WASHINGTON – As Barack Obama prepares to deliver his final State of the Union address Tuesday night, the U.S. president and his aides have insisted he will not be content simply to run out the clock on foreign policy and is acting decisively to tackle crises piling up around the globe.
But former U.S. officials and experts familiar with the White House’s thinking say he appears locked into policies aimed more at containing such threats and avoiding deeper U.S. military engagement in the last year of his presidency.
This, they say, all but guarantees that the toughest geopolitical challenges will be inherited by Obama’s successor. That will likely give fuel to Republican presidential candidates who are eager to use Obama’s foreign policy woes to attack, by extension, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who served as his first-term secretary of state.
The Islamic State has extended its deadly reach across the Middle East and beyond, with recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, carried out or inspired by the jihadi group. North Korea stunned the world last week with its fourth rogue nuclear test. Taliban insurgents are gaining ground in Afghanistan. Beijing continues to flex its muscle with its neighbors.
Russia remains undeterred in Ukraine’s separatist conflict and has challenged U.S. influence in the Middle East with its military intervention in Syria’s civil war, a conflict that Obama’s critics have seized on as evidence of a rudderless foreign policy.
Most outside analysts agree with administration officials’ insistence that much of the global tumult is driven by forces beyond Obama’s control.
But experts also give credence to criticism that Obama’s crisis response has often been hesitant and that policy missteps have either fueled conflict — or done little to curb it — in places like Syria, Iraq and Ukraine.
“This is a risk-averse president who sets red lines he doesn’t enforce,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to Republican and Democratic administrations. “There’s not a lot of inclination for heroic initiatives in what’s left.”
Obama took office in 2009 hailed by his supporters as a transformational leader and pledging to bring U.S. troops home from the long, unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In his first inaugural speech, he promised to help usher in a “new era of peace,” including outreach to Muslims alienated by the perceived excesses of his predecessor, George W. Bush’s, global “war on terror.”
After popular revolts began to convulse the Arab world, Obama used his 2011 State of the Union speech to trumpet support for the “democratic aspirations of all people.” But the Arab Spring has since taken an ugly turn, leaving Obama facing a Middle East region that is more unstable yet no more democratic than before.
Recent polls show that more than half of Americans disapprove of the way Obama is handling foreign policy and two-thirds are displeased with his response to Islamic State and the terrorist threat.
The Obama administration strongly denies that it has now resigned itself to merely containing the seemingly intractable conflicts. As evidence of success, it can point to its landmark nuclear deal with Iran, the historic diplomatic opening to Cuba and a sweeping international climate change deal — all of which a senior administration official said will likely be touted in Tuesday’s speech. He has also forged a major Asia-Pacific trade pact but faces an uphill fight to get it through Congress.
For the coming year, Obama has left the door open to using executive powers to fulfill his early pledge to close the Guantanamo military prison, and could also act on his own to further loosen the half-century-old economic embargo on Cuba.
“The president will be focused on finishing strong on his foreign policy agenda,” the senior administration official said. “In no lexicon I’m aware of is this a strategy of containment.”
Obama insists his aim is to destroy Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but there are strong doubts that his combination of relying on U.S.-armed local partners, targeted American special forces raids, coalition airstrikes and financial sanctions will be enough.
The quest for a diplomatic solution to Syria’s civil war also faces formidable obstacles, and Syrian President Bashar Assad, who Obama said back in 2011 “must go,” looks all but certain to outlast him in office.
“This all adds up to attempted containment — getting through 2016 until it becomes someone else’s problem,” said Frederic Hof, a former State Department adviser on Syria during Obama’s first term and now at the Atlantic Council think tank.
Obama has recently reinserted about 3,500 U.S. military personnel into Iraq, slowed the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and authorized small numbers of special operations forces in Syria — though he adamantly rejects any large-scale military deployment.
His reluctance to get pulled into new conflicts remains at the heart of his foreign policy, and critics say other world powers are taking advantage of that.
China has shown growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, where it has defied U.S. criticism of its island-building and felt no apparent consequences.
U.S. ally Saudi Arabia has shown its willingness to buck Obama by going ahead with the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric, provoking a feud with Iran that Washington appears powerless to quell.
North Korea’s announcement last week that it had exploded its fourth nuclear device since 2006 raised new questions about the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” doctrine that essentially has sought to contain Pyongyang without provoking it.
“I doubt that the president will put in any political capital to this,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior Asia adviser at the CSIS think tank in Washington. “What can the president do in his last year?”