Obama's Asia Trip: Triumph Or Failure?


The President has just returned from a 10-day trip through Asia, with stops in India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan.  Reviews of his performance are mixed, which is not good news for the White House.  This trip was supposed to be a flawless symphony of foreign-policy triumphs, designed to insulate the President from the beating his party took in the midterm elections.  Instead, it featured a largely symbolic diplomatic high point… and an unmitigated disaster in Seoul.

The high point was Obama’s embrace of India, which he recommended for permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council.  It’s not going to happen any time soon, but it’s important that Obama said it, and India deserved to hear it.  Not only has India been at the forefront in the War on Terror, but as conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer notes in the Washington Post, she is an important counterweight against Chinese ambition:

“China’s neighbors from South Korea all the way around to India are in need of U.S. support of their own efforts at resisting Chinese dominion.  And of all these countries, India, which has fought a border war with China, is the most natural anchor for such a U.S. partnership. It’s not just our inherent affinities – being democratic, English-speaking, free-market and dedicated to the rule of law. It is also the coincidence of our strategic imperatives: We both face the common threat of radical Islam and the more long-term challenge of a rising China.”

It was pretty much all downhill from India.  The President breezed through Indonesia without saying a word about recently-revealed human-rights abuses by their security forces.  Granted that Indonesia is shaky ground for U.S. diplomacy, and an argument can be made for using the carrot instead of the stick, but human rights groups are still unhappy about this missed opportunity.  Quoted in the UK Guardian on the eve of the President’s arrival, Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch said “Obama should encourage Indonesia to take concrete measures to protect free expression and religious freedom, and to require accountability by the armed forces.”  Nothing of the sort happened. 

Obama enjoys a lot of residual goodwill from Indonesia, given his past history as a resident.  It seems lazy to pass up the opportunity to cash in a little of that diplomatic capital to put in a word for the American values of religious freedom, and freedom of speech.  This won’t win any points with the elements of Obama’s liberal base that sincerely care about human rights, and are already trying to remember why they fell in love with him.  They think it had something to do with his promise to close

The big catastrophe for Obama came in South Korea, where The Wall Street Journal reports the President “failed to achieve any of his main goals while getting pounded by other world leaders for failing U.S. policies and lagging growth.”  The rest of the G20 nations are unhappy with Obama’s plans to boost exports by weakening the U.S. dollar.  They also weren’t happy about Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s bizarre call to establish an arbitrary 4% cap on national trade surpluses or deficits, a substantial reversal of American trade policy under both Democrat and Republican predecessors.

Worse, the President came away empty-handed from a trade deal with South Korea that was arranged years ago.  This was purely a result of weak leadership from Obama.  As the Wall Street Journal reminds us, he actually campaigned against this trade deal in 2008.  At the time, he said it would be “bad for American workers” because it would give Korean exports “essentially unfettered access to the U.S. market, and would eliminate our best opportunity for obtaining genuinely reciprocal market access in one of the world’s largest economies.”  Apparently South Korea would like to be even less fettered, and Obama’s dithering has given them two years to work out other deals.

This embarrassment is part of a dismal Obama history of walking into foreign-policy negotiations unprepared, and emerging from what should have been symbolic conferences with egg on his face.  He seems to believe the magnetic force of his messianic personality is so powerful that he can work wonders by simply showing up.  Remember when he jetted off to Copenhagen to bring the Olympics to Chicago, or lent his prestige to a global warming summit in the same city that turned into a disaster? 

Seoul turns out to be as unlucky for the President as Copenhagen was.  The boys in the back rooms are supposed to have these deals hammered out in advance, so the President can waltz in and take credit for stunning victories.  This is more or less what happened with some trade deals Obama announced in India, but those arrangements were under construction for so long, and the India trade is such a known quantity to Americans, that the President is unlikely to enjoy much public approval for them. 

The public won’t remember the details of the South Korea debacle for very long, although they’ll continue to chafe under a weak economy that isn’t improved by busted trade deals.  What they will remember is that the much-hyped Asia trip produced nothing of substance… but it cost a lot of money, people made fun of the President for dragging a teleprompter into the Indian parliament, and the word “failure” was used a lot during the middle of November.  This was a crucial turn at bat for the President, and he most certainly did not get the home run he needed.