Obama’s Asia Trip Not Seen As a Success

November 15, 2010 - 5:52 AM

Obama returns from Asia

President Barack Obama returns to the White House on Nov. 14, 2010 after a 10-day trip to Asia. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

(CNSNews.com) – As he ended a 10-day visit to Asia, President Obama told reporters on Air Force One he believed that “all of Asia is eager for American engagement and leadership,” but his upbeat assessment sharply contrasted with the view of critics who have characterized the trip as disappointing – if not a downright failure.

Obama traveled to India, Indonesia, and South Korea for the G20 meeting of leading and emerging economies, and finally to Japan for a gathering of Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which groups together nations on both rims of the Pacific.

In his final press conference of the trip, in Seoul on Friday, Obama sounded tetchy when faced by questions about his relationships with and criticism from other world leaders at the G20 summit.

Asked “what was the number-one complaint, concern, or piece of advice that you got from foreign leaders about the U.S. economy and your stewardship of the economy,” the president replied to the questioner, Chip Reid of CBS News, “What about compliments? You didn’t put that in the list.”

G20 Obama

President Barack Obama at the G20 summit in Seoul, South Korea on Friday, Nov. 12, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Obama suggested that the traveling media had been hunting for “drama.”

“I think, naturally there’s an instinct to focus on the disagreements, because otherwise, these summits might not be very exciting – it’s just a bunch of world leaders sitting around intervening,” he said.

“And so there’s a search for drama. But what’s remarkable is that in each of these successive summits we’ve actually made real progress.” (Five G20 leaders’ summits have been held since late 2008, shortly after the global financial crisis erupted.)

However, analysts have focused on the fact that G20 leaders balked at binding restrictions on China’s currency manipulation, an issue with major implications for many economies and a priority for the U.S.

A failure to finalize a three year-old free-trade pact with South Korea also drew widespread criticism – with Obama, not his South Korean counterpart Lee Myun-bak, in the firing line.

Despite announcing last June that he would have an agreement on the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) by the time of the Seoul summit, after meeting with Lee Obama announced that more work was needed and expressed the hope outstanding issues would be settled “within weeks, not months.”

“Obama’s decision to allow the [KORUS] talks to collapse – and make no mistake, the decision was made at the presidential level – was a colossal blunder,” said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation.

“It reflects serious shortcomings in his strategic thinking since it will have dramatic repercussions for U.S. foreign policy.”

American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Philip Levy, in a commentary published on ForeignPolicy.com, called Obama’s failure to finalize the KORUS a disaster that “reveals a stunning level of ineptitude and seriously undermines America’s leadership in the global economy.”

Ernest Bower, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, praised the Obama administration for “reinvigorating the U.S. focus on Asia” but said that not wrapping up the free-trade deal “is not the right signal to send to an Asia that considers U.S. determination to pass KORUS as the acid test for whether the United States can return to a leadership position on trade.”

Experts say that if the Obama-Lee meeting did not in itself provide the needed impetus to close the gaps, the outlook for quick resolution now is not good.

“One wonders if the remaining issues will be easier to resolve having survived the pressure cooker of the president’s visit,” mused Bower.

“Traditionally, governments around the world make such tough trade choices when they are right up against a deadline,” wrote Levy. “But if the deal could not be concluded under the pressure of a high-profile bilateral meeting between presidents in Seoul, is it really plausible that it will be wrapped up because negotiators want to be home for Thanksgiving?”

‘Spin machine’

“It is hard to imagine how the [G20] summit could have gone any worse for the U.S. Treasury and the president,” former International Monetary Fund chief economist Simon Johnson wrote Saturday on the Baseline Scenario, a Web site on the global economy.

“The spin machine is now working overtime – and you’ll see big efforts to get more positive stories over the coming week – but on all fronts the outcome is very bad,” Johnson said.

In Japan on the last leg of the visit, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, held a press briefing that stressed the positive achievements of the visit.

From start to finish, Donilon said, “I think that the United States has dramatically advanced its critical goals and its strategic interest in the region.”

In their comments, both Donilon and Rhodes focused most attention on the India and Indonesia parts of the trip.

“When historians look back [on the visits 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,” said Donilon.

He also pointed to Obama’s address to the Indian parliament “in which our embrace of India as a permanent member of a reformed United Nations Security Council really kind of crystallized that full embrace of India as a partner and that full embrace of India as a major player on the international stage.”

Michelle in India

First Lady Michelle Obama speaks to students during a visit to the National Handicrafts and Handloom Museum in New Delhi, India, on Monday, Nov. 8, 2010. (AP Photo/Mustafa Quraishi)

Rhodes described Obama’s address in New Delhi and speech in Jakarta two days later as “quite a remarkable piece of public diplomacy.”

He also highlighted First Lady Michelle Obama’s “star power” in India.

“I think in India the events that she did in many instances were among the most successful events of this trip,” he said. “She clearly reached the Indian people through her direct interactions with young Indians.”

‘Differences exaggerated’

Pressed on the later parts of the visit, Donilon refered to the “institutional” achievement of having the G20 grouping meet regularly – four times since Obama became president.

“That’s about every six months … with the leaders of countries representing 95 percent of the global GDP, at the table, talking to each other about challenges,” he said.

“From an institutional perspective, that’s an absolutely important initiative here and a really important accomplishment I think of the Obama administration.”

A reporter cited negative media reporting on the KORUS and China currency issues and asked Donilon whether the White House was ready to acknowledge any “failures.”

He responded that at the G20 summit, “any disagreements were really around the margin of this and it seems to me have gotten exaggerated.”

With respect to KORUS, Donilon alluded to the administration’s line that it had inherited from its predecessor an inadequate agreement that needed fixing.

“It’s a trade deal that had not been going anywhere since 2007 when it was entered into by the Bush administration,” he said. “We’re working at it, we’re working on it, trying to improve it.”

Much of the opposition in the U.S. to the KORUS has come from Democratic lawmakers and labor unions, along with some automakers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned last week that with Seoul’s other trading partners lining up with free-trade deals, more than 300,000 American jobs were on the line.