Obama’s postponed trip to Indonesia and Australia is the latest trivial item provoking a surprising amount of conservative and Republican scorn. Apparently it isn’t enough that they have lost the largest policy fight of the last decade, but some of them also have to embarrass themselves with tantrums about a minor snag in Obama’s itinerary. This ranks with the reaction to the missile defense decision and the outcry against the imaginary “apology tour” as one of the most dim-witted criticisms of Obama available, so naturally it is catching on pretty fast. The latest complaint comes from Dean Cheng at the Heritage Foundation:
For the President to postpone his foreign obligations in favor of what is hardly a domestic crisis (recalling that he had demanded the health care bill be on his desk for signing over six months ago) suggests a failure to understand the American role in the world.
Worse, the range of foreign policy issues that are confronting this President, from Iranian nuclear proliferation to continuing global economic weakness to growing threats to basic global governance (e.g., piracy, cyber-crime), are receiving short shrift, and this delay only shouts that from the roof-tops. How can the President continue to claim that Asia is a priority when a six-month late domestic reform measure trumps ties to a close ally and strategic partner in the making?
To call this an overreaction would be too kind. It can never just be a case of poor scheduling. It has to be a statement about Obama’s Understanding of America’s Role in the World.
As for the supposed neglect of Asia, Obama had already conferred with both President Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Rudd at the APEC summit. He did this following a reasonably productive Asian tour, and this was followed shortly by the first state dinner at which Obama hosted the Indian Prime Minister, who will be returning to Washington for a nonproliferation summit meeting next month. There were also occasions for meetings with both Yudhoyono and Rudd at the G-20 meetings in the last year, and Obama and Rudd met in Washington last March.
With respect to Indonesia, Walter Lohman of no less than the Heritage Foundation wrote this earlier this month:
The Obama Administration capitalized on this progress and on President Obama’s personal associations with Indonesia by accelerating diplomatic engagement. In February 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited U.S. treaty allies Japan and South Korea, China, and Indonesia. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Indonesia later that same month. Combined with Obama-Yudhoyono conversations at the G-20 meetings and APEC Summit, and President Obama’s phone calls to President Yudhoyono, the Administration appears to be fully deployed diplomatically [bold mine-DL].
Most significantly, the Administration has agreed to pursue a “comprehensive partnership” with Indonesia–an idea first proposed by President Yudhoyono after the 2008 U.S. presidential election. This partnership will cover a range of initiatives in the broad areas of economics, security, and “people-to-people contacts.” The longstanding plan has been for President Yudhoyono and President Obama to sign an official agreement for such a partnership during President Obama’s first visit to Indonesia.
So, yes, the delay is regrettable and the administration probably should have found some way to avoid it. Aside from the delay, it would appear that Obama has actually been doing reasonably well in maintaining and building relations with Indonesia and Australia as well as with much of the rest of Asia.