News / USA

    Obama Criticized for Festive Behavior Amid Brussels Attacks

    President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama do the tango with dancers during a state dinner at the Centro Cultural Kirchner, March 23, 2016, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
    President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama do the tango with dancers during a state dinner at the Centro Cultural Kirchner, March 23, 2016, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

    President Barack Obama is coming under criticism for dancing the tango and attending a baseball game during his tour of Latin America this week, even while Belgium continues to reel from a deadly terror attack.

    Obama was on the final day of a groundbreaking trip aimed at normalizing relations with Cuba when Islamic State suicide bombers attacked the Brussels metro and airport, killing at least 31 people.

    Rather than cut short his trip, Obama pressed on. He delivered a speech to the Cuban people and later sat through three innings of a baseball game in Havana, where he laughed and even did "the wave" with President Raul Castro.

    The next evening during a state dinner with Argentine President Mauricio Macri, the president and first lady Michelle Obama were reluctantly led onto the dance floor by a pair of professional tango dancers who had been hired for entertainment.

    'Tremendous' error

    Critics immediately slammed Obama, saying it was insensitive for him to be seen in such a festive mood while a U.S. ally was under attack.

    "That was a tremendous mistake," Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "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 and optics."

    "Baseball games and tangos, that’s inconsistent with the seriousness of the day," Haass said.

    Republican presidential candidates also joined in. Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich called on Obama to cut his trip short and immediately return home to deal with the Belgian crisis.

    It is not the first time Obama has come under fire for his response to a national security incident.

    FILE - President Barack Obama follows through on a swing as he tees off while golfing at Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown, Mass., Aug. 20, 2014. A day earlier, the U.S. government confirmed that Islamic State militants had beheaded journalist James Foley.
    FILE - President Barack Obama follows through on a swing as he tees off while golfing at Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown, Mass., Aug. 20, 2014. A day earlier, the U.S. government confirmed that Islamic State militants had beheaded journalist James Foley.

    Golf slip-up

    In 2014, Obama himself acknowledged he "should have anticipated the optics" of golfing after it was revealed that U.S. journalist James Foley had been beheaded by Islamic State militants.

    Obama has a habit of responding in a cavalier fashion to such incidents, according to Chuck Warren, who has advised Republican political campaigns on crisis communication and other issues.

    "He simply doesn't understand that you can't have a picture of him doing the tango as there are memorials around," Warren told VOA. "You can't have him doing 'the wave' at a baseball game while cable news is showing people lying dead at a subway station."

    For Warren and other conservative critics, the incident is the latest evidence that Obama is not treating seriously the battle against Islamic State militants, who have carried out a wave of attacks on Western targets.

    President Barack Obama (L) and Argentinian President Mauricio Macri deliver a joint press conference at the Casa Rosada presidential palace in Buenos Aires on March 23, 2016.
    President Barack Obama (L) and Argentinian President Mauricio Macri deliver a joint press conference at the Casa Rosada presidential palace in Buenos Aires on March 23, 2016.

    Obama on Wednesday rejected that criticism, insisting in a news conference with his Argentine counterpart that his "number one priority" is to defeat the extremist group. But "it is very important for us to not respond with fear,” he added.

    Attempts to shift focus

    The president, who is nearing the midpoint of his final year in office, has repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to shift the focus of U.S. foreign policy toward regions like Asia or Latin America. But every time he tries, a new Middle East crisis seems to demand attention.

    That just reflects the complicated nature of being a world superpower, said Alex Ward, associate director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

    "It would be great if the United States could just focus on one thing. But we're the global power. We're a leader, and there are a lot of things around the world that require our attention," Ward told VOA.

    In Ward's view, Obama's strategic reorientation with Latin America takes precedence over the latest terror attack, even if it is not necessarily good politics.

    "Aesthetically speaking and politically speaking, it looks bad. But strategically speaking, it makes sense," he said.

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