There are two major criticisms of President Obama's foreign policy that, I believe, are beginning to resonate. The first, argued forcefully by Bob Kagan, is of his harsh or negligent treatment of allies, in contrast to his rather more gentle treatment of dictators and adversaries.
The second is that he cares not a wit about foreign policy, especially if it gets in the way of his domestic agenda. Let me focus on the second.
In the case of Asia policy, his preoccupation with his domestic agenda is deleterious in two ways. First, despite all the snarky bragging by Obama officials about how "America is back" (see recent posts by Dan Twining and Walter Lohman), he cancelled a trip to Asia for the second time to deal with a crisis of his own making: health care. I believe this is unprecedented.
It is one thing for a president to cancel a trip because of a domestic disaster, but Obama himself created this mess. When Obama became president there was a long list of economic and foreign policy challenges to which everyone agreed he had to attend. Instead, he launched the country on a long, divisive, and distracting debate about health care. This choice has real consequences as Indonesians and Australians learn that they are not as important to Obama as is his domestic agenda.
The second problem is related to his first: the same commitment to a leftist agenda creates obstacles to an effective Asia policy. Even if he had made it to Indonesia and Australia, he would not have had much to offer. Obama cannot move an inch on the foreign policy agenda items that matter most to Asians: trade and security. Either he is uninterested in these issues or his party will not let him act on them. On trade, even so much as a mention of the South Korea free trade agreement resulted in severe resistance from his party. If Obama cannot ratify agreements already negotiated, how can he possibly offer a free trade, open investment vision to compete with China's more mercantilist one?
On security, Asians already know Obama will not invest in the military resources necessary to assure the region of American staying power. That too would obstruct his domestic spending agenda. This is a president who essentially asked every Department except for the Defense Department to figure out ways to spend more as part of his fiscal stimulus. He did so while America is fighting two wars and dealing with the menace of China's growing military. Some friends get the picture: Australians are already embarked on a military strategy that hedges against American withdrawal from the Asia-Pacific.
Here is some hopefully constructive advice: despite the misguided bravado of his lieutenants, President Obama has to repair relations with Asia allies. In order to do so, he'll have to take on the left and show up with something that makes us regionally relevant.