Obama’s Asia trip delay shows lower priority of foreign policy

Obama’s Asia trip delay shows lower priority of foreign policy

President Obama’s trip to Indonesia and Australia has been postponed again, this time until June, due to the continued uncertainty over a pending health-care vote in Congress.

"During this midterm election year, the president simply could not afford to be up in the air when health care reform legislation was winding its way to a final vote in Congress," said Patrick Cronin, senior advisor and senior director of the Asia program at the Center for a New American Security. "It is a reminder how important domestic politics remain relative to the conduct of foreign affairs."

The trip had already been postponed by three days in anticipation of a health-care vote in the House this weekend. But now with the GOP promising to use stall tactics both in the House and the Senate, Obama was forced to consider whether or not his bully pulpit would be needed next week and whether he could use it from the road.

Despite the political imperative of the health-care issue, Obama has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Asia trip, even in discussions with congressional leadership.

The Indonesians, in particular, consider the Obama visit a matter of the highest importance and honor, a homecoming of sorts because of the time Obama spent there as a child. The delay could have ripple effects for U.S. policy in Asia.

"The postponement is a setback to the administration’s desire to demonstrate a relentless pace of engagement in the Asia-Pacific region," said Cronin. "Having criticized the Bush administration for the strategic distraction of Iraq, which severely undercut engagement in East Asia, President Obama and his cabinet have thus far been able to travel at breakneck speed to be present and accounted for."

"In many ways, America has been somewhat absent from the region over the last several years and we are committed to restoring that leadership," said National Security Council communications director Ben Rhodes on Monday, calling the trip an "important opportunity to advance American interests in this vitally important part of the world." 

The situation might not be all bad. The June trip might allow more time for the administration to work out key cooperation issues with both Indonesia and Australia and a new schedule might be more relaxed than the hurried agenda put together for the trip the first time it was delayed, Cronin said.

Paul Wolfowitz, former World Bank president and U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, noted that when Ronald Regan delayed a trip to Indonesia in 1983, it took three years to get it back on the schedule. As long as it’s rescheduled in a timely manner, the Indonesians should forgive him, he said.

"I think it’s difficult to exaggerate how excited Indonesians must be about the prospects of a presidential visit," Wolfowitz told The Cable. "Once Obama gets there, they’re going to forget all about the postponement."

UPDATE: White House spokesman Robert Gibbs confirmed the delay in his Thursday presser, saying that Obama was "disappointed" and he told the foreign leaders "health care is a crucial priority."

The White House staff tried to postpone for another few days, but the scheduling difficulties made that impossible. "The president believes right now the place for him to be is in Washington seeing this through," Gibbs said.