Israel to S. Africa: Obama's year in travel

Presidents historically shift their focus to the international stage in their second terms, finding greater flexibility and more power without the constraints a hostile Congress can put on domestic policy.

But world affairs can also prove unpredictable and tumultuous, as President Obama found in 2013. While the president crisscrossed the globe, he was confronted with an international community increasingly skeptical of the U.S.

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Controversies over the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, the U.S. response to Syria's civil war, and tumult in the Middle East all eroded the president’s standing in the world — and led to some high-stakes international drama.

Here’s a review of all the president’s international travel in 2013:

March 20-23: Israel, Palestine and Jordan

The president’s trip to the Middle East got off to an inauspicious start when his limousine broke down in Tel Aviv, reportedly because it was mistakenly fueled with regular gas instead of diesel.

But the trip did provide Obama with a major diplomatic win after he was able to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to apologize for a botched 2010 military operation that left eight Turks and one American dead.

Obama said that he hoped the phone call between Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “will enable them to engage in deeper cooperation on this and a range of other challenges and opportunities,” something the U.S. would very much like to see between two of its most crucial allies in the region.

In Jordan, Obama pledged an additional $200 million in aid to help with the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria.

May 2-4: Mexico, Costa Rica

The president’s Latin American jaunt in May was intended mostly to shore up economic relationships with the pair of allies.

In Mexico, Obama said he was optimistic about the nation’s economic future, focusing on potential energy and trade partnerships rather than concerns over border security and the violent drug trade.

The president then visited Costa Rica, where he called for increased economic integration and new trade partnerships across Latin America.

June 17-19: Ireland, The United Kingdom and Germany

Obama’s travel to the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland was dominated by questions from European allies about the top-secret NSA surveillance programs, which had been revealed earlier that month.

The task was complicated when The Guardian newspaper, relying on documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, revealed that British intelligence had spied on attendees of the G-20 summit in London in 2009.

The president worked to defend the program and soothe European concerns by arguing that the NSA had directly saved lives and prevented terror attacks with its surveillance, a claim that civil libertarians and Obama’s own review panel investigating U.S. surveillance practices subsequently challenged.

In Berlin, Obama marked the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s address from the Brandenburg Gate with a call for Russia to join the U.S. in cutting its nuclear arsenal by a third.

“We may no longer live in fear of global annihilation, but so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe," he said.

June 26 – July 2: Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania

Obama looked to battle back against perceptions he had largely ignored Africa during his first term with an eight-day swing across the continent in the early summer.

The president had been criticized by some African leaders who suggested that former President George W. Bush was more invested in AIDS policy on the continent, while China had done more to invest in economic infrastructure and trade there. In response, Obama unveiled an initiative intended to double access to electricity across sub-Saharan Africa.

But the president’s trip was overshadowed by other events on the continent. In South Africa, former president Nelson Mandela’s health was failing. A planned meeting between the two leaders was scrapped, and the Obamas instead toured the Robben Island prison where Mandela was kept.

Throughout the president’s travels, mass protests and violence in Egypt were growing, leading to the military removal of democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi.

And attention was largely focused on the whereabouts of Snowden, who fled Hong Kong for Moscow shortly before the president’s travel. Snowden spent the president’s trip requesting asylum from sympathetic nations, leading to mass speculation about when and to where he could escape the Moscow airport.

September 4 – 6: Sweden, Russia

Russia’s decision to ultimately grant Snowden a yearlong asylum ended that controversy but resulted in Obama pulling out of a planned bilateral summit with Putin in Moscow ahead of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg.

Instead, Obama went to Stockholm, where he pressed his case for a military strike in response to chemical weapons use in Syria.

But resistance among world leaders was foreshadowed when Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt indicated that — even after meeting with Obama — he would not support a unilateral response to the sarin attack in Damascus.

In St. Petersburg, Obama and Putin publicly clashed over how to respond to Syria, with both leaders presented the collected world leaders with their evidence and reasoning.

Obama was unable to convince Putin to drop his veto of a United Nations resolution authorizing an attack against President Bashar Assad's forces, nor was he able to rally a sizable international coalition to aid U.S. strikes against Assad.

But before leaving, he and Putin shared a “candid” discussion on the event’s sidelines that some international watchers say helped pave the way for the eventual deal, brokered by Moscow, by which Syria turned over its chemical weapons to avert an attack.

October 6-12: Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines (canceled)

The president was forced to scrap what was scheduled to be his final trip of the year, which included visits to a pair of major Pacific trade summits, due to the government shutdown.

Foreign policy experts warned that pulling out of the summits could leave American trade and security interests at risk. The decision risked offending allies in Asia, they said, and could undermine the president's attempts to refocus attention on the region.

White House press secretary Jay Carney used the cancellation to attack congressional Republicans, arguing the president’s missed trip was “setting back our ability to create jobs through promotion of U.S. exports and advance U.S. leadership and interests in the largest emerging region in the world."

December 9–11: South Africa

The president returned to South Africa earlier this month to attend the memorial service for Mandela, the anti-apartheid icon he hailed as “a giant of history.”

But the trip was marred by a series of minor controversies. While approaching the podium to speak, Obama shook hands with Cuban leader Raul Castro, leading to widespread condemnation from Republican lawmakers.

During his address, Obama stood a few feet from what appeared to be a sign language interpreter, who was later exposed as a fraud. The man later said he was experiencing a schizophrenic episode and had a violent past, prompting questions about the president’s security.

The president also drew flak after posing for a “selfie” photograph with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and British Prime Minister David Cameron during the memorial service.