There might be a worse time for President Obama to leave the U.S., or a worse destination for him than Russia, but at the moment it’s hard to imagine an uglier combination of circumstances for presidential travel.
With a divided Congress at home looking to be persuaded about Mr. Obama’s plan to attack Syria, the president left the U.S. on Tuesday night to attend the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg. The trip is taking Mr. Obama away from Washington for most of this week, just as lawmakers are preparing to cast critical votes on whether to punish Syria for a chemical-weapons attack.
The host of the G-20 will be none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has emerged as Mr. Obama’s foreign policy antagonist despite Mr. Obama’s famous promise to “reset” America’s relationship with Russia.
Mr. Putin is blocking any punishment of Syria at the United Nations Security Council over its use of chemical weapons, and last month he granted asylum to fugitive intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, prompting Mr. Obama to cancel a planned one-on-one meeting with the Russian leader.
“This has now become personal,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Noting the tradition of foreign leaders posing for a cozy group picture at such summits, Ms. Conley added, “The body language will be very difficult at the G-20. I can’t wait to see what the ‘family photo’ looks like.”
Even before Russian ally Syria launched a gas attack on its citizens Aug. 21, Mr. Obama was engaging in diplomatic trash talk about Mr. Putin. The president told talk show host Jay Leno that Mr. Putin, a former KGB leader, has a tendency to “slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality.”
At a news conference in mid-August, Mr. Obama likened Mr. Putin to “a bored kid at the back of the classroom.” The remark reportedly infuriated Mr. Putin, who has recently referred to Mr. Obama as merely a Nobel Peace Prize winner rather than the head of a great power.
Mr. Obama will also have a chance to tweak Mr. Putin while in Russia. According to reporters there, Russian gay-rights activists say they have been invited to meet with the American president, who has been publicly critical of Russia’s laws on homosexuality, including a new ordinance barring “gay propaganda.”
On Wednesday, the president will stop first for a bilateral meeting in Stockholm, where he will encounter Internet freedom activists planning to protest U.S. online spying. The president will arrive in Russia on Thursday for the two-day summit. On the trip, Mr. Obama likely will be phoning lawmakers back home to persuade them to authorize missile strikes against the Syrian regime. Congress will take up the question when lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday.
Simultaneously, Mr. Obama will be lobbying foreign leaders to support his proposal to punish Syria militarily. The summit will be Mr. Obama’s first face-to-face meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron since Parliament voted against taking military action in Syria on Thursday.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday that a united international response in Syria is unlikely, but that international leaders must look for agreement.
“This is not very likely, but even the smallest chance must be used,” she said in a speech to the Bundestag, the German parliament.