This article originally appeared at NYTimes.com, photo credit: CreditJorge Silva/Reuters.
VIENTIANE, Laos — President Obama, declaring that it was time to pull America’s secret war in Laos from the shadows, told an audience here on Tuesday that he stood with them in “acknowledging the suffering and sacrifices on all sides of that conflict.”
Mr. Obama, the first sitting American president to visit Laos, recalled that the United States had dropped more than two million tons of bombs on this country during the height of the Vietnam War, more than it dropped on Germany and Japan during World War II. That made Laos, per capita, the most heavily bombed country in human history.
“Villages and entire valleys were obliterated,” Mr. Obama said. “Countless civilians were killed. That conflict was another reminder that, whatever the cause, whatever our intentions, war inflicts a wrenching toll, especially on innocent men, women and children.”
At the time, the United States did not publicly acknowledge its combat operations in Laos, a C.I.A.-directed expansion of the war against the Communist North Vietnamese. Even now, the president said, many Americans were unaware of their country’s deadly legacy here.
“It is important that we remember today,” Mr. Obama told an audience of 1,075, including a scattering of Buddhist monks in saffron robes. Those gathered listened politely and applauded occasionally.
The president did not formally apologize for the bombing. But in a “spirit of reconciliation,” he said the United States would double to $30 million a year for three years its aid to Laos to help find and dismantle unexploded bombs. These explosives lie buried under fields and forests, killing and maiming thousands of children, farmers and others who stumble on them.
It was a day that mixed America’s wartime legacy in Southeast Asia with Mr. Obama’s hopes for deeper engagement with the region. The president put his outreach to Laos in the same category as his overtures to two other formerly closed societies, Cuba and Myanmar. He followed his message of reconciliation to the people of Laos with a fervent restatement of his strategic focus on Asia, often called the pivot.
Mr. Obama ticked off the elements of the pivot: the deployment of a rotational force of Marines to Australia, a missile-defense system to protect South Korea from the North’s missiles, and a greater American voice in regional issues, like the disputes between China and its neighbors over reefs and shoals in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.
“The bottom line is this,” Mr. Obama said. “Today, the United States is more deeply engaged across the Asia Pacific than we have been in decades. Our position is stronger. We’ve sent a clear message that, as a Pacific nation, we are here to stay.”
Still, the president acknowledged that the commercial centerpiece of the pivot — the 12-nation trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership — was delayed in Congress, a victim of the growing political backlash in the United States against free trade.
“Failure to move ahead with TPP wouldn’t just have economic consequences,” Mr. Obama said. “It would call into question America’s leadership in this vital region. And so, as difficult as the politics are back home, I will continue to push hard on Congress to approve TPP before I leave office. It’s important for this entire region.”
Mr. Obama, who came to Laos from a Group of 20 meeting in Hangzhou, China, repeated past assurances that the pivot was not intended to check China’s growing influence in the region. But he made clear that the United States would support China’s Southeast Asian neighbors in resisting Beijing’s efforts to colonize the South China Sea.
“Every nation matters,” he said. “Bigger nations should not dictate to smaller ones, and all nations should play by the same rules.”
Mr. Obama also reiterated the determination of the United States to “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, and we will support the right of all countries to do the same.”
Mr. Obama’s outreach to Southeast Asia has been overshadowed somewhat by his abrupt cancellation on Monday night of a meeting with the new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who had unleashed a profanity-laden diatribe against him.
Mr. Duterte expressed regret on Tuesday, saying that he had overreacted to news reports that Mr. Obama planned to lecture him about extrajudicial killings in the Philippines and lamenting that his comments were interpreted as a “personal attack on the U.S. president.”
In his statement, Mr. Duterte said, “our primary concern is to chart an independent foreign policy while promoting closer ties with all nations, especially the U.S., with which we have a longstanding partnership.”