Shutdown Dents Vital Obama Foreign Policy Goal

The vaunted "pivot to Asia" suffers as Obama cancels his third trip to the region

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

President Barack Obama participates in a "Civil Society Roundtable," Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, in St. Petersburg, Russia.

After wreaking minor havoc in Washington and around the country for a few days, the government shutdown has now put a dent in American foreign policy.

Last night the White House announced the cancellation of Barack Obama‘s long-planned trip to Asia, scheduled to begin on Saturday. The trip had already been curtailed due to a furlough-induced staff shortage, but now it’s off completely. “The President made this decision based on the difficulty in moving forward with foreign travel in the face of a shutdown, and his determination to continue pressing his case that Republicans should immediately allow a vote to reopen the government,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.

The government shutdown created travel and staffing hurdles for Obama, but a visit would not have been impossible—the White House could have justified it as a national security priority. And some White House aides wondered whether he might benefit politically from a few days on the world stage, carrying out his duties as Commander in Chief far from the petty sniping on Capitol Hill. In the end, Obama clearly decided that the “optics” of leaving Washington in the midst of this political standoff were unacceptable.

That’s a shame. A presidential visit to Asia might strike some people as a boring formality. But this trip was a big deal. One of Obama’s few clear strategic foreign policy goals is a sustained effort to focus more American attention and resources on Asia—for both economic reasons (Asia is a huge U.S. trading partner and can be even huger) and strategic ones (countering the rise of China).

The most committed Obama officials speak in almost messianic terms about what’s commonly known as “the pivot to Asia,” a policy engineered and launched by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama’s last national security advisor, Tom Donilon. They say it’s essential that America grow less entangled in the dysfunctional Middle East and more engaged with fast-growing Asia and China.

Current officials are still pursuing the “pivot.” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is in the midst of his second Asia trip in six weeks, and Secretary of State John Kerry is also there now. (Kerry will fill in for Obama at the annual meeting of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group in Bali and at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Brunei.) Asia hands say that kind of face time is a crucial signal to Asian countries like Burma, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia whom the U.S. is courting—and who are not coincidentally very nervous about China’s aggressive claims to disputed resource-rich waters.

But many Asian leaders are skeptical that the U.S. is serious about the “pivot.” They see Obama fixated on Middle East problems like Egypt, Syria and Iran. And they have now seen him cancel three trips to their region: Obama scrubbed two trips in his first term, also because of domestic political crises (the passage of his health care bill and the BP oil spill). Here’s hoping that the phrase three strikes and you’re out doesn’t translate across the Pacific.