NEWPORT, Wales - President Obama has spent the summer carefully weighing options to confront the world's myriad crises, while much of the world looked to the United States to take charge.
This week, at the NATO summit here in the rolling hills of Wales, Obama and members of his cabinet edged toward action, drumming up coalition support for action against the Islamic State. The president said Friday that a NATO-led group could reach out to Syrian rebels as possible proxy fighters to fight against Islamic militants.
"There’s great conviction that we have to act as part of the international community to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL," Obama said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
But while Obama was cogent during a 25-minute news conference here Friday, he could not shed his innate caution when it comes to potential military action in the region.
"We have been very systematic and methodical in going after these kinds of organizations that may threaten U.S. personnel and the homeland. And that deliberation allows us to do it right," Obama said. "....It’s not going to happen overnight, but we are steadily moving in the right direction. And we are going to achieve our goal."
For years, that kind of patience – or dithering, to his critics – has marked his approach to the civil war in Syria, the cradle of the latest incarnation of the Islamic State.
Meanwhile, that group's own movement has been marked by speed. The Islamic State swept across Syria’s border with Iraq earlier this year to capture in a matter of weeks the country’s second largest city, Mosul, and push on toward the edges of Baghdad.
Obama and the Islamic State have been operating on different clocks.
The president has been hammered on all sides for not being aggressive enough in confronting the Islamic State -- or Russia, as that nation makes increasingly aggressive moves against its neighbor, Ukraine. And so the NATO summit was a chance for for him to try to flex his muscles and lead a coalition in the direction of some sort of action after a summer where he has been chided for appearing weak and indecisive.
“This is a deep struggle for the president within himself,” said Heather Conley, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “His mandate as he’s seen it, his legacy, is withdrawing America from foreign entanglements -- and the last couple of months, what the international scene has been doing is demanding an American response. And this is really the struggle within him.”
A senior administration official said NATO will make overtures to the new Iraqi government on how it can work with it to help defeat the Islamic State. That will not be an immediate step, but it is one that Obama seems to be pleased with, according to a senior administration official.
"I think the boss left here energized that we’ve got the essence of an emerging coalition here," this person, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said.
It's a coalition that's taken more than a little time to gel, on several fronts. When Obama announced airstrikes against the Islamic State last month, none of his European allies joined in – not even Britain, which nearly always partners with Washington for military interventions.
While Britain, Germany, France, Italy and other allies have all provided varying degrees of support to the Kurdish forces that are fighting Islamic State head-on, Europe has been reluctant to dive back into another Middle Eastern war. That’s been true even as thousands of Europeans have ventured to the region to fight alongside Islamic State militants – spurring fears that they’ll soon be back to carry out attacks on the continent.
Of course, when the threat has been closer to home, joint action has often seemed just as reluctant. For months, European leaders lagged behind Washington in imposing tough sanctions against Russia, with many fretting that attempts to punish Moscow would backfire and cause serious economic pain at home. The gap in the trans-Atlantic alliance was widely noted – not least by Russia, which continued its thrust into Ukraine.
But ultimately, Europe caught up. And so, even as some joint strategies remained uncertain, one policy was crystal clear this week: Obama affirmed the U.S. and NATO's commitment to collective defense while in Tallinn -- a clear shot at Putin on the Russian leader's doorstep.
"The defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London," Obama said.
The speech was broadcast on a massive screen in Tallinn's Freedom Square, as thousands of Estonians cheered.
Griff Witte contributed to this report