A ques­tion of tem­per­a­ment

Our view: Pres­i­dent Obama’s re­sponses to crises both large and small dur­ing his re­cent Asia trip re­flect the at­tributes needed by a com­man­der in chief

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

For a U.S. pres­i­dent, tem­per­a­ment is des­tiny, and nowhere was that more ev­i­dent than dur­ing Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s trip to Asia last week. Con­fronted with a se­ries of un­fore­seen glitches, diplo­matic mishaps and po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous mil­i­tary provo­ca­tions, the pres­i­dent kept his cool. We couldn’t help but com­pare Mr. Obama’s grace un­der pres­sure to how GOP pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Don­ald Trump might have re­acted un­der sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances.

Start with the mi­nor snafu that greeted the ar­rival of Mr. Obama’s plane at the air­port in Hangzhou, China, for a Group of 20 sum­mit meet­ing. For rea­sons some­what in dis­pute, the por­ta­ble stair­case the U.S. had pro­vided for the pres­i­dent to use when de­plan­ing wasn’t in place for his ar­rival. Mr. Obama found him­self stuck on his plane for sev­eral minutes un­til he fi­nally de­cided to exit the air­craft via a lit­tle-used hatch.

How would Mr. Trump have re­acted? “I’ve got to tell you, if that were me, I would say, ‘You know what, folks, I re­spect you a lot but close the doors, let’s get out of here,’” he told a group of la­bor lead­ers in Ohio on Mon­day. “It’s a sign of such dis­re­spect,” Mr. Trump com­plained, “they won’t even give him stairs, proper stairs to get out of the air­plane. You see that? They have pic­tures of other lead­ers who are ... com­ing down with a beau­ti­ful red car­pet. And Obama is com­ing down a metal stair­case.”

Mr. Obama, by con­trast, brushed off the in­ci­dent as a mi­nor mis­un­der­stand­ing; he and Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping had big­ger things to dis­cuss, for ex­am­ple im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Paris cli­mate ac­cord.

Nor did Mr. Obama pick up his mar­bles and go home af­ter Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte, who was elected in June, used a coarse ep­i­thet to de­scribe Mr. Obama’s mother and then threat­ened to hu­mil­i­ate the U.S. pres­i­dent if Mr. Obama brought up Mr. Duterte’s ap­palling record of hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions against sus­pected drug of­fend­ers, in­clud­ing some 2,400 ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings in the three months since he took of­fice.

Rather than re­spond di­rectly to the in­sult, Mr. Obama mildly sug­gested that Mr. Duterte was a “col­or­ful char­ac­ter” and went on to ques­tion whether the G-20 sum­mit was re­ally “a time where we can have some con­struc­tive, pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions.” Afew hours later his aides can­celed the meet­ing. The next day a chas­tened Mr. Duterte ap­peared to have got­ten the mes­sage: “We ... re­gret [the re­marks] came across as a per­sonal at­tack on the U.S. pres­i­dent,” his of­fice said in a state­ment is­sued Tues­day.

We doubt things would have ended well un­der a Pres­i­dent Trump. He and Mr. Duterte are both bul­lies ac­cus­tomed to get­ting their own way while daring any­one to ques­tion them. Mr. Obama rec­og­nized the folly of en­gag­ing in a point­less war of words with some­one as ob­vi­ously un­hinged as Mr. Duterte, and doubt­less many world lead­ers would have the same reaction to a Pres­i­dent Trump.

But when tough­ness re­ally counts, Mr. Obama showed that he could hold his ground. He met with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin on the side­lines of G-20 but re­fused to sug­ar­coat re­la­tions Pres­i­dent Barack Obama de­scends a lit­tle-used stair­case in the belly of Air Force One af­ter arriving in China. be­tween the two coun­tries by sign­ing a Syr­ian cease-fire ac­cord pro­posed by Moscow that would have al­lowed the con­tin­ued bomb­ing civil­ians in Aleppo and other cities.

Mr. Obama didn’t say Mr. Putin was act­ing in bad faith (though he was) or that Rus­sia’s sup­port of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad was pro­long­ing a war that has al­ready killed more than 400,000 peo­ple and driven some 6 mil­lion from their homes (though it is). In­stead, Mr. Obama vowed to keep press­ing Rus­sia on the is­sue. Would Mr. Trump have done the same, or would he have let his open ad­mi­ra­tion for Mr. Putin get in the way of the best in­ter­ests of the Syr­ian (and Amer­i­can) peo­ple?

And then there was the North Korean missile launch timed to co­in­cide with the G-20 meet­ing. Mr. Obama’s reaction was en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate: an im­me­di­ate de­nun­ci­a­tion of the test as a vi­o­la­tion of U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tions and a call for even tougher global sanc­tions against Py­ongyang. It was the most con­se­quen­tial de­ci­sion the pres­i­dent made dur­ing a trip in which Mr. Trump’s strong­man per­sona would only have in­flamed ten­sions.

Would a Pres­i­dent Hil­lary Clinton have nav­i­gated that set of chal­lenges as deftly as Mr. Obama? We can’t say for certain, but af­ter decades of ex­pe­ri­ence in for­eign re­la­tions, in­clud­ing four years as sec­re­tary of state, we can say that she un­der­stands the need for pro­por­tional, mea­sured re­sponses to provo­ca­tion. Mr. Trump, whose busi­ness ca­reer rests on bom­bast and whose po­lit­i­cal rise was fu­eled by tough-guy rhetoric, clearly does not.

In diplo­macy, words have con­se­quences, and the words of the pres­i­dent must be pre­cisely cal­i­brated to the na­tional in­ter­est. Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to un­der­stand that a cool tem­per­a­ment and an abil­ity to re­spond ap­pro­pri­ately are among the most im­por­tant qual­i­ties a U.S. pres­i­dent can have. In­stead, he’s a loose can­non on the ship of state, and that is what makes him so spec­tac­u­larly un­suited to serve as com­man­der in chief.


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