WASHINGTON - Two months ago, President Bush enthusiastically accepted an invitation to visit Singapore in September. But he abruptly changed plans, and his summit with Southeast Asian leaders is off. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is skipping an Asian meeting, too, and tossed out plans to visit Africa this week. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ mission to Latin America? Postponed.
The reason is Iraq.
“The United States is very focused on Iraq and the Middle East. We know we are not a white-heat zone . . . which is good for us. But it means we are not on top of the list,” said Heng Chee Chan, Singapore’s ambassador to the United States.
Bush had promised to attend a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - which includes several longtime U.S. allies - in Singapore in September. Chen said the summit had been postponed, not canceled.
Few doubt Iraq’s centrality in U.S. foreign policy. Failure there could damage America’s prestige for years, if not decades, and suck Iraq’s neighbors into the vortex of violence.
But the high-level U.S. attention and energy drawn away from all but a handful of other world problems is yet another cost of the Iraq war.
“Canceling a meeting here or there may not seem like a big deal, but the slights are piling up,” Asia expert Walter Lohman of the conservative Heritage Foundation wrote recently. “Unless the Bush administration can quickly get back on track, the game is over; it will fall to the next president to revitalize the U.S. commitment” to Asia.
Bush and his aides have torn up their schedules before a crucial report on progress in Iraq due Sept. 15 from Iraq top U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
Gates earlier this month postponed a visit to some of the closest U.S. allies in the Western Hemisphere - El Salvador, Colombia, Peru and Chile - to be on hand for the release of an interim Iraq report to Congress.
Rice was supposed to be en route to Ghana this week for a meeting on expanding trade and curbing poverty in Africa.
Instead, she found herself Wednesday on Capitol Hill lobbying lawmakers not to set a deadline to bring American troops back from Iraq. She addressed the Africa group by video link Thursday.
Staffing has taken a hit, too. Embassies and offices in the State Department have come to expect a cut in resources for projects other than Iraq, a senior State Department official said.
“Everybody is subject to an Iraq tax. They basically know they will give up resources for Iraq,” said the official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
When Crocker complained in late May that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad didn’t have enough highly qualified staff, the State Department’s response included sending one of its top experts on the Arab world, Robert Ford, back to Baghdad. He was pulled from Algeria, where he’d been ambassador less than a year.
With just 18 months left in office, Bush appears to have settled on a few top-flight issues - Iraq, the “war on terrorism,” North Korea and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - to shape his legacy.
Rice recently held an unpublicized, two-day retreat with her senior staff to discuss policy priorities and State Department management in the remainder of Bush’s term.
But other regions of the world also hold important potential for U.S. security and prosperity.
In Latin America, many leaders are struggling to maintain close ties with Washington despite the increasingly anti-American mood there spurred by popular anger over the war in Iraq. China has expanded its influence and trade there.
Sub-Saharan Africa, where Rice has stopped only briefly in her two and a half years as secretary of state, is by far the most pro-American region in the world, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, but it isn’t on anyone’s priority list.
Nowhere is the lack of U.S. leadership felt more keenly than in East Asia, where China’s growing economic and political power has left midsize nations traditionally sympathetic to the United States nervous about the future, critics said.
While the State Department hasn’t formally announced that Rice will skip an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in the Philippines later this month, officials said she planned to travel to the Middle East instead.
“Our commitment to the (East Asian) region is not in question,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. Rice, he said, “is secretary of state for the entire globe.”
But news media in Southeast Asia reflect a mix of disappointment and bitterness over Rice’s no-show in Manila, after her absence from the annual meeting two years ago.
“ASEAN on the back burner as Iraq, Middle East take center stage in final months of Bush presidency,” read a headline this week in Singapore’s Straits Times.
“We are disappointed that Secretary Rice will not participate in the ASEAN regional forum meetings this year,” said Matthew Daley, a former State Department official who’s the president of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council.
Rice’s deputy, John Negroponte, will take her place, Daley noted.
The United States exports more to the countries of Southeast Asia than it does to China.
Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a research center, said the administration was probably less Iraq-focused than it was in Bush’s first term, when the buildup to the invasion trumped all other issues. The president deserves credit for engaging with Europe and upgrading relations with India, Kupchan said.
“Things don’t look as good when you come to other regions,” particularly Southeast Asia and the far-reaching changes stemming from China’s rise, he said. “There doesn’t seem to be anybody who’s minding the store at the top level.”
© Copyright 2007, The McClatchy Washington Bureau