But in the furious aftermath of a massacre in Syria that resulted in the deaths of 108 civilians, most of them women and children, Obama has remained quiet. The reticence from a president who has made repairing America’s moral leadership in the region a central premise of his administration, and who delivered a speech from the heart of the Arab world three years ago designed to do just that, has disturbed those pressing for stronger international response to the crisis.
“There was a time when this president looked for opportunities to put his imprint on world events,” said Jon B. Alterman, the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He’s doing less and less of that now, and the reason may have to do with the campaign.”
Any incumbent president hopes for a quiet world during campaign season to avoid the distractions that can upset a successful reelection effort. That is especially true for Obama, who is making his case for a second term in part on the argument that he has been an effective steward of America abroad, concluding its long wars and rejuvenating its alliances.
Although the election will likely be determined by the health of the American economy in a handful of swing states, both Obama and the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, have begun to describe the management of foreign affairs as a proxy for presidential leadership.
For example, Obama’s decision in May to produce a campaign video on the anniversary of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden is the clearest example yet of how he has sought to cite foreign affairs as proof of his effectiveness.
When Obama has addressed issues and crises overseas, he has focused on areas that either improve or help preserve his re-election prospects.
In discussing the euro-zone crisis, he highlights the threat it poses to the U.S. economy. He has urged European leaders, most recently in last week’s teleconference call that was a follow-up to the Group of 8 summit at Camp David last month, to take decisive steps to prevent a collapse.
In outlining the end of the war in Afghanistan, he emphasizes the importance of bringing troops home and investing the peace dividend. Polls show that a majority of Americans no longer believe the war is worth fighting.
And in pledging to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, he describes the need to avert a war with potentially devastating consequences for the oil-rich Middle East, the world economy and an ally with a large political constituency in the United States.