Obama’s Got a Najib Problem

When Barack Obama’s administration began planning the US president’s November trip to Asia to attend various summits and deal with a number of important issues including the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in the Philippines and the annual ASEAN summit in Malaysia, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was a favorite of Obama’s, a White House visitor and January golfing partner.

Today, Najib has become almost an international pariah, bogged down in two massive Zimbabwean-level scandals – one over the disappearance of billions of dollars from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund and another over how nearly US$700 million ended up in his personal accounts at AmBank in Kuala Lumpur, then disappeared out again to unnamed accounts overseas without explanation.

More bad news

Najib’s international reputation was severely tarnished again this week with a report on the Al Jazeera news network raising questions anew over the notorious 2006 murder of Mongolian translator and party girl Altantuya Shaariibuu. The program, which got Australian journalist Mary Ann Jolley kicked out of the country as she was reporting it, tied text messages by convicted murderer Sirul Azhar Umar, currently held in Australia, to the prime minister’s office. Sirul appeared to be asking for a bribe to shut up and was reported as saying “I won’t bring down the Prime Minister.”

That leaves Obama with a problem. At all of the meetings he will have during his November trip, his former golfing partner will be a conspicuous presence.

The US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, in an email, said only that the White House has not announced a visit by President Obama to Malaysia.

“I know for sure that Washington is concerned right now about what to do or how to handle Najib and the November trip. Since the infamous golf game, so many things have happened, and as a US government official you would have to be living on another planet – or an alternate universe – not to know what is going on in Malaysia today, and the truth about Najib,” said John Malott, who served as Ambassador to Malaysia from 1996 to 1998 and who has become one of the prime minister’s loudest international critics.

“So my sense is yes, there has been a major shift in Washington thinking about Najib. And their number one concern now is how to handle the November visit. They need to protect Obama. At the end of the day, Washington, as always, has two goals – foreign policy, how to advance American interests abroad (in ASEAN), and two, domestic – how to protect the president politically from any criticism here at home.”

The attitude of the administration in Washington towards Najib – at least to this point – is puzzling, and misguided. While he has cut a polished figure on the international stage, with impeccably tailored suits and a cultured English accent, the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur has been warning about Najib since at least the 22-month trial of the two convicted murderers of Altantuya, which ended in 2009.

Then-Ambassador James Keith and his staff sent detailed cables to the State Department in Washington – obtained by WikiLeaks in 2011 and reported by Asia Sentinel – that indicated the embassy staff was closely following the trial of the killers and frequently discussed whether Najib was connected to the killing.

The diplomats, like much of the public, also speculated that the trial was being deliberately delayed and feared what one diplomatic cable calls "prosecutorial misconduct" that was being politically manipulated. The embassy officials based their concerns on sources within the prosecution, government and political opposition.

Ambassador Paul Jones, who followed Keith, praised Najib, however, and was so enthusiastic about the country that he was given a “datukship,” a low-level honorific in the country’s convoluted system of quasi-royalty. That is technically a violation of the US Constitution, which prohibits such awards from foreign governments. A steadily rising diplomat, Jones emphasized strengthening ties between the two countries. He played Sherpa to the visits of both Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Malaysia. He has continued his rise through the ranks of the State Department bureaucracy, now serving as principal deputy assistant secretary.

Reformer?

Thus the warnings of Keith, Malott and the current ambassador, Joseph Yun, apparently fell on the deaf ears of Obama, who believed Najib, who has frequently spoken in Washington and at the UN as the head of a moderate Muslim nation, was a great reformer.

It has become clear that he isn’t and wasn’t, in extensive and unmissable stories in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the US’s most respected newspapers, about the extensive and hugely expensive property holdings Najib’s family has in California and New York, and the stories about 1MDB.

In the latest, the Wall Street Journal pointed out just a week ago on Sept. 8 that while 1MDB’s financial statements and the Malaysian auditor general reported that a collateral payment had been made to an Abu Dhabi investment fund, the Abu Dhabi government never got the money.

Problem leader

This all presents Obama with the dilemma of how to back away from a man he embraced as a friend, one whose country he needs badly to accomplish American goals in the South China Sea, including one of the linchpins of the Obama presidency, his so-called pivot to Asia to counteract Chinese influence.

“The question is – how can they distance themselves from Najib personally, while still achieving their goals in November?,” Malott said.

Najib leaves on Sept. 23 to return to the world stage, first on a trip to London where he is said to be seeking arms deals at the London Arms Fair. Hishammuddin Hussein, his cousin and defense minister, is already there, accompanied by defense officials and having rented 30 rooms at the Churchill Hyatt Hotel for his entourage. Najib is expected to nip off quietly, leaving a nation in crisis. After his turn at the UN, he is scheduled to go to Italy, where his wife, Rosmah Mansor, is staging an Islamic fashion show in Milan.

Najib has tried indefatigably to reverse the bad blood with western nations generated by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. He is expected to appear in New York on September 25 for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. The reception he gets, especially from US diplomats, will tell a lot about what happens in November.

In August, US Secretary of State John Kerry obviously held his nose and upgraded Malaysia’s status on human trafficking, to the astonishment of many human rights organizations. The upgrade was widely considered the price the US had to pay for Malaysia’s cooperation on TPP and other issues. But even since August, the publicity over corruption and the 2006 murder has spread wider. It will be interesting to see if the US will hold its nose again during the Asia trip.

“Better send Kerry instead,” said a Malaysian observer.