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Overseas Trips Test Obama’s Foreign Policy on ISIS, Russia and China

Image: John Kerry

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry waves as he boards a plane to depart from New Delhi, India, Friday, Aug. 1, 2014. Kerry is on a three-day visit, his first following the resounding election win of Modi in May. Lucas Jackson / AP, file

The Obama administration is this week managing three overseas trips as it tackles a flock of foreign policy challenges and prepares to lay out a strategy on its fight against ISIS.

On the eve of the President's planned speech, John Kerry was due to fly to the Middle East on Tuesday on another one of his whirlwind diplomacy trips — first to Jordan, then to Saudi Arabia as he tries to sell the U.S. idea of a coalition against ISIS that does not involve boots on the ground. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been in Turkey to recruit for Kerry’s coalition and in Georgia to pledge support in the shadow of a bellicose Russia. Meanwhile National Security Adviser Susan Rice is in China to lay the groundwork for a November meeting between Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.

In all of this, Obama faces the challenge of persuading allies that America can tackle these problems while convincing Americans that there will be no more military involvement in intractable overseas conflicts.

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“Building any kind of strategy in response to situations that are changing so rapidly would be difficult if indeed it were possible at all,” said Anthony Cordesman, Burke chair at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. He added that Obama faces a Congress constrained by a shorter session and looming elections that will likely preclude difficult foreign policy commitments.

In the face of an aggressive Russia, Obama promised NATO allies in eastern Europe last week that Washington would come to their aid. "Article 5 [of NATO] is crystal clear — an attack on one is an attack on all," he said in Estonia. “If in such a moment you ever come to ask again, 'Who will come to help?' You'll know the answer: The NATO alliance including the armed forces of the United States."

There’s the small matter of China, which everyone seems to have forgotten

It remains to be seen if Putin, who was accused by the West last month of sending military vehicles into Ukraine only days after shaking hands on a peace deal with Kiev’s Poroshenko, is listening to that message.

Kerry has said he wants to use this week’s trip to “build the broadest possible coalition of partners around the globe to confront, degrade and ultimately defeat” the extremist terror group ISIS — a tough task in the absence of ground support or a clear agenda, analysts say.

"Trust is so low, especially in the Gulf region, for Obama's leadership quality and the way he manages foreign policy. I don't think any country is going to put its hand up or neck out by accepting an alliance with the U.S. that easily," Mustafa Alani, the director of the security and defense department at the Gulf Research Center in Geneva, told The Associated Press. Despite the immediate and growing threat posed by ISIS — its fighters carried out a deadly attack Monday only 45 miles from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad — neighboring states may still need persuading to join Kerry’s “core coalition” against the group.

"These countries can offer a lot, but I think any cooperation here is going to be conditional," Alani said. "They are not going to jump in the pool for nothing."

Repairing the 'red line' damage

Kerry may have to repair some of the damage caused by Obama’s 2013 failure to enforce his own “red line” against Syria over Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons and Washington's policy of not supplying Syria rebels with sophisticated weapons.

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"There is serious room for consolidated cooperation because for a long time it was U.S. reluctance to do anything that kind of ruined these relationships," Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, told the AP. “Turkey and the Gulf countries were saying 'come on, let's do something bigger and more substantial,' while the U.S. was always dragging its feet or obstructing or saying 'yes' and then saying 'no.'"

But there was no concrete evidence of progress with Turkey after Hagel’s meeting with President Tayyip Erdogan.

"Today’s meetings were a reaffirmation, clearly, of Turkey's commitment to be part of this effort, to destroy [ISIS] and everything that [ISIS] represents," Hagel said after the discussions Monday, but did not elaborate. “They want to play roles, specific roles. They will play those. Those will be articulated by the Turkish government — not by me — when that decision is made," he added.

While there is little doubt the Turkey is part of Kerry’s “core coalition” against ISIS, it must tread carefully as it weighs the fate of 49 Turkish diplomats who are being held hostage by the militants after fighters stormed the consulate in Mosul, Iraq in June. “That has got to be a high priority for leaders of Turkey," Hagel said, adding: “Each country has its own separate limitations, its own separate political dimensions.”

Pivot to Asia?

As the world struggles to take in the events of a barbarous summer — everything from the downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17 over Ukraine to the deadly outbreak of Ebola and the deaths of hundreds of children in Gaza — other U.S. foreign policy headaches have been out of the spotlight. “There’s the small matter of China, which everyone seems to have forgotten,” said Cordesman.

Rice’s trip to Beijing comes weeks after a Chinese military jet came within 100 feet of a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft in a maneuver that Defense Department spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby described as “unsafe” and “unprofessional.”

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“We face challenges and we certainly need to avoid any incidents that could complicate the relationship,”Rice said Tuesday during a meeting with China's Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Fang Changlong.

Her primary task in China is to smooth the path for November’s meeting between Obama and Xi – a crucial summit given the Obama administration’s foreign policy “pivot to Asia” that calls for 60 percent of American’s strategic military power to be committed to the region by 2020. With emerging crises in the Middle East and Ukraine, that plan could be tested.

"The president asked me to travel here -- even as there are many other issues on our shared global agenda -- because of the priority he attaches to US-China relations," Rice said Monday.

The world’s two largest economies are also under pressure to make progress on trade talks, which were hampered last year when Beijing and Washington traded allegations of massive cyber-spying.

As all of these efforts take place, a bigger question arises about Obama’s legacy and whether his final years in the White House will judged as a success or a failure.

“It’s not too late for a legacy,” said Cordesman. “A speech doesn’t matter, it’s what he does and how he responds that will determine his strategy and how he is judged years from now.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.