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Obama: will he really come?

Let us not admit impediments to the reveries of Foreign Ministry officials untroubled by the tribulations of a genuinely democratic society.

Let us simply take a reality check concerning the anticipated arrival of United States President Barack Obama in Phnom Penh next month for the East Asia Summit.

We are assured he will come.

Well, hold your ya-yas a moment, because it is quite possible he will not.

The reasons are obvious, but before laying them out, let us outline why many people remain convinced that in three weeks Air Force One will descend from the heavens and deposit POTUS at Pochentong.
First of all, Obama has said he plans to attend the summit. And it would be good for all concerned if he does.

But we must remember that leaders always say they plan to show up at all major gigs to which they are invited.

They never say, months in advance, that they are going to stiff the event – that would alienate their hosts and other attendees, who often include valued US allies.

So, yes, all things being equal, Obama will aim to join other heads of government in Phnom Penh on November 20, not just for the summit, but to engage China’s paramount leader, Hu Jintao, on a host of key issues.

Among them, of course, is the tinderbox dispute over sovereignty rights in the South China Sea – the very issue that scuppered July’s ASEAN Ministerial Meeting here.

This time, thankfully, Cambodia’s foreign minister has curbed his enthusiasm to act as Beijing’s puppet, and Vietnam and the Philippines have likewise agreed not to behave like beastie boys and hector him.

That said, Obama will want to stiffen the sinews of China’s rival claimants and assure them that Uncle Sam will not allow the Red Dragon to swallow the entire sea and lord it over the whole region.

So there are reasons aplenty for Obama to attend, and already more than 600 hotel rooms, including the entire Sunway and Raffles Le Royal hotels, have been reserved for the presidential cavalcade.

But let us take a step back and realise that much of this is smoke and mirrors, if not sheer diplomatic baloney.

To start with, the blocking of hotel rooms is irrelevant, because they will all be taken whether the US contingent is headed by Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden or Tiger Woods.

As for the touted confab with China, it is also a flimsy rationale since Beijing is currently overhauling its leadership and Hu Jintao will be a lame duck at the time of the summit.

Obama will hardly feel impelled to travel round the world to catch up with a guy who’ll shortly be toast – as, incidentally, will the present leaders of Japan and South Korea.

As well, Washington is unhappy at the way Cambodia’s leaders have kept a steely grip on power for three decades, treated oppositionists as de facto traitors and generally ridden roughshod over human rights.

That is why Prime Minister Hun Sen, despite being the region’s longest-serving elected prime minister, has never been invited to the White House.

And do not forget that until Cambodia settles a long-standing debt to the US of more than $450 million, relations will remain lukewarm at best.

Finally, there is the small matter of the date of the summit, which falls only two weeks after the US November 6 election.

Having been campaigning virtually non-stop for as long as anyone can remember, Obama will need to recuperate and spend time with his family.

The last thing he’ll want is to leave his wife, Michelle, and his two daughters to traipse off to Cambodia, especially when the most important holiday in America, Thanksgiving, falls at the same time.

And of course, there is always the possibility that Obama will lose the election, in which case it would be pointless for him to come.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roger Mitton at



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