As world changes, so does Obama foreign policy
WASHINGTON - 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."
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Thursday that a chemical attack "appears to be what happened."
Republican Sen. Bob Corker called Sunday for the U.S. to respond in a "surgical and proportional way, something that gets their attention." The Tennessee lawmaker said such a response should not involve U.S. troops on the ground, however.
"I think we have to respond. . .in conjunction with our NATO allies. . .much as we have done in Libya," Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., added. He suggested using cruise missile strikes to destroy Syrian airport runways. "We cannot sit still. We've got to move and we've got to move quickly," he said.
Engel and Corker spoke on "Fox News Sunday."
The White House has approved limited lethal aid to Syrian rebels but has limited weapons to mostly small arms and training. Obama described the factors limiting greater U.S. involvement in a CNN interview.
"If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it - do we have the coalition to make it work?" Obama said in the interview broadcast Friday. "Those are considerations that we have to take into account."
Hagel offered no hints Sunday about likely U.S. response to Syria's purported use of chemical weapons, telling reporters traveling with him in Malaysia that the Obama administration was still assessing intelligence information about the deadly attack.
"When we have more information, that answer will become clear," he said when a reporter asked whether it was a matter of when, not if, the U.S. will take military action against Syria.
Asked about U.S. military options on Syria, Hagel spoke in broad terms about the factors Obama is weighing.
"There are risks and consequences for any option that would be used or not used - for action or inaction," he told reporters. "You have to come to the central point of what would be the objective if you are to pursue an action or not pursue an action. So all those assessments are being made."
If the U.S. wants to send a message to Assad, defense officials have previously indicated the most likely military action would be a Tomahawk missile strike, launched from a ship in the Mediterranean.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a letter to a congressman last week that the administration opposes even limited action in Syria because it believes rebels fighting the Assad government wouldn't support American interests if they seized power. He said while the U.S. military could take out Assad's air force and shift the balance of the war toward the armed opposition, but that it's unclear where the strategy would go from there.
Dempsey is now in Amman, Jordan, set to meet with Arab and Western peers later Sunday to discuss ways to bolster the security of Syria's neighbors against possible attacks, chemical or other, by Assad's regime, a Jordanian security official said.
The meeting, closed to the press and held at an unspecified location, gathers chiefs of staff from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, the official said on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to brief reporters.