The reviews of President Obama's recent trip to Asia "were harsh," writes Politico editor and Beltway CW-setter John Harris. "His peculiar bow to the emperor of Japan was symbolic. But his lots-of-velvet, not-much-iron approach to China had substantive implications." The left saw Obama retreat into "cynical realism" on civil rights and the environment. The right found Obama weak.
As the Politico is fond of pointing out, perception drives reality in Washington. But as The Atlantic's James Fallows has noted (and noted and noted), the American political elite responded to a narrative of President Obama's two-week trip to Asia that turned out largely to be a myth. As much as the president's foreign policy team would like to ignore the prevailing narratives, they can't. Obama's agenda is constrained by public opinion, which, of course, is influenced by -- and influences -- the chatter among the elite. And that elite is a cum hoc ergo propter hoc elite; it is addicted to the here and now. It requires short term political victories and a constant stream of symbolic ones.
So on Friday, the White House distributed a document to reporters listing some here-and-now accomplishments, including a tough line from China on Iranian sanctions. Several senior White House officials acknowledged that they were frustrated about the way Obama's leadership style and intentions are being communicated to the American public. They are not ready to blame themselves for failing to sufficiently explain what Obama is trying to do. "There is just so much we can do," one official lamented. About one particular perception, the administration is as sensitive as an eye surgery patient is to the sun. It is that Obama is concerned only with his image, and likes to bask in the glow of his un-Bush-ness as much as possible, even when American interests are at risk. Here's a look at what Obama was trying to do.
Fact: Bowing to the Japanese emperor produced giggles in Japan, too. But as the news cycle turned over, Obama's gesture (which his aides insisted was based on the president's reading of protocol) was transliterated in Japan as a gesture of respect to the symbolic core of the nation, and a sign that the United States treats Japan seriously as a partner, rather than a younger sibling. On August 31, the Japanese people rejected decades of leadership from its Liberal Democratic Party, ushering into office a a new government, led by Yukio Hatoyama, full of think tankers and idealists with little governing experience. Hatoyama promised to re-examine the increasingly unpopular Grand Bargain that's existed between the U.S and Japan since the end of World War II. Standing up to the U.S. is popular; Hatoyama and his foreign minister questioned the 2006 agreement to relocate a U.S. Marine base from Okinawa to Guam and announced that they're bringing home fuel supply tankers lent to NATO for its mission in Afghanistan. This is the political context into which Obama's entourage flew. Japan wants to be independent and more equal; it does not want the U.S. to define its relationship with China or NATO.
Obama's main goal, an administration official said, "was to give Hatoyama the right kind of face and motivation" by acknowledging Japan as an equal, an independent agent with its own interests, rather than as a junior partner or a means to any particular ends. True, Obama could have responded in kind to the Hatoyama government's fairly clumsy acclimation to its new power by demanding cooperation or puffing his chest out. Instead, a White House official said, he decided to treat them as "grown ups" under the theory that Japan now faces the pressure to act more maturely. This is the foreign policy version of not bowing to the soft bigotry of low expectations.
More prosaically, the administration felt it was important for Obama to reiterate his commitment to review the American nuclear posture while in Japan -- and to show that he takes the upcoming climate change summit in Copenhagen seriously. This stuff makes the Japanese people happy. It evolves their image of Obama beyond merely his celebrity. And the more happy the Japanese are with the U.S., the less the Hatoyama government will feel the need to stiffen their spines on the Okinawa base deal and on Afghanistan. The result: this week, the Obama and Hatoyama governments will begin high-level discussions on both issues -- and the level of irritation that the Japanese felt when Defense Secretary Robert Gates pounded the table on the basing issue has decreased.
Most remarkable about the administration's visit to South Korea was what did not happen: for the first time in a long while, there were no major protests on the streets to mark the visit of an American politician. But the bilateral relationship is always on a level of DEFCON 3. South Korea is angry at the U.S. Congress for stalling a much-needed trade agreement; the U.S. is frustrated that South Korea refuses to open its country to U.S. automobiles; both countries are always calibrating their views on negotiations with North Korea. Obama's big problem is domestic. Americans are potent protectionists during recessions; most of his party's labor base is skeptical of trade agreements, and the country, for the most part, doesn't buy the idea that even well-planned accords will result in the net creation of American jobs. For domestic consumption, the administration wanted positive headlines back home about Obama's push for more American economic opportunities, but there weren't many.
When I interviewed a National Security Council official about the visit to China, I wanted to know whether the Chinese had expressed any concerns about the soundness of the U.S. economy in private, whether they had given any indication that public musings about a new reserve currency were anything more than posturing. "There wasn't a peep about that," said this official, who participated in all of the meetings on economic policy. Indeed, the meetings appear to have produced some progress on a critical but often obscure dispute: the day after Obama left, Chinese economic ministers suggested that the RMB exchange rate would be more "flexible" in the future, a gesture to the U.S., which has long wanted China's currency to appreciate.
In public, virtually all the discussion was about climate change; the U.S. and China had played a game of chicken to see who would announce their pre-Copenhagen emission reduction targets first. U.S. officials say that they won from China two concessions: full transparency in how emission reductions are evaluated and a unilateral declaration that China would agree to "mitigation action" of some sort -- unilateral being the key word here because prevailing wisdom seemed to be that China and India would present a united force against not only particular emissions targets but the enforcement mechanisms put in place to protect them.
So -- there were plenty of concrete deliverables. There are, of course, just as many open-ended disputes. We may not know for years whether Obama's Asian foray was successful. But judged through the lens of American interests -- even traditional American interests -- it cannot be called a failure.
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is a former contributing editor at The Atlantic