Every modern president takes refuge abroad when the going gets rough at home. (Before the jet airplane life was simpler and presidents could get respite with a train trip to Cleveland or Buffalo.) So President Obama is off to Asia, where never will necessarily be heard an encouraging word, but he won’t have to listen to criticism in the Queen’s English.
His approval ratings are continuing to sink — down now to 46 percent, measured by reliable Rasmussen Reports. Nancy Pelosi’s euphoria over her razor-thin passage of the fanciful House version of Obamacare is fading in the wake of rising Senate opposition to the thousand pages of Mzz Pelosi’s poisoned mush. The president continues to dither over what, if anything, to do about the war in Afghanistan, which he once called “the necessary war.” Soon he won’t be “Mr. President” so much as “Mr. Dithers.” (Blondie and Dagwood would recognize him at once.)
But for the next seven days he won’t have to listen to his critics, and he can see the sights and work on forging what the White House calls a “co-operative and comprehensive” relationship with China. “Co-operative and comprehensive” is the diplo-speak equivalent of don’t ask, don’t tell: “We won’t ask for anything and we won’t tell you what we think about your grim and gruesome record on human rights.” Mr. Obama employs the strategy of getting nothing for something.
He prepared for China by stiffing the Dalai Lama when the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, symbol of the abused and oppressed everywhere yearning to breathe free, came calling. He was the first president to decline to receive the Dalai Lama at the White House. The president’s friends describe his snubs of dissidents abroad — he applauded Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s theft of the Iranian election and only belatedly took note that the election was rigged — as the work of a foreign-policy advocate of realpolitik, concerned only with the big picture, pretty rhetoric and vague geopolitics. The Chinese will offer the usual diplomatic bloviating in public and be contemptuous of weakness in private, as strong leaders always are.
The president’s dithering on what to do in Afghanistan leads only to more opportunities to dither. He now has a controversy in his own house, with his ambassador in Afghanistan scoffing that sending more troops to Kabul will only prop up a corrupt nothingburger government. His commander in Kabul, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, wants thousands more troops for a surge similar to the surge that won the war in Iraq. This is the kind of controversy no president needs, particularly when he’s off to impress the world with what a great leader he is. He wouldn’t have to suffer such indignities if he could make up his mind. Mr. Dithers has Dagwood Bumstead to blame for his stumbles, but a president doesn’t have the luxury of a Dagwood.
The president’s dilemma in Afghanistan, says Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, is how to signal American resolve and, at the same time, signal that there really isn’t any resolve, only he didn’t say it quite that clearly. Mr. Dithers would understand.
Mr. Obama could have arrived in Beijing riding authentic momentum if he had only taken his teleprompter to Berlin for the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He was invited by Angela Merkel, the chancellor of the reunited Germany, to join her and Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reforms hastened the collapse of the old Soviet Union. But Mr. Obama, who found a way to work in a quick trip to Copenhagen to lobby (unsuccessfully) for a Chicago Olympics, was too busy. He sent a videotaped speech in which he studiously avoided mentioning Ronald Reagan, whose flinty resolve to win the Cold War eventually erased that hideous scar of steel and concrete across the Berlin landscape. It’s impossible to imagine Barack Obama, as eloquent as he can be, as John F. Kennedy (“ich bin ein Berliner”) or Ronald Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”).
The president promises to return to Copenhagen for the December palaver over a global-warming treaty that he concedes won’t mean anything, because a president proposes and the U.S. Senate disposes. But he wants to talk to the Chinese about “frameworks, principles and building blocks” that could, maybe, someday, lead to “ongoing and continuing progress.” More pretty palaver from Mr. Dithers.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.