VIENTIANE, Laos: President Barack Obama has grown accustomed to having his foreign travels overshadowed by terrorist attacks or police shootings. This might be the first time one of his trips has been marred by bad manners.
On his final visit to Asia+ as president this week, Obama had intended to confront America’s wartime legacy in Laos and to reaffirm his strategic pivot to the region. Like all presidential trips, it has been meticulously planned to showcase achievements: a climate-change partnership+ with China and vigorous American engagement with China+ ‘s neighbors.
But in four messy days, the president lost the clear message choreographed by his advance staff. There was the chaotic arrival ceremony+ in China, in which missing aircraft stairs unexpectedly trumped the theme of global warming. And then, an ugly personal outburst+ that prompted Obama to cancel a meeting with the new leader of the Philippines, an ally the United States will need in the coming contest with China for regional influence+ .
On Tuesday, the White House scrambled to limit the fallout from skipping a meeting with Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ president. Obama pulled the plug after hearing that Duterte had unleashed a profane diatribe against him, threatening to repeat it to Obama’s face if he dared ask him about recent extrajudicial killings in his country.
Obama is dealing with other headwinds, not least that he is a lame-duck leader in the last five months of his term. Back home, his struggles are viewed through the unforgiving lens of election-year politics. Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, tweeted that the Chinese snubbed Obama and that Duterte called him a “‘son of a whore.’ Terrible!”
For a president eager to burnish his legacy, the trip has in fact yielded progress on several fronts, most notably climate change. But the miscues illustrate how poor planning, or even plain bad luck, can undermine a president’s performance abroad.
Worse, the dispute with Duterte carries genuine risks for the United States, given the sensitive role of the Philippines as a US treaty ally that is engaged in an increasingly dangerous standoff with Beijing over maritime claims in the South China Sea. Scrapping the meeting, US officials insisted, was less an expression of Obama’s pique than a recognition that the news media would treat it as a spectacle.
“All of the focus was on those comments,” said Benjamin J Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser. “We felt that did not create a constructive environment for a bilateral meeting.”
Rhodes insisted that the alliance between the United States and the Philippines was “rock solid”; the two countries work together on a range of issues, from drug interdiction to counter-terrorism. He said it was possible that Obama might run into Duterte anyway, since the two are attending a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Vientiane.
Hillary Clinton said Obama’s decision to cancel the meeting was “exactly the right choice.” She said the president was likely to raise concerns about extrajudicial killings of alleged drug dealers, “and when the president of the Philippines insulted our president, it was appropriate in a very low-key way to say, ‘Sorry, no meeting.'”
Duterte seemed eager to defuse the situation. In a statement, he said he regretted that his comments “came across as a personal attack on the US president.”
He said he had overreacted to reports that said Obama planned to lecture him in their meeting about his unorthodox methods in combating the drug trade.
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