Why there’s never a ‘good’ time to neglect Asia
President Obama’s decision to cancel for the second time his trip to Australia and Indonesia so that he can ostensibly focus more on the Gulf oil spill is understandable as a political matter. He depends on the support of the American people, and not on Australian and Indonesian voters. But as a matter of foreign ...
President Obama's decision to cancel for the second time his trip to Australia and Indonesia so that he can ostensibly focus more on the Gulf oil spill is understandable as a political matter. He depends on the support of the American people, and not on Australian and Indonesian voters. But as a matter of foreign policy, this is a bad decision, and not in America's strategic interests.
President Obama’s decision to cancel for the second time his trip to Australia and Indonesia so that he can ostensibly focus more on the Gulf oil spill is understandable as a political matter. He depends on the support of the American people, and not on Australian and Indonesian voters. But as a matter of foreign policy, this is a bad decision, and not in America’s strategic interests.
There is never a "good" time to neglect Asia, but even so this announcement comes at a particularly bad time. North Korea’s recent aggression has escalated regional tensions, China is coyly hedging its bets and maneuvering for advantage, and American allies such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia are looking towards the United States for strategic reassurance, not neglect. Australia and Indonesia were already left standing at the altar back in March when President Obama cancelled his visit the first time in order to focus on getting his health care bill passed (and technically, this is now his third cancelled visit to Indonesia if one counts the scrubbed Jakarta stop from his November 2009 Asia trip). Even the stop on Guam is important not just for boosting the morale of American service members but also as a signal to the region of America’s presence and power-projection capabilities. All things considered, the White House’s recent boasts about "restoring [American] leadership" in Asia now ring especially hollow.
The cancelled trip is also unfortunate because the domestic political problems behind it are largely of the White House’s own making. Of course the oil spill itself is not their fault, and as many have noted, there is not very much that the White House can do to stop the leak — BP is still in the lead. But the Obama administration bears responsibility for the subsequent political crisis for at least two reasons. First, this White House has repeatedly made audacious assertions and raised colossal public expectations about the competence of government in general, and President Obama in particular, to solve problems. From the push to expand government control over the health care system to the grandiose campaign rhetoric that his election would mark the moment when "the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal," this is not an administration marked by modesty about government’s role. Second, for over a month after the spill began, the White House was remarkably inattentive to the political imperatives of at least displaying attention and concern. (Perhaps they finally realized they had a problem when voices ranging from David Gergen to James Carville joined the ranks of critics). So now the White House finds itself in a political panic and overcompensating at the expense of a national security priority.
The Asia trip cancellation also highlights another potential weakness of the White House’s recently released National Security Strategy. The NSS calls for "a broad conception of what constitutes our national security," and of the need to maintain strong economic, health and education policies at home as ways to bolster national security abroad. On one level this is a truism, though on another level, as Mike Gerson points out, "it is shameless to use a national security document to advance a debatable domestic agenda."
Even worse, however, is when this linkage between domestic and foreign policy cuts in the opposite direction, and short-term domestic politics trump long-term foreign policy priorities. Such as when low presidential approval ratings from a botched response to an oil spill leads to major slights against an important ally and a strategic emerging power. Australia is the only nation to have fought alongside the United States in every single war from World War I to Afghanistan and Iraq. Indonesia, as this administration’s capable Asia policy hands know, is a new partner of considerable strategic potential. Both nations deserve better than this. Most important, American interests in Asia demand better than this.
Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
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