President Obama traveled to Asia last week seeking to make a big splash and bring home trade agreements that help American exports. Notwithstanding the election debacle at home, many observers still believed the president was hugely popular abroad.
The arrival of the Obama entourage in India appeared to confirm that the President and First Lady still dominate the world stage. Their willingness to join the fun and get up and dance with Indian youth at a Hindu holiday celebration set a very attractive and nice Democratic motif. His smile is still dazzling. Her dancing was magnificent. But ultimately, no special trade concessions came from the India visit. In fact, the President's whole trip consisted of one fiasco after another. He was in Asia to help achieve a better trade balance with many of our trading partners, particularly China, with which the trade is unacceptably lopsided in their favor. However, he was rebuffed time and again.
The President asked our ally, South Korea, to sign a trade agreement, originally negotiated by President Bush, that would help level the playing field for our exports. South Korea refused, notwithstanding President Obama's entreaties to South Korea's president, Lee Myung-bak. Perhaps the President should have whispered in President Lee's ear, "Tomorrow, the first contingent of U.S. troops will be given marching orders to leave South Korea." Why do we put our young men and women in harm's way to defend South Korea when that country declines to treat us fairly on trade?
While the President did not go to North Korea, which has refused to talk with the U.S. and others about giving up the nuclear bomb, the New York Times of November 12th conveyed a new retreat on our part with its headline, "Obama shifts tone to draw North Korea back to talks." Where did all the goodies go that South Korea and the U.S. previously provided to North Korea? How many times do we have to buy North Korea's cooperation simply to engage in discussions?
North Korea knows that because of our continued involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan (we now plan to stay in the latter until 2014), we don't have the military strength, and more importantly the will, to actually engage them militarily. Because of the veto of North Korea's ally and protector, China, the U.N. Security Council would not even name North Korea as responsible for torpedoing -- with a torpedo made in China -- a South Korean naval vessel, killing 47 South Korean sailors.
China poses the most serious danger to us economically. The world's largest country has steadfastly refused to consider narrowing our huge adverse balance of trade with them. On top of that, the Chinese have become our largest creditor. They are funding much of our rising national debt and if they stopped or sold off our treasury notes and bonds, the results could be calamitous. Another dramatic failure.
While Obama was in Asia, the Iraqi government beset by near daily suicide bomber attacks against civilians, sought to forge a national unity government of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. The U.S. beseeched the Shiites to be accommodating to the Sunnis, the latter comprising 20 percent of the population and having run Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The American Ambassador, James F. Jeffrey, was in the negotiating room when a deal was struck to form a coalition government. But, according to the Times, "Only three hours into a parliamentary session called on Thursday to begin the process of approving an agreement on a new unity government, a member of the alliance led by the former prime minister Ayad Allawi [leader of the Sunnis, although himself a secular Shiite] walked out in protest." Well, you can't win them all. But how about winning some, especially when we have expended blood and treasure for seven years in Iraq and still have 50,000 combat troops there who are expected to stay indefinitely.
While Iraq teeters on the brink of civil war, Iran continues to move ever closer to developing its own nuclear bomb and already has the missiles to deliver it as far as Europe and to Israel, which it has repeatedly pledged to destroy. Iran views the Obama administration's policy of "soft power" as confirmation that we are a paper tiger unable and unwilling to confront the mullahs militarily.
However, the worst personal blow to President Obama must have been the repudiation by Britain and Germany of the way he is dealing with the Great Recession. The President's approach is to spend his way out of it, while the British and Germans' approach is deficit reduction. And they have not been shy about lecturing him publicly on the subject. Also, the G-20 meeting in South Korea spurned his request for a joint binding monetary policy. Our allies think it is hypocritical of the U.S. to demand that China stop manipulating its currency while we print money and engage in U.S. dollar manipulations.
Oh, there was one moment of thunderous applause for the president. It was in Indonesia, the country with the world's largest Muslim population, and the president's boyhood home, when he denounced Israel shortly before leaving the country. Well, you take your victories where you can find them.
The failure of the President's Asian trip reminded me of the debacle that was Eva Peron's last trip to Europe, as captured by the following lyrics from the musical Evita.
Now, I don't like to spoil a wonderful story
But the news from Rome isn't quite as good
She hasn't gone down like they thought she would
Italy's unconvinced by Argentine glory
Face the facts, the Rainbow's starting to fade
I don't think she'll make it to England now
But it was the Times of November 12th that said it best:
President Obama's hopes of emerging from his Asia trip with the twin victories of a free trade agreement with South Korea and a unified approach to spurring economic growth around the world ran into resistance on all fronts on Thursday, putting Mr. Obama at odds with his key allies and largest trading partners. The most concrete trophy expected to emerge from the trip eluded his grasp: a long-delayed free trade agreement with South Korea, first negotiated by the Bush administration and then reopened by Mr. Obama, to have greater protections for American workers.
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