President Obama is being ridiculed for the extravagance of his trip to Asia. A report from India that Obama’s trip will cost $200 million a day for two days in India is implausible and baseless. However, the White House will not say what the actual price tag nor, to my knowledge, has it denied that he be will accompanied by an enormous entourage the accommodation of which will be hugely expensive.
Instead, the administration’s talking point is that presidential trips abroad are always expensive. That’s true. But Obama seems to be taking things to a new level. After his 2009 trip to Moscow, I wrote:
My sources [in Russia] were amused by the flotilla of Air Force jets that brought Obama and his entourage to Moscow. They were also taken with the fact that Obama and his crew took over the Ritz Carlton hotel, where rooms start at around $1,200 per night and the presidential suite goes for $13,000. The Marriott had been good enough for Presidents Clinton and Bush. Rooms there — described as similar to Marriott rooms in the U.S. — can be had for around $350.
But about the substance of the Asia trip? Obama is spinning it as a job creation vehicle, and that’s understandable given the state of our economy and the criticism of the trip’s cost. But I believe that the primary reason for the visit is, and should be, diplomacy.
And the apparent diplomatic calculus of this trip makes sense. As Fareed Zakaria explains, recent Chinese behavior, especially towards Japan, has hastened the inevitable desire of Asian states to see the U.S. serve as a counter-balance to China. Until now, however, Obama has been fixated on the U.S. relationship with the Chinese. He has held what the Washington Post calls a record number of meetings with China’s leader, while essentially ignoring India, for example.
This visit kicks off in India, where Obama will spend three days. That’s a signal that Obama is shifting considerable focus to India, in line with President Bush’s approach. Reports that, in Indonesia, Obama plans to deliver a speech, one of whose themes will be democracy, also suggest a policy more in line with Bush’s.
Obama’s focus on India also has implications for U.S. relations with Pakistan. The president will spend three days in India, while bypassing Pakistan altogether. In recent years, by contrast, American presidents have typically coupled visits to India with at least a brief stop in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s leaders reportedly are not amused. But given Pakistan’s sorry performance in dealing with radical Islamic insurgents, you can make the case that the U.S. should not be trying to amuse its leaders right now. Perhaps the message should instead be that our patience has limits and that our friendship must be earned.
The question, though, is whether Obama has it in him to stand by the policy implications of the itinerary of this trip. If China shows its displeasure with Obama’s seeming new direction, will Obama kow-tow? If Pakistan’s leaders react with passive-aggression to Obama’s new-found interest in closer relations with India, will Obama tilt back away from India?
In these sorts of matters, I often find it useful to ask what George W. Bush would do, and then assume Obama will do the opposite. For this reason, among others, I suspect that the answer to both questions in the previous paragraph is: yes.