New York Times reporter Mark Landler, a veteran fawner over Obama, sympathized with the president’s plight as his historic visit to Cuba was overshadowed by Islamic terror attacks in Brussels, in “Global Crises Overshadow Another Trip.”
While Landler did land some light criticism of the optics of Obama’s detached messaging style when international events happen, the priorities of his Thursday piece lined up in typical Times fashion, with the president portrayed as a passive victim of international events, as if the real tragedies are Obama’s interrupted vacations or squashed attempts at historic messages. And it would never be mooted in the NYT that just maybe, Obama’s passivity and lack of leadership in the wake of international crises like Islamic terror may play a role in failing to prevent such events in the first place.
When President Obama woke up in Havana on Tuesday to news that explosives had ripped through an airport and a subway in Brussels, it was a familiar, if disconcerting, feeling: another foreign trip overshadowed by violence elsewhere in the world.
Mr. Obama embarked on the juggling act of a traveling commander in chief faced with a crisis: a morning briefing on the terrorist attacks with officials in Washington inside a specially equipped secure communications room, and an expression of condolence and support for the Belgian people inserted at the last minute into his speech to the Cuban people.
Mr. Obama’s disrupted trips -- he has had at least three before this one -- speak to a broader tension that has run through his foreign policy from the start: between his efforts to cultivate ties with old foes or expand the United States’ influence in new regions, and the pull of the nation’s perennial obligations in the Middle East.
In November, Mr. Obama set off on a round-the-world trade and economic mission to Turkey, Malaysia and the Philippines. Hours before he left, terrorists attacked in Paris, killing 130 people. Rather than showcase the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his Asian trade agreement, the president ended up fielding questions about how to battle the Islamic State and whether to bar Syrian refugees from entering the United States.
In March 2011, Mr. Obama landed in Brazil for a five-day tour of South America. In between efforts to promote economic ties with Brazil, he ordered American warplanes to Libya as part of a NATO mission to avert a slaughter in Benghazi by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
In Cuba on Tuesday, Mr. Obama stuck to his schedule, going to a baseball game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays. But inevitably, given the political season, he was second-guessed back home: Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said he should either return to Washington to direct the response to the attacks or fly straight to Belgium.
For the president, who travels with a full complement of national security and communications aides, the biggest disruption from a crisis like the one in Brussels is not logistical but thematic. The issues he had hoped to highlight -- in this case, his diplomatic opening to Cuba -- were eclipsed by round-the-clock coverage of violent images from somewhere else.
For all the sophisticated communications gear that follows the president around the world, the White House has struggled to get its message right when he is overseas during a crisis. Last fall, at a meeting of the Group of 20 countries in Antalya, Turkey, Mr. Obama played down fears about the Islamic State, five days after the mass killings in Paris.
Even Mr. Obama’s holidays are routinely disrupted by events in the Middle East. In August 2014, critics faulted him for returning to the golf course on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts after condemning the beheading of an American freelance journalist, James Foley, by an Islamic State fighter. (The president later said that was a mistake.)
Peter Baker wrote a related front-page analysis in June 2012 portraying the president as a passive victim of world events spinning unluckily out of his control: "Obama's Focus on Re-election Faces World of Complications." Baker wrote: “If anything, the dire headlines from around the world only reinforce an uncomfortable reality for this president and any of his successors: even the world’s last superpower has only so much control over events beyond its borders, and its own course can be dramatically affected in some cases. Whether from ripples of the European fiscal crisis or flare-ups of violence in Baghdad, it is easy to be whipsawed by events.”
In December 2015 Julie Hirschfeld Davis penned “Relishing a Respite in Hawaii, but Reality Is Never Far Away,” which portrayed as a burden the president’s visit with families of the victims of the San Bernardino terrorist attacks. That same month Michael Shear wrote under the rather condescending headline, “As Obama Checks Off List of Goals Met, a Nervous Nation Dwells on Terror.” As if the terror threat is an irrational thing for nervous citizens to “dwell” upon.