In the past week, Russian troops have crossed into Ukraine to aid separatists fighting the government in Kiev, and Chinese officials increased their rhetorical assault on U.S. surveillance flights over the South China Sea — in spite of talks designed to prevent incidents such as the Aug. 19 near-collision between a U.S. Navy spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet sent to intercept it.
The cascade of crises is leading some to ask if the president is becoming predictable to adversaries such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"He's clearly playing off the reality that the United States is eyeball-deep in another crisis in the Middle East," retired Lt. Gen. David Barno said of Putin.
Aside from the political pressure for decisive action against ISIS from lawmakers of both parties, Obama must deal with the fact that the Islamist extremist group is an immediate threat to the safety of U.S. troops and diplomats advising Iraqi Arab and Kurdish leaders, as well as captured journalist Steven Sotloff. The group has already killed U.S. journalist James Foley.
Though he admitted Thursday that "we don't have a strategy yet," Obama convened a National Security Council meeting to discuss measures for dealing with ISIS, saying before the meeting that "my priority at this point is to make sure that the gains that [ISIS] made in Iraq are rolled back, and that Iraq has the opportunity to govern itself effectively and secure itself."
Meanwhile, Obama deferred further action on Ukraine until next week's NATO summit in Britain and stopped short of calling Russia's action an "invasion," as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described it.
But Barno, a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, noted that U.S. priorities "could change overnight. This is an extraordinarily volatile situation."
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk seemed to prove that point Friday when he announced that his government would ask parliament to put the country on the path toward NATO membership — a step that would obligate the United States to defend Ukraine.
That's a distinction Obama took pains to note in his statement, saying the U.S. takes seriously its treaty commitment to defend every NATO country from aggression. Though he also said Americans "stand shoulder to shoulder" with Ukraine and announced that Poroshenko would visit the White House on Sept. 18, Obama made clear that "we are not taking military action to solve the Ukrainian problem."
Obama is also facing pressure from within his own administration. At an emergency Security Council meeting, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power pointedly declared that Russian aggression in Ukraine must be stopped.
"How can we tell those countries that border Russia that their peace and sovereignty is guaranteed if we do not make our message heard on Ukraine?" she asked. "Why should they believe it will be different if tomorrow, President Putin decides to start supporting armed separatists and allowing soldiers 'on vacation' to fight in their countries? And, just as important, what message are we sending to other countries with similarly alarming ambitions around the world, when we let Russia violate these rules without sufficient consequences?
"In the face of this threat, the cost of inaction is unacceptable."
Meanwhile, at a news conference Thursday, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun told reporters that U.S. surveillance near China's coastline must stop — a demand the Pentagon has already rejected.
"If the United States does not want to affect bilateral ties, it must reduce and ultimately stop such reconnaissance," Yang said.
The official People's Daily newspaper reprinted an editorial from a tabloid it controls that suggested if the U.S. flights do not stop, China would conduct its own reconnaissance off U.S. coasts.
The best way for Obama to stop being pulled in different directions is to change his approach to foreign policy, which feeds the impression that the U.S. isn't always paying attention, said James Carafano, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation and a former columnist for the Washington Examiner.
U.S. rivals have had six years to watch Obama, and have noticed a clear pattern of passive, incremental, risk-averse behavior toward international crises that offer opportunities to gain ground at U.S. expense, he said.
"He's been very, very predictable," Carafano said.