Prob­lem month FOR PRES­I­DENT

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WASH­ING­TON — Short of world war, it’s rare a chief ex­ec­u­tive goes through a for­eign pol­icy month like U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s Au­gust.

U.S. war­planes struck in Iraq for the first time in years, as U.S. di­plo­mats strug­gled to es­tab­lish a new gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad. Is­lamic State mil­i­tants be­headed an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist in Syria and spread their reach across the Mid­dle East.

War raged between Is­rael and Ha­mas in Gaza. In Afghanistan, U.S. plans for an or­derly exit at the end of the year teetered on the brink of dis­as­ter. Rus­sia all but in­vaded Ukraine and dared Obama to stop it. Libya de­scended into vi­o­lent chaos.

As events cas­caded, Obama jug­gled rounds of va­ca­tion golf with public state­ments ad­dress­ing the con­flicts. But his cool de­meanour, and the splitscreen im­agery of a pres­i­dent at play and at work, seemed ill-matched to the mo­ment.

Then came a Thurs­day press con­fer­ence and a com­ment that only re­in­forced crit­i­cism of a pres­i­dent nei­ther fully en­gaged nor truly lean­ing into world prob­lems. Speak­ing of the Is­lamic State, he said, “We don’t have a strat­egy yet.”

The state­ment may have had the virtue of can­dour, as Obama weighs the mil­i­tary and diplo­matic com­po­nents of a U.S. re­sponse and seeks sup­port from other na­tions. But it hardly pro­jects an im­age of pres­i­den­tial re­solve or de­ci­sive­ness at a time of in­ter­na­tional tur­moil.

Repub­li­cans pounced on the state­ment. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speak­ing Fri­day in Texas, said, “If the pres­i­dent has no strat­egy, maybe it’s time for a new pres­i­dent.” He said in a later email he would call a joint ses­sion of Congress to seek au­thor­ity “to de­stroy ISIS mil­i­tar­ily,” us­ing an­other name for the Is­lamic State. Texas Gov. Rick Perry ac­cused Obama of “lurch­ing from cri­sis to cri­sis, always one step be­hind.”

White House se­nior ad­viser Dan Pfeif­fer said Obama will con­tinue to move at his own speed to re­spond to th­ese crises, re­gard­less of crit­i­cism. “There’s no timetable for solv­ing th­ese prob­lems that’s go­ing to meet the ca­ble news cy­cle speed,” he said. “It’s not a ten­able thing. We’d much rather do this right than do it quickly. We tried the op­po­site (dur­ing the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion), and it worked out very poorly.”

This week, Obama will have an op­por­tu­nity to show global lead­er­ship at a cri­sis-packed sum­mit with Euro­pean al­lies. Im­me­di­ately after­ward, Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry will travel to the Mid­dle East, where po­ten­tial part­ners, wait­ing to see whether Obama has the ca­pac­ity to chart a clear, de­ci­sive course, are hop­ing for di­rec­tion.

As the ad­min­is­tra­tion heads into those meet­ings, Kerry of­fered crisp and force­ful march­ing or­ders. “Airstrikes alone won’t de­feat this en­emy,” he wrote in a Satur­day op-ed ar­ti­cle in the New York Times. “A much fuller re­sponse is de­manded from the world. We need to sup­port Iraqi forces and the moder­ate Syr­ian op­po­si­tion, who are fac­ing ISIS on the front lines.”

The world Obama now con­fronts is much dif­fer­ent from the one he in­her­ited when he came into of­fice nearly six years ago, and it is test­ing whether the style and sub­stance of his lead­er­ship can win sup­port­ers and pre­vail against en­e­mies.

In the first years of his pres­i­dency, Obama’s prin­ci­pal for­eign pol­icy goals were far less re­ac­tive and were more de­pen­dent on his ini­tia­tive and sense of tim­ing.

With a sched­ule for Iraq with­drawal al­ready set, he de­vel­oped poli­cies for end­ing the then-fal­ter­ing war in Afghanistan. In a pat­tern that would re­peat it­self on other is­sues, he de­lib­er­ated for months, then split the dif­fer­ence by si­mul­ta­ne­ously an­nounc­ing a surge of troops and the tim­ing of their de­par­ture.

As he tried to en­gage the world on his terms, Obama quickly found out the world had thoughts and plans of its own. Far from the re­set Obama sought with Rus­sia, Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin sought a new bal­ance of power through ag­gres­sion in Ukraine. While Obama of­fered a fresh start for the United States in the Mus­lim world, the Arab Spring headed to­ward desta­bi­liza­tion rather than democ­racy.

Six years later, events seem to have spun out of his con­trol, and Obama must re­act to the ac­tions of oth­ers. Putin’s ag­gres­sion in Ukraine has sparked the great­est East-West cri­sis since the Cold War. Is­lamic State ad­vances have swal­lowed up a large swath of the Mid­dle East and threaten a global up­heaval far be­yond the shock of al- Qaida’s 2001 at­tacks.

Obama now must con­tem­plate what could be a lengthy and messy recom­mit­ment of U.S. mil­i­tary might in a re­gion that con­tin­ues to defy his ef­forts to cre­ate sta­bil­ity. Having promised re­spect­ful re­la­tions among the big pow­ers, he must prove the non­mil­i­tary tools of power — diplo­macy and economic pres­sure — will even­tu­ally force Rus­sia back within its own bor­ders.

His­to­rian David Kennedy of Stan­ford Univer­sity noted Obama has strug­gled through­out his pres­i­dency to ar­tic­u­late a large and in­te­grated vi­sion in both do­mes­tic and for­eign pol­icy and con­trasted that with the rhetor­i­cal and com­mu­ni­ca­tions skills of Can­di­date Obama in 2008.

