In vowing in Estonia on Wednesday to defend vulnerable NATO nations from Russia, President Obama has now committed the United States to three major projections of its power: a "pivot" to Asia, a muscular presence in Europe and a new battle against Islamic extremists that seems likely to accelerate.
American officials acknowledge that these commitments are bound to upend Mr. Obama's plans for shrinking the Pentagon's budget before he leaves office in 2017. They also challenge a crucial doctrine of his first term: that the use of high technology and only a "light footprint" of military forces can deter ambitious powers and counter terrorists. And the commitments may well reverse one of the key tenets of his two presidential campaigns, that the money once spent in Iraq and Afghanistan would be turned to "nation-building at home."
But the accumulation of new defensive initiatives leaves open the question of how forcefully Mr. Obama is committed to reversing the suspicion, from Europe to the Middle East to Asia, that the United States is in an era of retrenchment.In his travels in Europe this week and to Asia this fall, the president faces a dual challenge: convincing American allies and partners that he has no intention to leave power vacuums around the globe for adversaries to fill,while convincing Americans that he can face each of these brewing conflicts without plunging them back into another decade of large military commitments and heavy casualties.
"There is a growing mismatch between the rhetoric and the policy," said Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior American official during the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and again as the war with Iraq loomed a dozen years ago."If you add up the resources needed to implement the Asian pivot, recommit to the Middle East and increase our presence in Europe, you can't do it without additional money and capacity. The world has proved to be a far more demanding place than it looked to this White House a few years ago."
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So it is no surprise that at a moment when Mr. Obama is still answering critics for saying last week that "we don't have a strategy yet" to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, he now needs several strategies, each tailored to problems that in the past year have taken on surprising complexities.
In facing the more than 10,000 ISIS fighters, he must find a way to confront a different kind of terrorist group, one determined to use the most brutal techniques to take territory that the backwash from the Arab Spring has now put up for grabs. The American bombing campaign against ISIS targets in Iraq is nowhere close to approaching the costs of the invasion and occupation of that country, but the weapons, fuel and other expenses are running up anticipated bills of about $225 million a month, according to Pentagon officials.
ISIS "is not invincible," Matthew G. Olsen, the director of the National Counter-terrorism Center, said in a talk at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday, and does not yet pose the kind of direct threat to the United States that Al Qaeda did before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It is "brutal and lethal," he said, and defeating it will require a long-term commitment of a kind Mr. Obama clearly did not anticipate earlier this year.
In the Russia of President Vladimir V. Putin, Mr. Obama faces a declining power —afflicted by a shrinking population, a strident nationalism and an economy highly dependent on oil exports — that he is betting cannot sustain Mr. Putin's appetites. But the arguments inside the administration have been over how directly and where to draw the line — and not surprisingly, in Tallinn, Estonia, on Wednesday, he drew it at NATO's own boundaries. The question is whether Mr. Putin believes him.