New crisis, same Obama

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Battered by criticism and sagging poll numbers, President Obama is doggedly sticking to the multilateral foreign policy approach that has become the hallmark of his time in the White House.

Lawmakers — including influential voices in the president’s own party — have in recent days pushed Obama to accelerate the U.S. response to a pair of foreign policy crises.

In Ukraine, calls have intensified on the president to unilaterally provide Kiev with lethal military assistance. And the president is under pressure from members of both parties to expand an airstrike campaign against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters operating in the Middle East.

Obama has resisted the pressure while making the case for a measured approach that leans on allies and regional partners to help limit foreign policy risks.

Speaking to reporters at the conclusion of the NATO summit Friday in Wales, Obama made clear that American action against both Russia and ISIS was predicated on the actions of allies.

And while pledging to move forward with new sanctions against Moscow over its repeated military incursions in Ukraine, Obama stressed that the timing and extent of those new penalties would be heavily influenced by consultations in Europe. 

In the Middle East, Obama said that the allied powers “have to act as part of the international community to degrade and ultimately destroy” the terror network that has grabbed large swaths of territory.

Secretary of State John Kerry has asked NATO countries to inform the U.S. in the next two weeks of the extent to which they would commit to assisting in that mission. 

Meanwhile, despite more than a week of criticism over his comment that the U.S. did not yet have a strategy for airstrikes in Syria, Obama reiterated that plans were “developing” as his administration was “consulting with our friends, our allies, our regional partners” about the next steps. 

Taking the multilateral approach is "his MO, if you will," said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and a former adviser to Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid. 

"He saw the mistakes that were made in the run up to Iraq and he has decided not to fall for that," Manley said. 

Tommy Vietor, a former White House national security spokesman, said he believes Obama would “argue that a multilateral approach is the only one that will be effective.”

"This can't be the U.S. vs. ISIS,” Vietor said. “It has to be the world against ISIS in both word and deed."

Manley acknowledged that the cautious approach could invite criticism, but said that if efforts to engage with other countries were appropriately balanced with conditions on the ground, it would pay dividends.

"It's a smart way to go because there's not a lot of appetite for the dual actions of years past,” he said. “For many folks, Iraq still has a powerful presence.”

“It's classic Obama," added one former senior administration official. "And intentionally so. This is the approach he believes in and what he's stood for all along. I'd be surprised if he changed course. It's just not in his nature and I think rightfully so."

Anthony Cordesman, the chairman of the strategy center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says engaging allies is important as the U.S. weighs military action in Iraq and Syria.

“That they provide even token deployments do matter, because an international coalition gives a kind of legitimacy and covers possible challenges that the U.S. is somehow violating international law,” Cordesman said. “It helps [Obama] politically.”

Still, Cordesman says that no matter how hard the administration works to rally international support, any campaign “will essentially be an American operation.” Only Britain and France have the capability to offer meaningful air assistance to an ISIS campaign, he said, and both are constrained by domestic financial and political pressures.

“We shouldn’t have any illusions that this is a set of U.S. decisions,” he said.

That reality has contributed to pressure from Capitol Hill, where lawmakers know that the White House has the unique ability to shape how the ISIS response develops. Increasingly dismal poll numbers have also motivated Democrats, who are facing a tough fight to retain control of the Senate this November.

An Economist/YouGov poll released this week found just 31 percent of Americans approved of the president’s handling of foreign policy, with some 53 percent saying they disapproved. That’s 11 percentage points worse than the same survey found in mid-July.

Manley said the White House team has "made it pretty clear that they don't care too terribly much what Democrats on the Hill think."

Moreover, the administration appears skeptical that congressional leaders are actually willing to pick a fight over foreign policy. The volatility of both Russia and the Middle East make lawmakers reluctant to stake out firm positions — especially if they’re up for reelection.

And, as the failed push for airstrikes in Syria last year demonstrated, strong rhetoric from influential lawmakers doesn’t necessarily translate into votes for military action.

"In spite of some of the rhetoric coming from Democrats and Republicans, I'm not convinced they really wanna own this thing or have the debate at this time, but that could change,” Manley said.