Gathering consensus: Obama's Asia trip a flop

Why did Barack Obama take a tour of Asia?  That question has begun to be asked around the world, as Obama returns home with no major initiatives launched, no diplomatic openings achieved, and nothing of consequence broached.  The Times of London takes the lead in its news section by saying that that “dream” of Obama appears to be fading:

The real problem may be Obama’s friends — or rather, those among his formerly most enthusiastic supporters who are now having second thoughts.

The doubters are suddenly stretching across a broad section of the Democratic party’s natural constituency. They include black congressional leaders upset by the sluggish economy; women and Hispanics appalled by concessions made to Republicans on healthcare; anti-war liberals depressed by the debate over troops for Afghanistan; and growing numbers of blue-collar workers who are continuing to lose their jobs and homes.

Obama’s Asian adventure perceptibly increased the murmurings of dissent when he returned to Washington last week, having failed to wring any public concessions from China on any major issue.

The New York Times worried about a bow, but not the one to Emperor Akihito. Even the most sympathetic editorial board in the nation to Obama gave the trip low marks:

We were especially disappointed that China made no discernible move to join with the United States and other major powers in threatening tougher sanctions if Iran fails to make progress on curbing its nuclear weapons program. President Obama should have made clear in his private talks that the United States and Europe will act anyway if Beijing and Moscow block United Nations Security Council action.

It was also dispiriting that Mr. Obama agreed to allow China to limit his public appearances so markedly. Questions were not permitted at the so-called press conference with Mr. Hu, and his town hall meeting with future Chinese leaders in Shanghai not only had a Potemkin air, it was not even broadcast live in China. It’s obvious that the last thing Mr. Hu wanted was to get questions about issues like his brutal repression in Tibet and Xinjiang. That doesn’t explain Mr. Obama’s acquiescence in such restrictions.

Mr. Obama did not meet with Chinese liberals. In Shanghai, he spoke of the need for an uncensored Internet and universal rights for all people, including Chinese, and at the press conference he called for dialogue between Beijing and the Dalai Lama. He delayed a meeting with the Dalai Lama until after the China summit and should schedule it soon.

President Obama was elected in part because he promised a more cooperative and pragmatic leadership in world affairs. We support that. The measure of the success (or failure) of his approach won’t be known for months, and we hope it bears fruit. But the American president must always be willing to stand up to Beijing in defense of core American interests and values.

Back to the foreign press, Der Spiegel calls the trip a complete flop in a piece titled, “Obama’s Nice Guy Act Gets Him Nowhere on the World Stage”:

When he entered office, US President Barack Obama promised to inject US foreign policy with a new tone of respect and diplomacy. His recent trip to Asia, however, showed that it’s not working. A shift to Bush-style bluntness may be coming. …

Upon taking office, Obama said that he wanted to listen to the world, promising respect instead of arrogance. But Obama’s currency isn’t as strong as he had believed. Everyone wants respect, but hardly anyone is willing to pay for it. Interests, not emotions, dominate the world of realpolitik. The Asia trip revealed the limits of Washington’s new foreign policy: Although Obama did not lose face in China and Japan, he did appear to have lost some of his initial stature.

In Tokyo, the new center-left government even pulled out of its participation in a mission which saw the Japanese navy refueling US warships in the Indian Ocean as part of the Afghanistan campaign. In Beijing, Obama failed to achieve any important concessions whatsoever. There will be no binding commitments from China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A revaluation of the Chinese currency, which is kept artificially weak, has been postponed. Sanctions against Iran? Not a chance. Nuclear disarmament? Not an issue for the Chinese.

The White House did not even stand up for itself when it came to the question of human rights in China. The president, who had said only a few days earlier that freedom of expression is a universal right, was coerced into attending a joint press conference with Chinese President Hu Jintao, at which questions were forbidden. Former US President George W. Bush had always managed to avoid such press conferences.

Back home, Leslie Gelb, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, says it’s time to clean house, starting at the top — and suggests that Obama stay out of foreign-policy decisions, where he’s clearly not qualified:

President Obama’s nine-day trip to Asia is worth a look back to fix two potent problems, past and future. First, the trip’s limited value per day of presidential effort suggests a disturbing amateurishness in managing America’s power. On top of the inexcusably clumsy review of Afghan policy and the fumbling of Mideast negotiations, the message for Mr. Obama should be clear: He should stare hard at the skills of his foreign-policy team and, more so, at his own dominant role in decision-making. Something is awry somewhere, and he’s got to fix it. …

It was not good optics for Obama to bow to Japan’s emperor. He seems to do this stuff spontaneously and inexplicably, as with his bow to the Saudi King some months ago. And it was truly unfortunate that Obama and his aides didn’t flatly insist that he be allowed to address the Chinese people directly on television and meet with non-stacked Chinese groups—as has been the case during previous presidential visits. Beijing’s leaders obviously didn’t feel confident enough of their own standing at home to give the popular Mr. Obama such access. But he and his team should have made it a precondition of the visit. Its absence left an unhappy taste.

The White House might try to blame the State Department (such an easy and delicious target) for the missteps. But State’s role in the conceptual planning of the trip was not central, and the department’s senior Asia hand, Kurt Campbell, surely knew better. It’s also hard to tar the National Security Council’s own senior Asia expert, Jeff Bader, another pro like Campbell. Perhaps even higher officials at the NSC dropped the ball. Perhaps Mr. Obama might take responsibility himself, as President Kennedy did after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961. Now, that would truly clear the air—and open the door to some obvious and necessary changes in the administration’s decision-making machinery. Every decision, large and small, is shaped and made by the president himself and enforced by Denis McDonough, a deputy NSC adviser and the administration’s Lord High Executioner. Does Obama get enough pushback? Is he hearing a range of views? Can he see that his powerful intellect might profit from bowing to the voices of experience? If Mr. Obama reflects on the Asia journey and other mishaps, he might loosen the reins and bring in additional policy and diplomatic pros as inside counselors or outside advisers.

Even under normal circumstances, a presidential tour would have only been undertaken as part of an arranged sequence in which major issues were settled at meetings between heads of state.  Instead, Obama seemed to treat this as a campaign tour.  He shook a lot of hands, bowed to a monarch, and in general tried to be as obsequious as possible while accomplishing nothing.

But these aren’t normal circumstances.  Obama postponed work on war policy to take this tour, and rejected an appearance at the Berlin Wall commemoration because this trip had him too busy to attend.  At the end of it all, nothing was accomplished except some serious work avoidance by the Commander in Chief, and a lessening of respect for Obama and the US from his lack of testicular fortitude in dealing with the Chinese — even among Obama’s biggest supporters.  After all, it’s not every day one sees Der Speigel nostalgic for some Bush-style American diplomacy.

Clearly, Obama is in way over his head, and his choice for Secretary of State isn’t helping.  He needs a seasoned diplomat at the helm of State, and he needs to abandon his “smart power,” “reset buttons,” and campaign trail-style diplomacy in exchange for professionalism and protocol.  And he needs to do it fast, before our allies in the Pacific and Europe write him off entirely.