Pick just about any area of the world and you will find turmoil, an escalation of international upheaval that is bringing more complaints President Barack Obama is not up to the task of steering U.S. foreign policy.
But there is widespread disagreement over just what the U.S. strategy should be, and whether a more aggressive approach in the Middle East and elsewhere is advisable.
“If George W. Bush were president, he would be behaving the same way as Barack Obama,” said John J. Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. “The United States has lost two major wars in the last decade…. The last thing you want to do is to have another war that it’s sure to lose.”
“Virtually all those people who say he’s not tough enough have never offered an alternative strategy that is viable,” Mearsheimer said. “It’s easy to say he’s not tough enough. But the $64,000 question is how can we be tougher and be successful?”
The conflicts seem to be everywhere. In the Middle East, a brutal Sunni terrorist group be-headed two American journalists and has sewn chaos in Iraq and Syria. Russian troops have occupied parts of eastern Ukraine as the Kiev government attempts to free itself from Moscow’s orbit in favor of the West.
Talks to persuade Iran to end its effort to build a nuclear weapon are bogged down, Israel and Hamas just ended their third armed conflict in a decade, and North Korea is holding three Americans prisoners, including Jeffrey Fowle of West Carrollton.
Obama entered office in 2009 vowing to curb U.S. military operations abroad, yet he may leave the presidency in 2017 having launched yet another American war in the turbulent Middle East.
“Obama’s personality is such that it’s hard for him to be a leader,” said Lynne Olson, a former Associated Press reporter and author of “Those Angry Days – Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight over World War II.”
While acknowledging that “Obama has faced the worst set of circumstances any president has faced in a long time,” Olson said: “He reminds me a bit of Jimmy Carter in the sense of not knowing how to lead.”
Retired U.S. Army Col. Peter Mansoor, the General Raymond E. Mason chair in military history at Ohio State University, said he does not “see an overall design to the way President Obama approaches grand strategy.”
“I think he values international cooperation in foreign affairs, but I don’t think he understands how critical it is to have the U.S. lead,” said Mansoor, former executive officer to General David Petraeus in Iraq.
The challenges Obama faces may be no less daunting than those overcome by other presidents in the past half-century. Franklin D. Roosevelt defied isolationists by shipping military aid in 1941 to Great Britain, Harry Truman created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to thwart Soviet expansionism, Richard Nixon reduced Cold War tensions by ending U.S. isolation of China and signing a nuclear arms treaty with Moscow, and George H.W. Bush helped orchestrate the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Clearly anyone who thinks Obama was dealt a tough hand hasn’t read the history books over the last several decades,” said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
A poll last month by USA Today and Pew Research Center found that 54 percent said Obama’s foreign policy was not “tough enough.” The same poll showed Americans are paying more attention to foreign affairs, in part because of the potential terrorist threat posed in Europe and the United States by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS.
Critics complain Obama lacks any coherent strategy to deal with ISIS, Syria, an ever muscular China, or Russian President Vladimir Putin, but analysts say he is anything but an isolationist.
Henry Nau, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, contends Obama sees the world as a “jigsaw puzzle,” saying Obama seems to believe “if we sit down at the table together, we could put these pieces together.”
As part of that strategy, Obama has been cautious about U.S. military involvement. He pulled all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq and plans to remove the last American soldiers from Afghanistan in 2016.
After threatening air strikes in 2013 against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad for its use of chemical weapons against Syrian rebels, Obama reversed himself and accepted a deal in which Assad pledged to yield his weapons of mass destruction. And he has firmly ruled out sending advanced military aid to Ukraine’s besieged government, preferring the use of economic sanctions as a club against Putin.
Yet the bloody civil war continues in Syria with Assad firmly in power and Putin has shown no reluctance to help pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, leading Nau to say that “in one area after another, the negotiation approach hasn’t worked.”
Like George W. Bush early in his presidency, Obama hoped a less confrontational approach would work with the Russian leader. In 2009, the Obama administration vowed a “reset” of U.S. relations with Russia and reversed a Bush administration plan to place 10 ground-based missile interceptors in Poland, a move aimed at assuaging Moscow’s fears of American missile defense.
But Putin’s aggressive reaction to the February overthrow of his Ukrainian ally, President Victor Yanukoych, seems to have shattered any sense that Obama can conduct regular business with the Russian leader.
At the NATO summit in Great Britain last week, Obama made clear that the U.S. and its NATO allies will defend a Russian invasion of any NATO ally, including Poland or the three small Baltic states.
Although conservatives want a more forceful response in Ukraine, Obama has actually provoked criticism in some quarters for taking too tough a stance.
In an interview, Mearsheimer said Obama “has basically decided to double down on the existing policy for dealing with Putin. His view is the best way to end this crisis is to get tough with the Russians and put harsh economic sanctions on Moscow. This is wrong. The best way to deal with this crisis is to back off and work with Russia to create a neutral Ukraine.”
By contrast, Obama has backed limited air strikes against ISIS and Iraq and seems to be preparing Americans for the possibility of U.S. air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria.
Even as he faces serious international challenges, Obama remains outwardly calm. At a fund-raiser last month in New York, Obama assured his audience that U.S. “military superiority has never been greater compared to other countries.”
“The world has always been messy,” the president said. “In part, we’re just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through.” But, he said, “the good news is that American leadership has never been more necessary.”
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