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.”
The strongest challenge to Obama’s philosophy on intervention has come from the deepening tumult in the Middle East and North Africa. The president saw great promise in the region when he first took office and pledged “a new beginning” with the Arab world when he traveled to Cairo in 2009.
But the democracy protests that spread across the region quickly scrambled Obama’s efforts. While the U.S. has consistently backed the rights of people seeking democracy, the violence that followed has often left the Obama administration unsure of its next move or taking tentative steps that do little to change the situation on the ground.
In Egypt, where the country’s first democratically elected president was ousted last month, the U.S. has refused to call Mohammed Morsi’s removal a coup. The ruling military, which the U.S. has financially backed for decades, has largely ignored Obama’s calls to end assaults on Morsi supporters. And U.S. officials are internally at odds over whether to cut off aid to the military.