Obama to Pacific Rim: drop dead

One of the occupational hazards U.S. foreign policy wonks possess in abundance is the tendency to forget that domestic politics is really important.  Regardless of ideology, most members of the foreign policy community despair of how little time the President devotes to foreign affairs -- because he cares about things like "getting re-elected" or "maintaining popular support" or "responding to public opinion." 

I'd like to think that I'm at least aware of this failing, and remind myself on a daily basis that Tip O'Neill had a point

So, with that bias acknowledged, it's still worth pointing out that Barack Obama has foolishly decided to blow off the most dynamic region in the globe -- again:

President Obama canceled his trip to Australia, Indonesia and Guam late Thursday night as oil continued to stream into the Gulf of Mexico in what he has called the worst environmental disaster in American history.

His decision came as officials reported progress containing the oil leak at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. Obama is to visit the Gulf Friday to assess the situation and meet with officials responding to the crisis. While the White House statement offered no reason for scratching the Asia trip this time, officials in recent days had grown increasingly convinced that it was untenable for the president to leave the country for a week with the oil spill still unchecked....

This was the second time Mr. Obama has scrubbed the trip to Australia and Indonesia. He was originally scheduled to travel there in March but canceled at the last minute to stay in Washington to lobby for passage of his health care legislation. He also had passed up a trip to Indonesia in connection with a regional summit meeting held in Singapore in November 2009 (emphasis added).

Correct me if I'm wrong, but for the past month President Obama has been in the country, making many, many pronouncements about the oil leak.  You know what effect that has had on the spill?  Absolutely zero.  There is no policy reason whatsoever for Obama to stay in the country because of the spill (at this point, I'm not even sure there's a political reason, but will defer to commenters on that question). 

What's particularly frustrating is that Peter Baker's story contains the seeds that contradict Obama's justification for staying in the country: 

White House officials said they will not let the focus on the oil spill detract from the rest of the president’s economic, legislative and foreign agenda, pointing out that he still seems likely to sign fiunancial regulation reform by next month, push through his Supreme Court nominee and win sanctions against Iran at the United Nations Security Council.

“The American people don’t elect somebody, I think, that they don’t believe can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, told reporters earlier Thursday. “Sometimes it feels like we walk and chew gum and juggle on a unicycle all at the same time. I get that.”

But, he added, “there’s a whole lot of people working on a whole lot of things in the White House, and we’re able to do more than several things at once.”  (emphasis added)

That's great, Bob -- except that there are certain things that only a President can do.  Unless he has some engineering expertise that he's been keeping under wraps, there's very little that Obama can do by staying in the countrry to focus on the spill.  On the other hand, Obama's comparative advantage has been to help improve U.S. relations with the rest of the world.  Australia and Indonesia are vital supporter states, and yet this president has just given them the cold shoulder -- for the second time, remember -- in order to focus on domestic politics. 

The Obama administration has dealt with North Korea as best they could, and after some stumbles have moved down the learning curve in handling the China portfolio.  Their approach to the rest of the Asia/Pacific region, however, has gone from sclerotic to just plain awful.  The United States needs good relations with these countries -- but this administration has plainly revealed its preferences on this issue.  If you look at the Obama administration's behavior, in their minds, the Pacific Rim simply doesn't count. 

Question to readers:  is the Gulf spill such a political crisis that it requires the Obama administration to blow off allies? 

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel W. Drezner

The South Korean rally-round-the-flag effect.... NOT

My latest diavlog  is with the man in the black hat LGM's Rob Farley about Israel, Turkey, the Koreas, and patron-client relationships more generally.  One of our areas of agreement was that, with regard to the Cheonan incident, South Korea's government played things pretty damn well.  The Lee government went slow on blaming the DPRK even though they knew it was a North Korean torpedo almost immediately.  They boxed China into a corner by issuing a report that no one except Pyongyang really disputes.  They took measures to indicate that they thought this was a serious breach, but also dialed down the rhetoric when things got particularly nasty last week. 

And for all of this, the Lee government was rewarded with... a trouncing at the ballot box:

South Korea’s left-wing opposition has unexpectedly mauled the ruling conservative party of President Lee Myung-bak in regional elections, boosted by surging discontent about the way Seoul handled the alleged sinking of a warship by North Korea.

According to preliminary results on Thursday, the leftwing Democratic party confounded opinion polls to win seven mayoral or gubernatorial seats, compared with just six for Mr Lee’s Grand National party. The ruling conservatives narrowly held the mayoral seat in Seoul, where the challenger had styled herself as the “peace” candidate. Her campaign slogan was: “The last chance against war”

South Korean voters regularly punish governments in mid-term polls, but some of Thursday’s results sent shockwaves through political circles and prompted the leader of the ruling party to resign.

The Democratic party won the eastern province of Gangwon-do, on the border with North Korea, for the first time in 16 years.

In its campaign, the opposition had condemned Mr Lee for risking war by taking too hard a line against the North, despite the death of 46 sailors in March in the alleged torpedo attack on the Cheonan corvette. Two previous liberal presidents had engaged in a “sunshine policy” of rapprochement with the North, which Mr Lee ended.

This is about as far from a rally-round-the-flag effect as you can get -- which, it should be noted, B.R. Myers called last week.

What does this mean for the future?  Unfortunately, more North Korean provocations. 

As Kenneth Schultz demonstrated in Democracy and Coercive Diplomacy, opposition parties can send a powerful signal in world politics.  If they go against the ruling party in a crisis, it signals the domestic vulnerability that these governments will face if a crisis escalates.  The lesson that North Korea will draw from this electoral outcome is that it can engage in further provocations and the Lee government will be forced by its own domestic constraints to act in a more conciliatory manner. 

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images