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Milbank: The tourist in chief

Published April 24, 2014 9:47 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

President Obama landed in Japan on Wednesday night and delivered an important message on behalf of the American people.

"That's some good sushi right there," he said.

Indeed it was. The president had just dined at Sukiyabashi Jiro, where the Michelin three-star chef, octogenarian sushi master Jiro Ono, was featured in the documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi."

Let's hope Obama didn't fill up too much during his 90-minute meal. He has three state dinners in his honor on the trip.

The seven-day, four-country Asian tour promises to be an excellent adventure for the president — with visits to the Meiji Shrine in Japan and dining with the emperor, the Gyeongbokgung Palace in South Korea, and wreath-laying at the National War Memorial there. In Malaysia, he attends a "royal audience" and visits the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur. And in the Philippines, he checks out an electric vehicle, places another wreath and enjoys his third state dinner.

But one thing is missing from the president's otherwise exciting itinerary: making news. The one hope for a breakthrough on the trip — an announcement of a trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership — fell through. National security adviser Susan Rice said work will continue in the "coming weeks and months."

Nothing is wrong with an American president spreading goodwill and eating good sushi, but the photo-op nature of the trip risks contributing to a perception that Obama's Asian policy, and his foreign policy in general, is similarly itinerant. He's seeing the sights, getting some good pics and moving along — more tourist than architect of world affairs.

Second terms are typically when presidents look overseas to cement legacies, and Obama appears to be following that course. But events out of his control keep distracting him. Vladimir Putin's conquests, China's paranoia, the fizzling Israeli-Palestinian talks, the Syrian civil war: They've crowded out any Obama agenda.

Even if crises hadn't intervened, it's not entirely clear what the agenda would be. I asked Ben Rhodes, the president's deputy national security adviser, for an articulation of the Obama Doctrine, which is variously described by the news media as "emerging," "evolving" and being "revisited." Rhodes referred me to a 2011 speech in which Obama discussed multilateral action. If the United States is not directly threatened, Obama said then, "the burden of action should not be America's alone."

Obama's neoconservative critics accuse him of projecting weakness overseas (even as they brand him a "tyrant" at home). But the more forceful Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive action and the resulting debacle in Iraq probably did more to weaken American clout overseas than Obama's nuance. The problem isn't that Obama projects weakness; it's that he doesn't project much of anything. As in domestic matters, he has been at his best when he is forceful and consistent, and at his worst when he plays the bystander.

Asia policy is typical. The White House in 2011 said it was making a "pivot" to Asia from the Middle East. But he never quite made the turn, as Syria, Iran, Ukraine and Israel pulled him elsewhere. With this trip — part of which had been rescheduled because of last year's government shutdown — he is attempting a re-pivot.

But what's his plan? Unclear. Rice, in a pre-trip briefing, was asked whether this could be called the "China containment tour."

"So, this is a positive trip with a positive agenda that underscores that the United States' commitment to this region is growing, and is a cornerstone of our global engagement and is going to be there for the long term," she replied.

The national security adviser had many ways to say nothing: "underscore our continued focus on the Asia Pacific region ... focus intensively on energizing our bilateral relationships ... affirm our commitment to a rules-based order in the region ... focused on modernizing these alliances to make them more relevant to the 21st century."

The Politico Playbook, a popular tip sheet, asked readers Wednesday morning, "Be honest: did you even know Obama was away? Presidential trips like this used to dominate news and permeate the consciousness of ordinary Americans."

And they could again, if the president would be a newsmaker and not a tourist.