Obama's cool head in a crisis -- asset or growing liability?

AFP

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Washington (AFP) - He doesn't bluster and he doesn't strut and President Barack Obama certainly isn't panicking, though he admits it feels like the world is falling apart.

But Obama's cool-in-a-crisis style and disdain for the impulsive use of military force is fueling criticism of his leadership, as crises stagger the Middle East and Ukraine.

"If you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart," the sanguine US leader told supporters Friday.

"I can see why a lot of folks are troubled," he said, while counseling that the US military, standing tall amid jihadist violence and geopolitical threats, had never been mightier.

"The world has always been messy -- we're just noticing it now in part because of social media."

With world crises bursting around him and political opponents apoplectic, Obama has yet to lash out in response, and refuses to act on anyone's timetable but his own.

His methodical crisis management, long Situation Room seminars and skepticism that US force can remake a tumultuous world, has sustained him through nearly six tough White House years.

With Islamic State radicals dug into a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and Russian President Vladimir Putin's shadow ever lengthening over Ukraine, Obama is shrugging off a whirl of hostile news cycles and political attacks on his leadership.

But even Obama allies may be forgiven for wondering, after another trying week, whether the president’s approach is becoming a political liability, as his once high foreign policy ratings ebb.

A burst of honesty on Syria put the president in a new fix —- and raised the stakes for his trip to the NATO summit and Estonia beginning Tuesday.

"We don't have a strategy yet," Obama told reporters, trying to quell a warlike mood in Washington, which expected to hear US attacks on IS in Syria were imminent.

But the damaging soundbite sparked a Washington firestorm, as it appeared to validate Republican attacks that the president, disengaged and oblivious to rising threats, is not up to facing down the world's hard men like Vladimir Putin.

Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham warned in a New York Times article Saturday headlined "stop dithering" that Obama's failure to act quickly against IS in Syria was "startling" and "dangerous."

Potential 2016 Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry said Obama's remarks revealed a president always one step behind the next crisis, and accused him of "dithering and debating" over what to do about IS.

Aides protested Obama was talking only about an operational plan for military action in Syria — not the wider battle against a group US jets are already bombing in Iraq.

But in political spats like this, context is lost.

While it infuriates his enemies, Obama's approach is a reflection of his own personality, his post-Iraq war era and the historical lens through which he increasingly peers as his presidency enters its twilight.

His drawn out decision-making and habit of testing of every scenario that could follow military action is familiar —- Obama agonized for months before doubling down with an Afghan troop surge in his first term.

But in probing complexity and nuance, is Obama's zeal for decisive action dimmed?

His defenders reply with three words — Osama bin Laden — recalling the long-planned and daring raid into Pakistan which killed the Al-Qaeda chief and helped Obama win reelection.

Obama recently took to telling confidants the core of his foreign policy is not to do "stupid" things — and holds up the "disastrous" Iraq war as Exhibit A in his case.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest explained that Obama, wary of being sucked into Syria's civil war, refuses to simply launch an impulsive attack to appease Washington, seeking vengeance after the IS murder of US journalist James Foley.

"There are some who probably would make the case that it's OK to not have a formulated, comprehensive strategy," Earnest said.

"That is not what the president believes is a smart approach."

Brian Katulis, of the Center for American Progress, which is close to the administration, said Obama may be more in tune with his war-weary nation, than his critics.

"I think a lot of the criticism comes from the chattering classes — amongst the foreign policy elite and in the media."

"I think your ordinary American is very much where the president is, in his cautious look before you leap stance."

Obama has made clear he believes history assigned him the role of getting troops home from foreign wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of transitioning his nation from the permanent war footing it adopted following the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Critics argue though, that the president sees the world not as it is — but as he wishes to see it. Some Americans appear to agree: only 36 percent in a recent Pew Research/USA Today poll thought Obama acted sufficiently tough on the world stage.

But some close observers sympathize with his plight.

"It's pretty tough being president of the United States. You are damned if you do, and damned if you don't," said a Western diplomat on condition of anonymity.

"Either you are accused of having got too involved in some other country's affairs and making things worse -— or you stand back because you are conscious that in the past, sometimes military interventions have not been an unmitigated success."

 

 

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