Obama shifts to foreign policy

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President Obama is shifting his focus to foreign policy over the next two months, beginning Friday when he meets with the King of Jordan in California.

The meeting at the Sunnylands estate with King Abdullah II is part of a foreign policy blitz expected to dominate the president’s agenda.

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His packed schedule includes trips to the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, and signals a break from the beginning of the year, which focused more on domestic policy. Obama will travel to nine countries by the end of April.

Obama will visit one key Middle East ally in Saudi Arabia, and host the leader of another when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the White House in March.

The president will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the leaders of Canada and Mexico, and push his own trade agenda during a trip to Asia.

In between, he’ll also have a high-profile visit with Pope Francis.

The meetings come after two months in which Obama has sought to reinvigorate his second term with a focus on economic equality and immigration. But with Congress increasingly likely to put immigration on the shelf, Obama’s legislative agenda looks as difficult as ever to progress.

Presidents in their second terms frequently turn to foreign policy as they see their influence wane at home. While there’s been no sign that Obama is giving up on immigration or other issues, the flurry of activity could be precursor of things to come.

Obama and Abdullah are expected to discuss deepening violence in Syria, where the president has acknowledged U.S. policy if failing. The faltering peace process has created problems for Jordan, as hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled across its border.

Obama pledged $200 million in additional humanitarian aid last year to help Jordan with the influx of refugees. The White House hasn’t indicated whether the president will commit to doing more on Friday.

After a weekend in California of playing golf and binge-watching HBO dramas, Obama travels to Mexico on Tuesday for a trade summit with Mexican President Pena Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.


It will be the first meeting of the North American leaders since the new Mexican president assumed office in late 2012, and comes as opponents of the administration’s trade policies are drawing parallels to the Clinton-era (NAFTA with Mexico and Canada.

The three leaders will celebrate the 20th anniversary of that deal, but the president may give oxygen to a growing a domestic headache: the split between the White House and congressional Democrats on fast-track trade authority, something that would make it easier for Obama to complete more trade deals.

In early March, Obama will host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House.

The administration will look to soothe concerns over the interim nuclear deal with Iran, which the Israeli leader has blasted as a “historic mistake.” Obama and Netanyahu also plan to discuss “ways to advance peace with [the] Palestinians,” according to a tweet from the Israeli embassy.

Later that month, the president will make a five-country swing through Europe and the Middle East that includes stops in the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, the Vatican, and Saudi Arabia.

Attention during that trip will likely focus on Obama’s first meeting with Pope Francis, the popular new leader of the Catholic Church. The president heralded Francis as a “soulful messenger of peace and justice” in an interview with MNSBC late last year, and has cited the pope’s criticism of growing income inequality in arguing for his economic policy priorities.

But the trip to Saudi Arabia may have the heaviest foreign policy consequences. Tensions between the U.S. and its Middle Eastern ally have been strained over the nuclear deal with Iran — the main Saudi rival in the region. The Saudis have also voiced their disapproval with the administration’s Egypt policy — and especially a move to withhold part of the $1.5 billion in annual military aid the U.S. sends to the country — as well as concern over Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s continued grip on power.

Rounding out the president’s travel schedule will be an April trip to Asia that includes stops in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. 

White House press secretary described the trip as part of Obama’s “ongoing commitment to increase U.S. diplomatic, economic and security engagement with countries in the Asia-Pacific region,” but it is viewed largely as a make-up for the president’s decision to scrap a trip during the government shutdown last year.

Foreign policy experts have warned the cancellation may have been seen as a slight among allies in the region, and could undermine Obama’s professed intention to “pivot” to Asia.

While there, the president is expected to push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal would open up free trade among a dozen Pacific nations. Obama will also discuss efforts to promote the denuclearization of North Korea with leaders in the region.

 

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