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Should President Obama visit Laos?

As reported on Voice of America, “President Barack Obama is set to visit Burma this month, as part of a four-day trip to Southeast Asia. The president will also stop in Thailand and Cambodia. Obama will be the first U.S. president to visit Burma and Cambodia.  The trip is scheduled for November 17-20.” Will he make a side trip to Laos?

Granted, it’s already been a big year with U.S. Secretary of State Clinton making the first trip back to Laos this summer, making it the first time since 1955 that a Secretary of State visited the country.

In a July 11th article in the Huffington Post, Bradley Klapper pointed out “Laos is the latest test case of the Obama administration’s efforts to “pivot” U.S. foreign policy away from the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The efforts follow a long period of estrangement between Washington and a former Cold War-era foe, and come as U.S. relations also warm with countries such as Myanmar and Vietnam.” When she came, she spent less than half-a-day there.

But what would it signal if President Obama did or did not visit Laos on this occasion?

The conversation has already stoked many heated arguments both for and against such a visit within our community. Some veterans point out that it would be a disrespectful validation of the communist government, while others acknowledge it’s a step towards reconciliation and responsible antebellum reconstruction. Laos was recently admitted into the World Trade Organization, but what will its role be in recent Southeast Asian trade agreements being developed? Laos was able to remain insulated from much of the global financial meltdown, but would opening up to greater obligations to corporate interests be in its best interest?

We already see significant concerns over Lao plans to construct a dam on the Mekong River that would have significant environmental consequences not only for Laos but Cambodia and others who make a living off of the bounteous treasure of the river. A visit by President Obama could strengthen a sense of American commitment to addressing UXO and MIA issues, as well as finding support for viable, sustainable alternate crops and education and development efforts in the Laos.

A “snub” by President Obama on this trip would require us to take a close look at what it could mean. Is it possible there’s a longer trip planned later in the future? Might we see him make a historic trip in 2015, to recognize the 40th anniversary since the end of the war for Laos? Or at least 2013, to recognize the 40th anniversary since the end of the secret bombing in 1973? Or, is it to send a diplomatic signal that the administration is taking a more cautious, nuanced approach to building a strategic relationship with the Lao.

But what are your thoughts?

~Bryan

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