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Three Potential Missteps Awaiting Obama in Asia

Will president resist a non-apology apology in Hiroshima?

White House officials have insisted that President Barack Obama will not apologize for the World War II atomic bombings during his visit to Hiroshima. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
White House officials have insisted that President Barack Obama will not apologize for the World War II atomic bombings during his visit to Hiroshima. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

President Barack Obama will be looking to further shape his legacy during a week long trek across Asia that will highlight a massive trade deal and military cooperation with allies.  

But as Obama presses the region’s leaders to formalize a trade pact he wants as a cornerstone of his legacy and travels to a city where nearly 200,000 people were killed by an American nuclear bomb, the swing is rife with potential pitfalls.  

And with congressional support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership tenuous at best, much is at stake for the president. Here are three possible mistakes Obama should avoid during his upcoming trip to Vietnam and Japan  from May 21 to 28.  

TPP tipping point A major subject at the G7 summit in Japan will be the massive trade pact the Obama administration struck with Pacific Rim countries. Obama is eager to obtain congressional approval before he leaves office, but so far, Republican leaders are not showing urgency.  

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said he wants to put off consideration of the trade deal  until a new president is sworn in. But the likely Republican and Democratic presidential nominees, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, aren’t keen on the pact.  

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That leaves open the possibility that McConnell could have a change of heart. And White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters this month that talks with lawmakers were “ongoing.” And, notably, White House officials are talking to McConnell, Earnest said.  

Washington isn’t the only place where the trade pact is stalled .  

Michael Green, a former senior director for Asia policy at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, says the trip is “important for TPP.” But he also expects “nothing will happen.” That’s because Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “has put TPP off the table and has decided not to go ahead with a Diet vote to ratify.”  

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Obama must walk a tightrope in Japan by selling the agreement to lawmakers and citizens there, while not appearing to put U.S. jobs and economic growth at risk . “The president can get this done in a lame-duck session, but it’s going to take some effort,” Green said. “And I think people in Japan will be looking to see what the president’s plan is to try to get this through in the lame-duck session, which will be important because all the major candidates now running are at least nominally opposed to the deal.”  

Pivot to Asia The Obama administration made its “pivot to Asia” a central component of its foreign policy. But things haven’t gone as smoothly as hoped. Obama should be mindful of the appearance that he is pivoting away from the region in his final months.  

The “pivot” was about increasing America’s military footprint in the region, as well as seeking economic cooperation and countering China. Besides the massive trade deal, the outreach included forging closer ties with countries like Vietnam and having 60 percent of overseas Air Force and Navy assets deployed to the region by 2020.  

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Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain of Arizona and other hawks have warned that the pivot has been hollow. McCain at one point said America’s friends in the region often tell him that Washington’s “‘failings … undermine the confidence that your friends still have in you.’ And do you know what? I couldn’t disagree.”  

Obama might choose to avoid further criticism by pushing to lift restrictions on arms sales to Vietnam, experts say.  

“If you go around talking to people across the river and at Foggy Bottom, there are sort of two streams of thought on this,” said Murray Hiebert, deputy director and senior fellow of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  

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“One is, because [U.S.-Vietnam] relations have improved so dramatically, that it would be another symbol of normalization if the United States would move and lift the ban entirely,” Hiebert said. “There are others … in the human-rights community who really don’t want the ban lifted.”  

Hiebert is betting Obama and Vietnamese leaders “talk about it, but to avoid some of the emotion that might happen here, and also to create a lot of anxiety in China.”  

Non-apology apology? Perhaps the biggest potential pothole for Obama is Hiroshima. He will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit one of the targets of U.S. atomic bomb attacks during World War II.  

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There was speculation Obama might apologize for the nuclear blast that killed more than 192,000 people, including 80,000 from the explosion itself. But Earnest told reporters Obama does not think Japan deserves an official apology.  

“He will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, said in a Medium post. “Instead, he will offer a forward-looking vision focused on our shared future.”  

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But many of Obama’s critics have called his foreign policy a seven-year (and counting) “apology tour,” and experts expect that talk will continue no matter what he says in Hiroshima.  

“President Obama’s visit is not an apology tour — although critics will attempt to mischaracterize it that way,” said Mireya Solis of the Brookings Institution. “The president is not going to Hiroshima to apologize, nor do the people of Hiroshima want or expect him to do so. This visit is about the present and the future.”  

The White House has been firm Obama won’t say the United States is sorry. Still, he is very much into acknowledging America’s mistakes. He’s even bigger into being the first president to do things. Will Obama be able to resist a non-apology apology in Hiroshima?  

Contact Bennett at Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.

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