x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Washington braces for prolonged shutdown

Republicans show no signs of backing away from demands on Obama's health care laws in exchange for funding the US government.

An woman rides an upward escalator at Pentagon City Metro station during rush hour in Washington, as more than a million federal workers were thrown temporarily out of work. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
An woman rides an upward escalator at Pentagon City Metro station during rush hour in Washington, as more than a million federal workers were thrown temporarily out of work. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

NEW YORK // Barack Obama yesterday cancelled visits to the Philippines and Malaysia due to the budget standoff in Congress that led to this week’s shutdown of the federal government.

White House officials continue to evaluate whether Mr Obama will attend what was to be the cornerstone of his planned tour of Asia, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Indonesia, “based on how events develop during the course of this week”, said Caitlin Hayden, a White House spokeswoman.

Mr Obama was scheduled to meet congressional leaders at the White House to forge an agreement that would reopen the government that partially closed on Tuesday and “avoid devastating consequences to our economy”, according to a White House statement.

But Washington was bracing for a prolonged shutdown as House Republicans show no signs of backing away from demands that portions of Mr Obama’s new health-care law be repealed in exchange for funding the government.

The shutdown is adding to deteriorating perceptions among allies about US global leadership. There are new concerns that a Washington that cannot fund its own government or pay its debts will be unable to uphold either longtime commitments in the Middle East or honour new ones in Asia.

“The last few months have been particularly damaging to perceptions of American leadership, with Syria, Snowden and now the shutdown,” said Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, a global political risk consultancy. “In each of those cases you have a US that is perceived to be distracted, weak and also not living up to its values.”

The shutdown will not have immediate painful economic effects, and the deteriorating political relations with the global community also will not register with the American public, Mr Bremmer said, “which is precisely why this can get so bad from an international perspective”, given that Mr Obama is consumed with the latest crisis in his plan of “nation building at home”, brought on by increasingly polarised domestic politics.

He said US allies “question the level of commitment to them, they don’t know what America’s strategy is, what American foreign policy priorities are”.

“It makes US allies uneasy about the strength and durability of their commitments from the US.”

In particular, Mr Obama’s foreign policy decisions in the Middle East have not been perceived by regional allies to be part of a coherent strategy but a reaction to events as they unfold. The most recent example that angered Arabian Gulf allies was the last-minute decision to avert strikes on Syria and instead negotiate with Russia, an ally of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, over destroying Syria’s chemical weapons.

The lack of a clearly communicated American strategy in the Middle East and elsewhere, as well as perceptions of mismanagement, is already being felt.

The most powerful Syrian rebel militias have broken with the US-backed political opposition, leaving planned peace talks in question. Turkey is going ahead with an oil pipeline deal with Iraqi Kurds in the face of US opposition, and Brazil and Germany are imposing tough regulations on American IT companies in the wake of revelations over digital spying, Mr Bremmer said.

The new thaw in relations with Iran and renewed negotiations over its nuclear programme could also be affected if Mr Obama is perceived to be unable to handle a Congress that will likely be called upon to loosen sanctions.

“I think it makes some antagonists of the United States more willing to act in a provocative way,” Mr Bremmer said. The Obama administration has worked on a strategic rebalance of US foreign policy towards East Asia to contain the rise of China and because of the region’s growing economic importance.

But with crises in the Middle East as well as domestically, the so-called “pivot to Asia” has faltered, even as US officials insist it is still a priority.

Mr Obama’s address to the UN General Assembly last week focused almost entirely on the Middle East, with only one mention of Asia. Days later, State Department officials addressed a gathering of East Asian reporters on the sidelines of the summit.

“Obviously, the events of this week, and especially the president’s speech … have generated a lot of focus on events in the Middle East and I’m here to say, simply, that the rebalance is alive and well,” said Evan Medeiros, a senior director of East Asian affairs at the State Department..

“We can walk in Asia and chew gum in the Middle East at the same time without a problem,” he added.

But the cancellation of parts of Mr Obama’s trip later this week and doubts over whether he will also pull out of the regional economic summit, which will be attended by the Chinese president Xi Jinping, could cause US allies, and potential allies, to question America’s commitment.

This is the third Asia trip that Mr Obama has cancelled or postponed.

The US president’s foreign policy is already causing some allies to adopt hedging strategies, Mr Bremmer said, “and if Obama proceeds to cancel the rest of his trip to Asia because the domestic issues are more important, then I think you could start to see those knock-on effects in Asia more quickly” .