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Not the world Obama expected

By JULIE PACE
August 26, 2013

For President Barack Obama, a troubled world. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

For President Barack Obama, a troubled world.
(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Nearly five years into his presidency, Barack Obama confronts a world far different from what he envisioned when he first took office. U.S. influence is declining in the Middle East as violence and instability rock Arab countries. An ambitious attempt to reset U.S. relations with Russia faltered and failed. Even in Obama-friendly Europe, there’s deep skepticism about Washington’s government surveillance programs.

In some cases, the current climate has been driven by factors outside the White House’s control. But missteps by the president also are to blame, say foreign policy analysts, including some who worked for the Obama administration.

Among them: miscalculating the fallout from the Arab Spring uprisings, publicly setting unrealistic expectations for improved ties with Russia and a reactive decision-making process that can leave the White House appearing to veer from crisis to crisis without a broader strategy.

Rosa Brooks, a former Defense Department official who left the administration in 2011, said that while the shrinking U.S. leverage overseas predates the current president, “Obama has sometimes equated ‘we have no leverage’ with ‘there’s no point to really doing anything’.”

Obama, faced most urgently with escalating crises in Egypt and Syria, has defended his measured approach, saying America’s ability to solve the world’s problems on its own has been “overstated.”

“Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations,” he said. “We have to think through strategically what’s going to be in our long-term national interests.”

The strongest challenge to Obama’s philosophy on intervention has come from the deepening tumult in the Middle East and North Africa. The president saw great promise in the region when he first took office and pledged “a new beginning” with the Arab world when he traveled to Cairo in 2009.

But the democracy protests that spread across the region quickly scrambled Obama’s efforts. While the U.S. has consistently backed the rights of people seeking democracy, the violence that followed has often left the Obama administration unsure of its next move or taking tentative steps that do little to change the situation on the ground.

In Egypt, where the country’s first democratically elected president was ousted last month, the U.S. has refused to call Mohammed Morsi’s removal a coup. The ruling military, which the U.S. has financially backed for decades, has largely ignored Obama’s calls to end assaults on Morsi supporters. And U.S. officials are internally at odds over whether to cut off aid to the military.

In Syria, where more than 100,000 people have been killed during the two-and-a-half year civil war, Obama’s pledges that President Bashar Assad will be held accountable have failed to push the Syrian leader from office. And despite warning that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” in Syria, there was scant American retaliation when he did use the toxic gases. On Sunday senior administration official said there is “very little doubt” that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in an incident that killed at least a hundred people last week. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.

Few foreign policy experts predicted the Arab uprisings, and it’s unlikely the U.S. could have — or should have — done anything to prevent the protests. But analysts say Obama misjudged the movements’ next stages, including Assad’s ability to cling to power and the strength of Islamist political parties in Egypt.

“The president has not had a long-term strategic vision,” said Vali Nasr, who advised the Obama administration on foreign policy in the first term and now serves as dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “They’re moving issue to issue and reacting as situations come up.”

Obama advisers say the president is frustrated by what is seen as a lack of good options for dealing with Arab unrest. But the president himself has pushed back at the notion that the U.S. has lost credibility on the world stage because he hasn’t acted more forcefully.

“We remain the one indispensable nation,” Obama said in a CNN interview aired Friday. “There’s a reason why, when you listen to what’s happened around Egypt and Syria, that everybody asks what the U.S. is doing. It’s because the United States continues to be the one country that people expect can do more than just simply protect their borders.”

But the perception of a president lacking in international influence extends beyond the Arab world, particularly to Russia. Since reassuming the presidency last year, Vladimir Putin has blocked U.S. efforts to seek action against Syria at the United Nations and has balked at Obama’s efforts to seek new agreements on arms control.

Putin’s hard-line approach stands in stark contrast to the relationship Obama cultivated in his first term with Putin’s predecessor, Dmitri Medvedev. The two held friendly meetings in Moscow and Washington (Obama even took Medvedev out to lunch at a local burger joint) and achieved policy breakthroughs. They inked a new nuclear reduction agreement, and Moscow agreed to open up supply lines to help the U.S. pull troops and equipment out of Afghanistan.

Michael O’Hanlon, a national security analyst at The Brookings Institution, said the president miscalculated in assuming that a few signs of improved ties would be enough to overcome years of distrust with the Russians.

“The issue here is one of raised expectations, unrealistically high expectations that Obama himself deliberately stoked,” O’Hanlon said. “He hoped that a more pragmatic, disciplined, less interventionist foreign policy would appease the Russians.”

The White House’s ties with Russia were further damaged this summer when Moscow granted temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the former government contractor accused of leaking documents detailing secret U.S. surveillance programs. In retaliation, Obama canceled plans to meet with Putin in Moscow next month, though he will still attend the meeting of leading rich and developing nations in St. Petersburg, Russia.

