Obama had earlier scaled back the long-planned trip by lopping off visits to Malaysia and the Philippines. Now the multilateral parts of the itinerary – the APEC, ASEAN and East Asia summits in Indonesia and Brunei, and talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade zone – have also fallen by the wayside.
Secretary of State John Kerry will stand in for the president in all four countries he had been planning to visit between October 6-12.
“The cancellation of this trip is another consequence of the House Republicans forcing a shutdown of the government,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney. “This completely avoidable shutdown is setting back our ability to create jobs through promotion of U.S. exports and advance U.S. leadership and interests in the largest emerging region in the world.”
This will be the second consecutive year that Obama misses the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Last year’s absence was the first time an American president had missed the annual APEC gathering since 1998.
The administration in its first term pledged to pay more attention to region – its so-called strategic “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia. Earlier Obama twice canceled scheduled visits to Asia at short notice, first to focus on getting Congress to pass the Obamacare legislation, then again after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Earlier Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told a press briefing that U.S. trade with the 21 APEC members had supported more than five million American jobs last year.
“Congress is very focused on American jobs, so why wouldn’t we be able to be represented at the APEC summit where we’re talking exactly about these issues?”
Harf returned several times to the theme of responsibility for the shutdown, saying it was having a “destructive” effect on America’s foreign policy and attributing it to Congress’ “inability to do its job.”
But when asked if criticizing the body empowered to fund its activities was a good idea, she said, “This isn’t about trying to point fingers. This isn’t about being unnecessarily negative. It’s about the reality we’re facing.”
“The president has said that the shutdown was preventable,” Harf said. “We’ve been clear that Congress can end it, and that they should.”
“No one should mistake the fact that the shutdown is damaging to the State Department today and destructive to our country’s foreign policy today.”
Listing some of the areas she said were being affected, Harf focused on three politically sensitive issues – diplomatic security, support for Israel, and sanctions on Iran:
Training of new Diplomatic Security (DS) agents had been affected by the closure of a Homeland Security center in Georgia where they undergo initial training ahead of specialized training at State, she said. “This means that it delays strengthening embassy security abroad.”
Security enhancements – including some recommended by the post-Benghazi attack Accountability Review Board – that depend on fiscal year 2014 money would also be delayed.
“I think for a Congress that’s never missed an opportunity to talk about embassy security, this is a result of its inability to do its job,” Harf said.
Later in the briefing, she made clear that what was being impacted is the ability to “augment” security by getting new DS agents trained – not the current levels of security at missions around the world, all of which remain open.
“We’re not taking risks with our security at our embassies overseas right now,” she said. “We always take security as the highest priority overseas with our embassies and our people.”
“Right now FY 2014 security assistance funding for Israel is not available, and thus could be delayed,” Harf said. “We also have no new FY 2014 funding to continue supporting the peacekeeping mission in the Sinai between Egypt and Israel at a time when unrest in the Sinai is growing.
“So again, for a Congress that talks about its commitment to Israel, here’s the impact of its inability to do its job.”
Harf did not name other countries that will be affected by the absence of FY2014 funding for the foreign military financing (FMF), international military education and training (IMET), and peacekeeping operations accounts.
The administration’s total FMF request for FY2014 was $5.4 billion, with the lion’s share going to Israel ($3.1 billion), Egypt ($1.3 billion), Jordan ($300 million) and Pakistan ($300 million).
The IMET request was for $105.6 million, with the larger recipients including Pakistan ($5m), Jordan ($3.8m) and Turkey ($3.3m). The peacekeeping operations request totaled $347 million, with the largest amounts requested for Mali ($83.7m) and Somalia ($70m).
“For all the talk in Congress about keeping up the sanctions pressure on Iran,” Harf said, the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC), the Treasury Department’s division that administers and enforces economic sanctions against targeted regimes and organizations, “has furloughed nearly all of its staff.”
“We think this is unhelpful, a contradictory message to send at a time when everyone is looking to see whether a combination of tough sanctions on the one hand and equally tough diplomacy can push Iran to address the world’s concerns about its nuclear program.”
According to a Treasury’s shutdown contingency plan, however, despite the furloughs tasks that will continue include “enforc[ing] economic and trade sanctions as directed by the Secretary,” and “implement[ing] and administer[ing] new sanctions on foreign countries or targeted individuals or entities through newly issued Executive Orders.”
The State Department itself has not been affected by large-scale furloughs yet. Harf explained this was because it still has “residual funds left over from FY 2013, and we’re funded under multi-year mechanisms. We are able to continue for a period of time without massive furloughs that we’ve seen other places.”
“But that will run out,” she added.
Visa and passport services abroad will not be impacted, as they are fees-based.
Also, no embassies or consulates have been closed, “and we don’t expect that we will have to,” Harf said.
“The reason the embassies and consulates are open is because that’s really the forefront of the diplomatic work we do every day,” she said. “Our goal is always to have them open.”