Published November 12, 2010
The most conceited White House in memory thinks it is making history in Asia. Instead, President Obama is completing his longest foreign trip with no real accomplishments to show for himself—and a reinforced image as a weak leader in over his head.
As with so many of their undertakings, President Obama and his team have judged their practice of foreign policy with ample self-appreciation. Beginning with his secretary of state and echoed widely by other officials, the Obama administration declared repeatedly that the U.S. “is back in Asia.” The evidence supplied for this claim is the frequency by which officials have been shuttled across the Pacific for meetings that accomplish little but invariably are touted as “unprecedented.”
Thus while there has been no progress in interactions between Mr. Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao on any key issue, a National Security Council official breathlessly declared to the media: “it’s unprecedented in terms of the number of meetings and contacts that they’ve had.”
Leave it to government to believe that holding a meeting is an achievement and metric of success in and of itself.
We are told this is not the only time Mr. Obama has sallied forth heroically against precedent across the ocean far. Regarding one of Asia’s regional menaces and the world’s biggest proliferator to terrorists and dangerous regimes, the White House press office excitedly announced, “President Obama’s outreach facilitated a united regional and global response to [North Korea’s] missile and nuclear tests resulting in unprecedented and globally enforced sanctions through [UN Security Council] Resolution 1874.”
Unprecedented or not (and they are not), even the UN’s own experts recently reported that North Korea is evading sanctions and exporting banned nuclear and missile technology to Iran, Syria and Burma.
An herein lies the rub for our litigator-in-chief who seemingly cannot graduate from the role of senator to that of executive. There is a difference between saying something and actually accomplishing something. His trip to Asia has put this difference on stark display again.
In India, President Obama supported New Delhi’s desire to have a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. But the joke is on the Indians. The White House has no intention of lifting a finger in New York to reform any part of the UN, including the Security Council. This was the diplomatic equivalent of inviting someone to a wedding you know they cannot attend, just to get the gift.
Mr. Obama missed the opportunity to accomplish something real as he raised the hopes of the Indians and the ire of the Pakistanis. Finding new ways to deter China’s military together, supporting India on Kashmir, and fielding joint initiatives with India in Afghanistan could have been tangible, real accomplishments.
Similarly, the president’s trip to Indonesia was pageantry. The White House announced that “In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, the vision the President articulated in his June 2009 speech in Cairo is flourishing.” But as with the vaunted Muslim outreach declared by his Cairo remarks, Mr. Obama’s stop in Jakarta involved little more than a forgettable speech.
Absent were any real changes that impact the political or security situation in Southeast Asia. A step as simple as helping Indonesia field and train a coast guard would have been something tangible and useful for both nations. But that was missing, as was any serious plan to promote Indonesia’s separation of mosque and state and general religious tolerance to other Muslims around the world.
Next on the Asia trip was the farcical G-20—a confab that again demonstrated that the more governments gathered in a room, the more it resembles the U.N. General Assembly, including its instinctive socialism and anti-Americanism. While in Seoul for the gathering, Mr. Obama declared support again for the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, which has been stalled for three years and is now being pointlessly revised at Mr. Obama’s request.
But the joke is on our Korean allies. Back in Washington, Mr. Obama has done, and will do, essentially nothing to get the measure passed by the Congress—even if the Koreans agree to all revisions. What was intended as a feel-good moment in Seoul will now lead to further resentment by Korea, which is busy lowering trade barriers with Europe and other more cooperative economic partners.
Mr. Obama’s last stop is Japan for a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Unlike many other international groupings, APEC has been consequential at times, largely by promoting trade. But for all his administration’s talk about revitalizing forums like this, Mr. Obama will arrive in Yokohama diminished by the G20 circus and leave bearing nothing. APEC will seem an afterthought, and thus be weakened.
In short, when you peel away the speeches, Mr. Obama’s trip to Asia has been about nothing. Certainly it has accomplished nothing. The person who likely saw this coming was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Of all of the matters the White House has declared “unprecedented,” one thing really is: it is unprecedented for any secretary of state not to accompany a president at all on a foreign trip like this. But Secretary Clinton can spot a stinker and knows when to stay away.
Unfortunately for the U.S., our friends and foes have gotten yet another close look at President Obama and cannot possibly have been impressed. They know the only thing that is unprecedented about him is his weakness.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “An empty plane arrived in Asia and when the door was opened, Mr. Obama got out.”
Stephen Yates was deputy national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney from 2001-05. Christian Whiton was a State Department official from 2003-09 and served as a deputy special envoy. They are respectively the president and principal of D.C. International Advisory LLC.