President Barack Obama. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
By Richard Wolf, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - The next few days loom as a crucial test for President Obama's foreign policy, one that emphasizes international diplomacy over unilateral action and negotiation over force.
Syria faces a cease-fire deadline today in its crackdown on rebel forces, which has left an estimated 9,000 people dead. North Korea plans to launch a ballistic missile between today and Monday, with a possible underground nuclear test to follow. Iran is due to return to the negotiating table Friday and Saturday to discuss its nuclear program with officials from the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
On Wednesday, as it has almost every day, the White House issued strong but intentionally vague threats. Syrian forces "clearly did not begin their withdrawal" from rebel strongholds as promised, press secretary Jay Carney said. North Korea's threatened rocket launch would be "provocative," while "the window is closing" on Iran's opportunity to avoid tougher actions.
Beyond the rhetoric, the administration won't tip its hand. It won't say what actions it would take, with or without allies, if Syria or the two members of former president George W. Bush's "axis of evil" don't abide by Western wishes.
Military action is unlikely in Syria, all but impossible in North Korea. Iran is another matter, which is why the White House wants progress when talks begin in Istanbul over the weekend.
"If there is progress in these discussions, there will be another round," Carney said. "But we approach this eyes wide open, focused on actions, not on words."
Some veterans of the Bush administration warn that actions will have to follow the administration's words unless the regimes in Syria, Iran and North Korea begin to cooperate with international demands.
"The administration has put itself in this sort of position in response to a variety of crises," says Jamie Fly, executive director of the conservative Foreign Policy Initiative, who served at the Pentagon and National Security Council from 2005 to 2009. "This president, in particular, has had a tendency to issue what appear to be definitive statements and then not follow through."
For months, Obama and others in the administration said Syrian President Bashar Assad must leave power, but that demand has been missing from their rhetoric now that United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan has sought a cease-fire. "It's pretty evident that they've changed their position," says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense and national security expert at the Brookings Institution.
The administration's policy of stepped-up sanctions against Iran has been consistent and is having an economic effect, but Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hasn't stopped his uranium enrichment program. With the talks in Istanbul unlikely to produce quick results, experts say Obama might have to consider military force.
"That will be a very difficult decision," says Stephen Hadley, Bush's last national security adviser. "We should not be putting this on the Israelis. If something needs to be done ... it ought to be the United States."
The decision by North Korea's young new leader, Kim Jung Un, to launch a missile equipped with a satellite represents the most unexpected crisis. Just six weeks ago, Pyongyang had agreed to limit nuclear activities.
The imminent launch is reminiscent of the first international crisis Obama faced in April 2009. Hours before his major speech in Prague on controlling the spread of nuclear weapons, North Korea launched a rocket into the Pacific Ocean. Obama immediately called for U.N. Security Council action.
"This provocation underscores the need for action," he told an estimated 20,000 people in Prague's historic Hradcany Square. "Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something."
This confluence of events may be unusual, but it's not unique for this or any administration.
"There are problems around the globe that arise every day, and they all wind up at the White House," says National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. "We're sort of used to it."