President Barack Obama has limped home from his 10-day Asia tour with little to show for all those travel hours and miles logged in.
He returns almost as politically battered abroad from his “Let’s Change the Subject Tour” as from his party’s mid-term election “shellacking” — the Obama equivalent of the “thumpin” that George W. Bush famously took in his own tenure’s midterm contests.
The White House, of course, has been spinning harder than a roulette wheel to turn disappointment into real and potential “deliverables.”
The White House National Security adviser, Tom Donilon, an artful, veteran spinner, took sharp issue with reporters who suggested otherwise. "From the first day in Mumbai to today in Japan,” he said at a press conference there, “the United States has dramatically advanced its critical goals and its strategic interest in the region."
Here, in brief, is the record to date.
Although a final India decision is still over a year away, Obama failed to close the deal on the sale of advanced fighters — a key element in advancing U.S. access to India's defense establishment and slowing Russia's grip on the notoriously corrupt sector.
The president’s celebrated effort to update his Cairo speech on U.S. relations with the Islamic world failed to dazzle. The American press barely covered it and the Indonesian press sharply criticized both the speech and its orator. Fleeing volcanic ash, the president left early.
Obama failed to resolve the Futenma basing issue which has driven U.S.-Japan defense relations into gridlock. An anti-U.S. vote is expected later this month in the Okinawa municipal elections.
The most bitter disappointment, however, was Obama’s failure to conclude the widely anticipated Free Trade Agreement with South Korea. Philip Levy, a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, writing in Foreign Policy, called it nothing short of a “disaster.”
As veterans of such tortured talks with the Koreans can attest, the Koreans are famously difficult negotiators. The White House never should have touted the agreement if it were not in the bag. But it did just that.
Senior economic officials began trumpeting the all-but-done-deal last May. In June, the president himself announced that he would have an agreement in time for the G-20 meeting, although the obstacles to the agreement were evident even then.
Even after this statement, American diplomats held no formal talks with their Korean counterparts until the end of September.
Perhaps the Koreans reneged on an understanding with Washington. Their auto lobby, which like America’s initially opposed the deal, is at least as powerful as ours. But whatever the cause, “the debacle” in Seoul, as Levy and even liberal commentators are calling it, is not only “a slap in the face of a critical U.S. ally in a critical region.” It must prompt doubt on America’s trade promises in general.
The failure, moreover, could not have come at a worse time, as protectionist pressures and economic instability place enormous stress on the global trading system. Apart from economic issues, foreign leaders throughout the world must surely be wondering how strong such an American president can be.
This is not the first time that apparently shoddy advance work has jeopardized American diplomatic initiatives and strategic interests. One need only think back to the president’s first foray to the Middle East in July, 2009 in search of support for restarting the Arab-Israel peace process and his particularly disastrous stop in Saudi Arabia, not an unimportant American ally.
As subsequently disclosed, President Obama was said to have been exasperated by his inability to extract a single meaningful gesture towards Israel in his meeting with Saudi’s King Abdullah.
Saudi and American officials said that the Saudis had agreed to none of lengthy list of possible gestures that Obama would seek prior to the meeting.
Instead, the president was treated to a lecture about the failures of American policy in the Middle East, and left empty-handed. The White House heatedly denied that the visit had been mismanaged. But after the trip, Dennis Ross, a veteran Middle East negotiator, was transferred from his perch at the State Department to the White House, where he remains today.
It is unclear whom the White House will blame for this most recent debacle. Both the president and Tom Donilon have insisted that the G-20 meeting was not a failure. The communiqué, the president said, put in place a warning system to guard against dangerously unbalanced trade relationships.
As for the South Korean agreement, both men predicting that it would be concluded in the coming weeks. And maybe it will be. But the president seems to have returned without the diplomatic “gets” that he must have hoped might distract Americans from their growing concerns about his policies at home.
Read all of Judith Miller's columns on Pundicity.com