President Barack Obama, in a sea of foreign policy troubles, accepted his leadership responsibilities in a CNN interview last week while lamenting the complexity of these challenges.
He noted the old Harry Truman dictum that "the buck stops" in the Oval Office and asserted U.S. power and influence in the world must be "in our long-term national interests." He mentioned both in the context of the developing civil wars in Egypt and Syria and growing calls for American intervention.
The reports that chemical weapons were used by the regime in Syria against the insurgents, he said, "starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies [and] our bases in the region."
Trotting out the old declaration on his bus tour that "we remain the one indispensable nation," Obama said concerning both Egypt and Syria that "everybody asks what the U.S. is doing. It's because the United States continues to be the one country that people expect can do more than simply protect [its own] borders."
Seemingly in response to criticisms of his own procrastination, the president added: "That does not mean that we have to get involved in everything immediately. We have to think through strategically what's going to be in our long-term national interests, even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians."
He went on: "Jumping into stuff that does not turn out well gets us mired in very difficult situations [and] can result in us being drawn into very expansive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region." He labeled the reports from Syria of use of chemical weapons there "very troublesome" and "clearly a big event of grave concern."
Such sentiments, however, are not saving him from nagging allegations of foot-dragging while more noncombatant lives are lost daily. Hard-line demands intensify for military intervention of one sort or another, ranging from U.S. airstrikes and a no-fly zone over Syria to swift shipment of weapons to the insurgents, themselves of uncertain sentiment toward the U.S. In Egypt too, America's best interests are entangled in the fog of war.
In all this, Mr. Obama seems agonizingly indecisive, for all his stated rationales for caution in two cloudy and complicated situations on the ground. To critics, his ringing defense of "just wars" in his earlier acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, an award widely questioned as inexplicably premature, seems to mock him now.
However, he clearly is governed broadly by his 2008 presidential campaign commitment to reverse the muscular Bush foreign policy that in Iraq detoured the United States off the road of multilateralism and collective action against military threats, which marked American policy through the long Cold War.
He subsequently signaled his step-back in his decision to have the U.S. play a secondary role to the British and French in the successful overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, and in his concentration on withdrawing of American combat forces from both Iraq and Afghanistan. That same cautious approach to U.S. military intervention in overseas disputes continues to mark his break from the recent past in the conduct of foreign policy.
With the American public clearly weary of the loss of treasure and lives in support of unpopular wars and other military involvements half a world away, Obama appears to remain more in tune with dominant domestic sentiment than all the clamor for further U.S. involvements, no matter how justifiable in terms of humanitarian demands.
If the president continues to appear as a Hamlet torn by hard and costly choices facing him in the Middle East, it is because of the struggle in his head over his options. Should he respond to the moral arguments for swift military action of some sort? Or should he be guided by his pragmatic reading of what is reasonably achievable, while continuing to disengage from the aggressively interventionist policies of the recent past?
Judgments on his foreign-policy legacy may well rest on which way he goes.
Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.