America, and the rest of the world, is looking for leadership from President Barack Obama. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
President Barack Obama has an opportunity to re-establish himself as a significant and serious world leader during the NATO summit that will wrap up later today in Wales. He should make the most of it.
The president has been roundly and rightly criticized over the past two weeks for seemingly disconnecting from world crises that are unfolding on multiple fronts.
Obama prioritized his late summer vacation, engaging in recreational and social pursuits even as the situations in the Middle East and Eastern Europe reached critical points. He came off as frivolous at a moment that demanded the leader of the free world be forceful instead.
But summer is over now, and Obama is in Wales, where he must finally step up to the leadership role that inherently comes with being president of the United States. The focus of the gathering is Russia’s threat to Ukraine. But also on the table is the question of what to do about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), perhaps the most brutal and dangerous terrorist force the world has ever faced.
On both fronts, the president has stumbled in recent weeks. He has been out of synch with both the White House staff and the State Department on whether Vladimir Putin’s latest incursion into eastern Ukraine represents a new, more worrisome chapter in that conflict. And in a disastrous press conference last week, Obama acknowledged he has no strategy at the moment for countering ISIS in its Syrian stronghold.
Dealing with both these rogue aggressors will require the NATO nations and their allies to stand together, determined, with a clear plan for turning back both threats.
The Russian premier is growing bolder by the day. Putin seems to have little fear of or respect for the west, nor does he seem much bothered by the limited economic sanctions imposed after Russia usurped Crimea and began reaching into Ukraine proper.
The financial consequences must grow more painful. That will require Obama to convince his European counterparts, who are dependent on Russian oil and gas shipments, to bear the pain of tightening trade screws on Russia. Stronger limits must also be placed on Russia’s access to international credit markets.
In addition, Obama should signal that the United States is reconsidering its abandonment of the missile defense shield for Poland, the Czech Republic and the other NATO nations of eastern Europe. Obama killed that program in his first year in office as part of his misguided attempt to reset the relationship with Russia.
Now, Putin is openly talking about Russia’s nuclear strength, and boasting of how easily he could roll over Ukraine. The NATO nations, led by the United States, must send a strong message that his imperialistic visions will come at a steep price. Obama got off to a good start in Estonia with a speech that firmly called out Russia for its aggression and makes clear that NATO will live up to treaty obligations that an attack on one is an attack on all. Ukraine presents an especially difficult challenge, as it is not a NATO member. But forfeiting Ukraine would make defense of Baltic states more challenging.
ISIS is perhaps even more difficult. Obama has downplayed its reach and strength. Now Americans are watching their fellow citizens being beheaded on the Internet. ISIS is not the junior varsity al-Qaida wannabe, as Obama earlier characterized. It is a well-armed, well-funded outfit with no limits to its inhumanity. And its army is populated in part by western citizens. Again, it demands a unified and determined response from the west.
August was a bad month for President Obama. As a result, the commitment and competence of U.S. leadership is shaky. September must begin with the president devoting his full attention and energy to containing world events that are spinning out of control.