President Obama has taken a good deal of flack over the past few years over his cozy relationships with some undesirable heads of state. There’s the famous picture of him smiling and shaking hands with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, bowing to the the Saudi King, whispering on a hot mic to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about needing more “flexibility” on missile defense until his election. Unfortunately for Americans and our foreign policy, the mistakes don’t end there. In his first trip abroad since his reelection, the president is, unfortunately, continuing that tradition.
During Obama’s trip through Asia, the president touched down in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for a one-day visit in order to attend an ASEAN summit. While he was there, the president entered closed-door meetings with the Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen. The meeting was reportedly quite tense, and the president chided Hun Sen for his abysmal record on human rights and press freedom. The meeting was private, but given the Cambodian government’s bluster before the meeting, it’s doubtful the story from the Obama White House will jive with the anything from Cambodian sources.
While Western-owned and operated publications in Cambodia are reporting on the president’s tough talk in English, it’s unlikely that the average Cambodian will ever know the American side of what took place between their prime minister and the American president. The only reports of the meeting that Cambodians are likely to be exposed to are the images of the rest of the visit, where Obama is seen shaking hands with Hun Sen while wearing Western attire or bowing in greeting to the prime minister’s wife while he looks on jovially. In Hun Sen’s (almost certain to be rigged) run for reelection next year, these images will certainly be put on billboards throughout the largely agrarian nation where poverty is prevalent and press freedom is becoming practically non-existent.
Obama’s efforts to pressure Hun Sen came with the promise of a closer relationship in an effort to draw the nation away from its large and powerful benefactor, China. Thus far it’s clear those efforts have failed and will continue to fail, with Cambodia siding with China in a dispute over access to the South China Sea, an increasingly problematic issue in the region. While Cambodia has never before held much power on the world stage (with the exception of the Vietnam War), thanks to its role in ASEAN that is quickly changing, as the New York Times reported today:
It was the second time in four months that China appears to have influenced Cambodia, a beneficiary of Chinese development and military aid, to put forward its case. In July, the association failed to issue a communiqué at the end of its conference of foreign ministers after Cambodia refused to allow any mention of the South China Sea.
The only thing that President Obama seems to have accomplished in Cambodia vis-a-vis his meeting with Hun Sen is giving the authoritarian leader an even stronger stranglehold on an office that he’s held longer than any other leader on the entire continent of Asia.
After the fall of another long-ruling tyrant, Moammar Gaddafi of Libya, Hun Sen was asked if he was nervous about being overthrown himself. He responded, “I not only weaken the opposition, I’m going to make them dead … and if anyone is strong enough to try to hold a demonstration, I will beat all those dogs and put them in a cage.” This is the kind of ruler Hun Sen is, and this is who President Obama just lent even more legitimacy to.