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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Next US president will have deep Asia ties

WASHINGTON (AP): For all their political differences, Barack Obama and John McCain share a life-changing, though sharply different, personal experience: They both spent long stretches of their early lives in Asia, Obama as a boy in Indonesia, McCain as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Asian relations have not topped the presidential candidates' list of concerns, with Americans worried about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a weakening economy. But the next U.S. president, whichever man wins, will have a perspective on a critical region unlike any of his predecessors.

"Most Americans don't know Asia,'' Jonathan Adelman, a professor of international studies at the University of Denver, said. "These people had intensive, multiyear experiences at important times in their younger life, when it would matter.''

It is difficult to predict how their Asia experiences might influence U.S. policies when either Obama, a Democrat who has a solid lead in most polls, or the Republican McCain takes office in January. "But there is clearly some empathy there,'' Adelman said. "They're not going to stereotype the other side after their very intense personal experiences.''

Other presidents have had ties to Asia. George H.W. Bush was the top U.S. envoy in Beijing in the 1970s for about a year, and he and John F. Kennedy both fought in the Pacific in World War II.

But either Obama or McCain would bring a unique, deeply personal Asia connection to a White House that will face a nuclear-armed, confrontational North Korea; a struggling Pakistan that terrorists are using as a haven to attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan; and an increasingly powerful China that can help or hinder American interests around the world.

For both, their experience in Asia began the same year: 1967.

McCain was 31 in October of that year and on his 23rd bombing mission when he was shot down. A mob dragged him from a Hanoi lake, his arms and a knee broken. They stabbed him with bayonets and took him to prison, where, he says, he was "dumped in a dark cell and left to die.''

McCain tried suicide twice, endured repeated beatings and refused offers of early release. Of his 5 1/2 years of confinement in North Vietnam, three were in solitary.

McCain, who spent years moving from place to place with his father, an eventual admiral, and during his own time in the Navy, once quipped early in his political career that "the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.''

At the Republican National Convention in September, he spoke of how a prisoner in the next cell, after McCain had suffered a particularly bad beating, told him "to get back up and fight again for our country.''

He has made the experience a central part of his presidential campaign and is often praised for putting aside past anger to push for normalized U.S. relations with communist Vietnam, despite strong opposition.

Barbara True-Weber, a political science professor at Meredith College, said that McCain's "perspective has been shaped much more by his military background and his perceptions of threat to American goals.''

But, she said, his prison experience deepened his "characteristic defiance, insistence on duty and resistance to threatening pressure.''

During the campaign, Obama has played down his time in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, apparently for political reasons; some opponents have spread false rumors that Obama, a Christian, was educated in a radical Muslim school.

In his memoir, "Dreams from My Father,'' however, he writes vividly about leaving his birthplace in the U.S. state of Hawaii, a multicultural, Asia-oriented group of Pacific islands, as a 6-year-old to spend four years in Indonesia with his mother and Indonesian stepfather.

Obama recalls how it took him "less than six months to learn Indonesia's language, its customs and its legends,'' how he became friends with "the children of farmers, servants and low-level bureaucrats,'' and how he survived chicken pox, measles "and the sting of my teachers' bamboo switches.''

He also describes the desperation of farmers beset with drought and floods and how his stepfather taught him, after Obama got in a fight with an older boy, to box: "The world was violent, I was learning, unpredictable and often cruel.''

In 1971, when he was 10, Obama's mother sent him back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents.

Ralph A. Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank, says that people in Southeast Asia see Obama as "one of us.'' But, he said, "expectations may be too high. When Obama, if elected, does the normal things U.S. presidents do to protect and promote U.S. interests, Asians may be more disappointed that he did not put them first.''

During the campaign, the candidates' rhetoric has provided glimpses at policies that could emerge during the next presidency. McCain has been skeptical of what critics call the George W. Bush administration's overeager pursuit of a nuclear deal with North Korea. It is Obama, not Bush's fellow Republican, McCain, who is likely to follow Bush's recent multilateral approach more closely.

McCain also has criticized Obama for saying that, as president, he would authorize unilateral military action if al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden were found in Pakistan and the Pakistani government refused to go after him.

Cossa said events and national interests drive policy decisions more than personal experiences. Both candidates, he said, "have more experience and association with Southeast Asia than any former U.S. president, but that will not make Southeast Asia a higher priority in Asia, much less in the world.''

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