POLITICS: PennAve

Why perceptions of Obama's foreign policies may never turn around

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Barack Obama,Iran,Iraq,Russia,National Security,Syria,PennAve,Middle East,Ukraine,Magazine,Gaza

President Obama has never faced this many international crises at once. And it's never been so obvious that he lacks the silver bullet to fix them.

With no apparent solution to the violence in Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan -- and with the much-heralded Iran talks still without a breakthrough -- the president soon will find it virtually impossible to claim a major foreign-policy victory before he leaves office.

The White House is desperate for a win, with Obama's approval ratings on international affairs at an all-time low, surveys have repeatedly found. But he has no realistic way of bolstering his standing with the American public, as he did when U.S. forces killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and he won his most significant spike in how voters perceived his handling of crises abroad.

“It's a cruel and unforgiving world,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator and adviser to six secretaries of state. “There's no opportunities where he can demonstrate resolve or success -- there's a certain reality there.”

When Obama took to the White House briefing room Wednesday to discuss the barrage of foreign conflicts, he trumpeted progress on the upcoming presidential election in Afghanistan. But that played like a footnote to questions over whether heightened sanctions against Russia would deter the Kremlin's aggression in Ukraine or if the U.S. was having any influence in Iraq and Syria.

Obama seemed to acknowledge his predicament, a message that emboldened his critics and did little to inspire his supporters.

“I'll point out the obvious. We live in a complex world and at a challenging time,” Obama said. “ And none of these challenges lend themselves to quick or easy solutions. … I'm confident that if we stay patient and determined, that we will, in fact, meet these challenges.”

With two and a half years left in the Oval Office, Obama doesn't have time for such patience.

But analysts said he might be resigned to his fate.

“None of these steps will be easy, but it is time that the administration, Congress, think tanks and media began to accept the fact that the United States faces an unstable mess in the entire [Middle East and North Africa] region that is likely to take at least a decade to play out before there is any real stability,” said Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke chairman in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Unpleasant alternatives being explored by the administration will do little to bolster the president, particularly one looking for refuge from a string of stalled domestic priorities.

Many of the raging issues, particularly in the Middle East, predated Obama. But critics contend that he exacerbated matters by being so reactive rather than using American power abroad to keep the situations from spinning out of control.

With each day, a new problem seems to emerge.

The White House promoted a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas before it swiftly fell apart -- and Israel launched a ground assault. Obama announced new sanctions against Russia, and then hours later a passenger plane was shot down over Ukraine, killing 295.

“The president has to feel snakebitten,” conceded one veteran Democratic consultant. “They can argue all day about who is responsible, but he is the one who will absorb most of the blame. It's unavoidable.”

But other Democrats said that it's not just trouble abroad causing Americans to doubt whether Obama is attuned to conflicts overseas.

“I think a lot of his problems are the same problems [George] H.W. Bush and [Jimmy] Carter had -- you can't have high ratings on anything if the economy is bad,” said former Delaware Democratic Sen. Ted Kaufman, Joe Biden's longtime Senate chief of staff, who succeeded him briefly in the upper chamber.

Another reality, Kaufman added, is that “second terms for presidents for the last 50, 60 years have not been kind.”

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