U.S. President Barack Obama embarks on a well-planned trip to Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia starting on Saturday. One would suspect that Obama's trip was timed to start creating momentum for his legacy in Asia. However, although Obama may return home with a number of planned trade agreements, it will be very difficult for Obama to gain any strategic ground with the conservative ASEAN nations he will visit.
It is yet to be seen if the Obama administration really understands the dynamics of the ASEAN region and their reluctance to be dragged into a choice between the U.S. and China.
In fact, his trip to Asia is also a risk for him, due to his decision to visit Burma. If the Thein Sein regime fails to progress, and human rights abuses continue to occur with ethnic groups like the Roghani people, this leg of the trip could actually prove to be an embarrassment in the future. The fact that Ang Sang Suu Kyi herself doesn't support fair treatment for these people should ring alarm bells in itself.
There is already concern in some quarters that Obama has sacrificed principles in the interest of attempting to build a new ally to alter the balance of power in the region. This is not the Obama many people voted for.
Moreover, while Obama is getting ready to leave Washington for South-East Asia, it will be difficult to focus on Asia, with the Gaza situation unwinding by the hour.
Whether Israel will invade the Gaza strip will depend upon the leadership's real intention: Is it to stop the rockets coming out of Gaza, or is it to ultimately crush the Hamas leadership? Dogma by Israel suggests the later.
However, this decision will be more a political one rather than a security one, as Israel's support from its allies is currently weak and the Arab landscape since the Arab Spring is far different, with many unpredictable factors in Egypt, Syria, and even Jordan. Within the last 24 hours, the Prime Minister of Egypt and Foreign minister of Tunisia have visited Gaza. One of the members of the Hamas politburo met with the Turkish Prime Minister in Cairo to look at how Turkey can support Gaza.
What is certain is that any invasion this time would isolate Israel in the world, except perhaps for the United States, which will be in a quandary.
America's intelligence-gathering capability in the region is at an all-time low. It is far from certain which countries are actually U.S. allies. Based on past performance, the Netanyahu government may not listen to the U.S. Any dealings with Hamas in Gaza may have to go through Egypt, which itself in any Israel invasion of Gaza could be a completely unknown quantity. Any unpredictable event from a desperate Bashar Al Assad in Syria could add to these problems.
So the ability of Obama or Secertary of State Hillary Clinton to undertake any form of diplomacy ala the Kissinger days of "shuttle diplomacy" is definitely limited. The events in Libya and Syria have also shown that the Obama administration is extremely cautious, even to the point of looking inept and not knowing what to do.
Any invasion of Gaza is going to set back any potential peace process in the Middle East by years, bring world and regional opinion strongly against Israel, and cost the lives of thousands of innocent people. An invasion will probably not result in the wiping out of Hamas, but in fact create a whole new generation of even harder line leaders that will replace the deceased martyrs.
But, any invasion will also be costly to Obama. If he fails to show the leadership that would be expected of a president of the United States, and appears to do very little, he may be seen by many in the Middle East as an accomplice "after the fact," and spend his second term as a "lame duck" president with little hope of leaving any important foreign policy legacy.
For Clinton, any thinking of running for president in 2016 will very quickly fade from her mind, and the perceived failure to "do any deals" would make her cannon fodder on any campaign podium for potential presidential rivals in the future.
Gaza has come for Obama and Clinton at a very inconvenient time.