WASHINGTON—A convergence of security crises is playing out around the globe, from the Palestinian territories and Iraq to Ukraine and the South China Sea, posing a serious challenge to President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and reflecting a world in which U.S. global power seems increasingly tenuous.
The breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s, U.S. security strategists say, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, revolutionary Islamists took power in Iran, and Southeast Asia was reeling in the wake of the U.S. exit from Vietnam.
In the past month alone, the U.S. has faced twin civil wars in Iraq and Syria, renewed fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, an electoral crisis in Afghanistan and ethnic strife on the edge of Russia, in Ukraine.
Off center stage, but high on the minds of U.S. officials, are growing fears that negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program could collapse this month, and that China is intensifying its territorial claims in East Asia.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), in a CNN interview Sunday, said the world is “in greater turmoil than at any time in my lifetime.” Many of the seeds of instability in the Middle East have taken root since the upheaval that followed the Sept. 11 terror attacks. At the same time, post-Cold War shifts are continuing as superpower influence has receded.
The developments have fueled debate over the Obama foreign-policy doctrine, which the president said in a May speech at West Point would rely on U.S. leadership, but not troop deployments.
The president’s critics in Washington, as well as some diplomats abroad, believe Mr. Obama’s policies have fueled today’s conflicts. They cite his decision to pull back from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his rejection of a more decisive U.S. and allied role in the Syrian civil war, and what they see as his reluctance to provide greater support to American allies in Asia and Europe as they face down the newly aggressive foreign polices of China, Iran and President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
“I think our country acting like such a paper tiger to the world on this and so many other fronts is doing incredible long-term damage to our nation,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) at a hearing last week on Ukraine. “And I do hope at some point the administration will actually follow through on the things that it continues to tout publicly.”
The chaos has meant that the Obama administration finds itself in the middle of a second term reacting to rather than directing world events. Dangers for the president and for the U.S. are growing as militant groups gain greater control. The organization known as the Islamic State, which now holds parts of Iraq and Syria, poses a particular danger.
“If they are able to consolidate their gains in that area, I think it’s just a matter of time before they start looking outward and start looking at the West and at the United States in particular,” Attorney General Eric Holder said Sunday in an ABC News interview. “So this is something that we have to get on top of and get on top of now.”
Mr. Obama’s top aides say the U.S. remains as heavily engaged in resolving conflicts as ever, citing the administration’s diplomatic initiatives in Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Iraq, among others. In Kabul over the weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry forged an agreement between political rivals for an audit of the country’s disputed presidential vote, an accomplishment for the administration.
“In every one of these crises, the common factor is that the United States is the one country that’s providing leadership,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, in an interview.
In some cases, U.S. allies are complicating matters. European countries have balked at imposing tough new sanctions on Russia, according to U.S. officials. And divisions between South Korea and Japan have undermined U.S. efforts to present a united front against China.
Some foreign diplomats believe the Middle East is weathering a historic intra-Islamic feud between its Sunni and Shiite sects that no outside power could significantly affect and that is undermining the very structure of the region’s nation states.
“You are seeing the collapse of the post-Ottoman order in the Middle East,” said Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, referring to the states created after the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution in 1918. “One event affects another. I think the order is collapsed. And the new order is shifting itself out.”
Mr. Obama campaigned for the presidency in 2008 as the alternative to George W. Bush, as a leader who would wind down the U.S.’s Mideast wars and reach out diplomatically to historic adversaries such as Iran, Syria and Russia. He promised to de-emphasize the role of U.S. military force and intensify the country’s diplomatic and moral persuasion.
Mr. Obama’s supporters and opponents alike say he has largely followed through on those promises. But many of his critics say he has overcorrected, further eroding the national-security architecture Washington built in the Mideast and Asia during the Cold War and allowing avenues for terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and competing states to fill the security vacuum.
“The U.S.’s regional order in the Middle East is in disarray,” said Emile El Hokayem, a Mideast expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank.
The renewed instability in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent weeks is rekindling criticism that the White House hasn’t pushed hard enough to maintain a U.S. military presence in these countries.
Many Middle East leaders also have said Mr. Obama has been too reluctant to use force, which has emboldened terrorist groups and rogue states. They cite the president’s failure last year to follow through on a threat to strike Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime after it allegedly used chemical weapons on its political opponents.
“The state structure in the Middle East has been quickly changing, and the boundaries are shifting in Iraq and Syria,” said Vali Nasr, a former Obama administration official who is now dean of Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies. “And then you have this sudden withdrawal of the U.S., which was the stabilizing force in the region.”
Mr. Obama’s aides said that no single issue links today’s crises. Many are still tied to the Arab revolutions that broke out beginning in late 2010.
“It’s not really the first time it’s been like this,” said Mr. Rhodes, referring to the simultaneous revolutions the U.S. faced in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia during the Arab Spring. “The fact that you have a crisis in Ukraine has nothing to do with Gaza.”
Still, many diplomats and security experts see in Ukraine a similar dynamic of post-Cold War borders being challenged during Mr. Obama’s tenure—this time by Mr. Putin.
The Kremlin moved to annex the Crimea region of Ukraine. And U.S. officials say Moscow continues to supply arms, money and intelligence to pro-Russia militias who are fighting the Kiev government for control of territories in eastern Ukraine.
Obama administration officials said the sanctions the U.S. and European Union imposed on Russia this year have deterred Mr. Putin from grabbing more Ukrainian territory. They also said Kiev’s signing last month an Association Agreement with the European Union shows Ukraine’s government now has confidence in joining the West.
Ukrainian officials contend that the U.S. and its allies haven’t done enough. They note that the Western countries have so far failed to enact the broader sanctions on Russia’s economy known in Europe as “third-stage” measures. “We do deeply believe that the third stage of sanctions is the means that may heavily influence Putin,” said Andriy Parubiy, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council. “If we don’t stop Putin right now, here in Ukraine… [his security forces] will appear in Kazakhstan, in Belarus, in the Baltics.”
U.S. officials have exhibited a greater interest than European counterparts in applying those stricter sanctions.
U.S. and Asian officials also remain concerned that Northeast Asia could emerge as a flash point if territorial disputes between China and its neighbors continue to fester.
There is a growing skepticism in Asia about whether the U.S. would abide by its commitment to defend Japan, Taiwan and other Asian countries if their territorial disputes with China escalate into conflict, according to Asian diplomats.
Messrs. Obama and Kerry have worked to assure Japan and South Korea that Washington remains wholly committed to its defense treaties. But even some security analysts who are close to the White House say the Obama administration’s perceived hesitancy in responding to international threats is unnerving U.S. allies in the region.
“Our allies are looking for a quarterback to call some plays here, and our body language sometimes doesn’t show that we’re doing that,” said Brian Katulis of the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “Obama’s always been a look-before-you-leap guy. And I think that leads to some of the confusion here at home, but also abroad.”