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Joel Brinkley: Shutdown is damaging U.S. reputation abroad


By Joel Brinkley

The dire effects of the government shutdown reach far beyond the hundreds of thousands of furloughed government workers -- along with all the stores, restaurants and other businesses that rely on them as customers.

The shutdown is damaging America's foreign policy in ways that may not be recoverable. The effects are not as immediately apparent today as, say, the closure of the Lincoln Memorial or the Head Start program hiatus. But how is the U.S. going to remain an important player in the world as foreigners observe that we can't even manage our own country?

Just one important example: For years now the U.S. has been trying to ramp up the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an exclusive trading group that partners Asian economies with the United States. China is deliberately excluded.

Many states find the idea appealing. While I was in Taiwan in August, President Ma Ying-jeou told me and others that his country was working hard to build up its economy specifically so Taiwan could qualify for the partnership.

China started its own exclusive trade group that deliberately excludes the U.S: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Well, President Obama had planned to use this week's trip to a couple of Asian summit meetings to persuade undecided Asian countries to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But he canceled the trip because of the government shutdown.

That brought immediate repercussions. As K. Shanmugam, Singapore's foreign minister, put it in a local TV interview: If the shutdown prevents Obama from coming to Asia, "then, of course, the U.S. leadership in the rest of the world, including Asia, will be questioned," adding that "the longer-term consequences" of the shutdown "for the rest of the world can be pretty serious as well."

Or, as Secretary of State John Kerry put it while subbing for Obama in Asia, Americans should worry about "the message that we send to the world when we can't get our own act together."

While Obama remained in Washington trying to resolve the budget deadlock with right-wing Republicans, China's president, Xi Jinping, was gallivanting through the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Bali and the Association of Southeast Nations meeting in Brunei, slapping backs, giving speeches -- striving to recruit members for China's trade group.

How effective Xi's efforts will be in the long term cannot be predicted. But this was the third time Obama skipped planned meetings in Asia because of problems at home, lapses that certainly have not gone unnoticed in that part of the world.

"How can the United States be a reliable partner when President Obama can't get his own house in order?" Richard Heydarian, a foreign-policy advisor to the Philippine congress, told the New York Times. "It makes people wonder: Is the United States really in a position to come to our aid in the event of a military conflict?"

The Asian controversies are not just about competing trade pacts, though their importance cannot be understated. After all, Asian economies account for nearly half of the world's gross domestic product.

At the same time, though, China's assertion that it controls virtually all of the south and east China seas is causing extreme tensions that seem to be leaving the region perpetually on the brink of war. That festering conflict has been one impetus behind Obama's purported "pivot" to Asia. But now, many Asian nations see that as more rhetoric than anything else.

Watching the debate in Washington, none of these foreign dilemmas even come into the discussion. The center of the debate is actually House Speaker John Boehner. He's the reason the government remains shut down.

Boehner is kowtowing to tea party extremists who are a minority in the House and the country. The tea party's own website says 8.7 million Americans are what they call "tea drinkers." That's less than 3 percent of the population -- though others certainly agree with the movement without actually joining.

The consensus in Washington is that House Democrats and less radical Republicans would pass a "clean" budget bill, without changes that would gut the health-care law -- if given the opportunity.

But Boehner won't bring it to the floor. The reason is obvious. Sure, last week he told his caucus to "hang tough," meaning: Don't give in to the political pressure to untie the health-care law from the budget resolution.

Of course, Boehner will never admit it, but he knows there's a strong chance he'll lose his speakership if he gives in. So he is prolonging a bruising political deadlock -- and severely damaging the nation's image abroad - just to save his own skin.

Email: joel.brinkley@stanford.edu


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