The Cable

Obama's Asia trip delay shows lower priority of foreign policy

President Obama's trip to Indonesia and Australia has been postponed again, this time until June, due to the continued uncertainty over a pending health-care vote in Congress.

"During this midterm election year, the president simply could not afford to be up in the air when health care reform legislation was winding its way to a final vote in Congress," said Patrick Cronin, senior advisor and senior director of the Asia program at the Center for a New American Security. "It is a reminder how important domestic politics remain relative to the conduct of foreign affairs."

The trip had already been postponed by three days in anticipation of a health-care vote in the House this weekend. But now with the GOP promising to use stall tactics both in the House and the Senate, Obama was forced to consider whether or not his bully pulpit would be needed next week and whether he could use it from the road.

Despite the political imperative of the health-care issue, Obama has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Asia trip, even in discussions with congressional leadership.

The Indonesians, in particular, consider the Obama visit a matter of the highest importance and honor, a homecoming of sorts because of the time Obama spent there as a child. The delay could have ripple effects for U.S. policy in Asia.

"The postponement is a setback to the administration's desire to demonstrate a relentless pace of engagement in the Asia-Pacific region," said Cronin. "Having criticized the Bush administration for the strategic distraction of Iraq, which severely undercut engagement in East Asia, President Obama and his cabinet have thus far been able to travel at breakneck speed to be present and accounted for."

"In many ways, America has been somewhat absent from the region over the last several years and we are committed to restoring that leadership," said National Security Council communications director Ben Rhodes on Monday, calling the trip an "important opportunity to advance American interests in this vitally important part of the world." 

The situation might not be all bad. The June trip might allow more time for the administration to work out key cooperation issues with both Indonesia and Australia and a new schedule might be more relaxed than the hurried agenda put together for the trip the first time it was delayed, Cronin said.

Paul Wolfowitz, former World Bank president and U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, noted that when Ronald Regan delayed a trip to Indonesia in 1983, it took three years to get it back on the schedule. As long as it's rescheduled in a timely manner, the Indonesians should forgive him, he said.

"I think it's difficult to exaggerate how excited Indonesians must be about the prospects of a presidential visit," Wolfowitz told The Cable. "Once Obama gets there, they're going to forget all about the postponement."

UPDATE: White House spokesman Robert Gibbs confirmed the delay in his Thursday presser, saying that Obama was "disappointed" and he told the foreign leaders "health care is a crucial priority."

The White House staff tried to postpone for another few days, but the scheduling difficulties made that impossible. "The president believes right now the place for him to be is in Washington seeing this through," Gibbs said.

AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Briefing Skipper: Moscow, Pakistan, Juarez, Paris Club, Kim Jong Illin?

In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. Here are the highlights of Wednesday's briefing by spokesman Mark Toner:

  • Before heading off to Moscow, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to the White House to join President Obama's meeting with the Taoiseach of Ireland Brian Cowen. Tuesday she met in Washington with Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin and spoke at the American-Ireland Fund gala. She stopped in Shannon for a refueling on St. Patrick's Day on her way to Moscow
  • In Moscow Thursday, Clinton will have a meeting and dinner with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss a bunch of stuff, "including cooperation on nonproliferation, progress on a successor agreement to START, counterterrorism, regional security issues, and of course the work of the bilateral presidential commission," Toner said. Friday she will meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, attend the Quartet meeting, and then come back to DC on Saturday.
  • The U.S. and Pakistan will hold their first strategic dialogue talks in Washington on March 24 at the ministerial level, hosted by Clinton and Pakistan's Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi. "Topics will include economic development, water and energy, education, communication and public diplomacy, agriculture and security," Toner said.
  • The U.S. Embassy and consulates in Mexico are open for business following the murder of three people connected to the consulate in Juarez. "No information currently indicates the victims were directly targeted due to their employment at the U.S. consulate," said Toner, adding that the investigation is ongoing.
  • Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake will be traveling to India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Belgium March 17th through 30th. This will be his first visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan as assistant secretary. Blake is just "trying to get a sense of what's going on, on the ground," said Toner.
  • Afghanistan reached an agreement with the members of the Paris Club to cancel its debt to those countries. "Lifting the debt burden inherited by the Afghan government marks a crucial step on Afghanistan's road to economic sustainability," said Toner.
  • Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao met with Undersecretary of State Bill Burns Wednesday and Clinton dropped in on the meeting, but Toner didn't have a readout. Rao talked Afghanistan at an event at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
  • The State Department is confirming that Pakistan has charged five suburban Washingtonians with terrorism crimes, they had a hearing Wednesday, and a trial is coming. The charges are: criminal conspiracy to commit terrorist activities in Pakistan, conspiracy to wage war against the powers in alliance with Pakistan, conspiracy to commit depredation on territories of Afghanistan and the United States, possession and contribution of cash for proscribed organizations with the intention to be used for terrorism, and taking direction from and giving direction to others to commit terrorist acts. The U.S. has no position on the veracity of the charges and is not saying they've been tortured.
  • No comment on reports that Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell told a private meeting in South Korea that Kim Jong Il only has three years left to live.