President Obama’s emissaries spent much of Sunday talking with Russian officials here about how to quell the violence in Syria, but the president all but shrugged his shoulders when asked about the prospects of a successful deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Given the previous failures of cessations of hostilities to hold, we approach it with some skepticism,” Obama said, “but it is worth trying.”
Hours later, Obama engaged in delicate talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose military has recently clashed with U.S.-backed fighters in Syria, complicating the American strategy there and in Iraq.
“We discussed ways in which we can further cooperate in that regard,” Obama said politely after his meeting with the unpredictable-yet-crucial NATO ally, whose country is still reeling from a failed military coup and a wide domestic crackdown on suspected instigators.
Obama’s final presidential appearance at the Group of Twenty world leaders summit here has been a complicated waltz of diplomacy with an array of difficult partners.
Despite the strained relationships, Obama is obligated by a long list of simmering world problems to engage with leaders from Erdogan to Putin, with whom White House officials say he is planning to meet in the next day or so.
It is a signature feature of the foreign policy approach Obama promised when he ran for president — that he would talk even with the worst of the worst.
“You don’t negotiate deals with your friends,” his oft-stated mantra goes, “you negotiate them with your enemies.”
Seldom has that been truer, or more personal. The moment he set foot in China for this week’s summit, Obama got a reminder of just how many ways foreign leaders might insult him on this, his 10th and final presidential tour of Asia.
As Air Force One taxied on the tarmac, Chinese officials were refusing to let the U.S. Secret Service wheel stairs to the plane so that Obama could make his usual grand entrance from the front door. Instead, they ended up wheeling short stairs to a side door, where the traveling White House press corps could barely see him to record the moment.
An official of the Chinese delegation yelled at White House staff for allowing the press in the area at all and then physically blocked National Security Advisor Susan Rice and her deputy from moving closer to the arrival scene.
“They did things that weren’t anticipated,” Rice said later.
Much of the difficulty Obama is encountering this week was anticipated, however. The Turks, for example, repeatedly have tried to blame the U.S. in the weeks since the failed military-led coup against Erdogan.
Erdogan’s government has complained about the U.S. failure thus far to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric and onetime ally of Erdogan’s who now lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Erdogan blames him for plotting the coup and a host of other ills in his country.
In public, of course, Turkish officials have been saying all the things Americans want to hear, particularly when they are talking to U.S. officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, who visited the country recently.
On Sunday, Erdogan was politely oblique. There should be no distinction between “good terrorists or bad,” he said, an indirect reference both to Gulen and to U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in Syria whom the Turks regard as a threat to their national security.
The U.S. and Turkey should adopt a “common attitude” against terrorism, he said.
Obama, who has now dealt with Erdogan for nearly eight years, reassured the Turkish leader that the U.S. will work to make sure the parties responsible for the coup come to justice. He condemned the overthrow before quickly noting the need to “further cooperate.”
U.S. officials say they are awaiting sufficient evidence to justify Turkey’s request for the extradition of Gulen, who is 75 and claims to be in ill health.
In the same way, Obama’s White House aides maintained a sense of reserve as Secretary of State John F. Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in an effort to work out a ceasefire between Syria’s government and at least some rebel groups as well as possible enhanced military cooperation between Russia and the U.S. in Syria.
State Department officials were optimistic that a deal would come together. But as Obama spoke to reporters early in the day, the president was doubtful.
Every experience he has had with Putin tells him to be skeptical about whether a deal is possible and whether Putin would stick to one, said a senior aide, speaking anonymously to comment on diplomatic talks.
Kerry said he and Lavrov have worked out a number of technical issues, but not all of them. They plan to reconvene on Monday to try to reach a final agreement.
Throughout his presidency, Obama has sought one-on-one and small-group meetings with leaders like Putin, Erdogan and China’s Xi Jinping, to try to form a sense of what motivates them and how they act.
As he closes out his final year in office, that experience has largely been disappointing.
Despite seemingly endless talks, for instance, efforts to get Russian cooperation in ending the Syrian civil war have gotten nowhere.
With Xi, Obama and his staff have concluded that the only breakthrough they will achieve is the climate deal they worked out over the last year and ratified Saturday.
Xi wants to clear the air in his smog-choked cities, and by signing onto the Paris climate accord he can get U.S. technical assistance in reaching that goal as well as a figurative global Good Citizen medal.
The White House believes that on all the other important items on the Chinese-U.S. agenda – trade, cooperation on cyber-security, human rights – Xi has determined it is not in his interest to work with Obama.
“You don’t develop real trust between the U.S. and China,” said Jeffrey Bader, a former China advisor to Obama. “What you can develop is transparency, where you can say, ‘I know what he thinks and I know where he’s going.’ That’s what the president has done.”
One volatile leader Obama will meet with on this trip presents a new challenge for the president. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was elected earlier this summer despite charges that, as mayor of Davao, his government had death squads that targeted suspected criminals.
Since taking office two months ago, Duterte has been accused by international human rights organizations of fostering the same type of extra-judicial killings of suspected drug traffickers.
But the Obama administration wants to lay a foundation for American interaction with the leader of a nation that remains crucial to U.S. strategic interests in the region. The Philippines has been a leader in opposing China’s expansionist efforts in the contested South China Sea.
Obama’s basic principle applies to Duterte as to other leaders with troubling records: Engage rather than shun.
Staff Writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report from Washington.
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