Wednesday, January 09, 2008

US not paying Asia attention

US not paying Asia attention

Thailand is not the only country able to produce an interesting election. The contest to elect a president of the United States is probably the toughest and most thankless political campaign on Earth. Contestants go through a series of meat-grinders known as primary elections. This is the filtering process through which each of the two major parties selects the person who will stand in the actual election in early November. The primary elections are especially important this year. That is because it appears that the two candidates who will face each other at the Nov 4 polls will be decided by next month. It also is important because whoever remains standing to contest the presidential election will be a new face. It is the first US election since 1928 in which neither the incumbent president nor vice-president will stand for office. Yet, this year, there are even more compelling issues that make the pre-election season both interesting and significant.

Last week, at primary election meetings, voters in the agricultural and extremely Caucasian state of Iowa selected Barack Hussein Obama as their favourite candidate for the Democrat party. The vote is widely believed to show that Americans have finally overcome their racial prejudices. Mr Obama, the son of a Kenyan Muslim immigrant and a white mother, now has become the first black American with a real chance to become president.

Just as significantly _ or even more noteworthy to many Americans _ is the fact that the other most likely presidential candidate for the Democrats is Hillary Clinton. She is the first American woman with a real chance to be elected to the country's top office. Tonight, voters in the small state of New Hampshire will state their own preferences, and provide further shape to the contest between Democrats and Republicans late this year.

The campaign already has taken unexpected and even strange directions. A year ago, most pundits predicted the 2008 presidential election would be all about Iraq. Several candidates demanded immediate US withdrawal. The undoubted successes against al-Qaeda on the ground have changed that, and none of the top candidates differs significantly from the Iraq policies of President George W Bush. Mr Obama, after a stunning claim that he would talk with Iranian leaders but consider use of nuclear weapons against Pakistan, now favours leaving US advisers in Iraq without a deadline. Mrs Clinton has recently tried to stress that she is the toughest Democrat on the question of national security.

Whatever one thinks of Mr Bush _ he is one of the most unpopular US leaders _ he has not provided hope or signs of leadership for Asia. Neither, since her appointment, has Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice given confidence to our part of the world. Of course the chief US concern since the first year of Mr Bush's presidency has been security from the threat of terrorism. But US and global security only can be achieved when all countries agree on how to face common threats. Terrorist threats will fail in the face of economic success, cross-border cooperation and better opportunity.

The lack of attention to Asia by Mr Bush and his cabinet, in both security and economic matters, now affects the US presidential campaign. Mr Bush has seldom stood up for truly free trade. As a result, the leading candidates of both parties have emphasised trade protectionism during the campaign.

Leading Republican Mike Huckabee has denounced trade with both Asia and Europe, as well as increasing oil imports from the Middle East. Most significantly, Mrs Clinton has called for a halt to new trade agreements. She has specifically promised US auto workers that as president she will support a special law whose only effect will be to prevent the sale of Thailand-made pickup trucks in the United States.

Thailand and Asia can only hope for a more careful and reasonable policy towards Asia as the election campaign proceeds.

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