As World Boils, Fingers Point Obama’s Way
By PETER BAKERAUG. 15, 2014
WASHINGTON — In this summer of global tumult, the debate in Washington essentially boils down to two opposite positions: It is all President Obama’s fault, according to his critics; no, it is not, according to his supporters, because these are events beyond his control.
Americans often think of their president as an all-powerful figure who can command the tides of history — and presidents have encouraged this image over the years because the perception itself can be a form of power. But as his critics have made the case that Mr. Obama’s mistakes have fueled the turmoil in places like Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, the president has increasingly argued that his power to shape these seismic forces is actually limited.
“Apparently,” he said in frustration the other day, “people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world.”
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While as a statement of fact Mr. Obama’s assertion may be self-evident, it was seen by adversaries as a cop-out and even by more sympathetic analysts as a revealing moment for a president whiplashed by international instability.
“At least since World War II, presidents have been unwilling to discuss deficiencies in capability because they’re expected to do everything, and they like that sense of omnipotence,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a former Obama State Department official now at the Brookings Institution. “Obama has been trying to change that in the last year because he senses that the requirements of omnipotence have gotten so far out of whack with what he can actually accomplish that he needs to change the expectations.”
The risk, naturally, is that the president looks as if he is simply trying to excuse his own actions, or inactions, as the case may be.
“It’s become a refrain to the point where I think people are becoming quite critical that that’s his response to everything,” said Daniel L. Byman, a former member of the Sept. 11 commission staff now teaching at Georgetown University. “He’s not differentiating between things he can influence and those that he can’t.”
The bill of particulars against Mr. Obama is long. In the view of his critics, he failed to stanch the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria when he rejected proposals to arm more moderate elements of the Syrian resistance. He left a vacuum in Iraq by not doing more to leave a residual force behind when American troops exited in 2011. And he signaled weakness to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, encouraging the Kremlin to think it could intervene in Ukraine without fear of significant consequence.
“I certainly do not think President Obama is responsible for all of the world crises that have taken place during his time in office,” said William C. Inboden, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush and executive director of the William P. Clements Jr. Center on History, Strategy and Statecraft at the University of Texas. “But he is responsible for actions and attitudes he took that have contributed to some of those crises — and he is also responsible for how he responds, or fails to respond.”
Republicans are not the only ones voicing such sentiments. In her interview with The Atlantic that caused a recent furor, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said “the failure” to build up moderate Syrian rebels left a vacuum for the more ruthless forces of ISIS to fill.
In a Wall Street Journal opinion article on Friday, Gen. James L. Jones, the retired NATO commander and Mr. Obama’s first national security adviser, said the president should have left some troops in Iraq, retaliated against Syria for crossing his “red line” by using chemical weapons, and pressured the Baghdad government to arm the Kurds.
Such criticisms exasperate Mr. Obama and his team. In some cases, they argue, the crises that have emerged were wholly unforeseen. In others, they said, the solutions proffered by critics would not have worked and, in fact, may have made things worse. And besides, they often add, Mr. Obama inherited a situation that was broken when he got it, pointing to Mr. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in the first place.
In his recent interview with Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times, Mr. Obama said “it’s always been a fantasy” to think providing arms to moderate Syrian rebels would have helped them against hardened Islamic extremists. And he said if he had left troops in Iraq, “The difference would be we’d have 10,000 troops in the middle of this chaos as opposed to having a much more limited number.”
Former Representative Lee H. Hamilton, Democrat of Indiana, said presidents can influence but not dictate events. “Americans have a very strong tendency to think that whatever we do is the most important thing happening everywhere, and we have so much power and so much clout that we can control events everywhere,” said Mr. Hamilton, now director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “That’s part of what he’s wrestling with here.”
As it happens, Mr. Obama’s policy of restraint seems to match the public mood — polls find little appetite for robust American intervention in Ukraine, Syria or Iraq. And yet, there is a palpable sense of disappointment with Mr. Obama’s leadership on the world stage as well. Fifty-eight percent of Americans in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll disapproved of his handling of foreign policy, the highest of his presidency.
Presidents often find their popularity suffers when the world seems off kilter and they are held responsible even for events that may be beyond their sway. The who-lost-China debate during the early Cold War has been replicated repeatedly ever since in various forms.
Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and a former deputy secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, said what makes this period different is the diffusion of power from states to nonstate forces, the rapid spread of technology and the rise of Islamic extremism.
“We have an overall contagion of diffusion which makes it much harder to advance the cause of regional and global governance,” he said.
Some Democrats said Mr. Obama’s challenge has not necessarily been his approach to these crises, but his ability to explain and sell it.
“What he’s come up with in Iraq and in Ukraine are sensible strategies,” said former Representative Jane Harman of California, now president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “He now needs to link them with a narrative that explains to the American people why we have to re-engage in foreign policy matters, and I hope he does that.”
Tom Donilon, another former national security adviser to Mr. Obama, said the president has had to exercise leadership in situations he inherited as well as in others that were not of his making, but added that to avoid letting them consume his remaining time in office, he should set the agenda for positive international initiatives.
“With almost two and a half years left in his presidency,” said Mr. Donilon, “it’s important to get beyond the incoming of crises around the world and look to a set of strategic initiatives that the United States can pursue that can bring change of a permanent nature.”