Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

On this Asia trip, Obama could take a cue from Bush

"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 in a preview of President Obama’s upcoming Asia trip. Absent? Like on the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement that President Bush signed and President ...

GUANG NIU/AFP/Getty Images
GUANG NIU/AFP/Getty Images

"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 in a preview of President Obama's upcoming Asia trip. Absent? Like on the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement that President Bush signed and President Obama has declined to send to Congress? Like on trade more generally, where the words "Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific" haven't been uttered since President Bush left the Oval Office? Like on the U.S.-Japan alliance, which President Bush leveraged to make possible historic Japanese deployments to theaters of war in Iraq and Afghanistan before U.S.-Japan relations under Obama became embroiled in a dispute over U.S. basing rights that some believe threatens the foundations of the alliance? Like on U.S. relations with India, utterly transformed under President Bush but now characterized by U.S. neglect and Indian disappointment that President Obama doesn't treat it as the strategic partner Bush elevated it to be? Like in Southeast Asia, where every regional power improved its relations with America over the course of the Bush administration with a wary eye on China? (Burma may be the exception -- though Obama's engagement policy hasn't worked out too well.)

And speaking of relations with China, is Rhodes suggesting that Bush, who after a rough start oversaw the most stable period in U.S.-China relations since the 1970s, has an inferior record to Obama -- for whom China has become his biggest great-power headache, with Beijing daily testing the limits of American patience on matters from trade to currency to human rights to internet freedoms to Iran sanctions to Taiwan arms sales? Perhaps Rhodes is talking about North Korea, where Obama has pursued the same policy of engagement as President Bush did in his second term -- with equally little to show for it. Or maybe Rhodes is speaking of Asian public opinion; in this case he may want to have a look at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs' 2008 survey showing the surprisingly wide and deep extent of American soft power in Asia at the end of the Bush presidency.

This administration has an outstanding Assistant Secretary for East Asia in the form of the State Department's Kurt Campbell, and other talented officials at the White House, Department of Defense, and Treasury. Asia policy isn't partisan, which is why it's such a shame when non-Asia policy officials make it out to be. Nonetheless, Peter Feaver's point last week is apt: U.S. relations with every major power in the international system (with the possible and dubious distinction of Russia) have deteriorated since Obama took office. This is unquestionably true in Asia. As Jackson Diehl wrote with regard to President Obama's relationships with his foreign counterparts, "In foreign as well as domestic affairs, coolness has its cost." When it comes to Asia, perhaps serving administration officials should spend less time slamming their predecessors' record and more time studying up on it.

"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 in a preview of President Obama’s upcoming Asia trip. Absent? Like on the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement that President Bush signed and President Obama has declined to send to Congress? Like on trade more generally, where the words "Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific" haven’t been uttered since President Bush left the Oval Office? Like on the U.S.-Japan alliance, which President Bush leveraged to make possible historic Japanese deployments to theaters of war in Iraq and Afghanistan before U.S.-Japan relations under Obama became embroiled in a dispute over U.S. basing rights that some believe threatens the foundations of the alliance? Like on U.S. relations with India, utterly transformed under President Bush but now characterized by U.S. neglect and Indian disappointment that President Obama doesn’t treat it as the strategic partner Bush elevated it to be? Like in Southeast Asia, where every regional power improved its relations with America over the course of the Bush administration with a wary eye on China? (Burma may be the exception — though Obama’s engagement policy hasn’t worked out too well.)

And speaking of relations with China, is Rhodes suggesting that Bush, who after a rough start oversaw the most stable period in U.S.-China relations since the 1970s, has an inferior record to Obama — for whom China has become his biggest great-power headache, with Beijing daily testing the limits of American patience on matters from trade to currency to human rights to internet freedoms to Iran sanctions to Taiwan arms sales? Perhaps Rhodes is talking about North Korea, where Obama has pursued the same policy of engagement as President Bush did in his second term — with equally little to show for it. Or maybe Rhodes is speaking of Asian public opinion; in this case he may want to have a look at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ 2008 survey showing the surprisingly wide and deep extent of American soft power in Asia at the end of the Bush presidency.

This administration has an outstanding Assistant Secretary for East Asia in the form of the State Department’s Kurt Campbell, and other talented officials at the White House, Department of Defense, and Treasury. Asia policy isn’t partisan, which is why it’s such a shame when non-Asia policy officials make it out to be. Nonetheless, Peter Feaver’s point last week is apt: U.S. relations with every major power in the international system (with the possible and dubious distinction of Russia) have deteriorated since Obama took office. This is unquestionably true in Asia. As Jackson Diehl wrote with regard to President Obama’s relationships with his foreign counterparts, "In foreign as well as domestic affairs, coolness has its cost." When it comes to Asia, perhaps serving administration officials should spend less time slamming their predecessors’ record and more time studying up on it.

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