Despite a partial pivot in Asia, Obama foreign policy still in disarray

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President Barack Obama participates in a restricted bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Mohammed Najib Abdul Razak at the Prime Minister's residence in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, April 27, 2014.

Article Highlights

  • In Japan, Obama reiterated in no uncertain terms the American defense commitment.

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  • In the Philippines, Obama signed an agreement giving the US expanded access to naval and air bases there for 10 yrs.

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  • Open warfare in this region could be disastrous, with enormous potential destruction of human life and physical infrastructure.

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For a president who hasn't enjoyed many foreign policy successes lately, Barack Obama did pretty well on his just completed trip to Asia.

In Japan, he reiterated in no uncertain terms the American defense commitment, including on the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, which China also claims and calls the Diaoyus. 

“Historically, they have been administered by Japan, and we do not believe they should be subject to change unilaterally,” Obama said. “What is a consistent part of the alliance is that the treaty covers all territories administered by Japan.”

In the Philippines, Obama signed a new agreement giving the United States expanded access to naval and air bases there for ten years. This represents real progress and comes on top of U.S. agreements for troops to rotate through Australia and Singapore.

It’s also a rebound to traditional U.S. policy. After a typhoon and volcanic eruption smashed the Subic Bay naval base in 1991, the Philippine government pressed for and the U.S. agreed to American withdrawal from a nation fronting the South China Sea, where much of the world’s trade — and oil — passes.

China's naval buildup, its declaration last December of an expanded air defense identification zone in the East China Sea and its continued aggressiveness in the Spratly Islands raises the chance -- ominous in this centennial year of the outbreak of World War I--of an armed clash with U.S. allies in the region.

Open warfare in this region could be disastrous, with enormous potential destruction of human life and physical infrastructure. For a sense of the terrible potential, read British historian Rana Mitter’s recent book China’s War With Japan 1937-1945.

Obama’s declarations in Japan and the Philippines and in his visits to South Korea and Malaysia will, one hopes, deter Chinese leaders from aggression that could lead to war.

On not all issues, however, was Obama so successful. In all four countries he touted the benefits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement currently being negotiated.

Unfortunately, the December 2013 deadline for agreement on its terms has already gone by. One reason is what Obama has done—or, rather, hasn’t done—in Washington.

And that is to get Congress to pass "fast-track" trade promotion authority allowing the president to negotiate trade agreements that Congress could approve or reject but not amend. If the president doesn't have trade promotion authority, other nations are reluctant to make concessions, lest Congress demand more in return for ratification.

Most congressional Republicans would vote for trade promotion authority. But most Democrats are opposed, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid peremptorily declared in January that he would not allow the issue to come to the floor. “Everyone would be well-advised not to push this right now,” he said.

Bill Clinton strenuously lobbied congressional Democrats hard to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement. After trade promotion authority expired, George W. Bush pressed hard and got bipartisan approval in 2002.

Obama has made no visible public effort to seek trade promotion authority, even as his trade representative negotiates Pacific and Atlantic trade agreements. He has seemingly deferred meekly to labor union and left-wing Democratic trade liberalization opponents instead.

So Obama's pivot to Asia, proclaimed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an October 2011 Foreign Affairs article, remains incomplete. And in the 30 months since Clinton's article appeared, Obama's attention has been repeatedly diverted elsewhere.

His irresolute course in Syria has raised apprehensions in Asia about his willingness to ignore his own “red lines.” Secretary of State John Kerry's effort to broker an Israeli-Palestinian agreement has predictably failed.

Negotiations to get Iran to give up nuclear weapons have not succeeded. Vladimir Putin has outmaneuvered Obama, first on Syria, then on Ukraine.

The overall picture, as voters see it, is that the world is in disarray. Obama’s approval ratings on foreign policy, which held up well in his first term, are now sagging.

Obama’s belief that his election and persona would convert tyrants and adversaries into friends and partners now seems naive and dangerous. Where he has departed from long-established American stances or indulged his reflexive distaste for his predecessor’s policies, the results have been dismaying.

His foreign policy has come closest to success where he has acted in continuity with American practice, as in Asia. Unfortunately for him and his party, this is not producing a groundswell of enthusiasm to outweigh growing disapproval and disillusion.

Michael Barone is a senior political columnist for the Washington Examiner. This column is reprinted with permission from washingtonexaminer.com.

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