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An Iraqi Shiite Turkmen gunman stands in front of a portrait of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, right, at the front line village of Taza Khormato, in the northern oil rich province of Kirkuk, Iraq, Friday June 20, 2014.

Hussein Malla/AP

State Secretary John Kerry is Baghdad-bound to deliver President Barack Obama's plan for coping with a widening sectarian war that now stretches from Syria across Iraq and threatens to inflame the Middle East.

But the message from Mr. Obama to Iraq's beleaguered and Shiite-dominated government remains unclear.

That may be a recurring theme in the Obama doctrine – that there is no doctrine, only a pragmatic approach to dealing with crises as they arise and an aversion to the sort of long-running military entanglements that cost so much blood and bullion since 2001.

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In Iraq, as with previous crises, Mr. Obama's objectives remain a work in progress, a short-term approach often decried as weak and wavering by his critics and defended as careful and reflective of the new limits to superpower capacity by his supporters.

Over nearly six years in the Oval Office, Mr. Obama has faced a cascade of crises in the Middle East – a region where, for decades, allies and adversaries had stayed pretty much unchanged and there was neither regional war nor comprehensive peace. But the reliable array of despots, dictators and ruling families has been swept away by the pro-democracy Arab Spring and its violent rebellions, extremist factions and secessionist struggles. On Mr. Obama's watch, U.S. policy has mostly consisted of reaction.

So far, the President has hedged over whether he will back Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or whether he wants him out. He won't say whether he will accept a nascent Sunni state or a Kurdish declaration of independence, both of which would finally end Iraq's century of fractious existence as a multi-ethnic state.

It's not clear whether Mr. Obama is ready to order U.S. warplanes to deliver months of punishing air strikes – as he reluctantly did in Libya in 2010 – wielding air power without the risks of American boots on the ground. Nor is it clear whether the vague threat of air strikes will evaporate in the heat of domestic and international opposition, as it did last year when Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's used chemical weapons against his own people.

Do the new facts on the ground in Iraq – as they did in Crimea – matter more than the sanctity of long-existing borders?

The President has ordered hundreds of elite U.S. forces to Iraq but not to fight, only as advisers. He's ordered a carrier battle group into the Persian Gulf. U.S. warplanes are again in Iraqi skies but only on reconnaissance missions. He seems serious about intervening to prevent the emergence of an extremist caliphate sought by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. But both the nature and the duration of that intervention is – perhaps deliberately – vague.

Nevertheless, Iraq now poses the most serious foreign policy test of Mr. Obama's presidency, erupting less than a month after he delivered a major foreign policy speech that reflected his ongoing intent to end foreign wars.

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At the end of 2011, extricating the U.S. troops from Iraq was – in his own words – a "moment of success" and delivered on the central promise of his original bid for the White House. While not as triumphal or premature as the embarrassing "Mission Accomplished" banner that greeted then-president George W. Bush weeks after Baghdad fell to U.S. tank columns in 2003, Mr. Obama has had his own moments of hubris about Iraq.

"We're leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq with a representative government that was elected by its people," Mr. Obama said then, fittingly perhaps at a U.S. base called Fort Bragg.

Less than three years later, Iraq is again riven along ethnic lines. In Libya, the high hopes after the U.S.-led air war backing rebels that toppled Col. Moammar Gadhafi have been replaced by violence and uncertainty. In Syria, Mr. al-Assad, who Mr. Obama initially said must go, remains in power and more than 160,000 people have been killed in a grinding civil war.

Mr. Obama's approval ratings – typical for a second-term president – hover in the 40s. But on foreign policy only 37 per cent of Americans approve of the President's handling, an all-time low for Mr. Obama, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted this week.

Critics who rail against Mr. Obama's handling of crises abroad tend to focus more on failures to follow through, rather than disagreeing with the fundamentals.

"What I've seen is – in far too many cases – the President doesn't back up his words with actions," said Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican. "It's not that he says one thing and does another. It's that he doesn't do enough. The instinct is to go for the bare minimum – just enough to show concern, but not enough to get results."

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Even supporters are irked at the President's determination to get out of conflicts abroad at all costs, even at the risk of delivering a power vacuum to adversaries.

Former Secretary of State and undeclared Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton writes in her book Hard Choices that she "worried that it might send the wrong signal to friend and foe alike," when, in 2009, Mr. Obama set a fixed date to exit Afghanistan.

The Washington Post, generally supportive of the President, opined: "President Obama has been claiming credit for 'ending wars,' when, in fact, he was pulling the United States out of wars that were far from over. Now the pretense is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain."

Already, the President's caution on Iraq looks like dithering compared to other leaders.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose backing of the Syrian regime and support for Crimean separatists has left Mr. Obama looking out-manoeuvred, was offering unambiguous support for Mr. al-Maliki on Friday.

Mr. Putin telephoned the Iraqi leader and "confirmed Russia's complete support for the efforts of the Iraqi government to speedily liberate the territory of the republic from terrorists," the Kremlin said in a statement.

Editor's Note: An earlier online version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. It has been corrected.

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