Not long after a passenger jet exploded in midair and plummeted to the ground in Ukraine last week, escalating a volatile crisis pitting the United States and Europe against Russia, President Barack Obama’s thoughts turned to Syria.
The Malaysia Airlines flight seemed to have been shot down by a sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft system provided to insurgents who mistook the airliner for a military transport. In a conversation with aides, the president said this was why he refused to send anti-aircraft weapons to Syrian rebels. Once they are out of a government’s control, he said, the risk only grows.
Rarely has a president been confronted with so many seemingly disparate foreign policy crises all at once - in Ukraine, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere - but making the current upheaval more complicated for Obama is the seemingly interlocking nature of them all. Developments in one area, like Ukraine, shape the president’s views and choices in a crisis in another area, like the Middle East.
The crosscurrents can be dizzying. Even as Obama presses Russia to stop fomenting a virtual civil war in Ukraine, he is trying to collaborate with Moscow in a diplomatic campaign to force Iran to scale back its nuclear program. Even as he pressures Iran over its nuclear program, he finds himself on the same side as Tehran in combating a rising Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Even as he sends special forces to help squelch those insurgents, he is trying to help their putative allies against the government in Syria next door.
And then there is the mushrooming conflict in Gaza, where Obama seems to be losing patience. While backing Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas rockets, he sent Secretary of State John Kerry to work with Egypt to force a cease-fire. This is the same Egypt to which Obama cut financial aid for a time because its leaders came to power after the military overthrew the previous government.
“It’s a very tangled mess,” said Gary Samore, a former national security aide to Obama and now president of United Against Nuclear Iran, an advocacy group. “You name it, the world is aflame. Foreign policy is always complicated. We always have a mix of complicated interests. That’s not unusual. What’s unusual is there’s this outbreak of violence and instability everywhere. It makes it hard for governments to cope with that.”
Little wonder then that in recent days the president seems almost to be suffering geopolitical whiplash.
“We live in a complex world and at a challenging time,” he said wearily last week after making a statement in which he addressed Ukraine, Gaza, Iran and Afghanistan, all in the space of seven minutes. “And none of these challenges lend themselves to quick or easy solutions.”
A few months back, Obama argued that foreign relations is not a chess game. But at times, it seems like three-dimensional chess. Admirers said Obama’s strength was seeing all those connections and finding ways to balance them. Critics said he allowed complexity to paralyze him at the expense of U.S. leadership in the world.
His approach to foreign policy has become more of a political liability, the subject of sharp criticism from Republicans and even some Democrats. In the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, conducted last month, 58 percent of Americans disapproved of his handling of world affairs, a 10 percentage point jump in a month and the highest such number during his 5 1 / 2years in office.
Yet polls find that Americans do not want Obama to get the country enmeshed more deeply in places like Ukraine and Iraq, suggesting that he is more in touch with a broader public desire for disengagement than many of his critics even though his leadership is in question.
“Just because there are lots of global challenges doesn’t mean you have to overreact on one just to make a point,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, his deputy national security adviser. “They each have to be managed carefully in their own right. We have longer run plays that we’re running. Part of this is keeping your eye on the long game even as you go through tumultuous periods.”
Others said that long game was sometimes hard to detect in what seemed an ad hoc foreign policy.
“If they had a strategy that allowed allies to understand what we’re likely to do - the principles guiding our choices - they could take coordinated and strengthening actions,” said Kori Schake, a former aide to President George W. Bush now at the Hoover Institution. “But their unpredictability discourages others from acting, which is where ‘leading from behind' runs aground.”
The confluence of crises seems to confront Obama almost with each passing day. He has been pressing Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to force a more robust European response to Russian aggression just as the relationship ruptured again over a new report of U.S. spying in her country.
Hoping to smooth things over, Obama dispatched his White House chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, and counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, to Berlin, where they met with German officials Tuesday, even as European foreign ministers were meeting separately to consider new sanctions on Russia.
As Obama tries to corral the Europeans on Russia, he also must manage their discontent over Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza. He is also trying to keep Afghanistan from falling into new disarray over a disputed election while arguing that he is not making the same mistake critics believe he made in Iraq by pulling out all troops there as well.
At the same time, he has summoned Central American leaders to the White House on Friday to press them to stop the flow of children heading illegally to Texas. And some in the administration worry that with everything else going on, not enough attention is being paid to the bloody civil war in Syria, where the rebel stronghold of Aleppo may be on the verge of falling to government forces.
The cascading crises reflect larger trends, according to Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“We’re living in an era where you have very few one-dimensional relationships,” he said. “In more structured periods of history, say the Cold War, or whenever you have a dominant issue, you tend to have relationships that are more defined - either friend or ally on one hand or adversary on the other.
“But we’re living in a time of no such structure. So what you have are relationships where you may cooperate with certain countries on certain issues on certain days of the week, while on other issues on other days of the week, you may compete or simply go your own way.”
R. Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state now at Harvard, said Obama should prioritize by focusing on forging deals in two areas in the next week, a unified response to Russia and a cease-fire in Gaza.
“This is an unusually challenging time with all these overlapping crises,” he said. “The president has an opportunity here to put us back in a leadership position by responding effectively to a few of these things.”
Rhodes said that so far, the White House had not noticed much spillover from one crisis into another. Germany has been cooperative on Ukraine, Russia has not tried to torpedo the Iran talks and Egypt has asserted itself as a peacemaker, he said.
“It’s mutual interests,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a former State Department official under Obama. “You have to assume these other leaders are grown-ups making decisions in their own interests and their cooperation is rooted in mutual interests to some degree. It’s not favor trading, international diplomacy. On this big stuff, this is about interests.”