WASHINGTON — Barack Obama's foreign policy can be judged by the promise and the limits of its best known metaphor: the "reset" button.
With a series of well-received speeches at home — and in Berlin, Cairo, Prague and Oslo — Obama declared to the world that, after the abrasive behavior of the Bush-Cheney years, the United States would step back and start over.
But a reset button only goes so far. Once pushed, it leaves a blank screen, which must be filled. It is in that process — filling the screen — that the Obama administration has faltered.
The presidential candidate who campaigned on audacity has, with a few exceptions, demonstrated little of that quality. At times Obama and his aides have seemed daunted by the immense challenges they inherited.
The administration "has taken no strategic leaps in any area," said Steven Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
"The president suggested in the campaign that once he was able to bring all the countries we had alienated back into our order of influence … that in fact they would be willing to step up and do more. What we discovered is nope, they're not," said Danielle Pletka, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "On foreign policy … he has done an amazingly lackluster job."
On taking office, Obama became a war president. And it is here, in the struggle with Islamic fundamentalism, that he has performed most ably. Obama kept his campaign promise to schedule an orderly withdrawal from Iraq; to focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Al Qaeda, and to reach out to the Muslim world.
Al Qaeda has been disrupted by the constant threat of American airborne drone attacks. The government of Pakistan survived an existential crisis. A new democratic movement has stirred Iran. Iraq creeps toward order.
"I think he's gotten it about right," said Jessica Matthews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at a panel presentation there last week. "And we just have to be smart in this country to not define success as perfection."
Obama has matched Bush as a warrior. "They have ramped up the military aspect of the war on terror. They've increased the forces in Afghanistan; they've substantially increased the drone attacks in Pakistan," said Robert Kagan, a senior associate at Carnegie. "There's a lot of kerfuffle in the United States about what happens to captured terrorists when they enter the American legal system. The Obama administration, to some extent, is obviating that problem by assassinating them more frequently than the Bush administration was."
The future of Afghanistan is uncertain, and may ultimately lie in the tangles of its tribal culture, but — guided by Bush administration veterans like Defense Secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus — Obama chose to expand the U.S. military presence to prevent the Taliban from resuming power. The escalation has cheered some and troubled others.
"There were no good choices," Kagan said. But "the alternative — that somehow we could sort of basically wash our hands in Afghanistan — I think was really not workable. So he was in a bind and I think he made a fairly courageous decision."
Matthews was not so sure. "I fear … that Afghanistan could easily become the defining issue of Obama's presidency and if that happens, it's likely to be a tragedy," she said.
Obama took a conservative approach to the international economic crisis. Following Bush's lead, the new administration bailed out banks and other businesses deemed too big to fail. Obama chose mainstream Democrats — creatures of Wall St. and the financial community — as his economic advisors, then steered a stimulus package of tax cuts and public works spending through Congress. With help from China and Europe, a worldwide depression was averted.
It was an impressive performance for a rookie who "inherited the toughest international in-box since Harry Truman," said Matthews. And, indeed, given the scale and demands of the insistent crises — two wars and a worldwide economic collapse — that Obama faced, it may be unfair to judge the administration harshly on its other initiatives. Yet the new approach Obama promised has still to yield big benefits.
Obama pledged a new willingness to negotiate with antagonistic regimes like that in Iran. Because of its internal political turmoil, Iran may yet emerge as a more democratic, nation, but in the meantime it is making few concessions. And even a friendlier Iran may still be a nuclear power, as China and Russia continue to resist American efforts to unite the world behind economic sanctions.
Obama met stunning failure in his handling of a key ally in the Middle East. Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu called Obama's bluff when the president pressured Israel to abandon settlements on the West Bank, and the administration's plans for a breakthrough were stymied.
"They put themselves into a box. Whether it was right to start with the settlements or not, they went at it in an amateurish way," said Clemons. "You figured they must have had something else planned or they would never have done so stupid a thing" but "they had no alternative plan."
"He did engage, but he was not successful," said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, who offered Obama a C-minus or D-plus grade for his diplomacy there. "No breakthroughs; no real progress."
Obama's ambitions to save the planet from global warming and nuclear proliferation also met with recalcitrance abroad. A new nuclear arms treaty with Russia was delayed, and the Copenhagen climate summit was anything but a smashing success.
"It didn't blow up in his face, but it was a very muddy outcome … a not very strong outcome," said Douglas Paal, an expert on Asia at Carnegie. "We've seen some tactical adjustments that are kind of low-hanging fruit, and I would applaud most of them." But "the big strategic issues" like "what does the U.S. do about the rise … of China?" are "still an open question."