Obama In South America: Nitpicking, Bad Optics, Or A Really Bad Idea?

Obama is visiting Brazil and Chile while American fighting men join the coalition against Libya.

Without fail, I have been a consistent critic of those who have attacked President Obama for his leisure time activities, whether it’s been golfing or attending a Washington Nationals game. James Joyner and Steven Taylor have been similarly dismissive of these meme . However, I find myself reacting quite differently to this story:

RIO DE JANEIRO — Immersing himself in Brazil’s poverty and pride, President Barack Obama on Sunday held up the South American nation as a model of democratic change in a time of uprisings and crackdowns across the Arab world and yet another war front for the United States.

From Rio’s glamorous beaches to a notorious slum to an elegant theater, Obama glimpsed the Rio’s cultural extremes, offering the kind of personal engagement that can pay political dividends for years. Less than one day after announcing U.S. military strikes against Libya’s government, Obama made time to kick a soccer ball around with kids in a shantytown.

The competing stories of Obama’s itinerary — a war front in Africa, an economic commitment to South America — divided his time in incongruous ways. By morning, he spoke with his security team about the international assault against Moammar Khadafy’s defenses; by night, he was to stand atop a mountain and admire Rio’s world-famous statue of Jesus.

Meanwhile, U.S. warplanes pounded faraway Libya.

It was all summed up by one image: Obama adeptly juggling a soccer ball as his aides helped him juggle his agenda.

That’s not to say, of course, that the President has neglected Libya, or that he isn’t being kept informed of what’s going on there, as his aides have struggled to make clear over the past 48 hours:

Still, his team was eager to portray him as fully engaged in Libyan decision-making, even as the photographs and television images showed him touring a Rio de Janeiro shantytown and gazing with his family at Christ the Redeemer, the massive Art Deco mountaintop statue that has come to symbolize Rio.

National security adviser Tom Donilon gave practically an hour-by-hour account of meetings, briefings and calls that Obama led or participated in, including a call to King Abdullah of Jordan on Sunday.

“The president has been personally and deeply involved in this every day,”

All of this is true, of course. Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, the President can be kept abreast of international developments and issue orders from anywhere in the world at any time of day. However, I find myself agreeing with Jazz Shaw when he notes that there’s something about this that just isn’t right:

War is a different matter, though, and committing our troops to any engagement in hostile territory is one of the most sober and serious responsibilities faced by any president. Yes, he can be briefed and issue orders from afar through the miracles of modern technology, but there’s more to it than that. Being in the war room with the joint chiefs is the proper place for him on the day he launches a war, not clinking glasses of champagne with foreign dignitaries. Breaking news arrives there first and in such a critical situation there really is no substitute for being there with the Joint Chiefs where he can look them in the eye, take the measure of what they are saying, receive updates in real time and make the best decisions possible.

Small wonder that even Chuck Todd of MSNBC chose this weekend to refer to the split-screen presidency.

Running the launch of a war via sporadic conference calls from the Southern hemisphere is both literally and symbolically “phoning it in,” and at the worst possible time. Further, it’s simply a poor message to send to the troops. As submarine commanders give the order to turn the keys and let the tomahawks fly, as pilots receive the order to unleash missiles at ground based installations where lives will most surely be lost, seeing that your absolute, highest level commander was kicking a ball around with some kids in an ally in Rio can’t inspire confidence.

Not just that, but it’s worth noting that this is the first major military action of Obama’s Presidency that is wholly his own. Afghanistan still goes on, of course, but that’s a continuation of another President’s war. Libya is, for better or worse, Obama’s baby and the picture of him nob-nobbing in the Southern Hemisphere while the nation slides into another military conflict with unclear goals and an unclear endgame just doesn’t look right.

I’m aware that there are plenty of arguments for why this trip had to go forward. Brazil is a growing power in South America, as is Chile, and they’re both being courted by China and Japan. It’s important that we have good relations with them. However, the President twice canceled a trip to Indonesia and Australia last year, once to stay in Washington to lobby for passage of the Affordable Care Act and once due to the Gulf Oil Spill. The President ultimately didn’t end up going on that trip until November, after the mid-term elections. Surely our friends in Brazil and Chile would have understood that launching a military action requires the President’s presence in Washington, with his commanders.

