The Return of the Indispensable Nation

The agenda President Obama brings to the UN is nothing like the one candidate Obama envisioned.
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From war to Ebola to climate change, President Barack Obama is embracing the role of the U.S. as the indispensable nation.

As he arrives in New York for the world stage provided by the United Nations General Assembly, Obama carries with him an agenda that he might have shrunk from at the start of his presidency.  It puts the U.S. squarely in a lead role in confronting three global crises:

— A war against Islamic militants that will extend well beyond his term in office, launched with airstrikes just hours before the president left Washington

— The fight to stem the spread of Ebola in Africa

— Tackling climate change "before it is too late."

He's also pressing the UN Security Council to halt the flow of would-be international jihadists across borders and standing by recent actions to ramp up sanctions on Russia over its aggression toward Ukraine.

Contrast these steps and rhetoric to the candidate who campaigned in 2008 on a promise to end the war in Iraq; the president who sought a "reset" in relations with Russia; and who openly called on lawmakers in May 2013 to consider ``how we can continue to fight terrorism without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing.'' He also chose not to attack the Assad regime last year without Congressional approval.

A year later, Obama said Tuesday he personally gave orders to strike in Syria "so that these terrorists can't find safe haven anywhere'' and praised the Arab nations that had agreed to support and participate in Monday's airstrikes.

"He thought moments like this could be avoided by discipline and strong policy," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Now he is engaging in an effort that has no clear endpoint and no clear path.''

Shawn Brimley, director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, said the notion of Obama's retreat from foreign policy has been exaggerated and that from the start of his presidency he made clear he'd take out threats to US national security even as he sought to end wars.

"That said, it's pretty clear to me that the White House over the summertime definitely heard this thesis take hold -- the notion his foreign policy is not as assertive as required -- and they're looking at opportunities to reframe the debate. The crises that have taken hold over the last few months are giving them an opportunity to do that. Whether ISIS, Iraq, or Ukraine, the world has provided the White House an opportunity to recommit to the US leadership role."

P.J. Crowley, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration, added: "A year ago he could not convince his own Congress nor the international community of the need to defend international norms after the use of chemical weapons. But a year later he's saying, this is not America against ISIL, it's the world against ISIL.''

Obama's willingness to take more initiative, especially militarily, does represent a shift, Alterman said, though it's not yet clear how incremental -- or successful -- that shift will be. ``The president's reluctance has been over open-ended military engagements. Trying to have others will take the lead doesn't do anything to guarantee it won't become an open-ended engagement or a failed effort. The more you make this military, the more you set us up for ongoing kinetic actions that don't have the desired political effect.

"I don't think there's any question the U.S. is the indispensable nation. The criticism I get is that the U.S. isn't leading effectively.''