Manufactured failure #4: more on Obama's trip

Things are warming up on this front. Previously here, with backward links. Today's points:

1) Many people have forwarded me a posting from my friend and former colleague Chuck Todd, saying that people who criticize the press's horse-race, instant-analysis coverage of Obama's trip are guilty of the same horse-race, instant-analysis thinking themselves. Ie, Hypocrite lecteur - mon semblable -- mon frere!

With all good will toward Chuck, let me point out the distinction: What (we) reporters say or write about an event can in fact be judged as soon as we say or write it, because it's all out there to be seen. What happens in a meeting between the leaders of China and the US often can't be judged for months or years after it occurs -- which is the complaint about instant analysis of what Obama "got" or didn't from this trip. For instance: no sane person imagined that an agreement about the value of the RMB would be announced just after this session. That is not the way the Chinese government has ever behaved in response to foreign "pressure." We will know whether US intervention on this issue had any effect over the next few months. It reveals zero familiarity with the issue to expect anything else -- or imply that the absence of an announcement is a "failure."

2) Many people have sent clips of today's talk show by my friend and former colleague Chris Matthews, which went in super-heavy for the "Obama humiliated in Asia" line. With all good will to Chris, I fear that this show today, notably the comments by the Washington Post's reporter from the Asia trip, will be the new symbol of exactly the kind of instant-analysis that, in my view, fundamentally misrepresents what happened on the trip. (Distillation of my complaint in an On the Media segment here; also, it was one theme of my All Things Considered discussion with Guy Raz yesterday.)

2A) As a bonus, here is what the Post's page showed yesterday for discussion of Obama's trip: was it a success or "an embarrassment"?


3) Below and after the jump, more comments from a US government official who was on the trip and knows first-hand about many of the meetings with foreign dignitaries. Earlier from this person here.

About the "humiliating" bow to the Emperor of Japan:

"Obama's attitude was, this is an elderly gentleman in a country where this kind of greeting is customary. It does not seem extraordinary to show this kind of gesture to him. The Fox news poll said that 67% of Americans thought it was a good thing for him to have done. When the president heard that some people had complained, I'd characterize his reaction as: The notion that the United States is somehow humbling or humiliating itself by showing respect for a local custom, when it is transparently the most powerful country in the world, leaves me speechless."

On what Obama "got" from China on climate/environment issues:

"We closed some of the gap but not all of the gap. The Chinese do not wish, three weeks out of Copenhagen, to be seen working hand in glove with the US to impose a "G2" solution to the G77. They have their own reservations about how far things should go. But they also don't want to be seen as the stumbling block or odd man out.

"We kept making the argument, We're the #1 and 2 emitters, so we have a special responsibility, a special role. We got some movement. They are taking substantial mitigating steps, which they didn't enumerate but we know what they are. As best we can tell, they are prepared to submit those as their "target" in Copenhagen, and of course we want them to be "commitments" rather than targets. There is still a stumbling block on the issue of accountability, which is always a hard one with the Chinese. We'd like to have an independent peer review of whether doing what you said you would do.  There are lots of different ways to do that... But we haven't closed that part of the gap yet.

"Prime Minister Rasmussen [Lars Loekke Rasmussen of Denmark, with obvious involvement in the Copenhagen talks] has been saying that while a binding legal treaty by this December is not possible, he has been calling for a politically-binding accord at Copenhagen. Then there would be the task of turning it into a treaty over the next year. The Chinese have bought into that general framework. And we made a lot of agreements with them on clean energy [details here]. So on climate change, there were no miracles, but we moved them out out of the position of being blockers to being part of the game.

On what happened regarding North Korea and Iran:

"North Korea first. We announced that [Ambassador Stephen] Bosworth was going there on December 8. Essentially we want his talks to be followed by resumption of Six Party Talks before terribly long.  We told the Chinese that. In the joint statement, the Chinese did in fact commit to seeking resumption of Six Party Talks at an early date. They agreed to that principle, and they were pretty robust in their insistence that they care about the denuclearization of North Korea. In fact they more than anyone else have reasons to be troubled by the program.  The missiles may not be aimed at China, but they are right next to China. So our perspectives are not identical, but on North Korea, we're doing pretty well.

"Iran has been more difficult, and will probably become a more sensitive issue. Iran itself is heading the wrong direction. By end of the year, we may have to go to the pressure track. We made a strong presentation, whose gist was: Time is running out, and if this situation continues, several other clocks are ticking. There's the Israeli clock. If Israel decides to do something, we cannot stop them. If it's an existential decision, you don't consult anybody else. And Saudi Arabia and Turkey and Egypt probably would follow with nuclear programs. What's the impact of that on security in the Persian Gulf and the international non-proliferation regime? And on Japan and Korea? It is profoundly in China's interest to stay close to the "P5 + 1." [Five UN Security Council permanent members, plus Germany.]

"On the one hand, they get it. But as a matter of principle they don't like sanctions and are concerned about their energy supplies, and they always like to free-ride. If the Russians are on board they will be on board too.  At the end of the day, I expect the China will be on board. There may be some foot-dragging about specifics of a resolution, depending on how draconian it is. Russia is the bigger challenge, in the sense that if you get China.

About judging the results of these talks - and those on economics [about which more in the next installment]:

"Discussions with the Chinese just don't offer dramatic breakthrough moments. It's water on a stone. They don't reveal their Eurekas to you. While you're there you get fairly predictable responses. Next time you go back and get a little different treatment.

"Judgments will be borne out over time. Will they cooperate or not on Iran? Will they be spoilers or not on climate change? On North Korea? Rebalancing their economy? None of those is a one-day story. The only fair way of evaluating results will be over time.

"But I get the sense that many of our critics would not be happy unless Obama punched the Chinese leaders in the nose."

More to come, from the official and also from sources in China, on the impact Obama's town hall may prove to have.