Perhaps I’m just nitpicking, but I don’t think I am. This isn’t just a golf outing on a Sunday. It’s a President who’s out of the country, and largely unavailable to the press except at scripted events where questions are either limited or not allowed at all, at a time when we’re at war. That doesn’t strike me as something a President ought to be doing.

 

FILED UNDER: Africa, Barack Obama, Latin America, Politicians, US Politics, World Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. PD Shaw says:

    My understanding is the newspapers in Rio are finding the juxtaposition odd as well, so I don’t think it’s just you.

  2. mantis says:

    Without fail, I have been a consistent critic of those who have attacked President Obama for his leisure time activities

    This isn’t just a golf outing on a Sunday.

    No, it’s a diplomatic trip. In other words: work. I see you’ve joined your fellow travelers on the right have in pretending (or at least implying) the trip to Brazil is a vacation. It’s not.

  3. Conrad says:

    In some ways it has seemed like a lucky break to Obama that the Libyan crisis coincided with this trip. Libya is not Obama’s priority, whereas neocons would have loved the idea of America getting ahold of Libya. But this time it’s more complex, with many other countries interested in the outcome. Some European countries have gone into paranoid mode for example.

    For once let’s imagine that Obama’s public intentions are true regarding Libya and that he isn’t going to go Bush-like regarding it anyways.

    Libya is a very sensitive issue to Russia, China and European countries. America cannot treat Libya like Iraq and get away with it. So there’s no further strategy to it. There’s nothing to sell to Congress.

  4. john personna says:

    Excellent optics, while the French and British take leadership in Libya.

  5. Tano says:

    Here is a radical concept. Instead of considering “optics”, why not assess the substance of the issue? Obama is engaged in an important trade and diplomatic mission. While there he is fully in touch with all the levers of power, and the people that he needs in order to deal with the Libya situation. What is the real problem? There isn’t any.

    I think “nitpicking” is too kind a word. This is not making a big thing out of a small thing. It is making something out of nothing.

  6. mantis says:

    Obama is engaged in an important trade and diplomatic mission.

    No, it’s a “leisure activity” akin to golfing or a baseball game.

  7. ponce says:

    “Obama is visiting Brazil and Chile while American fighting men join the coalition against Libya. ”

    Um, the only way any “American fighting men” are going to get injured in Libya is if they injure each other.

    Attacking with bombs and cruise missiles is an act of cowardice, not one of bravery….it is fitting Obama is out of the country.

  8. mantis says:

    Attacking with bombs and cruise missiles is an act of cowardice, not one of bravery

    I know some “cowardly” bomber pilots who’d like to contest that assertion.

  9. just me says:

    Honestly-the presidency is the one job where you truly don’t get to take a vacation and the job travels with you-especially in the age of modern media and communication.

    I think the problem is often the images-kind of hard to think the president is on top of Libya or cares about the events in Japan when he is shown having a grand old time in south america.

    I mostly give presidents a pass on travel, vacations and the like-its a tough job and it never leaves them, but I do think during times of crisis a president might need to consider more often how the images the media will be posting and the stories they will be writing will look under the microscope in light of the crisis.

  10. Boyd says:

    Attacking with bombs and cruise missiles is an act of cowardice, not one of bravery…

    Having known many fine men who fought for the United States using bombs and cruise missiles, I take deep offense to your claim, ponce.

  11. george says:

    Here is a radical concept. Instead of considering “optics”, why not assess the substance of the issue? Obama is engaged in an important trade and diplomatic mission. While there he is fully in touch with all the levers of power, and the people that he needs in order to deal with the Libya situation. What is the real problem? There isn’t any.

    Definitely true.

    The fun part will be when down the road there’s a Republican president, and the Democrats will be the ones complaining about optics, while the Republicans will be saying it doesn’t matter.

  12. G.A.Phillips says:

    Attacking with bombs and cruise missiles is an act of cowardice, not one of bravery….it is fitting Obama is out of the country.

