BARILOCHE, ARGENTINA – Dancing the tango, relaxing with family in picturesque Patagonia, catching a baseball game with Cuba’s Raul Castro — it’s been an unusual week for President Barack Obama.
His tour of Latin America left him on the periphery as the world grappled with terrorism and other problems. Republican critics faulted Obama for sticking to his itinerary even after more than 30 people were killed in an Islamic State-linked attack in Brussels. Obama insists he remained fully engaged.
“That was a tremendous mistake,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Thursday on MSNBC. “It’s fine to go to Argentina. You want to do the work, but you’ve got to be careful of these little photo-ops or optics. Baseball games and tangos, that’s inconsistent with the seriousness of the day.”
To drop everything and rush home every time attackers strike would be playing into extremists’ hands, Obama said. It would also upend other critical business on the president’s agenda, such as Obama’s historic effort to normalize relations with Cuba and to improve U.S. ties to Argentina.
“That is how we are going to defeat these terrorist groups,” Obama said in Buenos Aires. “A lot of it is also going to be to say, ‘you do not have power over us. We are strong. Our values are right. You offer nothing except death.'”
Obama didn’t initiate his brief tango Wednesday evening at a state dinner in his honor. In fact, he declined several invitations by the sashaying female dancer before politely giving in.
And attending the exhibition game in Havana between Cuba’s national team and Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays was itself an act of diplomacy. As “The Star-Spangled Banner” rang out, there was a palpable sense that after half a century of estrangement, something new was foot.
Still, Obama faced no shortage of flak. Twitter and other social media sites were abuzz with photo-shopped images of Obama tangoing superimposed over scenes of carnage.
“I think he ought to return home,” said Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a GOP presidential candidate.
Though Obama was at the center of global attention in Cuba as he paid the first presidential visit in nearly 90 years, other events competed for attention. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Moscow for talks on the Syrian war and the Islamic State threat, Iraq’s military was launching a long-awaited operation to recapture the northern city of Mosul from Islamic State militants, with U.S. backing.
White House officials said Obama can do anything from the road that he can do from the White House, echoing an argument Obama has made frequently after other incidents interrupted his travel. After Islamic State extremists attacked Paris last year, Obama went forward with a trip to Turkey and Asia, and used his meetings there to coordinate with world leaders on ramping up the fight against the militant group.
There was also no indication that Obama’s response would have been different had he been in Washington or scurried to Brussels.
Obama always travels with top domestic and national security advisers who keep him abreast of developments and coordinate his response. In Havana, he was briefed within hours of the Brussels attacks.
And even as he prepared for some leisure time with his wife and daughters in the Argentine city of Bariloche, where U.S. outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once operated a ranch, Obama spoke by secure phone call with his counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco. The White House said he directed his team to provide all needed help to Belgium.
Other presidents have grappled with unwelcome intrusions into their best-laid plans. George W. Bush was roundly slammed in 2002 for responding to bombings in Israel while playing golf, calling for the world to “do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers,” and closing with “Thank you. Now watch this drive.”