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On the agenda for Obama’s Asia trip: rare face time with POTUS

President Obama’s delay of his trip to Indonesia and Australia could be a boost to those in the administration who want to see a refocus on foreign policy and away from domestic politics, experts tell The Cable. On the long flight to Asia, the virtual West Wing aboard Air Force One will surely include top ...

President Obama's delay of his trip to Indonesia and Australia could be a boost to those in the administration who want to see a refocus on foreign policy and away from domestic politics, experts tell The Cable.

On the long flight to Asia, the virtual West Wing aboard Air Force One will surely include top White House political types who will be dealing with the fallout of a probable health-care vote. But once the White House staff gets out of the Beltway and away from pesky lawmakers and reporters, that's when the policy wonks usually try to grab the president's valuable attention.

"The good thing about these long flights is that they advantage the NSC and State Department staffers because they get a lot of face time with the president," said Michael Green, who was senior Asia director on the National Security Council and traveled with then President George W. Bush on several Asia trips. Green said foreign-policy initiatives often follow such a trip because the president has a chance to really dig in with the subject-matter experts.

President Obama’s delay of his trip to Indonesia and Australia could be a boost to those in the administration who want to see a refocus on foreign policy and away from domestic politics, experts tell The Cable.

On the long flight to Asia, the virtual West Wing aboard Air Force One will surely include top White House political types who will be dealing with the fallout of a probable health-care vote. But once the White House staff gets out of the Beltway and away from pesky lawmakers and reporters, that’s when the policy wonks usually try to grab the president’s valuable attention.

"The good thing about these long flights is that they advantage the NSC and State Department staffers because they get a lot of face time with the president," said Michael Green, who was senior Asia director on the National Security Council and traveled with then President George W. Bush on several Asia trips. Green said foreign-policy initiatives often follow such a trip because the president has a chance to really dig in with the subject-matter experts.

"When you do these trips you just have a lot more ability to get away from the nickel-and-dime stuff. It’s all policy time," said Victor Cha, who succeeded Green at the NSC. Both Green and Cha are now associated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The actually policy deliverables from Obama’s Asia trip are expected to be light. In Indonesia, where Obama spent a few years as a boy, the president will likely sign a new U.S.-Indonesia comprehensive agreement that seeks to elevate the already complex cooperation going on between the two countries without adding a whole lot of new concrete aspects to that cooperation.

"It is assumed they will formally announce the partnership between the two countries. The partnership needs an endorsement from the two leaders," said former U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Ed Masters.

"For various reasons, it was in both countries’ interest to keep the relationship relatively low key, so this will be a larger public acknowledgment," said William Wise of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

In Australia, leaders there will be pressing Obama to move faster on trade policy. For Australia, the American lack of movement on free trade right now is deeply problematic, said Green. But Obama needs Congress to move forward his trade agenda and there is little expectation he will use whatever little political capital he has left with lawmakers on trade before the fall midterm elections.

Asian threats to create new trade organizations that don’t include the United States are still in the formative stage, giving Obama wiggle room to keep kicking the trade issue down the road.

"The president can probably let his wheels spin on this for a year or so," said Green.

One lingering question is whether the delay of the trip will actually have any detrimental effect on the visit. Most experts say that’s unlikely.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Paul Wolfowitz told The Cable that while there will certainly be some disappointment that the trip was delayed and Obama’s family won’t join, overall Indonesia is simply thrilled to have Obama visit and will forgive him for changing the schedule.

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

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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