Botching Asia-Pacific Rim Relations

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on June 5, 2010

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Yet again, President Obama has opted against a trip to Australia and Indonesia, and has cancelled a trip to Guam as well, believing that he ought to spend time at home in order to work on addressing the problems caused by the Gulf Coast oil spill. To say the least, the decision is a head-scratcher. As noted by Dan Drezner, “for the past month President Obama has been in the country, making many, many pronouncements about the oil leak. You know what effect that has had on the spill? Absolutely zero. There is no policy reason whatsoever for Obama to stay in the country because of the spill (at this point, I’m not even sure there’s a political reason, but will defer to commenters on that question).”

As Drezner also notes, it is more than a little bizarre for the White House to delay the trip yet again, while claiming at the same time that it can walk and chew gum at the same time. In some sense, the White House’s claim has been validated; it has managed to increase the perception that the President is unable to do anything about the oil spill, while at the same time, angering and insulting allies in the Asia-Pacific Rim region; thus Drezner’s apt “Obama to Pacific Rim: drop dead” title to his post.

Will Inboden points out that the Obama Administration’s treatment of the region borders on neglect, and is utterly unwise:

There is never a “good” time to neglect Asia, but even so this announcement comes at a particularly bad time. North Korea’s recent aggression has escalated regional tensions, China is coyly hedging its bets and maneuvering for advantage, and American allies such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia are looking towards the United States for strategic reassurance, not neglect. Australia and Indonesia were already left standing at the altar back in March when President Obama cancelled his visit the first time in order to focus on getting his health care bill passed (and technically, this is now his third cancelled visit to Indonesia if one counts the scrubbed Jakarta stop from his November 2009 Asia trip). Even the stop on Guam is important not just for boosting the morale of American service members but also as a signal to the region of America’s presence and power-projection capabilities. All things considered, the White House’s recent boasts about “restoring [American] leadership” in Asia now ring especially hollow.

The cancelled trip is also unfortunate because the domestic political problems behind it are largely of the White House’s own making. Of course the oil spill itself is not their fault, and as many have noted, there is not very much that the White House can do to stop the leak — BP is still in the lead. But the Obama administration bears responsibility for the subsequent political crisis for at least two reasons. First, this White House has repeatedly made audacious assertions and raised colossal public expectations about the competence of government in general, and President Obama in particular, to solve problems. From the push to expand government control over the health care system to the grandiose campaign rhetoric that his election would mark the moment when “the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal,” this is not an administration marked by modesty about government’s role. Second, for over a month after the spill began, the White House was remarkably inattentive to the political imperatives of at least displaying attention and concern. (Perhaps they finally realized they had a problem when voices ranging from David Gergen to James Carville joined the ranks of critics). So now the White House finds itself in a political panic and overcompensating at the expense of a national security priority.

Concludes Inboden:

. . . Australia is the only nation to have fought alongside the United States in every single war from World War I to Afghanistan and Iraq. Indonesia, as this administration’s capable Asia policy hands know, is a new partner of considerable strategic potential. Both nations deserve better than this. Most important, American interests in Asia demand better than this.

Peter Feaver apologizes for piling on, but shouldn’t:

. . . Obama’s unfortunate, if understandable, decision does provide the administration with an opportunity to do something that the 2008 campaign promised but the administration has yet to deliver: A change in tone. President Obama could give brief, rueful remarks apologizing that he and his spokespeople made political hay criticizing President Bush for “ignoring Asia” and boasting that “America is back” and now they are even more guilty on this very score than Bush ever was.

This critique was always nonsense because the Bush administration pursued a nuanced regional strategy that showed exceptional results with a record of good relations simultaneously with Japan, India, and China that no other administration matched. (To be fair, the record was far more mixed with respect to North Korea, but no worse than Obama’s thus far.)

The only “evidence” that critics could tout — and tout they did, even the serious Obama players who knew better — was a decision to downgrade the delegation to a few regional meetings and to cancel a trip. If memory serves, one of those was justified by the need to stay in Washington to defend General Petraeus and ambassador Crocker, who were facing particularly nasty partisan attacks over the Iraq surge in September 2007.

Democrats have never really apologized for the shabby treatment of Petraeus and Crocker and I don’t expect them to do so now. But wouldn’t it be classy for President Obama and his foreign policy team to admit that their criticism of Bush’s Asia policy was unwarranted? Or, if they want to hold onto it, wouldn’t it be classy for them to admit that the critique now applies in spades to themselves?

No one should hold their breath on that score. To recap: The Obama Administration has gone out of its way to insult and offend the countries of the Asia-Pacific Rim region. Its latest cancellation of the President’s visit to the region only magnifies the insults and offense. The Obama Administration is acting precisely as the Obama campaign and Democrats accused George W. Bush and the Bush Administration of acting towards America’s allies. The cancellation serves no purpose, as President Obama’s decision to stay in the United States will have no effect whatsoever on cleaning up the oil spill. And thanks to the cancellation, American interests will continue to suffer in a region that is increasingly become a hot spot, and a source of great consternation for American policymakers.

Of course, I am sure that the Chinese mind none of this.

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