The Obama Doctrine is looking more like a leaky rowboat than an unwavering ship of state in the president’s second term.
Mr. Obama’s foreign policy strategy of “soft power” and reliance on international organizations is suffering setbacks around the globe this year, including from Egypt, Syria, Russia and China. The most obvious failure was on display last week when Mr. Obama canceled a planned summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin and likened his adversary to a slouching, bored child after Russia granted asylum to fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.
But the inability of the Obama administration to capture Mr. Snowden is only the latest in a string of unresolved foreign policy challenges since Mr. Obama won re-election. Some specialists in foreign affairs say it’s symptomatic of a president who isn’t devoting much time to hot spots overseas.
“He’s one of only 17 presidents elected to a second term, and he’s clearly trying to figure out where he wants to put the majority of his time,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “He’s much more focused on the middle class than he is on the Middle East.”
In April, the White House revealed reports of chemical weapons use in Syria’s civil war, which Mr. Obama deemed a “game-changer.” Four months later, the civil war rages on, with fresh reports this week that an al Qaeda affiliate is infiltrating Syrian territory that was seized by rebel groups.
In Egypt, the military in early July ousted President Mohammed Morsi, who was elected after Mr. Obama encouraged democratic reforms in that country. Mr. Obama had major disagreements with Mr. Morsi, but the military’s action left the White House in the awkward public position of denying that it met the legal definition of a “coup.”
European allies such as Germany and France have blistered Mr. Obama with criticism over surveillance programs revealed by Mr. Snowden. At a Group of Eight summit in June in Northern Ireland, the news was Mr. Putin’s refusal to sign a communique calling for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, another setback for Mr. Obama.
A summit between Mr. Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping in June was overshadowed by the breaking news of Mr. Snowden’s revelations and by the Chinese leader’s ability to turn the tables on Mr. Obama and claim that China was a “victim” of U.S. cyberattacks.
As the summer progresses, Mr. Obama has parsed earlier statements that the U.S. has “decimated” al Qaeda. The administration closed 20 diplomatic facilities overseas because of threatened attacks by al Qaeda and its affiliates.
James Jay Carafano, an analyst on national security and foreign affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Mr. Obama’s second-term problems internationally can be traced to the terrorist attack in September that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, at the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.
“Benghazi, I think, is a signature moment for the president,” Mr. Carafano said. “If there were three [foreign policy successes] he could point to, they were winning the war with al Qaeda, resetting with the Russians and not being George Bush doing everything with a heavy hand. Benghazi really kind of destroyed that mythology. Benghazi has made him incredibly risk-averse.”
Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to Mr. Snowden was especially embarrassing for the White House because Mr. Obama had made personal appeals to Mr. Putin to send the fugitive back to the U.S. Relations between the two leaders have never been strong; Mr. Putin made a point of skipping a summit hosted by Mr. Obama at Camp David last summer.
“We’re going to assess where the relationship [with Russia] can advance U.S. interests and increase peace and stability and prosperity around the world,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference Friday. “Where it can, we’re going to keep on working with them. Where we have differences, we’re going to say so clearly. And my hope is, is that over time, Mr. Putin and Russia recognize that rather than a zero-sum competition, in fact, if the two countries are working together we can probably advance the betterment of both peoples.”
Mr. Miller said the tensions with Mr. Putin would be similar for any other U.S. president. Republican President George W. Bush’s relationship with Mr. Putin ultimately soured even though Mr. Bush once proclaimed that he had looked the Russian in the eye and “was able to get a sense of his soul.”
“Dealing with Putin is going to be one headache and one root-canal operation after the other,” Mr. Miller said. “You’re going to have limited areas of cooperation.”
One of the few foreign policy bright spots for Mr. Obama was the agreement this month of Palestinians and Israelis for renewed peace talks. Mr. Obama encouraged both sides to resume talks during a trip to the Middle East in March.
Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said the development is “not going to solve all the problems” in the Middle East and suggested that the progress is more style than substance.
“It shows [administration officials] are willing to spend some political capital,” Mr. Korb said. “Even if it doesn’t work, it undermines the narrative that we don’t care.”
Mr. Miller said the president can point to three major foreign policy accomplishments in his first term: extricating U.S. troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reducing U.S. dependence on “Arab hydrocarbons,” and preventing another terrorist attack in the U.S. on the scale of 9/11 — notwithstanding the Fort Hood shootings and the Boston Marathon bombings.
“On balance, you’re dealing with a guy whose foreign policy has had no spectacular successes, other than the killing of bin Laden,” Mr. Miller said. “But it’s been pretty disciplined, with no spectacular failures, either. Given the limitations on American power and our own domestic difficulties, that’s actually not so bad.”