President Obama’s bid to convince an increasingly skeptical public that he has an effective foreign policy will be tested agtain this week as he seeks to rally support for his handling of each of the three global crises that have consumed the White House in recent weeks.
Obama embarks Tuesday on a two-day trip to Atlanta and Tampa to visit U.S. facilities that are overseeing, respectively, his administration’s responses to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the rise of Islamic militants in the Middle East. He’ll be back in Washington in time to discuss the conflagration in Eastern Europe with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at the White House on Thursday.
The schedule reflects the whiplash inside the West Wing as the crises on three continents have helped sow doubts about U.S. leadership abroad and preoccupied Obama and his advisers less than two months before the midterm elections.
“The term that I use is ‘compounding complexity’ — it just keeps compounding, and there’s no relief in sight,” said Julie Smith, a former national security adviser to Vice President Biden.
White House aides hope the president’s itinerary will build off his prime-time address last week in which he announced a military campaign to defeat the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The trip also sets the stage for Obama’s appearance next week at the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly in New York City.
Obama, who has been criticized for too cautiously engaging in international problems, has a chance to highlight direct U.S. intervention in the disparate global challenges. In Atlanta, he is expected during a tour of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to announce a significant boost in the U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak, including stepped-up involvement of the U.S. military in the hardest-hit countries of Liberia, Sierre Leone and Guinea.
The visit “underscores how extraordinarily serious the administration believes this issue is,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday. “The president has identified it as a top national security priority.”
Over the past several weeks, the escalating crises have knocked the White House off message at a time when the president had planned, ahead of the November elections, to focus on the improving economy and Democratic proposals to further boost jobs and wages for middle-class Americans.
Obama slipped in a reference to the “thriving” auto and manufacturing industries in his speech on the Islamic State last week. But those asides angered his Republican critics on Capitol Hill, who chided the president for straying from the threat of foreign terrorists to make a political point.
“The president ends an incredibly important national security speech by talking about how great the economy is?” Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in an interview on Obama’s foreign policy strategy Monday. “I’m not trying to mock him. But it was such a clear example of where his mind is at, and it’s incredibly frustrating.”
The challenge for Obama this week is to frame his response to three very different international crises as consistent with his broader foreign policy goals. Obama has enunciated, in a series of speeches, a strategy that aims to wind down U.S. military engagement in the Middle East and shift America’s geopolitical focus to other regions, including Asia, while building broad international coalitions through diplomacy and employing targeted military force to avoid extended ground campaigns.
But his attempts to confront the Islamic State and Russian President Vladimir Putin have suffered setbacks as regional partners have not responded as forcefully as Obama might have wished. On Monday, Iran spurned an American request for cooperation in the battle against the Sunni extremists. On Wednesday, Obama will visit the Tampa headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, which is coordinating the military response in the Middle East.
“There’s a sense that there hasn’t been a clear strategy and the White House has been buffeted by events,” said Rosa Brooks, a former Obama administration official who worked at the Pentagon from 2009 to 2011. “That they make decisions over whatever the political pressures are felt most strongly at any given time, rather than out of a consistent approach to foreign policy that transcends the day-to-day crisis.”
Aaron David Miller, vice president for strategic initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, said Obama’s dilemma is that a majority of Americans have concluded that he is risk-averse when it comes to intervening overseas.
Just 38 percent of Americans approve of his handling of international affairs, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll last week, and 56 percent disapprove.
“The art of the presidency is trying to manage the perception of disorder and unruliness,” said Miller, author of “The End of Greatness,” an upcoming book on the American presidency. “It looks, literally, that the world is out of control.”
Obama’s meeting Thursday with Ukraine’s Poroshenko highlights another unresolved conflict the administration is trying to manage. While the cease-fire between the Ukrainian government and Russian separatists appears to be holding, there is little evidence that that accord and heightened sanctions by the United States and Europe have altered Russia’s overall designs on controlling the region.
Even so, Poroshenko — who is also scheduled to address a joint session of Congress during his visit to Washington — is likely to ask for additional U.S. assistance. The International Monetary Fund provided Ukraine with a $17 billion aid package in May, and it estimated earlier this month that it might need an additional $19 billion in financing by the end of 2015 if the conflict continues unabated. Lawmakers have been debating whether to provide lethal assistance to the Ukrainian government as well.
“There’s a common critique that the president doesn’t have a strategy,” said Smith, now a consultant with Beacon Global Strategies. “But in this era, in the post-9/11 world, you’re pulled in 50 different directions. There’s the great-power politics with Russia and China, counterterrorism in the Middle East and an unraveling of international institutions that makes it harder to deal with something like Ebola.”
She added that “trying to find a strategy to wrap up the U.S. approach and encapsulate all the challenges you’re addressing in the world is like the impossible dream.”
Robert Costa contributed to this report.