President Barack Obama tangoed. Donald Trump tweeted.
That about sums it up—not just the predictable pundit pile-on, but Obama’s and Trump’s radically different postures to the world, and the world’s toward them, forced into focus by a week of reopening in Cuba and terrorism in Brussels.
Trump is playing the part of angry isolationist. Obama’s the guy doing the wave at the baseball game with Raúl Castro. Trump called for the borders to be closed. Obama got in his plane Tuesday night and flew to his second big foreign stop in a week, taking him further away from Washington than he was when the bombs blew up in Belgium.
People around the world don’t seem to want Trump’s approach, but a lot of people inside America—at least among Republican primary voters—do.
And one of the few areas of consistent agreement among Republican presidential candidates was Obama’s failure to project strength in foreign policy: “Under this administration, we are inconsistent and indecisive,” declared Jeb Bush. “We definitely no longer inspire fear in our enemies.”
Until this week, though, “the Obama-Clinton foreign policy” was mainly a Republican talking point. But in her big counterterrorism speech Wednesday at Stanford University and her comments Thursday in Los Angeles about not giving into fear, Hillary Clinton made it clear she was on Obama’s side, despite her overall more hawkish, interventionist tendencies.
This isn’t the traditional Democratic versus Republican foreign policy philosophy divide. Trump’s isolationism is more in line with Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders, and Obama and Clinton are more in line with John Kasich, despite all their many specific differences involved. This is a split between an America that’s actively part of an integrated world, and an America that sees pulling back defensively as its best path to safety and strength.
If you paid attention to Obama at the baseball game and on the dance floor, you were doing exactly what he wanted—especially if you’re a Cuban or an Argentinian that he was trying to reach out to, but Americans too. This isn’t a mistake.
Obama goes ahead with those sort of soft diplomacy, personal star power events while knowing how they’ll look to the chattering classes and the people who hate him anyway. Knowing that the usual suspects are going to object only encourages him to go ahead as planned, even when his instincts fail him, like his initially nonchalant response to the Paris attacks in November.
Obama said again in his press conference in Buenos Aires on Wednesday that he considers fighting ISIS his top priority, but said he doesn’t believe it is or has to be at the expense of everything else.
“The whole premise of terrorism is to try to disrupt people’s ordinary lives, scare people and divide us, so the president made the conscious decision to complete what he set out to do on this historic visit, while continuing to do what’s necessary to protect the American people,” said deputy White House press secretary Jennifer Freidman, who’s traveling with Obama. “This isn’t a question of either/or. The president has done both.”
Trump knows a lot less about foreign policy, but what he’s doing seems just as deliberate. Many Republicans’ image of Obama as the feckless weakling, perfectly captured in their minds by Castro holding his limp wrist at the end of their press conference on Monday, is a big part of the anger that Trump has tapped into to become his party’s frontrunner.
Trump’s campaign manager and press secretary didn’t respond to multiple requests for comments for the candidate to clarify or explain his thinking.
But while Obama always insists he’s taking the long view unshaped by the news cycle, Trump has mastered controlling the news cycle by tweeting things like, “Pres. Obama should leave the baseball game in Cuba immediately & get home to Washington—where a #POTUS, under a serious emergency belongs!” while Obama was sitting there at Estadio Latino Americano, watching the Tampa Bay Rays score on the Cuban national team.
“It’s a silly debate to have to charge the president with being capricious and not serious by attending a baseball game and tangoing,” countered Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state in the George W. Bush administration. “He was also doing his job by making the first presidential visit in more than 80 years. Baseball is that bridge.”
Obama’s tango at the state dinner in Buenos Aires on Tuesday night, according to a person familiar, was neither planned nor practiced for. But Obama didn’t really resist, either. He declined to speak publicly about conversations he’s having with national security officials about the Brussels attack and the Iraqi army’s assault on Mosul. Instead, White House staffers assured pool reporters that the president is being updated while traveling.
Indeed, Obama called the Belgian prime minister from Havana. He and national security adviser Susan Rice spoke to homeland security and counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco again on Thursday before heading out for a bit of family tourism in Bariloche.
The White House contends that every meeting and statement happened the same way from the road as it would have if Obama had been sitting in the Oval Office all day.
“Whenever he travels, he is prepared to do exactly what he would do at home, including having regular access to his national security team,” Friedman said.
Obama keeps saying he’s offered Belgium all the assistance it needs, and will continue to.
Trump’s taken a different approach.
“N.A.T.O. is obsolete and must be changed to additionally focus on terrorism as well as some of the things it is currently focused on!” Trump tweeted Thursday morning.
Then another: “We pay a disproportionate share of the cost of N.A.T.O. Why? It is time to renegotiate, and the time is now!”
Fair to say this is not an accurate predictor of the message Obama will carry to Warsaw when he heads there for the NATO Summit in July.
Burns doesn’t agree with all of Obama’s foreign policy. But he agrees with Obama having one.
Trump, said Burns, “has exhibited in all the debates, very shallow grasp of international politics, number one.”
“Number two, from what we can discern, he is quite an isolationist,” Burns said. “He’s questioning the most important alliance we have in the world. He questioned it the day before the attacks in The Washington Post editorial board meeting. And those attacks showed us how important it is.”
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