OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — President Obama ended his trip to Asia on Thursday much as he'd begun it a week earlier, surrounded by U.S. forces as he sought to project an image of military unity ahead of a controversial announcement on troop levels for Afghanistan.
On the way to Tokyo last week, where he began the tour, Obama stopped for a rally at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska.
On Thursday, after a meeting and a brief news conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Seoul before Air Force One departed, the president visited Osan Air Base. About 1,500 U.S. service members, mostly from the Army and Air Force, gathered under a welcome banner and an American flag to see their commander in chief.
The rally capped a tightly scheduled trip that yielded few concrete accomplishments for Obama. No global warming deal to take to a climate conference in Copenhagen next month. No resolution of a U.S. base dispute with Japan. No movement on a U.S.-South Korea free trade package. No progress with China on disputes over its currency valuation or human rights abuses.
Obama and his advisers are calling the trip a success anyway, because of their higher-altitude goals: showing respect for a region that the U.S. largely ignored after Sept. 11 and reframing the American relationship with China — the world's most populous and most-polluting nation and its third-largest economy — as more of a global partnership.
Neither the U.S. nor China spoke publicly of a "G-2" alliance, but the range of issues covered in talks between Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao reflected their combined potential to alleviate or aggravate some of the world's biggest problems.
At Osan on Thursday, the president thanked U.S. troops for volunteering for service in wartime. "Many of you served in Iraq... others among you served in Afghanistan," he said. "Others among you will deploy yet again."
Many of them await the president's Afghanistan decision with interest. In interviews, some were enthusiastic, others stoic. All said they'd support Obama's decision no matter what.