November 14, 2009
Most of Obama’s many foreign trips have been hurtful to American interests. Don’t expect anything to change now.
No president has travelled more than Barack Obama in his first year — his current trip to Asia is his eighth. The first seven took him nowhere. In the afterglow of each, his prestige declined as his results proved ephemeral.
His first trip, to Ottawa — a fly-in fly-out, same day affair without pomp and circumstance or announcements of substance — was among his best for doing the least harm. Trip Two, to Europe to convince his counterparts to spend spend spend their way out of the economic recession, began poorly for him when Europe’s leaders flatly refused. Trip Two ended spectacularly in Istanbul, at the Turkish Grand National Assembly, with a high-profile speech that reached out to a pivotal Muslim country.
Turkey, the Middle East’s largest economy, had been proudly secular since the 1920s when the country outlawed Islamic rule and turned decisively toward the West. At the time of Obama’s speech, in April of this year, Turkey was an ally of Israel’s, it was a member of NATO and it wanted to join the European Union. But Turkey was also a divided country, having elected a controversial government that Turks across the political spectrum suspected was closet Islamic. Many feared Turkey was teetering away from the West. Obama’s job was to keep this vital country in the Western fold.
Obama’s visit was a “statement about the importance of Turkey, not just to the United States, but to the world,” he told the Turks in an address that referred to stains on American history, and that endorsed the pro-Islamic government at the expense of the more Western, secular Turks. “When people look back on this time, let it be said of America that we extended the hand of friendship.”
Last month, it became evident that Obama had failed spectacularly in staunching the Turkish drift away from the West. Turkey abruptly cancelled a joint air exercise with Israel and NATO and revealed that it instead would be conducting joint military exercises with Syria, with which it had entered a military alliance. Syria is an ally of Iran and a country that the U.S. deems a state sponsor of terrorism. With pro-Western Turks neutered, anti-Americanism is now on the rise in Turkey. Many political commentators consider Turkey lost to the Western camp.
Obama’s next Muslim trip — to Cairo in June — was his most ambitious of all, a game-changing effort to reframe America’s relationship with the Muslim world by legitimizing the conduct of Muslim regimes while turning the screws to Israel. If he intended to embolden moderates to bring hostile parties closer together, he failed. Iran scoffed at his offer of peaceful nuclear technology, Saudi Arabia refused to make even a token goodwill gesture toward Israel, and the Palestinians hardened their demands against Israel, expecting Israel to cave under U.S. pressure. The Israeli public then lost its trust in Obama, no longer seeing him as an honest broker, let alone an ally. In a recent poll, only 4% of Israelis view Obama as pro-Israel. Neither are Israelis confident that Obama can talk Iran out of its nuclear weapons program. War with Iran is closer than ever before and peace between Israel and the Palestinians more distant.
Obama’s trip to Russia? The cooperation he hoped for on Iran never happened. He did, however, yield to Russia’s demand that the U.S. scotch plans to install a missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic, former communist countries long fearful of Russian designs and now fearful of American resolve.
Obama’s other trips — to Trinidad for the Summit of the Americas and Europe again in July — accomplished little of note. His last trip, to Copenhagen to make the case for Chicago as the venue for the 2016 Olympic Games, resulted in Chicago’s immediate elimination.
Will the Asia trip mark a turnaround for Obama and be consequential for human rights or for the economy, two areas that especially involve the China portion of his trip? No sign yet that the actions of a diminished president will lead to progress on the economy. And every sign that progress won’t come on human rights, despite a letter to Obama two weeks ago from some 70 writers’ groups and human rights organizations that asked him to raise human rights issues during this visit.
A feature of Obama’s foreign visits, as with his foreign policy, has been his disregard of democracy and human rights activists and his deference to authoritarian leaders. In neither of his trips to the Islamic world did he disturb despots to defend women’s rights, civil rights or press freedoms. Neither did he disturb the status quo in Russia or at the Summit of the Americas, where he gave Hugo Chavez a photo-op. Neither has he defended democracy and human rights when at home: He refused to side with the protesters in the streets of Teheran after Iran’s fraudulent election. He even refused to see the Dalai Lama — the first U.S. president in almost 20 years to shrink from doing so.
In China, human rights activists are now preparing to be rounded up or subjected to house arrest — this is the government’s standard operating procedure in advance of visits from foreign dignitaries who symbolize democratic values. Many activists have long been in jail, among them Liu Xiaobo, a courageous writer and human rights activist who was widely considered to be on the shortlist to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.
Many expect that the Chinese government will release Liu as a good will gesture to mark Obama’s trip. This would be an especially fitting move given Barack Obama’s next scheduled trip, in December: to Oslo to pick up the Nobel Peace Prize that was denied Liu Xiaobo.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute.