In the past year, Barack Obama has twice tried to pivot his focus from the Middle East quagmire and the Islamic terrorism that has fomented there to relationships that he, as an American president scheduled to exit the White House in January, still hopes to build in other parts of the world.
Both times, an event beyond his control – one confirmed as an act of terrorism, the other deemed a possible one — forced him to keep pivoting toward a 360-degree turn, landing him right back where he started.
In March, his historic visit to Cuba and ensuing trip to Argentina were intended as potential cornerstones of a push to reinvigorate ties between Latin America and el norte. Instead, terrorist attacks in Brussels resulted in a storm of criticism deriding his decision to take in a baseball game with Cuban President Raúl Castro and later to dance the tango under the watchful eye of Argentine President Mauricio Macri. This made for “poor optics” against the brutal Belgian backdrop, said many a self-professed political expert.
Now here we are again. A much-heralded trip to Japan, where he’s to become the first post-World War II American president to visit Hiroshima, and to Vietnam, where his rollback of a 32-year arms embargo is seen as tearing away the “last vestiges of wartime animosity,” comes on the heels of EgyptAir Flight 804’s plunge into the Mediterranean last Wednesday.
Despite the kneejerk reaction of some observers, recent reports suggest that the captain radioed in a “distress call” to say smoke was quickly filling the airliner, making terrorism less likely the cause.
But that may not matter in terms of the tragedy’s impact on Obama’s latest star turn. For, as he tries to leave behind the specter of extremism in the waning days of his presidency, the man who inherited the post-9/11 world of realpolitik continually finds himself upstaged, no matter which international good deed he seeks to add to what many already see as an exceedingly impressive legacy.