America's ability to influence events abroad has come under question in recent years, during problematic withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan and an ill-defined stance toward the ongoing bloodbath in Syria, now well into its third year of civil war.
The president has focused much of his foreign policy behind the populist movement to bring the country home from more than a decade of continuous war in the Middle East. Meanwhile, roughly 110,000 have died in Syria since fighting began in March 2011.
This further complicates decisions facing a commander-in-chief whose advisers suggest military action in the Levant.
Robert Kaplan, a policy adviser to the Department of Defense who previously advised President George W. Bush, says the U.S. has "hit a brick wall" in its policies toward Syria.
"U.S. power can do many things, but one thing it cannot do is to micromanage a transition in a populist, war-torn Islamist society on the ground," Kaplan, also an analyst at private intelligence firm Stratfor, told reporters last week. "The last thing President Obama wants is to be responsible for midwifing to power a Sunni jihadist regime."
Avoiding the brick wall Kaplan references falls to the National Security Council, a small group within a president's inner circle comprised of roughly two dozen top officials and their respective staffs. They have offered decades of experience to presidents at the intersection of combat, diplomacy and politics.
"One of the things you're trying to do in that situation is look around corners," says Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security advisor to President George W. Bush and assistant secretary of State for President Ronald Reagan. "It isn't just a matter of 'What are my options today?' But 'What will then happen? And what will my options look like six to 12 months down the road?'"
The Obama administration failed to see the ongoing conflict in Syria as a proxy war with Iran, he says. Iran spends hundreds of millions of dollars per month in supplies and fighters to protect the Assad regime and its access to a border with Israel, the sea and other critical supply routes. The opposition now fighting Assad stands little chance of success if it doesn't get similar support.
Concern has also mounted in Congress and in the Pentagon over reports of a growing number of Islamic extremist fighters among the nationalist opposition in Syria.
Sandy Berger was President Bill Clinton's national security adviser from 1997 to 2001, and stresses the need for the council to see and advise on the whole situation, not just the immediate problem.
"If you could keep what happens in Syria in Syria, it is not strategically important to us," says Berger. The U.S. cannot, however, ignore the millions of refugees spilling over into allied countries such as Turkey and Jordan, nor the chance of igniting other civil wars in neighboring Lebanon or Iraq. Lebanese militant political party Hezbollah also continues its aggression aimed at Israel.
The largest issue is the conflicting influence in Syria of Saudi Arabia -- a key U.S. ally -- and Iran -- now in breakthrough diplomatic negotiations with the U.S., says Berger. Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar, has opposed the Assad regime during the ongoing conflict. A U.S. ally and frequent recipient of American military aid, the Saudis have actively armed the Syrian opposition.
"As long as Assad is there, there's going to continue to be a bloody, vicious civil war," he says. "The refugee flow is going to continue, the destabilization of the region is going to continue, the meltdown of the region is going to continue.
"For strategic reasons, that is a disaster for us and a disaster regionally."
Obama has chalked up a win for his September threats of targeted military strikes in Syria, which he says brought the regime and its Russian backers to the negotiating table for the first time. The result included the U.N. Security Council's inaugural agreement on the Syrian conflict in the form of a highly ambitious mandate to dismantle Bashar Assad's chemical weapons stockpiles.
Even if weapons inspectors are able to locate, round up, and control or destroy all of these weapons, the regime still holds plenty of conventional arms to continue its fight. The resolution does not include any conditions for military enforcement, so Russia could yet again veto any subsequent calls for strikes from other members of the Security Council.
Michael Singh served as the National Security Council's director of Middle East Affairs under George W. Bush. If you're looking for stability in the region, he says, Assad is not the answer.
"People too often use stability as a synonym for the status quo. They really aren't the same," says Singh. Assad has been responsible for skirmishes with Israel, an occupation of Lebanese territories and agreements with Islamic extremists such as al-Qaida to use Syrian land for coordination and transportation.
Obama appears to be ignoring the advice of his closest advisers, Singh says. Media reports of the days leading up to the president's decision to ask Congress for military authorization indicate that most of his inner circle suggested against it.
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advised the president in early 2013 to arm the rebels. Then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta agreed.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has attempted to avoid political affiliation while also offering his candid military appraisal of the situation. He reversed his original support in early 2013 for providing arms to the Syrian opposition movement, and in April said the composition of the rebel fighters was becoming more confusing, making it harder to "clearly identify the right people."
"The strategy is really in disarray, and I think it's simply going to take time before the Obama administration can get its act back together in Syria," says Singh, now managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The U.S needs to strengthen the non-jihadi forces through covert support, says former deputy NSA Abrams, through money, guns and training. Abrams made headlines in the 1980s for his support, along with then-Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, to sell arms secretly to the Iranian government during the Iran-Contra affair. Hewas convicted in 1991 for withholding information from Congress about his participation.
"If you believe the regime is going to fall...then there will be a fight when he goes over who takes power," he says. "I still believe that it is possible to build up a non-jihadi rebel force to strengthen the nationalist rebels."
The larger struggle in the region lies between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and their quest for dominance in the region, says Berger.
"They see what happens in Syria is important to the trajectory of the region for the next 10 or 20 years," he says. "The importance of this goes beyond what just happens in Syria."