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Pull it together, Mr President

By Walter Lohman - posted Friday, 11 June 2010

So America's first "Asia-Pacific President" who brought America "back" to Asia after eight years of supposed neglect under the Bush Administration has cancelled his Indonesia-Australia-Guam trip yet again. I add up an unprecedented four cancellations ("postponements") for this particular Presidential trip. Indonesians fully expected him there in November of last year at the end of his visit to South Korea, Japan, China, and Singapore (APEC host). The expectation was strong enough that Obama had to personally tell Indonesian President Yudhoyono that he couldn't make it. And the drama over the March trip is well known. Two cancellations in that month - over the health care debate in Washington.

Look, it is hard to hold the circumstances of this latest cancellation against the President. He needs to assert leadership in resolving the environmental crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. That's a multifaceted problem, much more complicated than trips down to New Orleans are going to solve. If fixing it means staying in the US to better devise and co-ordinate the federal response, fine.

The real problem with cancelling this Asia trip should be traced back to March. That was a political crisis - and scheduling nightmare - of Obama's own making. It’s not as if the Administration didn't know reforming one-sixth of the US economy was going to be contentious, and the Administration itself largely controlled the calendar. There should have been better co-ordination and balancing of priorities.


In March, President Obama chose his domestic political agenda over an important foreign commitment to steadfast allies in Australia, budding partners in Indonesia, and Guam. (Guam, it should be noted, is not only part of the United States and represented in Congress, it is saving America's military presence in the Western Pacific by taking Marines forces displaced from the restructuring of bases in Japan. A day there to express appreciation would be nice.)

The more you put things off, the more risk you run of new problems popping up. And that's exactly what has happened with the June trip. I'm not sure, in fact, it was ever 100 per cent. From reports of an overlapping Ahmadinejad visit to Jakarta in June to repeated (failed) attempts to get official confirmation of the dates and itinerary, there has always been some reason to doubt how firm the President's visit really was. Now, the hole in the Gulf of Mexico has ended all speculation.

Of course, the President didn't control the timing of the oil spill. He did, however, control his March schedule.

Already, since this latest cancellation, speculation has begun (particularly in Indonesia) that the trip will be rescheduled for November this year, again around APEC. November could also be problematic. Obama is now committed to visit Seoul (G20), Yokohama (APEC), and India that month. And he's going to add Indonesia and Australia? Any chance that he'll also go to Hanoi for a meeting of the US-ASEAN Summit with heads of government from South-East Asia is now completely dead. That Summit, by the way, was a great idea. But unfortunately, the Summit is also a plank in the "America is Back" argument that seems to be melting away in the face of reality - and mismanagement. The best the President can do is probably a meeting with leaders on the margins of APEC - precisely the innovation that the presumably absent Bush Administration initiated.

Most likely, something else on the November agenda has got to give. The sooner the Administration can make clear what that is, the better. All concerned, the Japanese, Koreans, Indians, Australians, Indonesians, and the Guamanians deserve clarity. Basic to any good relationship is managing expectations. A lesson the President should have learned by now.

Presidential trips may seem like "just protocol", but these things are not to be taken lightly. There is big downside in messing them up. And right now, that's exactly what the President is doing. Let's hope he can pull it together.

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First published by The Heritage Foundation on June 4, 2010

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About the Author

Walter Lohman is Director of The Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.

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All articles by Walter Lohman

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