WASHINGTON -- When Islamic State (IS) militants seized the Iraqi city of Fallujah in January, U.S. President Barack Obama likened the current crop of jihadists to a "JV team," compared to Al-Qaeda.
Six months later, IS jihadists overran Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, which they still control. Three months after that, Obama vowed to vanquish “these terrorists [who] are unique in their brutality” and warned that they could pose a threat to the United States “if left unchecked.”
The militant group’s unexpected and meteoric rise was among the numerous crises in the turbulent foreign policy waters the Obama administration navigated in 2014, from a hot war in Ukraine to talk of a new Cold War with Russia, an ongoing civil war and humanitarian crisis in Syria, to a seemingly unbreakable impasse in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
“Overall, the year has created the impression that it’s an administration that’s besieged,” former U.S. State Department official David Kramer told RFE/RL.
Foreign policy analysts say 2014 proved to be a year in which various international crises diverted Obama’s energies from the domestic front and compelled him to deploy American military and economic might to try to stamp out fires in various corners of the globe.
“I think the president has made pretty clear that he would like to, as he says, focus on ‘nation-building at home,’” said Richard Fontaine, a former National Security Council staffer under Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. “And the problem is that the world isn’t going to let him or any other president do that to the exclusion of the rest of the world.”
Strange Bedfellows In Syria
The rise of IS militants also presented complications in Obama’s handling of the raging civil war in Syria, where he says President Bashar al-Assad has lost legitimacy for “ruthlessly murder[ing] thousands of his citizens.”
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel conceded in October that Assad “derives some benefit” from U.S. military action targeting IS militants, who are also battling Assad’s forces. Obama said weeks later that Washington is not considering coordinating with Assad to fight IS forces.
“There’s no expectation that we are going to in some ways enter an alliance with Assad. He is not credible in that country,” Obama said, adding that his administration was also not discussing removing Assad.
The issue of balancing the fight against IS militants and the White House’s position on Assad was the subject of a memo sent by Hagel to Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, in October in which he expressed “concern about overall Syria strategy,” a senior U.S. official told CNN.
A month after he wrote the memo, which was first reported by The New York Times, Obama accepted Hagel’s resignation amid reported tensions between the Pentagon chief and the president’s closest advisers.
Hot War, Cold War
The so-called “reset” policy with Russia launched in Obama’s first term had been on the rocks at least since President Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012 after a four-year stint as prime minister.
But the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin ally, in February amid massive street protests in Kyiv and other major cities sparked a series of events that plunged U.S.-Russian ties to lows unseen since the end of the Cold War.
The Kremlin proceeded to invade and annex Ukraine’s Crimea territory in March, and fighting then erupted between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists that U.S., EU, and Ukrainian officials accuse Moscow of backing.
Since the conflict between Ukrainian forces and the separatists exploded in April, more than 4,600 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine. The conflict has left more than half a million people internally displaced and forced hundreds of thousands of others to flee the country, according to UN officials.
The Obama administration and EU allies imposed several waves of sanctions against senior Russian officials and wealthy businessman close to Putin in order to punish Moscow for its role in the conflict.
These measures, Obama has argued, are taking a significant toll on the Russian economy, which has seen its currency’s value plunge and is facing a potential recession amid tumbling global oil prices.
But U.S. lawmakers have criticized the White House for not taking a more forceful stand against Russian aggression, including by providing lethal military aid to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, pro-Russian rebels continue to control areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, however, and 85 percent of Russians approve of the job Putin is doing as president, according to a November poll by the respected Levada Center.
The collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians in April marked the second unsuccessful attempt by the Obama administration to facilitate a lasting agreement and strained ties between Washington and Tel Aviv.
Months after the talks ended in an impasse, Israel launched a massive offensive in the Gaza Strip in a campaign to halt rocket fire by Hamas militants into Israeli territory. The Israeli operation left more than 2,000 Palestinians dead, most of them civilians, while dozens of Israeli soldiers were also killed.
The pressure on Washington as a broker in the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate continued in December when the Palestinian Authority announced a draft UN Security Council resolution demanding an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands by November 2016 -- a move rejected by Israel.
The Obama administration did boast of major foreign policy successes in 2014, including a landmark agreement with China on climate change last month.
Under the agreement, which the White House described as “big news” in announcing it on Twitter, the United States would slash its carbon dioxide emissions by up to 28 percent by 2025 compared to 2005. China, meanwhile, announced that its emissions would peak in 2030.
Meanwhile, negotiations by the United States and other world powers with Iran over its nuclear problem have not fallen through completely. The sides failed to reach a comprehensive deal with Iran on its nuclear program by the self-imposed November 24 deadline but have have extended the deadline until July 1, 2015.
A deal could be complicated by a push by U.S. lawmakers to impose further sanctions on Tehran, which Western powers fear could obtain nuclear weapons. Iran claims its nuclear program is intended exclusively for peaceful purposes.
Question Of Strategy
Obama faced withering criticism in 2014 for what political opponents describe as a lack of strategy and vision for his foreign policy, which 54 percent of Americans disapproved of as of December 9 compared to 50.7 percent at the beginning of the year, according to the Huffington Post’s poll tracker, based on regularly updated data from 25 pollsters.
Much of this criticism has, unsurprisingly, come from Republican lawmakers, though officials from his own party questioned his approach to global crises as well.
After Obama told reporters in September that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for combatting IS militants in Syria, U.S. Senator Al Franken (Democrat-Minnesota) wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder that he was “troubled” by the comment.
The White House, meanwhile, ultimately did formulate what it called a strategy to “degrade and destroy” IS militants, one that included waves of air strikes targeting jihadists both in Iraq and Syria and authorizing the deployment of more than 3,000 troops to Iraq.
It was a dramatic re-engagement of U.S. military forces in Iraq for a president who fulfilled a campaign promise in 2011 by declaring an end to the American-led war in Iraq and bringing U.S. troops home after nearly a decade of conflict there.
Obama has repeatedly reassured war-weary Americans that U.S. military personnel in Iraq will be advising local forces and not be sent into combat.
Fontaine, the former NSC staffer and president of the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, told RFE/RL that Obama’s reluctance to move boldly on several policy fronts -- including with “meaningful arming of the Syrian rebels” and a residual force in Iraq -- can be traced to his wariness of his predecessor’s policies.
“Some of the worries the world has and some of the events that have happened are at least arguably due in part to the desire to pull back from what the Obama administration saw as the excesses of the Bush administration’s engagement abroad,” Fontaine told RFE/RL.
Whether Obama’s last two years in office will offer any respite on the foreign policy front remains unclear.
Less than a week before his resignation was announced, Hagel told the U.S. political talk show host Charlie Rose last month that his greatest concern is whether the United States and its leaders are “going to be able to get through this time, which is a very defining time and a difficult time.”
“I told [Obama] not too long ago, ‘I don't know of a time that's it's been more difficult to be president of the United States or lead in this country than right now,” Hagel said.