President Barack Obama casually ignited a small political fire as he passed through Malaysia last month, when he spent a few minutes criticizing the nation’s huge palm-oil sector.
The little-noticed remarks earned him plaudits from his vital environmental constituency, but they also ticked off a large and politically influential constituency in the fast-growing country.
In “Malaysia, what you’ve seen is huge portions of tropical forests… just being shredded because of primarily the palm oil industry… there are large business interests behind that industry,” he instructed Malaysian students and graduates at a town-hall meeting in university.
“You have to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” he said as he directed them to organize against their own nation’s economic sector. “You have to say, this is important… You can educate your parents, friends, coworkers… [and] you can potentially change policy,” he told the Malaysians, none of whom showed enthusiasm for his agenda.
The country’s government-backed palm-oil producers have pushed back with op-eds and a new video offering stories of Malaysian small-holders who cultivate their palm forests to provide natural oil for use as fuel, in food processing and in cosmetics.
“President Obamaa’s comments are inaccurate, misleading and offensive. We think he owes us an apology,” says the video, which is highlighted on a website run by the nation’s palm-oil industry.
Obama’s foray into palm-oil politics was one of several occasions in recent months where the president’s domestic priorities have played a walk-on role in his foreign policy pitches.
On the same Malaysian trip — which officials said was intended to cement diplomatic and trade ties between the two countries — Obama also used a question at a press conference to jump into the controversy over race-related remarks by the owner of the L.A. Clippers.
“The United States continues to wrestle with a legacy of race and slavery and segregation that’s still there… we constantly have to be on guard against racial attitudes that divide us rather than embracing our diversity as a strength,” he said in the middle of his April 27 press conference with Prime Minister Najib Razak.
A few days later, Obama used a question at a May 2 Rose Garden press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to dive into long-standing dispute over capital punishment for African-American murderers. Those comments veered far from the top-level topic of the press event — the U.S. and German response to the slow-motion Russian invasion of Ukraine — and colored the media’s coverage of Obama’s calculated ambivalence towards Ukraine.
“What happened in Oklahoma is deeply troubling,” Obama began. “In the application of the death penalty in this country, we have seen significant problems — racial bias [and] uneven application of the death penalty,” he said, in what was likely another effort to spur African-American support prior to the November election.