On Friday, when Barack Obama becomes the first sitting U.S. president to visit the haunting atomic bomb memorial in Hiroshima, it will top off his big trip to Asia.
He won’t apologize for the 1945 U.S. bombing that helped end World War II in the Pacific, but he will reaffirm his call for a world free of nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, he’s stepped all over his own message during this trip and in recent months.
Obama has launched what could be the most expensive buildup of nuclear weapons since the Cold War, with upgraded warheads, delivery systems and command centers. While Obama calls it a modernization that will produce a smaller but more reliable nuclear arsenal, some experts say the smaller yields and improved targeting make the unthinkable more possible.
And earlier this week, on the first stop of his Asia tour, he ratcheted up the arms race in the region by lifting a 40-year ban on U.S. weapons sales to Vietnam. It deepens America’s relationship with a country where 58,000 U.S. service members died in a war that bitterly divided our nation. It’s also a bounty for American defense contractors, which will have a new market for warships, missiles and other hardware.
Critics say the president should have exacted more concessions on human rights and political freedoms from Vietnam’s communist regime before ending the embargo. They point to what happened Tuesday, when several political activists were prevented from meeting Obama.
That’s hardly the promotion of democracy around the world Obama likes to talk about.
This is his 10th trip to Asia of his presidency, part of his global farewell tour. He keeps trying to fully make the strategic “pivot” to Asia he promised in 2011, partly to counter China’s growing military and economic ambitions. But global events keep getting in the way, including the rise of the Islamic State and the continuing terrorist threat, potentially including the crash of an EgyptAir passenger jet last Thursday that killed all 66 aboard.
A big Pacific free-trade deal – which would include Japan, Vietnam and nine other partners – is also part of that pivot. But Obama is facing opposition in Congress to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership ratified before he leaves office, and all of his potential successors oppose the pact, at least for now.
Like so much else, Obama’s final legacy will depend on the next president.