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.
“If the president goes on rhetorical bird-walk and doesn’t focus on the issue at hand, it’s worrisome, because both our friends and allies are listening,” said Robert Zarate, the policy director at the D.C.-based Foreign Policy Initiative.
The diversions “look weird,” he said, and “feed the fears of many people that the president is improvising as he goes along, as opposed to advancing a coherent strategy to achieve clear objectives.”
“What Americans and America’s allies want to see is focus and follow-through,” Zarate said. “Bottom line, he’d prefer to be talking about domestic policy than foreign policy.”
That emphasis on domestic priorities was underlined in Obama’s unsubtle efforts to show support for his critical domestic gay and lesbian supporters by championing legal rights and increased social status for the small population of Russian gays, who face routine ostracism and threats of violence.
His advocacy is colliding with the Russian government’s speculative efforts to reverse its population decline, including curbs on advocacy for Western-style gay rights. Russia’s population decline is a fundamental issue for Russians, who fought two generation-destroying wars in in the 20th century, and who now face fast-growing Muslims and Chinese populations to their south and east.
During an August appearance on NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” Obama casually dismissed Russia’s concerns, saying he has “no patience for countries that try to treat gays and lesbians and transgendered persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.”
In December, he included prominent gay and lesbian athletes on his delegation to the Russian-hosted winter Olympic games. That snub came two months before Russia began its slow-motion invasion of Ukraine — which has damaged Americans’ confidence in Obama’s foreign-policy clout.
That confidence is also undercut by diplomatic flubs. In December, Obama also inadvertently grabbed the headlines when he took a selfie of himself with Helle Thorning, Denmark’s attractive female prime minster, during the South African commemorations for the death of Nelson Mandela.
That act highlights how Obama and “members of the Obama administration speak and, worse, think and act, like a bunch of teenagers,” wrote Eliot Cohen, a professor of Strategic Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C.
“If the United States today looks weak, hesitant and in retreat, it is in part because its leaders and their staff do not carry themselves like adults,” Eliot write in the May 12 issue of the Wall Street Journal. “They may be charming, bright and attractive; they may have the best of intentions; but they do not look serious.”
The disputes over the L.A. Clippers and the Oklahoma death-penalty have faded into the background, although both may yet be revived if the President chooses to jump in again.
But in Malaysia, the country’s palm oil industry has been organizing a p.r. counter-attack that seeks to counter Obama’s doleful message about palm oil.
The president “got wrong information about palm oil,” Dato Aliasak, who is the president of National Association of Small Holders, told The Daily Caller.
“Palm-oil growers are not a big farmer, we really depend on oil palm, our livelihood, our income, but he gave the wrong impression about oil palm when he visited the university,” said Alisak. The association’s member’s actually own their land, and protect it and the forests to preserve the long-term income, he said.
They’re not dependent on a few big companies, but are free to sell the high-value commodity to European, American and Chinese firms, Dato said. Their palm-oil income is roughly twice the income earned from their prior cultivation of rubber trees, he said.
“President Obama’s seemingly simplistic attitude toward palm oil is indicative of the gap between the perception of the palm oil industry in the West and the complexities on the ground in developing countries,” says an op-ed article in the country’s major English-language newspaper, by Yusof Basiron, the head of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council.
“We can only hope he tries seeing things through Malaysian eyes on his next visit — particularly if he’s interested in a broader relationship,” said Basiron.
But this is a fight where the advantage lies with U.S. environmentalists, who provide valuable donations and decisive votes to Obama’s top-priority 2014 campaign. Those groups, including Greenpeace and Worldwatch, are lobbying to curb palm-oil cultivation, and have already pressured U.S. and European food companies to adopt environmental protection rules.
Growers in Malaysia, demographers in Russia and capital-punishment supporters in Oklahoma won’t have any role in critical swing-state Senate election races this year. But Obama’s foreign policy is helping to make sure that African-Americans, gays and American environmentalists play a large — and perhaps decisive — role.