Short of world war, it’s rare that a chief executive goes through a foreign policy month like President Obama’s August.
U.S. warplanes struck in Iraq for the first time in years, as U.S. diplomats struggled to establish a new government in Baghdad. Islamic State militants beheaded an American journalist in Syria and spread their reach across the Middle East.
War raged between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. In Afghanistan, U.S. plans for an orderly exit at the end of the year teetered on the brink of disaster. Russia all but invaded Ukraine and dared Obama to stop it. Libya descended into violent chaos.
As events cascaded, Obama juggled rounds of vacation golf with public statements addressing the conflicts. But his cool demeanor, and the split-screen imagery of a president at play and at work, seemed ill-matched to the moment.
Then came a Thursday news conference and a comment that only reinforced criticism of a president neither fully engaged nor truly leaning into world problems. Speaking of the Islamic State, he said, “We don’t have a strategy yet.”
The statement may have had the virtue of candor, as Obama weighs the military and diplomatic components of a U.S. response and seeks support from other nations. But it hardly projects an image of presidential resolve or decisiveness at a time of international turmoil.
Republicans pounced on the statement. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), speaking Friday in Texas, said, “If the president has no strategy, maybe it’s time for a new president.” He said in a later e-mail that he would call a joint session of Congress to seek authority “to destroy ISIS militarily,” using another name for the Islamic State. Texas Gov. Rick Perry accused Obama of “lurching from crisis to crisis, always one step behind.”
White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Obama will continue to move at his own speed to respond to these crises, regardless of criticism. “There’s no timetable for solving these problems that’s going to meet the cable news cycle speed,” he said. “It’s not a tenable thing. We’d much rather do this right than do it quickly. We tried the opposite [during the Bush years] and it worked out very poorly.”
This week, Obama will have an opportunity to show global leadership at a crisis-packed summit with European allies. Immediately afterward, Secretary of State John F. Kerry will travel to the Middle East, where potential partners, waiting to see whether Obama has the capacity to chart a clear, decisive course, are hoping for direction.
As the administration heads into those meetings, Kerry offered crisp and forceful marching orders. “Airstrikes alone won’t defeat this enemy,” he wrote in a Saturday op-ed article in the New York Times. “A much fuller response is demanded from the world. We need to support Iraqi forces and the moderate Syrian opposition, who are facing ISIS on the front lines.”
The world Obama now confronts is far different from the one he inherited when he came into office almost six years ago, and it is testing equally whether the style and substance of his leadership can win supporters and prevail against enemies.
In the first years of his presidency, Obama’s principal foreign policy goals were far less reactive and were more dependent on his initiative and sense of timing.
With a schedule for Iraq withdrawal already set, he developed policies for ending the then-faltering war in Afghanistan. In a pattern that would repeat itself on other issues, he deliberated for months, and then split the difference by simultaneously announcing a surge of troops and the timing of their departure.
But as he tried to engage the world on his terms, Obama quickly found out that the world had thoughts and plans of its own. Far from the reset Obama sought with Russia, President Vladimir Putin sought a new balance of power through aggression in Ukraine. While Obama offered a fresh start for the United States in the Muslim world, the Arab Spring headed toward destabilization rather than democracy.
Six years later, events seem to have spun out of his control, and Obama must react to the actions of others. Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has sparked the greatest East-West crisis since the Cold War. Islamic State advances have swallowed up a large swath of the Middle East and threaten a global upheaval far beyond the shock of al-Qaeda’s 2001 attacks.
Obama now must contemplate what could be a lengthy and messy recommitment of U.S. military might in a region that continues to defy his efforts to create stability. Having promised respectful relations among the big powers, he must prove that the non-military tools of power — diplomacy and economic pressure — will eventually force Russia back within its own borders.
Historian David Kennedy of Stanford University noted that Obama has struggled throughout his presidency to articulate a large and integrated vision in both domestic and foreign policy and contrasted that with the rhetorical and communications skills of Candidate Obama in 2008.
But he said Obama faces something of “devil’s brew” as he deals with a world of proliferating aggressors and the palpable exhaustion of the American people for military engagement. “There’s an expectation especially since World War II that the United States and president in particular can command events,” he said. “That’s not true and less true today than ever.”
Presidential advisers argue that Obama’s foreign policy management has born fruit, from getting the Syrians to give up their chemical weapons to bringing Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear program to engendering the trust and credibility with other leaders to get European nations to support sanctions against Russia and rebuild a global coalition to deal with the Islamic State threat.
A senior official called Obama’s Iranian policy “a perfect example of a disciplined response that potentially leads to a good outcome.” Yet even former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton has expressed skepticism that Iranian negotiations will reach a successful conclusion and has been vocal in disagreeing with Obama’s earlier decisions not to intervene more directly to support rebel forces in Syria.
