President Barack Obama’s first-term foreign policy was epitomized by success in fulfilling his campaign promise to end the U.S. role in Iraq and by the stunning U.S. Special Forces killing of Osama bin Laden.
Obama’s second term, however, seems increasingly exemplified by last year’s withdrawn promise to bomb Syria for using chemical weapons and his all-too-public inability to develop and implement a strategy to halt the advance of the transnational Islamic State.
For many critics, Obama had it wrong from the start. By completing the Iraq withdrawal started by former President George W. Bush, extending it to Afghanistan and minimizing any U.S. role in Syria and Libya, Obama abandoned American leadership, his critics say, citing the anonymous administration official’s statement that the U.S. was “leading from behind.”
But Obama’s initial steps met the American people’s expectations and displayed an appropriate purpose: reducing the over-commitments of the Bush years. The turning point came last year after Syria President Bashar al-Assad, beset by civil war, crossed Obama’s “red line” when he used chemical weapons against his country’s civilians. That action killed nearly 1,500 people, including more than 400 children.
After vowing a strong response, Obama undercut his promise by deciding to seek support from a reluctant, divided Congress ― backing that never came. Though Americans seemingly accept the president’s innate caution in some areas, such as his response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, his wavering on how to deal with Syria and counter the rise of the Islamic State has damaged public perception of his foreign policy performance.
The problem may well be the sharp contrast between Obama’s ability to implement goals on which he campaigned and his difficulty in coping with complex new developments that require U.S. reaction. Complicating his calculus have been the political missteps of Iraqi leaders, whose persistent sectarianism helped spur the rise of the Islamic State, and complex changing events that may prevent him from lowering the U.S. overseas profile.
He lucked out when an inadvertent statement by Secretary of State John Kerry led to an unexpected agreement in which Assad turned over his chemical weapons to international monitors. But Obama gained very little from the low-key way he achieved his goal because, in the face of his not carrying out the attacks he pledged, the brutal Syrian civil war was dominating U.S. television screens with pictures of death and destruction.
At several points, Obama has hurt himself with seemingly undisciplined comments that enhanced the perception of a president unwilling or unable to lead.
An unnamed adviser used the “leading from behind” comment in an April 2011 article by The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza to characterize U.S. efforts to persuade its allies to take the lead in Libya. That remark has led to substantial grief for Obama, though former Pentagon official Lawrence Korb recently noted in The National Interest that the term could also fit the way Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and President Dwight D. Eisenhower sometimes dealt with international issues.
In August 2012, Obama established the “red line” during a lengthy answer about a possible strategy in Syria, declaring “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” Assad crossed it, but drew no U.S. response.
Last week, Obama created further uncertainty in answering a question about possible congressional approval for air attacks against the Islamic State. “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” he said. “We don’t have a strategy yet.”
Though the White House insisted that was interpreted more broadly than intended, Obama knows the 24/7 media age requires precision in everything he says, particularly about issues abroad.
While the Middle East policy challenges are great and not easily resolved, those six words hardly helped.
Obama’s comments Wednesday in Estonia were far more coherent, though he left unclear whether his ultimate goal is to “degrade” or “destroy” the Islamic State. His strong rhetoric doesn’t always fit his cautious actions.
Like other presidents, Obama has encountered difficulty from problems not easily foreseen at the outset. History’s judgment may depend more on his reaction to the unexpected than his implementation of the expected.
By Carl P. Leubsdorf
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: email@example.com. ― Ed.
(The Dallas Morning News)
(MCT Information Services)