An administration-wide public relations blitz, which Obama
launched with a big foreign policy speech this week, has done little
to quell critics who frequently pan his global approach as
rudderless, as the White House lurches from crisis to crisis.
With just two and a half years left in office, Obama’s chances of
forging a successful foreign-policy legacy by the end of his
presidency face seemingly intractable challenges, ranging from
Ukraine to Syria to the South China Sea.
While Obama has outlined a strategy that includes both a strong
military and the diplomatic tools of alliances and sanctions to
provide global leadership, it is unclear if he and his aides have
the vision – let alone time - to change the perception of a
presidency with eroding global influence.
“This is a risk-averse president who is unlikely to take bold
strokes,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to
Republican and Democratic administrations. “And he faces a series of
problems in which quick-and-easy American fixes are really not
Topping the list is Ukraine, where Obama and other Western leaders
were powerless to prevent Russia’s seizure of Crimea. It was a sharp
rebuke to Obama’s “reset” of relations with Moscow in his first term
– once seen as a big legacy achievement - and prompted Republican
critics to call him naïve for ever trusting Russian President
The best outcome Obama can hope for may be for Moscow to refrain
from taking over more of eastern Ukraine, which might be a credit to
the impact of U.S.-led sanctions but hardly an accomplishment of
historic proportions for his second term.
The image of Obama as a passive world leader has been fed by
perceptions he has allowed the civil war in Syria to fester. His
failure to strike Syrian forces last year after they crossed a U.S.
"red line" on the use of chemical weapons left doubts about Obama’s
willingness to use force in other world crises.
Though Obama used his speech to graduating cadets at West Point on
Wednesday to announce increased support for Syrian rebels, he made
clear U.S. involvement would remain limited.
How far Obama will go in response to China’s growing assertiveness
in maritime disputes with its neighbors is another tough question
for the remainder of his term.
Though he offered assurances on Wednesday about his effort to deepen
U.S. engagement with Asia, progress has been slow and some allies
are wondering whether his Asia “pivot” is real.
Most promising of Obama’s foreign policy initiatives – and the one
that could go the farthest in making history - is his outreach to
Iran that led to resumption of nuclear talks last year. But Obama
acknowledged the odds for success are long. And even if a deal is
reached, he would face an uphill struggle to win U.S. congressional
approval as well as backing from Israel.
Obama’s speech grew out of the president and his aides’ exasperation
over accusations that he had weakened America’s leadership in the
world, and their fear that the critique was hardening into
He may have made the situation worse when, pressed to lay out an
“Obama doctrine” on a trip to Asia last month, he testily outlined a
foreign policy that “avoids errors.”
“Don’t do stupid stuff” is the cleaned-up version of a phrase used
in Obama’s inner circle, aides say, to describe what they see as a
pragmatic approach by a president who met his promise to extract the
United States from an unpopular war in Iraq and is winding down the
war in Afghanistan.
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Wednesday's speech kicked off a weeks-long effort by the White House
to counter critics. He plans to elaborate during a trip to Europe
next week, and aides will make issue-specific speeches at home and
abroad to reinforce Obama's message.
Obama, a trained
constitutional lawyer, methodically defended his record and cast his
critics as out of step with war-weary Americans. Some fellow
Democrats and once-supportive columnists also recently have struck a
more critical tone.
The speech was widely panned by newspaper editorialists, with The
New York Times declaring: “The address did not match the hype, was
largely uninspiring, lacked strategic sweep and is unlikely to quiet
his detractors, on the right or the left.”
But Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings
Institution think tank, said Obama was striking the right balance in
crises like Ukraine, though he needed to do a better job explaining
himself. “A little dose of Ronald Reagan might help,” he wrote in
Foreign Affairs magazine.
Getting America out of Iraq and on the way to withdrawal from
Afghanistan – not to mention giving the order for the mission that
killed Osama bin Laden – will certainly go down as first-term bright
spots that will aid Obama's overall record.
The international arena is where second-term presidents often focus
more attention, especially when a divided Congress stymies their
legislative ambitions. This raises the possibility that Obama may
make another try at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking after the
collapse of the latest U.S. effort, or possibly make fresh overtures
to communist Cuba.
But Obama’s window may close before he can score new successes that
might help him recover his footing. Lame-duck status is looming as
this year's mid-term U.S. congressional elections approach, and
world leaders may be less apt to cooperate if they see his power
ebbing at home.
On top of that, recent polls show that at least half of Americans
disapprove of his overall approach to world affairs,
Other second-term presidents have overcome early troubles and seen
their foreign policy records treated well by historians. Reagan’s
second term was damaged by the Iran-Contra scandal but he is now
hailed for nuclear arms control and tough diplomacy that eventually
ended the Cold War.
Bill Clinton’s record was tarnished by a weak response to Rwanda's
genocide in his first term but his deeper engagement in Balkans
peacemaking and even a ambitious but failed Middle East peace effort
left him in good stead at the end of his tenure.
On the other hand, George W. Bush’s public approval ratings never
recovered in his second term as Americans soured on the Iraq war.
(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick, editing by Ross Colvin)
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