Commentary Magazine


Topic: Asia Pivot

Obama’s Gift to Cambodia’s Thuggish Leader

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.

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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. 

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Hamas Follows Obama to Asia

There are two great sources of frustrating irony for presidents seeking to leave their own policymaking legacy. The first is that they have far greater control over American foreign policy than domestic economic policy, yet it is the latter they are judged on when they stand for reelection after their first term. The second is that, once forced by the electorate to turn their attention to economic policy, history reverses its influence on them by often judging them predominantly on foreign policy.

That makes sense; the president is the commander in chief of the combined armed forces of the world’s lone superpower, and his first responsibility is always to keep his citizens safe. Following this trend, President Obama came under attack for his own economic stewardship, but won a second term. Now, as he turns to foreign policy with more concentration and attention than his first term, he is finding, as most presidents do, that no matter which direction he turns he will somehow still be facing the Middle East. The president is already hounded by Benghazi; he’s gone to Asia to stress the Asian “pivot”—not so much a policy as a slogan meant to convey a thoughtfulness about the 21st century world—and the Middle East followed him there. It was not Benghazi, however. Rather, it was Hamas that showed up in Thailand, and the president was decidedly unamused:

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There are two great sources of frustrating irony for presidents seeking to leave their own policymaking legacy. The first is that they have far greater control over American foreign policy than domestic economic policy, yet it is the latter they are judged on when they stand for reelection after their first term. The second is that, once forced by the electorate to turn their attention to economic policy, history reverses its influence on them by often judging them predominantly on foreign policy.

That makes sense; the president is the commander in chief of the combined armed forces of the world’s lone superpower, and his first responsibility is always to keep his citizens safe. Following this trend, President Obama came under attack for his own economic stewardship, but won a second term. Now, as he turns to foreign policy with more concentration and attention than his first term, he is finding, as most presidents do, that no matter which direction he turns he will somehow still be facing the Middle East. The president is already hounded by Benghazi; he’s gone to Asia to stress the Asian “pivot”—not so much a policy as a slogan meant to convey a thoughtfulness about the 21st century world—and the Middle East followed him there. It was not Benghazi, however. Rather, it was Hamas that showed up in Thailand, and the president was decidedly unamused:

“Let’s understand what the precipitating event here that’s causing the current crisis and that was an ever-escalating number of missiles that were landing not just in Israeli territory but in areas that are populated, and there’s no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders,” Obama said at press conference in Thailand at the start of a three-nation tour in Asia.

“So we are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces and potentially killing civilians.”

As usual, the United States stands with Israel in yet another no-brainer: a terrorist group has conducted a prolonged assault upon Israel’s south, Tel Aviv, and even Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the most militarily cautious and patient prime ministers in Israel’s history, has shown remarkable restraint by not ordering a ground invasion even though Jerusalem—infinitely holy to the Jewish people but apparently not very holy to the Palestinians who keep trying to blow it up—has come under fire.

But this is an easy call for the president for another reason: Hamas has decided it will be the first to test the newly reelected president’s resolve. Obama wants peace and Hamas wants war. Peace will be possible with Hamas’s defeat.

But even more than that, the president’s foreign policy legacy very well might depend on the resolution of the security crises in the Middle East–including the one created by Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons–and if the president wants attention for his Asia “pivot” or any other aspect of his foreign policy, he needs a lot more quiet on the Middle Eastern front. Hamas’s ability to sabotage the political process has gone global. The president, therefore, may actually want to make more of an example of Hamas than even Israel does. Hamas’s latest provocations were intended as a message to Israel but also to the American president. Judging by his comments, Obama seems to have gotten the message.

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