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With few foreign-policy triumphs, Obama running out of time

President Barack Obama speaks in the James Brady Press Briefing Room in the White House in Washington, Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. Taking a two-day break from summer vacation, Obama met with top advisers at the White House to review developments in Iraq and in racially charged Ferguson, Mo., two trouble spots where Obama has ordered his administration to intervene.

Susan Walsh/AP

In the U.S. President's own succinct, if off-colour, phrase, the Obama doctrine is: "Don't do stupid shit."

Barack Obama has, in recent months, repeatedly used that vulgarism to define, defend and explain his foreign policy. And despite well-intentioned efforts by some media to sanitize the President's foul-mouthed version – usually by rephrasing it as "Don't do stupid stuff" – Mr. Obama, who first used the line with reporters on board Air Force One last spring as he returned from Asia, has repeatedly opted for the cruder version in subsequent interviews.

Unlike Theodore Roosevelt's much-admired "Speak softly and carry a big stick" – the phrase that became emblematic of foreign policy as the United States emerged as a superpower at the dawn of the 20th century – Mr. Obama's crude dictum seems unlikely to be embraced by his successors or carved into the cornerstone of his presidential library.

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Yet there's more than a trace of truth in the President's self-assessment, at least in terms of the realities of how Mr. Obama has performed on the world stage.

The President, who pocketed a Nobel Peace Prize within weeks of reaching the Oval Office, has little to show in terms of foreign-policy successes after nearly six years in the White House.

His critics accuse him of hesitancy and mixed messages that have diminished U.S. power and emboldened the country's adversaries.

It's a way to "avoid errors," Mr. Obama claimed on his previous big overseas trip to Asia. "You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run."

It's a far cry from the soaring oratory about ridding the world of nuclear weapons or delivering a new era in relations with the Muslim world or the pivot to the Pacific, all big sweeping visions unveiled by Mr. Obama at various stages of his presidency that have since been quietly discarded or downgraded.

Even his staunchest supporters find the "small ball" approach perplexing.

"Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle," Hillary Clinton, who served as secretary of state during Mr. Obama's first term, said last week.

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Ms. Clinton evidently has decided to distance herself from Mr. Obama as she considers another presidential run in 2016. In an interview with The Atlantic, she made a half-hearted attempt to explain that the President was "trying to communicate to the American people that he's not going to do something crazy."

But Americans seem less worried that Mr. Obama is going off the deep end than they are just broadly disappointed with his presidency. The soaring "audacity of hope" has been replaced by the reality of ill-defined policy and uncertain action.

Approval rate, from bad to worse

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted earlier this month put the President's approval rating at an all-time low of 40 per cent. On coping with the world, it was even worse: When asked whether they approved of "the job Barack Obama is doing handling foreign policy," the rating sagged to 36 per cent.

That came with the world beset with crises: with Israeli warplanes pounding Gaza; a violent separatist insurrection threatening to spiral out of control in Ukraine; Beijing bullying its weaker, smaller neighbours in the South China Sea; an Ebola outbreak raging in West Africa; and the extremist Islamic State jihadis carving out a proto-caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

Mr. Obama hasn't even hit many singles.

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His boldest first-term foray into foreign affairs – toppling Libya's bizarre and brutal dictator Moammar Gadhafi with a seven-month bombing campaign billed as a no-fly zone enforced by NATO – looked impressive at first, but Libya has since collapsed into simmering civil war.

Even Mr. Obama admits he failed to follow-up after the air war. "We underestimated … the need to come in full-force," he told The New York Times. "It's the day after Gadhafi's gone, when everyone's feeling good and everybody's holding up posters saying, 'Thank you America,' at that moment there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn't have any civic traditions."

In Syria, where Mr. Obama first boldly drew a red line threatening air strikes then quickly abandoned it, the bloody toll after three years of civil war has topped 160,000. After backing down when Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad refused to be cowed by the President's sabre-ratting, Mr. Obama had to seek help from Russia's President Vladimir Putin in a face-saving deal that left Mr. al-Assad in power.

Hesitancy has a price.

Failure to back Syrian rebels early and effectively gave the Islamist extremists now rampaging across western and northern Iraq the opportunity to emerge as a potent political and fighting force. The hesitancy to arm and support rebels in Syria "left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled," Ms. Clinton says.

Mr. Putin then outfoxed Mr. Obama in Crimea with the boldest land grab since the Cold War, restoring to Russia the Black Sea peninsula that had been given to Ukraine 60 years earlier. Despite Washington slapping sanctions on some of Mr. Putin's rich and powerful buddies, Moscow continues to meddle in eastern Ukraine and Mr. Obama has failed to lead a concerted effort sufficiently strong to deter the Russian President.

Meanwhile relations with Israel – not least because of Mr. Obama's decision to open direct talks with the ruling mullahs in Iran about Tehran's secretive and controversial nuclear program – are at a nadir. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr. Obama make little effort to disguise mutual disdain.

The President, perhaps seeking to turn away from violence, chaos and failure in the Middle East, two years ago loftily unveiled the Pacific pivot – a rebalancing of U.S. priorities in recognition of Asia's growing power in the 21st century. Since then, little of substance has emerged to match the rhetoric and Mr. Obama didn't even mention the pivot in his latest major foreign-policy speech to West Point cadets in June. Aside from finger-wagging at Beijing, Mr. Obama has largely left U.S. allies to fend for themselves as China bullies smaller countries in the South China Sea.

'A mixed record'

On some fronts, Mr. Obama has gone further than any previous president. The use of drone strikes to target and kill designated "enemies" – on lists kept top secret – has ranged far from established battlefields. Since Mr. Obama took office, more than 400 drone attacks killing at 2,500 have been recorded in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. And Mr. Obama was the first president to explicitly authorize an assassination strike against a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone over Yemen.

"The President has made some tough decisions," said Leon Panetta, who served in the Obama administration as director of the Central Intelligence Agency and also as defence secretary. "But it's been a mixed record, and the concern is the President defining what America's role in the world is in the 21st century hasn't happened."

Even some of Mr. Obama's proudest moments are coming back to haunt him.

The Iraq war that he denounced as stupid and vowed to end – a promise that played a major role in his initial campaign for the presidency – is on again. Mr. Obama's triumphal claim about "this moment of success" made when he pulled the last U.S. combat troops from Iraq three years ago now looks a bit hollow. "We're leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people," he said then.

Now, U.S. warplanes are again pounding targets in Iraq, hundreds of U.S. Special Forces have been sent back there, the central government in Baghdad is impotent and the Iraqi military that cost the United States hundreds of millions of dollars to arm and train has degenerated into a largely sectarian Shia force that broke and fled rather than defend non-Shia areas.

The President has also set a fixed exit date for pulling all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, where the "good" war – according to Mr. Obama and in contrast to Iraq – is now in its 13th year. "We will bring America's longest war to a responsible end," Mr. Obama said when he announced the last U.S. troops will be out by December, 2015, less than a month before he leaves the White House. But that was before the Afghan presidential elections descended into acrimonious deadlock and the first U.S. general to die in a war zone was killed there earlier this month.

More than six years ago, on the day he nailed down his party's presidential nomination, Mr. Obama proffered a glimpse of the future, of how he would change the world. "I am absolutely certain," he said then, "that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth."

Nearly half-way through his final four years in the White House, Mr. Obama is running out of time to deliver.

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