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Obama Trip to Asia Light on Tourism for a Presidential Jaunt

FILE - President Barack Obama, right, tours the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar, November 19, 2012.
FILE - President Barack Obama, right, tours the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar, November 19, 2012.

When Obama heads overseas Saturday for a power round of diplomacy in Turkey, the Philippines and Malaysia, he'll experience the beauty of the Turkish Riviera and bustle of Southeast Asian capitals largely from the inside of heavily secured hotels and convention centers.

Obama's schedule on the nine-day trip shows little room for the light sightseeing or “cultural stops,” typically the hallmark of presidential travel. There appears to be no visit through the Roman ruins at Aspendos or time to gawk at shining gold shrines at Batu Caves. There are, however, at least eight bilateral meetings with foreign leaders, a string of working lunches and dinners and four summits.

The “all work and no play” schedule is notable for a president - the son of an anthropologist - who often tries to soak up some of the local color when he travels. This is the president who found time to walk barefoot up the steps of the Shwedagon Pagoda during a six-hour stop in Myanmar in 2012. He surprised some of his own staff by diverting his departure from a NATO summit last year to visit Stonehenge. (“Knocked it off the bucket list,” he said.) In 2013, Obama capped a Mideast trip with a visit to the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. Photos from Obama's trip to the Arctic circle this fall look like tourism board advertising.

Such jaunts are often more likely when a president winds down his tenure and becomes less sensitive to criticism back home.

But this trip shows few signs of Obama embracing his globe-trotter-in-chief status. The White House says it has planned time for what it calls “people-to-people” exchanges. The president is slated to meet with young people at a town hall in Kuala Lumpur, part of an initiative to influence young leaders, and is scheduled to visit a refugee center there in an effort to draw attention to displaced people around the globe. In the Philippines, he's due to speak at “coastal facility” to tout maritime cooperation, noted deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.

“It's very important - and I think the way the president looks at foreign policy is - that in addition to the meetings that take place in convention centers, that he's engaging people, that he's reaching out to different sectors of society that we're visiting,” Rhodes said.

Still, the meetings in convention centers are the heart of next week's trip.

Obama is headed first to Antalya, Turkey, the site of Group of 20 economic summit. The meeting is likely to be dominated by talk of the war raging in neighboring Syria.

Obama will meet with the leaders of Germany, Britain, Italy and France in hopes of making “incremental progress” in the fight against the Islamic State group. Terrorism and security is also on the agenda for a broader working dinner, a rarity for a group primarily formed to cooperate on economic issues.

The leaders will gather after diplomats emerge from a second round of talks on Syria's crisis over the weekend in Vienna. But Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, suggested that a major breakthrough was unlikely.

“I don't think anybody expects a single outcome that all of a sudden readily resolves all of these difficult issues,” Rice said.

One leader Obama won't be meeting with is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Still, Rice said Obama and Putin would have “ample opportunity for discussion” during informal run-ins at the summit.

Security at the Turkish resort town is expected to be tight, as the country tries to protect the cluster of world leaders at once. Turkey has detained dozens of Islamic State suspects in recent weeks, including some 20 in or near Antalya.

“If I was Obama or his security people, I would be terribly worried,” said Henri Barkey, Middle East program director and Turkey expert at the Wilson Center.

Obama may find it easier to squeeze in time for tourism in Asia, where he is hardly a newcomer.

The president has made frequent and extended visits to the region a key part of his “pivot” of diplomatic, economic and military resources to the region. Obama has prioritized regular attendance at the three summits of Asia leaders slated for next week, hoping he gets credit simply for showing up.

“It really matters to attend these summits at the level of the leader,” Rhodes said. “Because we want the United States to be at the table at the Asia-Pacific in shaping the future of the region and signaling that we're going to be present. When we're not at the table, we're on the menu.”

Another working lunch.