President Obama is in Asia, for those who remember him, and it hasn’t been a great week for either his administration or his family. He might be tempted to stay there.
Eric Holder was more or less disinvited to speak to a police academy commencement in Oklahoma City, where a state representative wants Congress to impeach him. The school board in Topeka canceled the first lady’s speech to a joint high-school graduation ceremony, and after a controversy arranged a smaller stage for her, leaving the five high schools to their own ceremonies. The kids will get the big day they and their families have been anticipating for 12 years, after all.
The president, meanwhile, was forced by protocol and good manners to eat raw fish in Tokyo. He had the good sense to move a few pieces of the sushi around on his plate, trying to hide it under the lettuce, before it went back to the kitchen, but not before someone noticed that he had eaten only half of it.
Like all presidents under siege in their second terms, Mr. Obama flew off to the land beyond Suez, where Kipling said “the best is like the worst,” searching for friendly faces and kind words. What he’s finding, in conversations after the strange food is put away, is a desperate need for reassurance — or as Sen. Marco Rubio puts it, a plea to “reassure, reassure, reassure.”
Asia is no longer Kipling’s Asia, but a region fast growing in the shadow of an aggressive and greedy China. “When China spits,” as the old saying goes, “Asia swims,” and that was before China became the economic colossus.
Now China is projecting its considerable spit, and the swimmers are looking nervously to Mr. Obama, watching his reluctance to lead in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, and his deference to Vladimir Putin in the Crimea and Ukraine. One of the telling early messages from Japan was the photograph of Mr. Obama doing his usual obeisant bowing to everyone in sight, this time to a mechanical robot in Japan.
The friendly allies in Asia are flattered by the attention from an American president — old traditions survive even indifference and incompetence — but Asians are confused and dismayed by the lack of American toughness to back up the pretty rhetoric. Reassurance becomes real only with actual progress, particularly on trade and meaningful promises of security.
The president’s trip, with the expenditure of all that aviation fuel and the costs of the enormous tail of a presidential retinue, will be worth it, says Mr. Rubio, if the president shows authentic leadership on trade. Mr. Rubio, who recently returned from a similar trip to Asia, says he saw firsthand the impact of trade on the economies of both the allies and the United States.
“The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, despite some issues with implementation, has been a great success, and once the Trans-Pacific Partnership is concluded and other interested nations are able to join, it will allow us to further unite our economies, creating commerce and business opportunities for millions throughout North America, South America and Asia.”
Hovering over everything on the president’s trip is the shadow of the place that is not on his itinerary this time. China is the rhinoceros in the courtyard, and the president could surprise and please his Asian hosts by speaking frankly about the U.S.-China relationship, and where it goes from here as the Chinese flex their growing muscle.
The Asians, like the Americans at home, are perplexed by the administration’s rhetoric. Does talk of “a new model of major-power relations” mean Mr. Obama now intends to negotiate with Beijing without America’s allies in the region? Inquiring minds want to know.
Inquiring minds must expect to be disappointed, short of an Obama epiphany. The president’s epiphanies, alas, are usually sad ones. He’s fond of evolving, but his evolutions and his “pivots” rarely go anywhere good. Three years ago he “pivoted” to Asia from the Middle East, and Syria, Iran, Crimea and Ukraine jerked him back to the harsh realities that he always tries to avoid.
If he can’t fix it with a speech, the president retreats into the comfortable assumption that it’s something that ain’t broke.
Susan Rice, the president’s national security adviser, was asked to explain what the president hoped to accomplish on his Asian adventure. “This is a positive trip with a positive agenda,” she said, ” … a cornerstone of our global engagement … .” More pretty words, like something her boss would say. They taste like more dead fish.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.