President Barack Obama is about to undertake his first foreign travel since the election to Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand, consistent with his new "pivot to Asia" policy.
Probably the most important stop in his Nov. 17-20 trip will be Cambodia, host of the annual East Asia Summit, where he will also meet with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The two groups partly overlap, but the East Asia Summit includes heavyweights Australia, China, India, Japan and Russia.
In Cambodia, Mr. Obama will have to walk a fine line between being a good guest at the summit and lending support to the government led by former Khmer Rouge battalion commander and now Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power for 27 years. Cambodia poses an unsavory situation for democracy and human rights. But Mr. Obama's most important moments will likely be spent in talks with the leaders of China and Russia.
His visit to Myanmar, still called Burma by some, comes at a crucial point in its evolution. It was perhaps the most politically closed, economically isolated country of the region. Mr. Obama will meet with both President Thein Sein, leading the government side of the country's cautious emergence from repressive rule toward democracy, and with Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's opposition leader. Mr. Obama must praise the progress that the country has made, but express hope that even more can be done.
Thailand is an old American ally, having played a particularly helpful role in the Vietnam War. Mr. Obama will be marking an astonishing 180 years of U.S. diplomatic relations with Thailand, which started under President Andrew Jackson. Now led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the Thais have managed to wend their way through a variety of financial and political crises, so far without sinking the boat. Good relations with the United States remain an important element in the country's prospects.
With the trip Mr. Obama will get a bit of a break before returning to Washington to tackle the fiscal cliff and staffing his new government's critical positions, but there will be plenty of work for him to do in Asia while he is on the road.