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A new Washington Post-ABC poll shows fewer than half of all Americans approve of the way President Obama's handling international affairs. His grade on foreign-policy has actually improved slightly since the beginning of the summer, even as crises around the world have multiplied. The president says, he's confident in his strategic approach, even as he cautions again that there are no quick fixes. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The United States and Europe finally seem to be on the same page this week in leveling tough economic sanctions against Russia for its interference in Ukraine. For President Obama, the sanctions announcement Tuesday was the culmination of a months-long diplomatic push.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today is a reminder that the United States means what it says. And we will rally the international community in standing up for the rights and freedom of people around the world.

HORSLEY: White House aides argue it was American leadership that created space for Ukraine to hold elections and strengthen its ties to Europe, while Russia now finds itself increasingly isolated. Critics scoff at that, noting the international coalition against Russia coalesced only after the downing of the Malaysian jetliner. Polls show foreign-policy, once a strong suit for Obama, is now a drag on his overall approval rating. Editor David Rathkopf of Foreign Policy magazine says, it's not just Republicans who are critical.

DAVID RATHKOPF: There's a sense of disengagement. There's a sense of aloofness. And frankly, there's not a great deal of sense of competence, in terms of managing foreign policy issues.

HORSLEY: And Ukraine is just one of many foreign challenges confronting Obama, along with fighting in the Middle East, territorial tensions in Asia and turmoil in Central America that's sent tens of thousands of young people fleeing to the U.S. border. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright told CBS this week, compared to the days of the Cold War, when leaders could focus on a single enemy, the trouble spots today are far more diffuse.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBS INTERVIEW)

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: There are an awful lot of things going on that need understanding and explanation, but to put it mildly, the world is a mess.

HORSLEY: Obama himself acknowledged the wide range of foreign policy challenges during a White House briefing earlier this month.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITE HOUSE BRIEFING)

OBAMA: None of these challenges lend themselves to quick or easy solutions, but all of them require American leadership. And as commander-in-chief, I'm confident that if we stay patient and determined that we will, in fact, meet these challenges.

HORSLEY: Indeed patient diplomacy is the hallmark of Obama's foreign policy, says Michael Cohen of the Century Foundation. While it doesn't grab headlines the way a military response might, Cohen says, it can yield positive results.

MICHAEL COHEN: There are those who, I think, would love to see more dramatic response - one that would turn back Russian escalation. That's not going to happen. If you want to convince Putin and Russia to pursue a different course than they've pursued in Ukraine, then it's going to take time.

HORSLEY: Cohen points to the example of Iran, where Obama was willing to wait years as economic sanctions took their toll, finally forcing Iran bargaining table over its nuclear program. Those talks have now been extended, and it's still not clear if they'll bear fruit. What's more, it's hard to counsel patience to those fleeing civil war in Syria or caught in a crossfire between Israel and Hamas. Foreign Policy's Rathkopf says, patience is the wrong word for the Obama administration's approach.

RATHKOPF: That's a very charitable interpretation. I think it comes across to a lot of people as passive and to some people as inert.

HORSLEY: Rathkopf forthcoming book, "National Insecurity," charts U.S. foreign policy under both Obama and George W. Bush. He says, while Americans came to regret the foreign adventures of the early Bush years, many see today's approach as too hands-off and an overcorrection. Rathkopf says, Americans want the United States to be seen as a leader - one with clear goals and the ability to advance its interests. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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