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Whether Mr. Putin interpreted those statements and action as signs of weakness is unclear. But this year he ordered the invasion of sovereign Ukraine and annexed the Crimean Peninsula, ignoring Mr. Obama’s protests and threats of sanctions. He also has armed the Syrian regime.

Sen. John McCain told Fox News that Mr. Obama underestimated Mr. Putin’s desire to restore the Soviet empire.

“And so this president totally misread him, ridiculed Romney in their debate when Romney said that Russia was a major geopolitical foe,” the Arizona Republican said.

Iraq troop withdrawal

In December 2011, as the last American troops were leaving Iraq, Mr. Obama declared: “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.”

But the U.S. military had another view. U.S. Central Command wanted to keep 23,000 troops behind as advisers and trainers to cement the victory over al Qaeda and other Islamic insurgents.

And the Iraqis themselves expected a new status of forces agreement to achieve just that. Former officials say the White House made little effort to secure a new agreement that would have allowed U.S. counterterrorism forces to operate in the country.

Mr. Obama had campaigned on a promise to get American troops out of Iraq.

The Islamic State

After the U.S. exit, it took just weeks for foreign al Qaeda fighters to start pouring back into Iraq to attack the new government. Under Iraqi cleric leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the network of militants expanded in Syria and invaded Iraq as a terrorist army. It announced itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — now the Islamic State, and known by the initials ISIS and ISIL.

In January, as the al Qaeda offshoot began conquering territory in Syria and in western Iraq near the Syrian border, The New Yorker magazine asked the president about its threat.

“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on [Los Angeles] Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Mr. Obama said. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a [Osama] bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

In 2011 John O. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s then-chief adviser on counterterrorism, scoffed at the idea that an al Qaeda-type group could create an Islamic state, or caliphate, ruled by harsh Shariah law.

“Our strategy is shaped by a deeper understanding of al Qaeda’s goals, strategy and tactics,” said Mr. Brennan, now CIA director. “I’m not talking about al Qaeda’s grandiose vision of global domination through a violent Islamic caliphate. That vision is absurd.”

Today, the Islamic State has proclaimed a caliphate in wide portions of Iraq and Syria under its control.

Story Continues →