Congress Is Distracting Obama From More Important Business

The president is trying to conduct foreign policy, but gridlock in Washington makes him look weak.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 24: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 68th United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2013 in New York City. Over 120 prime ministers, presidents and monarchs are gathering this week for the annual meeting at the temporary General Assembly Hall at the U.N. headquarters while the General Assembly Building is closed for renovations. 
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George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Sept. 26, 2013, 11:59 a.m.

Amid all the fur­or in Wash­ing­ton about the loom­ing gov­ern­ment shut­down, al­most no at­ten­tion has been paid to the in­ter­na­tion­al con­sequences of a fail­ure to reach a deal. And no one has talked about a cru­cial for­eign policy de­cision it would force Pres­id­ent Obama to make in the next sev­en days. Re­pub­lic­ans who are hell-bent on for­cing a shut­down have been si­lent on the im­pact it would have on Amer­ica’s stand­ing abroad. But Obama, fresh off meet­ings with oth­er world lead­ers at the United Na­tions and set to meet 23 more heads of state next week, has no choice but to con­front the fal­lout.

That’s why the de­cision he may have to make in the com­ing days is so tough. The pres­id­ent has to de­cide wheth­er to go ahead with a long-planned week of Asi­an sum­mitry, fly­ing 2,400 miles to meet with the lead­ers of 23 coun­tries, in­clud­ing sev­en of the United States’ largest trad­ing part­ners. The cur­rent it­in­er­ary has Obama on the road from Oct. 5 to 12, with stops in Bali, In­done­sia, for the Asia-Pa­cific Eco­nom­ic Co­oper­a­tion sum­mit; Brunei for the As­so­ci­ation of South­east Asi­an Na­tions sum­mit; Ku­ala Lum­pur, Malay­sia; and Ma­nila, the Phil­ip­pines.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion sees this trip as cru­cial to the pres­id­ent’s an­nounced “pivot to Asia,” a needed re­as­sur­ance to the re­gion that the United States will not sur­render the Pa­cific to China’s grow­ing in­flu­ence. Per­haps most im­port­ant, it’s an op­por­tun­ity to give a badly needed per­son­al push to the crit­ic­al fi­nal talks on the nine-na­tion trade ne­go­ti­ations known as the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, something Amer­ic­an busi­nesses have long de­sired. The trip is also part of the pres­id­ent’s de­sire to do big things in for­eign policy in his second term, an aim that was evid­ent in his speech this week to the U.N.

But be­cause of the con­tin­ued dys­func­tion in Wash­ing­ton, Obama faces long-term obstacles in achiev­ing that goal. If the gov­ern­ment shut­ters and he still goes ahead with the trip, he risks sting­ing cri­ti­cism back home and face-to-face scold­ings from oth­er world lead­ers hor­ri­fied that the world’s su­per­power would risk up­set­ting a fra­gile glob­al re­cov­ery with such ir­re­spons­ible gov­ernance. But if he can­cels, he risks snub­bing key al­lies and trad­ing part­ners, los­ing face in­ter­na­tion­ally, and giv­ing a pro­pa­ganda gift to the Chinese.

The only way Obama, and U.S. prestige, can win is if Con­gress and the White House avert a shut­down or, at the least, post­pone the face-off un­til after he re­turns to Amer­ic­an soil. On that slight hope, ad­min­is­tra­tion plan­ners are delay­ing a go/no-go de­cision. But, privately, aides ac­know­ledge that scrub­bing the trip is a dis­tinct pos­sib­il­ity. If that hap­pens, it will be but the latest sign of how much things have shif­ted in Wash­ing­ton in the two dec­ades since George H.W. Bush’s pres­id­ency. “It is mind-bog­gling how much it has changed in the 20 years since he left,” says Ro­man Popa­di­uk, the ca­reer For­eign Ser­vice of­ficer who worked in the Re­agan and Bush ad­min­is­tra­tions be­fore be­com­ing am­bas­sad­or to Ukraine. Back then, he said, the pres­id­ent could talk with con­gres­sion­al lead­ers of the oth­er party and ask them to delay any show­down un­til after such im­port­ant in­ter­na­tion­al sum­mits were con­cluded. But not today. “It’s a whole dif­fer­ent en­vir­on­ment now, and that’s sad, be­cause it really un­der­mines us over­seas.”

Popa­di­uk was there when Demo­crats at­tacked Bush for pay­ing too much at­ten­tion to for­eign policy at a time of do­mest­ic eco­nom­ic dis­tress. He shud­ders at the at­tacks that will come if the pres­id­ent goes over­seas dur­ing a shut­down. “If he ar­rives at the meet­ing and the gov­ern­ment is shut down, he is go­ing to look silly. What kind of pivot to Asia is it when you can’t con­trol your own gov­ern­ment?” Show­ing up at a sum­mit at such a time also “sends a wrong sig­nal to those coun­tries,” Popa­di­uk says. “And the Chinese will look at this and say, “˜Well, talk about a gi­ant with weak knees.’ “

Obama’s di­lemma has a pre­ced­ent, but it came at a de­cidedly less crit­ic­al time in U.S.-Asi­an re­la­tions. In Novem­ber 1995, a gov­ern­ment shut­down forced Pres­id­ent Clin­ton to can­cel his trip to an APEC sum­mit in Tokyo. The Ja­pan­ese felt snubbed. But the biggest con­sequence of that im­passe turned out to be Clin­ton’s first en­counter with Mon­ica Lew­in­sky, whom he would not have met had he been in Tokyo.

Popa­di­uk be­lieves strongly in the im­port­ance of these sum­mits. But he said the pres­id­ent just can­not af­ford to be seen spend­ing three or four days at a posh ocean­front re­sort in Bali. “He is go­ing to have to stay home and show that he is in charge.”

Sim­il­ar ad­vice comes from P.J. Crow­ley, who had Popa­di­uk’s job at the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil in the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion and was State De­part­ment spokes­man for the first two years of the Obama pres­id­ency. “The op­tics would be dev­ast­at­ing,” he told Na­tion­al Journ­al. He sees the pres­id­ent los­ing face no mat­ter where he is dur­ing a shut­down. “The United States is hem­or­rhaging polit­ic­al cred­ib­il­ity wheth­er the pres­id­ent shows up in Bali or not,” Crow­ley says. “In this case, most ma­jor world lead­ers will ac­tu­ally prefer the pres­id­ent solve the prob­lem soon­er rather than later be­cause in any gov­ern­ment shut­down or gov­ern­ment de­fault, the ripple ef­fects on the glob­al eco­nomy are po­ten­tially pro­found.”

For that reas­on, Crow­ley joked, the Chinese may be more in­ter­ested in Obama find­ing a way out of the cur­rent mess than in tak­ing ad­vant­age of his per­ceived weak­ness. “Their re­ac­tion might be, “˜What the hell are you do­ing here? Go home and pro­tect the value of my T-bills that I bought from you!’ “

What is miss­ing is the real­iz­a­tion in Con­gress that em­bar­rass­ing Obama on the eve of two im­port­ant sum­mits — or for­cing him to keep Air Force One in the hangar — hurts the glob­al eco­nomy and weak­ens Amer­ic­an prestige. It is why the pres­id­ent this week may face a de­cision he really does not want to make.

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