"The president has not had a long-term strategic vision," said Vali Nasr, who advised the Obama administration on foreign policy in the first term and now serves as dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "They're moving issue to issue and reacting as situations come up."
Obama advisers say the president is frustrated by what is seen as a lack of good options for dealing with Arab unrest. But the president himself has pushed back at the notion that the U.S. has lost credibility on the world stage because he hasn't acted more forcefully.
"We remain the one indispensable nation," Obama said in a CNN interview aired Friday. "There's a reason why, when you listen to what's happened around Egypt and Syria, that everybody asks what the U.S. is doing. It's because the United States continues to be the one country that people expect can do more than just simply protect their borders."
But the perception of a president lacking in international influence extends beyond the Arab world, particularly to Russia. Since reassuming the presidency last year, Vladimir Putin has blocked U.S. efforts to seek action against Syria at the United Nations and has balked at Obama's efforts to seek new agreements on arms control.
Putin's hard-line approach stands in stark contrast to the relationship Obama cultivated in his first term with Putin's predecessor, Dmitri Medvedev. The two held friendly meetings in Moscow and Washington (Obama even took Medvedev out to lunch at a local burger joint) and achieved policy breakthroughs. They inked a new nuclear reduction agreement, and Moscow agreed to open up supply lines to help the U.S. pull troops and equipment out of Afghanistan.
Michael O'Hanlon, a national security analyst at The Brookings Institution, said the president miscalculated in assuming that a few signs of improved ties would be enough to overcome years of distrust with the Russians.
"The issue here is one of raised expectations, unrealistically high expectations that Obama himself deliberately stoked," O'Hanlon said. "He hoped that a more pragmatic, disciplined, less interventionist foreign policy would appease the Russians."
The White House's ties with Russia were further damaged this summer when Moscow granted temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the former government contractor accused of leaking documents detailing secret U.S. surveillance programs. In retaliation, Obama canceled plans to meet with Putin in Moscow next month, though he will still attend the meeting of leading rich and developing nations in St. Petersburg, Russia.
But the international impact from the National Security Agency revelations has spread beyond Russia. In European capitals, where Obama's 2008 election was greeted with cheers, some leaders have publicly criticized the surveillance programs. Among them was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who questioned the legitimacy of the programs while standing alongside Obama during his visit to Berlin earlier this year.
Obama has long enjoyed high approval ratings from the European public, though those numbers have slipped in his second term. So has European approval for his administration's international policies.
A Pew Research Center poll conducted this spring, before the NSA programs were revealed, showed that support for Obama's international policies was down in most of the countries surveyed, including a 14 point drop in Britain and a 12 point drop in France.
Follow Julie Pace on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jpaceDC
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