Assessing Obama’s Asia trip

Assessing Obama’s Asia trip

The president’s Asia trip is getting mixed reviews, wildly mixed reviews.

Team Obama thought the trip was a huge success. Tom Donilon, the new National Security Advisor, in a fit of extraordinary (jet-lagged?) exuberance told reporters in Yokohama: "I think when historians look back on the trip to India and Indonesia. It will be one of those seminal moments, one of those iconic moments in the relationship between countries when historians look back on it."

Outside observers were less charitable. Some dismissed it as "a trip about nothing." Even charter members of the Obama choir fretted about the optics of the President scurrying out of town so soon after the electoral "shellacking."

The truth is somewhere in the middle. The president made some modest headway, with a solid but not stellar visit to India and a fine visit to Indonesia. It was hardly "iconic," but the visit to Indonesia may have been "seminal." The Obama administration believes they have a real opportunity in Indonesia thanks to the president’s personal connection to the country. If they were able to build the foundation of a strategic partnership with Indonesia as Presidents Clinton and Bush were able to do with India, that would indeed be an accomplishment. But they have a long way to go and they clearly had no significant deliverables for this visit.

The rest of the trip went considerably less well. I was inclined to give Team Obama a pass over the failure to close the deal on the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) because I remember how frustrating the Bush Team found negotiating with our allies in Seoul could be. Then I read Phil Levy’s blistering analysis and had second thoughts. He makes a convincing case that this was diplomatic malpractice, from the arrogant dismissal of the deal they inherited, to the boastful claim that the deal would be struck on this trip, to the endgame when the staff sent President Obama out to face the cameras with nothing to show for two years of haggling.

Levy leaves unasked the obvious follow-up question that most interests me about this episode: How could the staff leave the president exposed on this fiasco? There may have been errors at the middle-staff level, but my own read is that the point people who owned the issue — Treasury Under Secretary Lael Brainard and Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs (and economic summit "sherpa") Michael Froman — were not to blame. In fact, were they to blame that would surprise me because they are some of the strongest players on Obama’s team. On an issue such as this one, the hardest deals to cut are the ones within one’s own team, in particular the deals between the foreign policy and the domestic politics folks. There are only a handful of people who have the heft to force such deals: a strong National Security Advisor, a strong National Economic Council Director, a bold senior political advisor, and the chief of staff, in other words Tom Donilon, Larry Summers, David Axelrod, and Pete Rouse. If those four were not able to forge a deal they could live with that the Koreans would accept — and manifestly they were not — then there is only one person who could have, President Obama himself.

Yes, the Koreans deserve some blame for driving such a hard bargain, but they were just exploiting the mistakes of the administration: the mistake of setting the deadline, which weakened our bargaining position; the mistake of not getting the deal done before Air Force One left Washington; and the mistake of not securing (or merely taking) more bargaining space from domestic coalitions. Once the jet lag wears off, I hope the Obama Team will sort this one out.