For Obama, domestic politics make foreign policy that much harder

October 4, 2013
President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the Prince Georges Community College, Sept. 26, 2013 in Largo, Md. Obama is engaged in a fierce battle with the GOP, keeping him from traveling overseas. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the Prince Georges Community College, Sept. 26, 2013 in Largo, Md. Obama is engaged in a fierce battle with the GOP, keeping him from traveling overseas. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

President Obama's long-planned trip to Asia represented a chance to make progress on foreign policy even as Republicans stymied his plans at home.

In the end, domestic politics trumped all.

The White House canceled the entire trip late Thursday night, concluding it could not go ahead with even a curtailed five-day visit to Indonesia and Brunei during a partial government shutdown. And in doing so, Obama may have reinforced the perception that the U.S. may be incapable of following through on its overseas commitments.

Dennis Ross, a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who served as a senior Middle East adviser to Obama from 2009 to 2011, said the president needs to combat the prevailing view overseas that Americans are “weary and wary of” international entanglements, and that the U.S. political system is incapable of tackling major problems.

“The combination of that perception of weariness and wariness, and the current political dysfunction, will create an impression that the U.S. is less capable of being active on the world stage,” Ross said. “That can be corrected. It’s a perception.”

This is especially true in Asia, where the United States is increasingly competing for influence with a rising China, and where the president had been slated to attend two important regional summits: the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, where leaders will work on a sweeping, 12-nation trade pact, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) where Obama had hoped to help manage competing territorial claims over the South China Sea. The White House said Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who is already in Asia, will lead the U.S. delegation in the president’s stead.

In 2010, the president twice canceled a trip to Indonesia and Australia — first to remain in Washington for a vote on his landmark health-care initiative and then to deal with the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ernest Bower, co-director of the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the latest trip cancellation "would leave a big geopolitical mark" in Asia, where some leaders already wonder about U.S. commitment to the region. While Obama remains in Washington, Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, and Russian President Vladi­mir Putin will attend APEC. In other words, Obama's rivals will be demonstrating their focus on southeast Asia while the U.S. president is busy putting out fires at home.

“There is a real question here about the political foundation for American engagement in Asia,” Bower said. “The absence of one of the big players, such as the U.S. [president] sort of skews that chemistry."

Even before the budget crisis, the White House found itself increasingly without congressional allies when it came to making Asia a central focus of international engagement. While Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) remains a strong proponent of U.S. involvement in the region, others who at one time held that view in the Senate are now either serving in the cabine (Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel), or are no longer in office (Kit Bond (R-Mo.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and the late Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) ).

The administration continues to ramp up its presence in Asia:Kerry was joined by Hagel in the region this week, and on Thursday the U.S. and Japan struck an agreement to place new long-range U.S. surveillance drones and a second early-warning radar system in the region. In addition, the Navy has placed 60 percent of its ships in Asia, while the United States has established a small military base in Australia and put its ASEAN ambassador in Jakarta rather than in Washington.

Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations,  said the president and his deputies have devoted much of the past four and-a-half years “trying to show the U.S. interest in the region is sustained and sustainable, and not going away anytime soon.”

Ross said Obama could show foreign leaders he can still lead either by forging a  fiscal agreement with Congress, or "displaying bipartisan support on national security issues--maybe a meeting with former secretaries of state and national security advisers of other parties emphasizing their support for initiatives and the breaking of gridlock."

"Of course, some effective use of U.S. power and influence internationally would be the best," Ross said. "Performance and results always trumps arguments."

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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