Officials across the government spent Friday trying to clean up after Obama’s Thursday news conference. They insisted that his “no strategy” remark had been misinterpreted and that what was being portrayed as hesitation and delay was instead a sign of due diligence and a sharp focus on developing an effective long-term plan.
Earlier statements by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the overall threat posed by Islamic State militants and the necessity of eventually taking the fight into Syria, coupled with reports that the United States had launched surveillance flights over Syria, prompted speculation of potentially imminent military action.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest denied a contradiction. “I think the president was pretty explicit that he is determined to make sure that every element of his national security strategy is thought through,” he said.
As Obama sought to nudge the debate back into his deliberative comfort zone, others urged him toward action. Ryan Crocker, who has served as U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, pleaded with the president to stop deliberating and start acting. “I don’t think we have an alternative to swift, decisive military action to degrade ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. Give them no safe place to plan further attacks,” he said in a CNN interview Friday.
U.S. officials rejected the notion that they are not acting. They emphasized that Obama moved quickly in Iraq with airstrikes and said that this month’s operations there are the first step in a larger strategy against the Islamic State. They indicated that they will not be pushed into an immediate response to recent events in Syria.
“The dynamic that you want, that I think is possible, is that [Islamic State] has overreached and overextended itself, both in terms of the territory it’s tried to claim, and the number of enemies it’s managed to make,” a senior administration official said.
Limited airstrikes in Iraq, and the formation of a more inclusive version of Iraq’s Shiite-led government, will encourage Sunni Arab states to work together, under U.S. leadership, in ways that have eluded them thus far, the official said.
He added that the “international outrage in countries like Britain, France, Australia and Canada” over militants’ brutality, and the threat from Western passport holders within the Islamist organization, will make those countries more willing to participate in military and other operations against the militants in response to a patient and well-conceived U.S. strategy.
U.S. allies say they have a residual well of confidence in Obama despite what they saw as the failure of U.S. leadership over the past year in Syria.
“What I do regret,” said a senior European official, is that the Islamic State organization has become “exactly what we feared” last year, when Obama held back in arming moderate rebel forces in Syria and reversed course on U.S. military action there.
The Syria airstrikes, planned last August to punish President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons and to destroy his weapons program, might have avoided the current mess by sending a message to Syrians and U.S. allies that Obama was engaged and recognized the growing Islamist threat, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid publicly criticizing the president.
But the official believes that this summer has been different. Obama’s taking the lead on sanctions against Russia — and pressing reluctant Europeans to join — and the airstrikes this month against Islamic State in Iraq have gone some distance in restoring allied confidence in the president.
“It’s not my job to defend the administration,” the official said. “But they have acted, more than I expected.”
Obama addressed the global angst during a Friday fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee in Purchase, N.Y. He said that anyone watching the nightly news might feel that “the world is falling apart.” He acknowledged these are challenging times and that an unsustainable “old order” that had been in place for decades in the Middle East was destined to come apart.
“What we are seeing is the old order not working, but the new order not being born yet — and it is a rocky road through that process, and a dangerous time through that process,” he said.
American leadership “has never been more necessary, and there’s really no competition out there for the ideas and the values that can create the sort of order that we need in this world. . . . Our values, our leadership, our military power but also our diplomatic power, the power of our culture is one that means we will get through these challenging times just like we have in the past,” he said.
Jim Lindsay, senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Obama’s inability to inspire confidence among critics has more to do with the complexity of the problems than the president’s leadership style. “He has a sort of perfect storm of messy problems, lousy options, ambivalent allies and a skeptical public,” he said.
Obama’s attempt at reassurance begged the question not only of exactly what course of action he will decide to take, but whether those policies will be too little, too late.
The crises in Ukraine and Syria-Iraq have overshadowed equally turbulent situations where the administration’s track record has not been encouraging. This summer’s war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip continued for weeks, despite repeated U.S. efforts to stop it, until a tentative cease-fire was agreed upon under Egyptian auspices last week.
Despite two emergency visits by Kerry in the past several weeks, Afghanistan appeared headed toward a political train wreck, as the two candidates vying to replace President Hamid Karzai continued to dispute the results of this summer’s election. With the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces in December fast approaching, it remains uncertain whether there will be a government to agree to Obama’s plan to leave nearly 10,000 troops there for training and counterterrorism missions.
Kennedy, the historian, said that Obama, in dealing with multiple crises, also is trying to change perceptions of what U.S. leadership and any president can realistically accomplish. “It’s difficult virtually to the point of impossibility to have a grand strategy in a world that is so fluid and in which we no longer yield the power we once had. In a sense that is Obama’s strategy, a recognition of that fact. So that rhetorically as well as in reality, he’s trying to diminish the expectation that we can control events.”