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James Downey: Obama's visit the least of his foreign policy concerns

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WHEN Barack Obama comes to visit us, we can look forward to broad grins and quotations from Yeats in the style of Kennedy and Clinton -- always assuming that the US president's speech-writers can find something optimistic in the work of Yeats.

At a pinch, there's always "the indomitable Irishry", not that we've been feeling too indomitable lately. And the president is a quintessentially American optimist.

He must also be the "coolest" person ever to hold the office.

This week, in the midst of the ludicrous controversy over his birthplace, he allowed only the slightest flash of irritation to show in public. No reasonable person could have blamed him if he had responded with outright anger to the allegation that he was born outside the US and therefore disqualified for the presidency.

In the end, he had to produce a copy of his Hawaii birth certificate. That should have ended the nonsense once and for all. Instead, the preposterous Donald Trump praised himself for forcing the issue. Presumably he thinks that will help him to secure the Republican nomination for next year's presidential election.

Happily, I don't think we will ever have to get our tongues around the phrase "President Trump", any more than we will ever speak of "President Palin".

Obama for his part must have mixed emotions about the Republican antics. Most likely, they will help him to a second term in office. But he never wanted leading figures in the opposition party to behave like buffoons.

On the contrary, he came to power hoping to heal wounds and promote bipartisanship on the model of his hero Abraham Lincoln. He held a similar hope in foreign policy, as witnessed in his approaches to Iran.

These approaches were sharply rebuffed by Iran, just as his appeals for bipartisanship were rebuffed in Washington. So much for trying to be reasonable. Evidently the Republican Party, like the Iranian regime, is not run by reasonable people.

There are unreasonable people, too, in the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships -- and in the Middle Eastern and North African dictatorships which the Americans had persuaded themselves were essential for "stability".

Obama, and Hillary Clinton, have vacillated on the Palestinian question, and were taken aback by the North African revolutions. American policy on Libya is a fiasco.

One can understand why they shrank from deeper involvement. They had inherited the troubles in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan and the near-collapse of Pakistan. And at home they had another toxic legacy, caused by the absence of financial regulation and George Bush's crazy taxation policies.

The American economy is in deep trouble, and will stay that way until the budget deficit is brought under control. Taxpayers will suffer pain. The Democrats will get the blame. That will hurt a president whose appeal to the middle classes won him the last election.

Far more ominous, and of historic dimensions, is American dependence on Chinese investment. This is only part of the greatest global phenomenon of the last two decades, the rise of China.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, George Bush the Elder proclaimed a new world order, based on the existence of only one superpower. No such order has emerged. Instead, since power, like nature, abhors a vacuum, the Tiger moved into the vacuum left by the Bear.

Within the next few years, Chinese production will exceed that of the US. Beijing will seek -- has already begun to seek -- political and military influence comparable to its economic influence. The world balance of power will be unsettled.

Nobody can foretell the exact consequences, but the precedents are unhappy. We know them from ancient and modern times, from the fall of the Roman empire to the first world war in 1914. Obama knows them as well as anyone, and he knows how they can affect his own place in history.

He can beam all he likes in Moneygall, and quote whatever poets he likes, but he will have bigger things on his mind than his great-great-great-grandfather's baptismal registry. He will be thinking about American economic policy and foreign policy, and we must hope that he somehow gets both right.

In the meantime, we ourselves have something to ponder when we welcome our other very distinguished visitor.

Queen Elizabeth's visit is not premature, as Sinn Fein absurdly claims, but overdue. Any true republican should be delighted to celebrate this symbol of our friendly relations with Britain.

I have no idea what she may say at the Garden of Remembrance or Croke Park or anywhere else. In fact, she doesn't need to say anything. She doesn't need to crack jokes or offer apologies. When David Cameron apologised, so elegantly and eloquently, for Derry's Bloody Sunday, that closed the book so far as I'm concerned.

There will always be unreasonable people; in this case, people who prefer the grievance to the remedy.

The serious side isn't for her to worry about. It's for ourselves. We cannot but reflect on how we won our independence in her grandfather's time, how we built on it, and what has happened to it in our own time.

One of our eminent visitors rules the greatest nation ever. One reigns over a once-great nation which has come through its decline rather well. Small nations have their ups and downs too. In Ireland not very long ago we could justly blame outside forces for our misfortunes.

No longer. We can hardly be optimistic, but at least we can be cool.

Irish Independent