Obama pinched by crises abroad

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President Obama is trapped between two international crises at a time when the U.S. military is facing cutbacks and the public is weary of foreign engagements.

Three weeks after Obama announced that most troops would leave Afghanistan by the end of the year and all would depart by the end of 2016, the United States faces a serious threat in Iraq, where militants once affiliated with al Qaeda threaten to overrun the capital.

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On Saturday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel positioned U.S. forces to intervene in Iraq by ordering the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush into the Persian Gulf to bolster Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. 

Secretary of State John Kerry pressed Russia Saturday to halt the flow of tanks and heavy arms into Ukraine and help broker a cease fire after separatists shot down Ukrainian military transport plane, killing 49 soldiers.

Senior lawmakers on Capitol Hill are pressing Obama to take immediate action in both crises but his options are limited. The Pentagon is in the midst of a budget crunch, his European allies are concerned about upsetting economic relations with Russia, and members of his own party do not want another military intervention in Iraq. 

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) called on the president to take immediate action in Iraq.

“The Iraqi security forces are now less capable than when the president withdrew the entirety of our force without successfully negotiating a remaining U.S. presence capable of preserving our gains and mentoring our partners,” McConnell said in a statement.

But McConnell’s Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, who figures significantly in the Democrats’ hopes of keeping control of the Senate, urged Obama to stand pat.

“I would not support the United States reintroducing troops in Iraq. The United States should continue to play a supportive role by providing useful intelligence," she said in a statement.

Obama has ruled out sending troops back into Iraq but said his national security team would review other options. He signaled that he would prefer not to rely on the military, which has been tested by more than ten years of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq and steep budget cuts implemented by Congress in 2011.

“I do want to be clear, though. This is not solely, or even primarily, a military challenge," he said.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month found that only 41 percent of Americans support Obama’s handling of foreign policy, a rating five points below his general job-approval mark.

Growing violence in Ukraine is another foreign policy headache.

The State Department confirmed Friday that Russia had sent T-64 tanks and BM-21 rocket launchers to help pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, prompting calls from Capitol Hill for renewed sanctions.

Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pressed Obama Saturday to impose tougher sanctions on Russia.

“With Russian tanks having crossed into Ukraine, the president must impose the tough sanctions he promised as the situation on the ground has clearly escalated,” said Corker.

U.S. sanctions alone, however, are likely to have little impact as the United States has about $40 billion in annual trade with Russia while the flow of imports and exports between the European Union and Russia accounts for $460 billion annually.

Major German corporations such as Siemens, Volkswagen and Adidas have this year opposed broader sanctions against Russia, giving German Chancellor Angela Merkel pause in the effort to crack down on Russian president Vladimir Putin.

In Washington, business groups have lobbied against unilateral U.S. sanctions on Russia, warning the they would threaten billions of dollars worth of investments.

Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, has urged Obama to reconsider his decision to scrap a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. But recommitting to a missile shield for Europe would represent a foreign policy u-turn for Obama and would put new pressure on the military budget.

In Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a group that ruptured with al Qaeda because it was considered too extreme, according to some media reports, threatens to topple the Maliki government. 

Vice President Joe Biden told Maliki in a phone call Thursday morning that the United States is read to intensify and accelerate its support of Iraq’s crumbling security forces and expressed solidarity with his regime.

Maliki’s support in Congress, however, is thin. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Senate leader on national security issues, has called for Maliki to be replaced and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says he is not a fan of the Iraqi prime minister.

Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ likely presidential nominee in 2016, has weighed in against military intervention in Iraq.

“I agree with the White House’s rejection and reluctance to do the kind of military activities that the Maliki government is requesting, mainly the fighter aircraft to provide close support for the army and also to go after targets,” she told the BBC this past week.

“That is not a role for the United States,” she added. “There needs to be a number of steps that Maliki and his government must take to demonstrate that he’s committed to an inclusive Iraq — something he has not done up to date.”

Other Democrats, such as Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) have taken a more hawkish stance. Nelson has called for the president to deploy drones armed with Hellfire missiles against ISIS and Manchin says he is open to air strikes.