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Obama's Hidden-Hand Foreign Policy

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Over six years of his presidency, President Obama has pursued a down-sized foreign policy that has mixed diplomacy, sanctions and force in varying measures to protect American national security interests abroad -- without involving US ground forces. Obama began this approach from Day 1 of his presidency when he negotiated the withdrawal of all American soldiers from Iraq, our second longest running war, and then pulled most of US forces out of Afghanistan, our longest running war. Since then, he has taken stances like these on major international crises he has confronted, from Ukraine to Libya, and Syria to Iran and Yemen. That means a ban on any commitment of American ground forces, negotiations, embargoes, the use of drone strikes and an occasional "leading-from-behind" military intervention. His blend of tactics has subjected him to withering criticism from Republicans in Congress, but his tactical caution, so far, has left the US hovering just out of range of a series of potentially dangerous confrontations.

One recent course of action by Obama has paid off, in our longest conflict, Afghanistan -- overlooked by our current preoccupation over other global calamities. There Obama sought a status of forces (SOF) agreement with Kabul that would allow a small contingent of American forces to remain in that country to help train indigenous recruits. Obama bypassed the current President, Hamid Karzai, an American nemesis who had opposed any SOF deal, and persuaded Karzai's successor government to approve the arrangement. Then he sent Secretary of State, John Kerry, to help ward off a potentially perilous dispute regarding the outcome of that country's June 14 presidential election runoff. On Obama's behalf, Kerry convinced the two leading candidates, the former finance minister, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the apparent victor, and a former Afghan foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, who had protested the vote count, to form a power sharing arrangement -- a so-called government of national unity -- which will guarantee one man to be president and the other to be Chief Operating Officer or Prime Minister -- along with both sides sharing equally in cabinet positions. If the accord holds, Obama's step-by-step mode of acting may soon relegate Afghanistan to a lesser grade of crisis for years to come.

Such carefully calibrated policy by Obama, however, often is seen as slow, gradual, and weak, sometimes complicated by his changes in mind -- as in the infamous Syrian "red-line" case where Obama threatened to bomb Syria if it did not remove its chemical weapons, but then backed off instead, accepting a Russian compromise. But, in reality, his cautionary approach may prove more durable and lasting than impulsive, in-your-face plays. In any case, it is likely to be the hallmark of how Obama deals with the other trouble-spots he faces in the final two years of his presidency.