For Obama, world not what he expected

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WASHINGTON -- Nearly five years into his presidency, Barack Obama confronts a world far different from what he envisioned when he first took office. U.S. influence is declining in the Middle East as violence and instability rock Arab countries. An ambitious attempt to reset U.S. relations with Russia faltered and failed. Even in Obama-friendly Europe, there's deep skepticism about Washington's government surveillance programs.

In some cases, the current climate has been driven by factors outside the White House's control. But missteps by the president also are to blame, say foreign policy analysts, including some who worked for the Obama administration.

Rosa Brooks, a former Defense Department official who left the administration in 2011, said that while the shrinking U.S. leverage overseas predates the current president, "Obama has sometimes equated 'we have no leverage' with 'there's no point to really doing anything.' "

The strongest challenge to Mr. Obama's philosophy on intervention has come from the deepening tumult in the Middle East and North Africa. The president saw great promise in the region when he first took office and pledged "a new beginning" with the Arab world when he traveled to Cairo in 2009.

But the democracy protests that spread across the region quickly scrambled Mr. Obama's efforts. While the U.S. has consistently backed the rights of people seeking democracy, the violence that followed has often left the Obama administration unsure of its next move or taking tentative steps that do little to change the situation on the ground.

In Egypt, where the country's first democratically elected president was ousted last month, the U.S. has refused to call Mohammed Morsi's removal a coup. The ruling military, which the U.S. has financially backed for decades, has largely ignored Mr. Obama's calls to end assaults on Morsi supporters. And U.S. officials are internally at odds over whether to cut off aid to the military.

In Syria, where more than 100,000 people have been killed during the 21/2-year civil war, Mr. Obama's pledges that President Bashar Assad will be held accountable have failed to push the Syrian leader from office. And despite warning that Mr. Assad's use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" in Syria, there was scant American retaliation when he did use the toxic gases.

Few foreign policy experts predicted the Arab uprisings, and it's unlikely the U.S. could have -- or should have -- done anything to prevent the protests. But analysts say Mr. Obama misjudged the movements' next stages, including Mr. Assad's ability to cling to power and the strength of Islamist political parties in Egypt.

Obama advisers say the president is frustrated by what is seen as a lack of good options for dealing with Arab unrest. But the president himself has pushed back at the notion that the U.S. has lost credibility on the world stage because he hasn't acted more forcefully.

But the perception of a president lacking in international influence extends beyond the Arab world, particularly to Russia. Since reassuming the presidency last year, Vladimir Putin has blocked U.S. efforts to seek action against Syria at the United Nations and has balked at Mr. Obama's efforts to seek new agreements on arms control.

The White House's ties with Russia were further damaged this summer when Moscow granted temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the former government contractor accused of leaking documents detailing secret U.S. surveillance programs. In retaliation, Mr. Obama canceled plans to meet with Mr. Putin in Moscow next month, though he will still attend the meeting of leading rich and developing nations in St. Petersburg, Russia.

But the international impact from the National Security Agency revelations has spread beyond Russia. In European capitals, where Mr. Obama's 2008 election was greeted with cheers, some leaders have publicly criticized the surveillance programs. Among them was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who questioned the legitimacy of the programs while standing alongside Mr. Obama during his visit to Berlin earlier this year.

ANALYSIS

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