He said Obama faces some­thing of “devil’s brew” as he deals with a world of pro­lif­er­at­ing ag­gres­sors and the pal­pa­ble ex­haus­tion of the Amer­i­can peo­ple for mil­i­tary en­gage­ment. “There’s an ex­pec­ta­tion, es­pe­cially since World War II, that the United States, and the pres­i­dent in par­tic­u­lar, can com­mand events,” he said. “That’s not true, and less true to­day than ever.”

Pres­i­den­tial ad­vis­ers ar­gue Obama’s for­eign-pol­icy man­age­ment has born fruit, from get­ting the Syr­i­ans to give up their chem­i­cal weapons to bring­ing Iran to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble over its nu­clear pro­gram to en­gen­der­ing the trust and cred­i­bil­ity with other lead­ers to get Euro­pean na­tions to sup­port sanc­tions against Rus­sia and re­build a global coali­tion to deal with the Is­lamic State threat.

A se­nior of­fi­cial called Obama’s Ira­nian pol­icy “a per­fect ex­am­ple of a dis­ci­plined re­sponse that po­ten­tially leads to a good out­come.” Yet even for­mer sec­re­tary of state Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton has ex­pressed skep­ti­cism Ira­nian ne­go­ti­a­tions will reach a suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion and has been vo­cal in dis­agree­ing with Obama’s ear­lier de­ci­sions not to in­ter­vene more di­rectly to sup­port rebel forces in Syria.

Of­fi­cials across the gov­ern­ment spent Fri­day try­ing to clean up af­ter Obama’s Thurs­day news con­fer­ence. They in­sisted his “no strat­egy” re­mark had been mis­in­ter­preted and what was be­ing por­trayed as hes­i­ta­tion and de­lay was in­stead a sign of due dili­gence and a sharp fo­cus on de­vel­op­ing an effective long-term plan

Ear­lier state­ments by De­fense Sec­re­tary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the over­all threat posed by Is­lamic State mil­i­tants and the ne­ces­sity of even­tu­ally tak­ing the fight into Syria, cou­pled with re­ports the United States had launched sur­veil­lance flights over Syria, prompted spec­u­la­tion of po­ten­tially im­mi­nent mil­i­tary ac­tion.

White House press sec­re­tary Josh Earnest de­nied a con­tra­dic­tion. “I think the pres­i­dent was pretty ex­plicit that he is de­ter­mined to make sure that ev­ery el­e­ment of his na­tional se­cu­rity strat­egy is thought through,” he said.

As Obama sought to nudge the de­bate back into his de­lib­er­a­tive com­fort zone, oth­ers urged him to­ward ac­tion. Ryan Crocker, who has served as U.S. am­bas­sador in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, pleaded with the pres­i­dent to stop de­lib­er­at­ing and start act­ing. “I don’t think we have an al­ter­na­tive to swift, de­ci­sive mil­i­tary ac­tion to de­grade ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. Give them no safe place to plan fur­ther at­tacks,” he said in a CNN in­ter­view Fri­day.

U.S. of­fi­cials re­jected the no­tion they are not act­ing. They em­pha­sized Obama moved quickly in Iraq with airstrikes and said this month’s op­er­a­tions there are the first step in a larger strat­egy against the Is­lamic State. They in­di­cated that they will not be pushed into an im­me­di­ate re­sponse to re­cent events in Syria.

“The dy­namic that you want, that I think is pos­si­ble, is that (Is­lamic State) has over­reached and overex­tended it­self, both in terms of the ter­ri­tory it’s tried to claim, and the num­ber of en­e­mies it’s man­aged to make,” a se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said.

Limited airstrikes in Iraq, and the for­ma­tion of a more-in­clu­sive ver­sion of Iraq’s Shi­ite-led gov­ern­ment, will en­cour­age Sunni Arab states to work to­gether, un­der U.S. lead­er­ship, in ways that have eluded them thus far, the of­fi­cial said.

He added the “in­ter­na­tional out­rage in coun­tries like Bri­tain, France, Aus­tralia and Canada” over mil­i­tants’ bru­tal­ity, and the threat from Western pass­port hold­ers within the Is­lamist or­ga­ni­za­tion, will make those coun­tries more will­ing to par­tic­i­pate in mil­i­tary and other op­er­a­tions against the mil­i­tants in re­sponse to a pa­tient and well-con­ceived U.S. strat­egy.

U.S. al­lies say they have a resid­ual well of con­fi­dence in Obama de­spite what they saw as the fail­ure of U.S. lead­er­ship over the past year in Syria.

“What I do re­gret,” said a se­nior Euro­pean of­fi­cial, is the Is­lamic State or­ga­ni­za­tion has be­come “ex­actly what we feared” last year when Obama held back in arm­ing moder­ate rebel forces in Syria and re­versed course on U.S. mil­i­tary ac­tion there.

The Syria airstrikes, planned in Au­gust 2013 to pun­ish Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad for us­ing chem­i­cal weapons and to de­stroy his weapons pro­gram, might have avoided the cur­rent mess by send­ing a mes­sage to Syr­i­ans and U.S. al­lies that Obama was en­gaged and rec­og­nized the grow­ing Is­lamist threat, said the of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to avoid pub­licly crit­i­ciz­ing the pres­i­dent.

But the of­fi­cial be­lieves this sum­mer has been dif­fer­ent. Obama’s tak­ing the lead on sanc­tions against Rus­sia — and press­ing re­luc­tant Euro­peans to join — and the airstrikes this month against Is­lamic State in Iraq have gone some dis­tance in restor­ing al­lied con­fi­dence in the pres­i­dent.

— Wash­ing­ton Post

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