Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is "The World". The government shutdown continues and it just took a bite out of US diplomacy. President Obama has called off his visits next week to the Philippines and Malaysia. The White House says it's because of the federal shutdown in Washington. That's the third time that this President has cancelled trips to Asia since he took office and that's significant for an administration that says it wants to refocus American foreign policy on the Asia-Pacific region. I'm with The World's Matthew Bell who has joined me in the studio. How big of a deal is this, Matthew?
Matthew Bell: Well, Marco, it's a big enough deal that President Obama got on the phone himself to call the heads of state of the Philippines and Malaysia and tell them, "Sorry, we have dysfunction in Washington. Not going to be able to make it." He evidently did commit to visiting both countries before his term is out. A good reminder that these are two important places for the Obama administration - the Philippines is a long-time ally, it has close military relations especially with the United States, Malaysia is seen as a moderate Muslim country with a commitment to electoral politics. So the cancellation will be seen there as somewhat of a disappointment.
Werman: Obama reassuring those leaders, "It's not you. It's us." So when he spoke at the UN last week, we noticed that Obama's speech was almost exclusively devoted to crises in the Middle East, especially Iran and Syria. Is this yet another sign that the US is just incapable of making that famous pivot to Asia and focusing on this region?
Bell: Not necessarily, Marco. I talked with one of President Obama's former top advisors on East Asia from the National Security Council, Jeffrey Bader, this morning and he told me on the contrary, in fact President Obama is still going to Asia. He's got two big meeting coming up - one in Indonesia, one in Brunei - these are the APEC and the East-Asia Summit meetings. He's going to be meeting with many, many heads of state there. As Bader told me, this was really the main purpose of this Asia visit this time around and the fact that he's still going through with that is sending a message that the administration's priorities are on Asia and that this so-called pivot is underway even if that's not the best word for it.
Jeffrey Bader: It is a problem in the sense that the US government has to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. And when the US government is shut down it's hard to do either frankly, but we can't forget the Middle East when we're concentrating on developing our presence in the Asia-Pacific region. That's why I think frankly that the term "pivot' was not a great term. The term "pivot' suggests that we were going to be leaving behind the Middle East and concentrating on the Asia-Pacific region. I don't think that's an accurate metaphor.
Bell: So Bader told me here, Marco, that Obama is trying to thread the needle. He did not want to risk being seen traveling abroad, doing bilateral meetings, by the American public at a time of real crisis back in Washington. At the same time he wanted to show this commitment to "re-balance", and that's the term US officials are using a lot more of, to re-balance US efforts toward that part of the world. In contrast, Marco, Bill Clinton faced the exact same decision during his first term. There was a government shutdown, he had a trip to Asia planned, he cancelled the whole thing.
Werman: So what's the reaction from Asia been to these cancellations?
Bell: From the Philippines and Malaysia so far officials have been quoted as saying they completely understand the decision. I think behind the scenes there's probably going to be some concern, especially when they look ahead at this debt-ceiling issue. After all China and Japan hold huge piles of US debt and now we're talking about the possibility that Congress could refuse to raise the debt-ceiling and then risk an US default.
Werman: The World's Matthew Bell there.