Foreign policy interrupting Obama’s big domestic agenda

International crises are diverting President Obama’s attention from his wide-ranging domestic agenda at a crucial moment.

On Tuesday, a day after pushing his healthcare overhaul in Chicago, the president stood in the Rose Garden of the White House with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and fielded questions about North Korea’s nuclear threat as well as the massive, bloody rallies in Iran following that country’s questionable presidential election.

Republicans on Capitol Hill assailed Obama on all fronts — wasted stimulus spending, the price tag of his healthcare plan and what they say was his damaging hesitation in addressing the tumultuous events in Iran.

It was international incidents that drove Washington’s political conversation.

The GOP seized on Obama’s warning against “meddling” in the Iranian elections. Republicans criticized the president’s “silence” on the Iranian unrest over the weekend, and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) introduced a resolution Tuesday supporting the Iranian protesters.

“While I appreciate President Obama’s comments yesterday at the White House that he was ‘troubled by the violence,’ and his belief that the voices of the Iranian people should be ‘heard and respected,’ it seems by my lights that this administration has yet to express the unqualified support of the American people for those who are courageously taking to the streets for free elections and for democracy in Iran,” Pence said.

Obama said he was “deeply concerned” about the street scenes but added, “It’s not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling — the U.S. president meddling in Iranian elections.

“What I will repeat and what I said yesterday is that when I see violence directed at peaceful protestors, when I see peaceful dissent being suppressed, wherever that takes place, it is of concern to me and it’s of concern to the American people. That is not how governments should interact with their people.”

Obama took the Iran question after joining Lee in opposing a nuclear North Korea.

North Korea said last week that it construed the passage of new United Nations Security Council sanctions against it as an act of war. There are reports that Pyongyang is preparing to undertake a third nuclear weapon test.

Despite Pyongyang’s refusal to bend in the face of new U.N. sanctions, the president said he and Lee “reiterated our shared commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Obama promised to “pursue a sustained and robust effort to implement this [U.N.] resolution together with our international partners,” in part to ensure that North Korea is never recognized as a nuclear power.

“Given their past behavior, given the belligerent manner in which they are constantly threatening their neighbors, I don’t think there’s any question that that would be a destabilizing situation that would be a profound threat to not only the United States’ security but world security,” the president said.

Obama argued that North Korea “has a track record of proliferation that makes it unacceptable for them to be accepted as a nuclear power … They have not shown in the past any restraint in terms of exporting weapons to not only state actors but also non-state actors.”

Despite agreeing with Lee about obstructing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Obama also made it clear that a free trade agreement with South Korea is not a priority of his administration.

Obama did not mention the South Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in his opening remarks. Lee said he and Obama discussed it “and welcomed the initiation of working-level consultations to make progress on the issues surrounding the ... FTA and agreed to make joint efforts to chart our way forward on the agreement.”

Obama demurred, saying, “Once we have resolved some of the substantive issues, then there’s going to be the issue of political timing and when that should be presented to Congress.”

Obama said he was “committed to moving forward on a path that will increase commercial ties that are very strong between our two countries,” but added that, when it comes to pushing Congress, he does not want to put “the cart before the horse.”