    War 101, kill the enemy before he gets a chance to kill you.

    Cowardice? Dude maybe there is some way we can arrange for you to bomb belt duel each of the islamic true believers……

    I know, maybe Qaddafi will duel you with swords…..why don’t you go over there and slap him with your glove…..

    Cowardice is talking poop about the people who have sworn to give their lives to protect your sorry behind so you can backstab them on a blog from your basement.

    Unbelievable!!!!!

  13. John Peabody says:

    I agree solidly with Doug. I thought of the cancelled Asian trips earlier this weekend. Sure, every trip from the US President is important. But any reason to cancel the current trip (in this case, imminent military action) was not important enough, apparently. A very poor message to send to the military.

    We’ve done this before. The 1991 “Air war phase’ in Iraq seemed to be all fun and games, right up to the point where a plane was lost and a pilot killed. Anyone who thinks that the current action will be free of loss or injury is not being realistic. The B-2 bombers sortie from Missouri, for goodness’ sake. They have to refuel (itself a dangerous task for tanker and bomber alike) several times before returning safely.

    This is a major military involvement, and it seems to have been just snuck in under the wire.

  14. Herb says:

    “It’s a President who’s out of the country, and largely unavailable to the press except at scripted events where questions are either limited or not allowed at all, at a time when we’re at war. ”

    We’ve been “at war” since Sept 11, 2001. If this logic holds up, the president would never leave the White House.

    Don’t worry. It’s just optics. The US can chew gum and walk at the same time.

  15. ponce says:

    “War 101, kill the enemy before he gets a chance to kill you. ”

    The hapless Libyans our “heroes” slaughtered this weekend were no more Americas enemies than the Libyan rebels are.

    Our attack is no better than the Lockerbie bombing.

  16. mantis says:

    Our attack is no better than the Lockerbie bombing.

    So striking military targets is the same as bombing a commercial airliner? Ponce, you’re a moron.

  17. ponce says:

    “So striking military targets is the same as bombing a commercial airliner? ”

    In a few days our heroic military leaders will, regretfully, announce Libyan civilians were killed in our really necessary operation, mantis.

    This morning NPR was broadcasting the funeral of a three year old Libyan girl our “heroes” dropped a bomb on yesterday.

    So yes, just like that Iranian airliner full of civilians our “heroes” shot down while supporting Saddam Hussein, and when they killed Gaddafi’s retarded daughter, I believer the U.S. military carried our a terrorist attack this weekend.

  18. mantis says:

    Like I said, you’re a moron.

  19. G.A.Phillips says:

    pounce I believe you give aid and comfort to our enemies, mostly the terrorist ones.

  20. Herb says:

    “I believer the U.S. military carried our a terrorist attack this weekend.”

    Really? You might want to bone up on what exactly constitutes terrorism then….

  21. ponce says:

    “You might want to bone up on what exactly constitutes terrorism then….”

    I’d say killing civilians fits the definition of terorism, nicely, herb.

    Especially seeing as ou military leaders admitted they were trying to terrorize Gaddafi’s forces.

  22. Ben Wolf says:

    Terrorism is the use of violence to effect political change, Herb. Sound familiar?

    And yes every civilian, soldier and mecenary killed is a murder. That’s all war is. State sanctioned murder.

  23. mantis says:

    I’d say killing civilians fits the definition of terorism, nicely, herb.

    So every army that has fought a war, anywhere, throughout history, is a terrorist organization? Keep digging.

  24. Ben Wolf says:

    Yes, Mantis. Any aggressive war is an act of terrorism.

  25. Herb says:

    “I’d say killing civilians fits the definition of terorism”

    No, killing civilians is killing civilians. Terrorism has a very specific meaning that may not even include killing.

  26. mantis says:

    Yes, Mantis. Any aggressive war is an act of terrorism.

    If war = terrorism, as you assert, why bother even having the term “terrorism?” Why not just call it war?

  27. ponce says:

    “So every army that has fought a war, anywhere, throughout history, is a terrorist organization?”

    Killing civilians when you can’t even articulate a reason why you did it certainly fits the bill, mantis.

