One of the occupational hazards U.S. foreign policy wonks possess in abundance is the tendency to forget that domestic politics is really important. Regardless of ideology, most members of the foreign policy community despair of how little time the President devotes to foreign affairs -- because he cares about things like "getting re-elected" or "maintaining popular support" or "responding to public opinion."
I'd like to think that I'm at least aware of this failing, and remind myself on a daily basis that Tip O'Neill had a point.
So, with that bias acknowledged, it's still worth pointing out that Barack Obama has foolishly decided to blow off the most dynamic region in the globe -- again:
President Obama canceled his trip to Australia, Indonesia and Guam late Thursday night as oil continued to stream into the Gulf of Mexico in what he has called the worst environmental disaster in American history.
His decision came as officials reported progress containing the oil leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
Mr. Obama is to visit the Gulf Friday to assess the situation and meet with officials responding to the crisis. While the White House statement offered no reason for scratching the Asia trip this time, officials in recent days had grown increasingly convinced that it was untenable for the president to leave the country for a week with the oil spill still unchecked....
This was the second time Mr. Obama has scrubbed the trip to Australia and Indonesia. He was originally scheduled to travel there in March but canceled at the last minute to stay in Washington to lobby for passage of his health care legislation. He also had passed up a trip to Indonesia in connection with a regional summit meeting held in Singapore in November 2009 (emphasis added).
Correct me if I'm wrong, but for the past month President Obama has been in the country, making many, many pronouncements about the oil leak. You know what effect that has had on the spill? Absolutely zero. There is no policy reason whatsoever for Obama to stay in the country because of the spill (at this point, I'm not even sure there's a political reason, but will defer to commenters on that question).
What's particularly frustrating is that Peter Baker's story contains the seeds that contradict Obama's justification for staying in the country:
White House officials said they will not let the focus on the oil spill detract from the rest of the president’s economic, legislative and foreign agenda, pointing out that he still seems likely to sign fiunancial regulation reform by next month, push through his Supreme Court nominee and win sanctions against Iran at the United Nations Security Council.
“The American people don’t elect somebody, I think, that they don’t believe can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, told reporters earlier Thursday. “Sometimes it feels like we walk and chew gum and juggle on a unicycle all at the same time. I get that.”
But, he added, “there’s a whole lot of people working on a whole lot of things in the White House, and we’re able to do more than several things at once.” (emphasis added)
That's great, Bob -- except that there are certain things that only a President can do. Unless he has some engineering expertise that he's been keeping under wraps, there's very little that Obama can do by staying in the countrry to focus on the spill. On the other hand, Obama's comparative advantage has been to help improve U.S. relations with the rest of the world. Australia and Indonesia are vital supporter states, and yet this president has just given them the cold shoulder -- for the second time, remember -- in order to focus on domestic politics.
The Obama administration has dealt with North Korea as best they could, and after some stumbles have moved down the learning curve in handling the China portfolio. Their approach to the rest of the Asia/Pacific region, however, has gone from sclerotic to just plain awful. The United States needs good relations with these countries -- but this administration has plainly revealed its preferences on this issue. If you look at the Obama administration's behavior, in their minds, the Pacific Rim simply doesn't count.
Question to readers: is the Gulf spill such a political crisis that it requires the Obama administration to blow off allies?
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.