A passenger plane presumably shot down by pro-Russian separatists as part of the crisis in Ukraine kills 298 civilians. Israel moves into Gaza to stop rocket launches, and the result is more than 1,300 Palestinians and more than 50 Israeli soldiers dead.
That’s just for starters.
Civil war rages in Iraq, pitting Sunni against Shiite, and Sunni-affiliated Islamic State militants threaten the stability of the Iraq government. The civil war in Syria is estimated to have taken 170,000 lives. Meanwhile, Iran proceeds with its nuclear program. Libyan unrest has led the United States to evacuate its embassy in Tripoli.
At home, an estimated 60,000 unaccompanied minors may arrive in the United States from Central American countries by year’s end.
So how is President Obama doing on foreign policy?
Not so well, according to the latest polls. In a recent survey by the New York Times and CBS News, 58 percent of respondents disapprove of the way Obama is handling world affairs, the highest such number of his presidency. Only 36 percent said they approve.
And that appraisal is no outlier. In June, a similar survey from NBC and the Wall Street Journal had the same result. No wonder, then, that critics of the president, like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are hammering the administration on foreign policy, seemingly in line with popular sentiment. On “Meet the Press,” Graham said of Secretary of State John Kerry and the president:
“It scares me that he [Kerry] believes the world is in such good shape. America is the glue that holds the free world together. Leading from behind is not working. The world is adrift. And President Obama has become the king of indecision. His policies are failing across the globe, and they will come here soon.”
But delve into the numbers and a more complicated picture emerges — one in which Americans are dissatisfied with the president but approving of his individual decisions. Consider this from the Times/CBS poll:
When asked if they support the president’s recent decision to send 300 military advisers to Iraq, 51 percent said yes.
When asked if they support the use of drones in Iraq, 56 percent said yes.
A little more than half of voters were in favor of working with Iran in a limited capacity to try to resolve the situation in Iraq.
Each of those three foreign-policy views is in line with what the administration is considering or actually doing.
Here’s a similar finding: When Politico surveyed voters in 2014 battleground areas, they found that more than three-quarters were in support of the president’s plans to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. And, 44 percent of likely voters favor less involvement in Iraq’s civil war, vs. 19 percent who favor more involvement. That’s something else he is doing.
Although taken just before the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the Politico poll also evidenced agreement with Obama’s handling of U.S. efforts to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Shortly after the Flight 17 crash, CNN and ORC International posed a survey with questions concerning how the United States should respond if pro-Russian separatists fired the missile at the aircraft. An overwhelming majority opted for stricter economic and diplomatic sanctions, preceding Obama’s decision last week.
The president’s management of the crisis in the Middle East is just another illustration of public approval of his policies.
Despite apprehension around the globe regarding the surge of Palestinian civilian casualties, both Kerry and Obama have reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself. Data collected from pollsters during the Gaza war, including the Pew Research Center and Gallup, suggest that among those who have followed the situation closely, 71 percent believe Israel’s military action to be justified. Moreover, the percentage of those who believe Hamas is to blame is double that of those who hold Israel responsible for the current violence.
One final paradox: Bowe Bergdahl. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center and USA Today in June found that while 43 percent believe the exchange of five Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl was a mistake by the Obama administration, 56 percent said the United States has a responsibility to do all it can to secure the return of a captive U.S. soldier, regardless of the circumstances.
What does it all mean? Probably that Americans are understandably concerned about the confluence of so many trouble spots around the globe and view the buck as stopping with Obama, even though they concur with his reluctance to get us directly involved militarily in any more foreign entanglements. Sanctions? Fine. Troops? No way.
And maybe “approval/disapproval” is a misleading way to gauge public sentiment. Obama’s approval might be just 40 percent, but maybe some of the 60 percent want him to be more aggressive, while others want him to be less so.
I suppose it’s all a reflection of the fact that it is easier to be against something than to articulate an alternate approach, especially in these times.
Michael Smerconish writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and is host of “Smerconish” on CNN. Readers may contact him at www.smerconish.com.