But the international impact from the National Security Agency revelations has spread beyond Russia. In European capitals, where Obama’s 2008 election was greeted with cheers, some leaders have publicly criticized the surveillance programs. Among them was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who questioned the legitimacy of the programs while standing alongside Obama during his visit to Berlin earlier this year.

Obama has long enjoyed high approval ratings from the European public, though those numbers have slipped in his second term. So has European approval for his administration’s international policies.

A Pew Research Center poll conducted this spring, before the NSA programs were revealed, showed that support for Obama’s international policies was down in most of the countries surveyed, including a 14 point drop in Britain and a 12 point drop in France.

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Follow Julie Pace on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

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3 Responses to Not the world Obama expected

  1. Carl Nemo **==

    August 26, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    This President has had the opportunity to turn the USS America about, but his presidency operating more like a ‘regime’ has continued on with Bush/Cheney era policies in spades. He’s been referred to as ‘Bush Lite’ with some saying he’s even more Bush than Bush. / : |

    “Mr. Change we can believe in” has turned out to be a total and absolute bust. He’s surrounded himself with retread policy advisers from past administrations, all of them linked to most of our current travails as a nation.

    His policies and actions seemingly are that of a man following a ‘script’ orchestrated by shadowy policy/power brokers who have dark plans for “We the People”.

    Bush/Cheney destabilized the Middle East with their unwarranted attack on Iraq based on cooked intel concerning WMD’s later to be proven totally untrue.

    President Obama & Co. have continued this massive interference in Middle Eastern affairs. Seemingly our government is in the business of birthing and nurturing terrorist activity as a function of our skewed policies either intentional or otherwise.

    On the domestic front the job situation is still in crisis. We have an unholy axis of Fed~Treasury counterfeiting schemes with the creation of fiat money out of thin air with the Federal Reserve purchasing 85 billion dollars worth of bad paper and debt each month. Even now traditional deep pockets bondholders are turning their backs on the U.S. Treasury auction while yields are creeping ever upward meaning U.S. taxpayers will be plagued with paying evermore interest on our national debts.

    The ‘Obamacare’ nightmare is soon to be launched upon the land. It’s already causing companies to dump those that have been covered in the past under their medical plans or their work hours cut in order to put them in the class of the uncovered, thus having to seek coverage under this citizen unfriendly plan. This will make citizens seemingly criminals having to be ‘fined’ for not acquiring such coverage due to the fact they simply cannot afford ‘Obamacare’. This is not a case of citizen friendly socialism, but a sick, warped form of corpo/fascism thrust upon us all.

    No,this is not the world that Obama expected, but the one that he and his associates have wrought. They’ve sown the wind and in time we shall all reap the whirlwind for their flawed, citizen taxpayer unfriendly decisions and policies. We’re in the sweephand mode to our day of reckoning.

    Carl Nemo **==

  2. Keith

    August 27, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    President Obama & Co. have continued this massive interference in Middle Eastern affairs. Seemingly our government is in the business of birthing and nurturing terrorist activity as a function of our skewed policies either intentional or otherwise.

    Agreed.

    However “Obama and Co.” (as you call it) would be out of business if it were not for a highly complicit US Congress.

    Unfortunately, most US citizens remain blissfully unaware that it’s the US CONGRESS that must also underwrite the President’s policies with funding.

    FOR without the funding to implement them, ALL of Mr. Obama’s grand and glorious schemes (both at home and abroad) would go absolutely nowhere.

    Indeed, it’s our highly complicit, self-serving US CONGRESS (specifically our House of Representatives) that keeps underwriting the Trillions of dollars now being allocated annually to feed the “Terrorist Industrial Complex” and all of the other horribly failed “nanny state” social programs from a bygone era.

    The bottom line here is that, unless and until the US Congress pulls the plug on the funding that underwrites the military (and so-called “security”) bureaucracy’s continued penchant for poking their collective noses into other nation’s affairs, ALL of that unconstitutional criminality will continue unabated.

    And pointing the finger at President Obama as being SOLELY responsible for such criminality simply perpetuates a “Get Out Of Jail Free” card for the “unindicted co-conspirators” in the US Congress who continue to underwrite it all with their appropriations.

    • Carl Nemo **==

      August 27, 2013 at 4:09 pm

      Thanks for the followup commentary Keith. I’m well aware of our complicit Congress, but simply focused on Obama as a function of Ms. Pace’s editorial referencing his assumed woes to date.

      In my case you and I are one on 99.9% of your analyses concerning the failed order of the day; re:, the issue of our Congress failing its Constitutional duty to check the Executive branch from engaging in foreign adventurism. Seemingly with each an every repassage of the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) Congress has enfranchised the Executive to use our military as a planetary policing function against ‘terror’, the latest example our incursion on Syria without even a U.N. mandate. Our military has been degnerated into a planetary SWAT team utilized by a corrupt Excutive with a globalist agenda all with the blessings of a similarly corrupt Congress.

      Carl Nemo **==