POLITICS: PennAve

Obama proceeds step by cautious step in foreign affairs

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Barack Obama,Israel,Russia,National Security,PennAve,Foreign Policy,Ukraine,Magazine

The White House is laboring to explain President Obama's handling of a series of recent foreign conflicts, fresh off a trip intended to showcase his pivot to Asia and his broader global agenda.

With the Ukrainian crisis overshadowing his domestic priorities, Obama has faced growing calls to better articulate just how his White House plans to put out fires overseas that show no signs of abating.

Many second-term presidents, aware of their waning political capital, try to use success in foreign affairs to burnish their legacies.

But the tensions in Ukraine, coupled with a breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and an unending Syrian civil war, have left a black mark instead.

The commander in chief bristled in the Philippines when asked to lay out the so-called Obama doctrine, before insisting that he was making steady progress overseas despite growing doubts among voters about his handling of foreign policy.

Obama argued that his goal is to avoid the messy entanglements that plagued his predecessor, even if the results seem incremental.

“That may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows,” Obama eventually explained of his strategy.

“But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run,” he added.

However, some analysts see the standoff with Russia as indicative of the president's tendency to get caught flat-footed in response to international crises.

“There’s always this impetus on talking rather than doing,” said Andrew Kuchins, senior fellow and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Obama has responded to the criticism by accusing his political opponents of saber rattling, saying they have failed to heed the lessons of foreign conflicts that drained U.S. blood and treasure.

“I think he has a hard time adjusting the tool kit to situations that are not so amenable to what he would like,” Kuchins countered. “And the administration gets completely defensive about it. He’s framing it like it’s sort of a binary choice: 'either we use military force or we do it my way' — it's a false choice."

For Obama, it's a delicate balancing act. Aware that the public is war weary, the president has gone to great lengths to avoid foreign involvements over which the U.S. has little control, making him seem weak when allies are clamoring for a stronger American response. His reluctance to use bolder rhetoric against Russian President Vladimir Putin is in keeping with the lesson he learned from Syria, where he declared a red line for intervention only to back off when pressed to live up to his tough talk.

Critics say that reluctance to take bold action has produced a muddled foreign policy.

“The entire Obama doctrine really is an empty shell,” said Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“It has been an unmitigated failure on the world stage,” he said. “President Obama can barely point to a single foreign policy success under his tenure, and his legacy is one of U.S. disengagement from international affairs.”

The White House points to ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran as a potential landmark agreement under Obama's watch, and argues that withdrawing most U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan has been a significant achievement for the president.

But Obama has enjoyed few foreign policy wins in his second term. And perceptions of his leadership abilities have taken a downward turn, partly because of his handling of foreign affairs.

Perhaps even more vexing for the White House is that some foreign rivals, notably Russia, see Obama as a pushover.

When the White House rolled out the latest round of sanctions against senior Russian officials, the Kremlin responded with a collective shrug and appeared undeterred in its quest to exert greater influence in Ukraine.

And leaders in Kiev have expressed frustration with what they see as a reluctance from the White House to pursue sanctions because of fears they would hurt European economies.

Criticism notwithstanding, the Obama doctrine of incremental steps will remain in place for the remainder of the president's second term, barring a major crisis that directly affects U.S. interests, experts said.

“I don’t think they feel an immediate threat [politically],” Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University professor of history and public affairs, said of the White House.

“He’s tried to take foreign policy step by step rather than articulate a big vision he then has to adhere to,” Zelizer added. “That is his philosophy for better or worse."

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