For Obama, world looks far different than expected

By Julie Pace

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Aug. 26 2013 10:33 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama speaks during a visit to Lackawanna College Friday, Aug. 23, 2013, in Scranton, Pa. Obama is on the second day of his two-day bus tour discussing college affordability in upstate New York and Pennsylvania.

Matt Rourke, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

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."

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.

In Syria, where more than 100,000 people have been killed during the two-and-a-half year civil war, Obama's pledges that President Bashar Assad will be held accountable have failed to push the Syrian leader from office. And despite warning that Assad's use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" in Syria, there was scant American retaliation when he did use the toxic gases. On Sunday senior administration official said there is "very little doubt" that a chemical weapon was used by the Syrian regime against civilians in an incident that killed at least a hundred people last week. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Monday that the Obama administration will "get the facts" before acting and that any U.S. move would be done in concert with the international community. But there is pressure in Congress for Obama to act swiftly, possibly along the lines of a U.S. air strike against Syria.

Few foreign policy experts predicted the Arab uprisings, and it's unlikely the U.S. could have — or should have — done anything to prevent the protests. But analysts say Obama misjudged the movements' next stages, including Assad's ability to cling to power and the strength of Islamist political parties in Egypt.

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