    Reminds me of Michael Vick whipping a winning dog to prolong a dog fight.

  28. mantis says:

    Killing civilians when you can’t even articulate a reason why you did it certainly fits the bill, mantis.

    Ok, but that’s not at all the same thing. You said this:

    I’d say killing civilians fits the definition of terorism, nicely, herb.

    Killing civilians = terrorism. So which is it? Is it only terrorism if you can’t think of a “reason?” I’ve got something to tell you. Terrorists have reasons for killing civilians.

  29. mantis says:

    Reminds me of Michael Vick whipping a winning dog to prolong a dog fight.

    I’m pretty sure they’re aiming at the winning dog in this particular fight, which would be the pro-Qaddafi forces, but they’re probably not doing it to prolong the fight, though that may be what crippling the dominant force accomplishes.

    I’m not at all convinced that military action in Libya is a good idea, but I do recognize it’s being done with the goal of stopping the massacre of Libyan citizens. You’re claiming it’s being done to kill those citizens. You’re wrong. Or do you not know that terrorists intend to kill citizens?

  30. john personna says:

    Ponce is making a silly argument, but the right counter-argument is to play body count with him.

    Describing a “massacre”, locals told Al Jazeera that over 200 civilians have been killed in Benghazi over the weekend so far. Doctors tell the BBC that over 900 people have been injured.

    I believe Qaddafi is claiming 64 civilian deaths as a result of UN strikes.

  31. ponce says:

    “Or do you not know that terrorists intend to kill citizens?”

    I don’t believe anyone in the administration has claimed this set of attacks has any anti-terrorist justification.

    I don’t believe if pressed, that anyone from Obama down to the slack-jawed yokels dropping the bombs could articulate a reason for why they’re doing it.

  32. André Kenji says:

    I think that everyone is losing the point here. Any foreign leader that goes to Brazil usually goes to two places: Brasilia, where the political power is located, and São Paulo, where the economical power is located. Brazil has a very dispersed political system, so, the Congress leaders are very powerful. São Paulo is fair more important to the Brazilian economy than New York is to the US. Every major industrial leader is located there, as well the agricultural business people.

    So, going to Rio de Janeiro in a two day trip makes no sense if you want to do business. What Obama wanted was a friendly audience and to do some tourism(In Rio they throw parties to everything). Even Mark Sanford, that in fact wanted to see his Argentinean mistress, visited some businessmen in São Paulo when he went here.

    Compare Obama´s itinerary to Bush´s itinerary in Brazil. Frankly, this visit had very few objectives, economically and politically speaking.

  33. mantis says:

    I don’t believe anyone in the administration has claimed this set of attacks has any anti-terrorist justification.

    What does that have to do with anything we were discussing?

    I don’t believe if pressed, that anyone from Obama down to the slack-jawed yokels dropping the bombs could articulate a reason for why they’re doing it.

    They already have. You have ceased making any sense.

  34. ponce says:

    “You have ceased making any sense.”

    Irony meter pegged.

  35. anjin-san says:

    Well, Obama could have done what George would have done. Stay in the U.S. and have a photo op with some troops. Leadership, conservative style.

  36. Nightrider says:

    Nitpick. We’ve had soldiers at much more risk for 9 straight years in Afghanistan. The Medicare situation is far, far more meaningful a crisis than Libya.

  37. Nightrider says:

    >>>>>I think that everyone is losing the point here. Any foreign leader that goes to Brazil usually goes to two places: Brasilia, where the political power is located, and São Paulo, where the economical power is located.<<<<<

    Brasilia is a backwater. And the few business people who actually get the chance to meet with Obama will surely make the short trip to Rio to have that chance. The important part of the visit is that most Brazilians see him there on TV, and he meets with their new President and she gets to be seen with him. That could be done in Rio just as well as São Paulo.

  38. André Kenji says:

    “And the few business people who actually get the chance to meet with Obama will surely make the short trip to Rio to have that chance. ”

    It´s not so simple, because there is a powerful association of businessmen located in São Paulo(FIESP). Besides that, he didn´t visit any big business. He just spoke at the TV, like any celebrity does.