asean is now on the backburner in Washington, as Iraq and the Middle East become the sole preoccupation of the Bush administration in its last 17 months in office.

The no-shows come despite assurances that the US remains committed to the region, even though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are continuing.

In fact, as late as last month, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates reiterated the American commitment in his address at the Shangri-La Dialogue here.

But a White House insider who spoke on condition of anonymity said there had been a shift in US priorities.

He explained: “The focus is now on Iraq and the Middle East. It’s sucked the oxygen out of our foreign policy. The thinking is that Asean does not present any problems to warrant serious attention.”

Dr Rice is the US President’s point person for dealing with Iraq and the Middle East and has been tasked to organise a peace conference of Israelis, Palestinians and Arab governments later this year.

She cancelled a trip to Ghana this week so that she could stay in Washington for discussions on the Middle East.

Some sources have suggested that she could actually be travelling to the Middle East during the Asean Ministerial Meeting and ARF on August 1 to 2.

Iraq also remains a key issue for her to handle, and September could be a busy month, with pressures expected to mount for a US troop withdrawal from the war-torn country.

General David Petraeus, the head of American forces in Iraq, is expected to give a report to Congress assessing the state of the four-year-old conflict, and lawmakers, who return from a month- long Congressional recess on Sept 4, will be spoiling for a fight with the beleaguered president.

Republican strategists say the impending challenge to Mr Bush’s Iraq policy from a Democrat-controlled Congress is one major reason why the President decided against travelling for the Asean-US Summit in Singapore on Sept 5.

However, he will be attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Sydney on Sept 8, in a bid to show support for Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who has backed the war in Iraq and faces re-election this year.

Dr Rice ruffled feathers in Asean in 2005 when she skipped the ARF in Laos shortly after she became Secretary of State.

This time around, it appears there will be similar reactions.

“It will be a slap in the face,” said a senior Asean diplomat here. “But that is the price you pay for dealing with a lame duck administration.”

The Philippines’ Mr Gonzalez called the no-show “a disappointment”.

Some observers here, however, cautioned Asean against over-reacting because there was “no slight intended” from Washington.

The Straits Times understands that Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte is likely to go to Manila in Dr Rice’s place.

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