Obama the 'First Pacific President'? Yeah, Right

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 6/09/2010 12:07:00 AM
Among other things, something about American leadership that unnerves the rest of the world is its tendency to make vapid claims. While you can say that this is par for the course as far as politicians go as serial overpromisers and underdeliverers, the incumbent US president has two things going against him in terms of getting along better with us in Southeast Asia. First, he has staked his claim on "change." Whereas his predecessor Dubya was largely aloof from the region due to America focussing its attention on homegrown woes as well as those in Central Asia and the Middle East, Obama has hinted at being more engaged with other parts of the globe. Which, of course, brings up the second and more damning flaw in his rhetoric. President Obama has styled himself as "America's first Pacific President" in reference to both growing up in Indonesia for a couple of years and being in tune with the concerns of us folks in the Asia-Pacific region. As we shall see, his money hasn't been where his mouth is at.

Let's first start with someone on the verge of Obama derangement syndrome. famed conservative commentator George F. Will. He says inflation isn't only a monetary problem but one of Obama's overestimation of his Pacific experience compared to his predecessors'. It's a long rant but here's a flavour:
Barack Obama's irresistible, or at least unresisted, propensity for self-aggrandizement bubbled up yet again during his recent trip to the Far East when he proclaimed himself "America's first Pacific president." Hearing this, Asians may have muttered about inscrutable Occidentals. Obama's exercise in rhetorical grandiosity, while hardly his first, was exquisitely meaningless...

Yes, Obama lived four years, until the age of 10, in Indonesia. But two young men who were to become America's 35th and 41st presidents also had formative experiences in the Pacific: John Kennedy's PT-109 was sunk beneath him, and George Herbert Walker Bush, a future envoy to China, had his Grumman Avenger shot down. And before becoming America's 27th president, William Howard Taft governed the Philippines for about as many years as child Obama lived in Indonesia.
You get the idea as Will hammers this point with more historical precedents. However, a legitimate riposte here is that Will doesn't focus on what Obama is doing as president that would make his claim more legitimate. Alas, Obama is doing even worse in that department. Ernest Bower wrote the following for the CSIS after Obama delayed his trip to Indonesia yet again in March this year:
The White House has come full circle on President Obama’s trip to Indonesia and Australia. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs announced today that the president would postpone the trip to remain in Washington for the crucial final push on his health care reform package. The visit, originally planned for June or July, is now back on the calendar for June. But only after two aborted attempts to make the trip in March...

The bottom line is the White House gets an easy pass on this postponement. While that is true, it is also a second strike and the stakes are now very high for following through with the trip in June. A third strike and the Obama administration will find itself trapped in its own rhetoric, having staked out the high ground and saying it understands that “being there” is vital for sustained and serious engagement in Southeast Asia.
So, domestic concerns over the health care bill waylaid "Pacific President" Obama's trip to the bountiful Indonesia for a second time. In American baseball, it's three strikes and you're out as the passage above noted. Which, unsurprisingly came late last week as Obama announced that he would cancel his rescheduled trip to Indonesia over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Once more from Ernest Bower, the CSIS chap:
The impact of this decision is that it belies a narrative the Obama Administration had tried to write that it was going to get Asia right and engage the region at the highest levels to advance American interests in a serious and sustained manner. It was going to reverse the woeful attendance record of the Bush Administration for showing up for the major events in Asia, and understood that ‘being there’ was more than half the battle for changing perceptions of US disengagement. That storyline lost credibility today.

The decision will also send tremors of uncertainty through Southeast Asia. Indonesia is the largest country in ASEAN and it is well known that President Obama has a close personal interest in this anchor nation of the region. If he can’t show up there after three attempts, how likely is it that the US is serious about sustaining its involvement in the region at a political level? At a time when the region has serious questions about how far they want to go with China’s charm offensive, the apparent lack of US focus will make the region’s leaders feel anxious and unbalanced. If not corrected in the near term, it may also send them thinking about strategic alternatives which could influence thinking about regional structures. Is the United States really ready to be part of the East Asia Summit? What if the President of the US doesn’t show for Summit meetings?
At the end of the day, even Southeast Asia gets tired of excuses: pending health care overhauls, damaging oil spills, and heaven knows what else will arise if Obama ever reschedules a trip to our region. If America treats Southeast Asia with such little regard, rest assured that there are others who actually give a damn about our part of the world as I've written before. They even offer something more than unloading boatloads of IOUs on us, fancy that. We all have our own problems, but those who should know better ought to keep their commitments instead of coming up with excuses all the time when they offer so little.

So, is Obama America's first pacific president? He's more like its first Gulf of Mexico president (whatever that's worth and not even a very good one besides). PR aside, how much could he have realistically helped the containment efforts? Heck, Southeast Asian activists needn't even bother to chant "Yankee go home!"--this poseur never even left American shores to begin with.

Obama anda gagal kami. Obama, you failed us.