Obama and the "reset" button

WASHINGTON — There is not yet an “Obama doctrine.” But there is an overarching metaphor. When it comes to Barack Obama’s approach to foreign policy, the concept that has seized the public’s imagination, here and abroad, is his willingness to push the “reset” button.

“Reboot, reset, re-start the clock,” said former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, who served in the Bush administration under former secretary Colin Powell. “I’m all for it.”

Fifty days after taking office, the new president has shown his receptivity to fresh approaches, and has moved swiftly to capitalize on the favorable reception his election — and his appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state — has generated in the world.

“The period in which we are entering is a turning point of a new world,” French Defense Minister Herve Morin said during a visit to Washington this month. “Why? Because this administration, with the huge hope that came along with the election of Barack Obama, sees the opportunity to rebuild the world order in cooperation with the rest of the world.”
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In contrast to delays that have hampered appointments for the Treasury Department and other agencies, Obama quickly named a seasoned national security team and immediately put them to work.

He dispatched envoys to the Middle East and Southwest Asia; changed U.S. policy on detention and torture, declared the end of one war in Iraq; revived another in Afghanistan; launched an international effort for economic recovery; reached out to Russia, Syria, Iran and the Taliban; put a major climate initiative in his first budget and promised some $900 million in aid to the Palestinians to help them recover from the Gaza war.

The administration “wants to channel this energy — this tremendous positive political energy — into action,” said Daniel Fried, an assistant secretary of state.

To be fair, many of Obama’s initiatives are legacies, where he is building on the work of other statesmen.

As George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, Bob Gates laid the groundwork for Obama’s offer to drop deployment of an anti-missile system in Eastern Europe in return for Russia’s help in curtailing Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear weaponry.

The U.S. began talks with Iran during the Bush years, and Iraq and the United States negotiated a timetable for the withdrawal of American combat forces.

And Clinton’s recent approach to Syria followed Syrian willingness to negotiate with Israel — using Turkey as an intermediary — before the Gaza war.

Nor are any of Obama’s moves more assured of success because they come from a fresh source.

Though he endorsed Obama’s initiative, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft warned the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that negotiations with Iran “will not be easy to organize." He added, “It is difficult to know who to talk to (in the Iranian leadership) … I don’t know if it can work at all.”

“If you could really get Syria to reorient itself away from Iran and Hezbollah, it you could really get Syria to … flip — that would be an enormous change in the region,” said Elliott Abrams, a foreign policy adviser to three Republican presidents, in a briefing for the Council on Foreign Relations. “So the prize is worth getting … (but) nobody believes that this is very likely.”

And another conservative foreign policy analyst, the American Enterprise Institute’s Leon Aron, wrote of the proposed missile deal with Russia: “Pretty neat. Worth a try. And bound to fail.”

Then there are questions about all those famous envoys — Richard Holbrooke, George Mitchell, Dennis Ross — dealing with overlapping issues in the Middle East. There are questions about Vice President Joe Biden’s prominent role in foreign policy, and about how all these officials will work with Clinton and Gates, National Security Adviser James Jones and Central Command’s Gen. David Petraeus.

“The turf fighting will continue for a while as people try to stake out their territory,” Abrams predicted.

The global economic crash may prove to be the biggest challenge of all. Some of Obama’s leading priorities — global warming, nuclear proliferation, Middle East peace — will bear heavy price tags, and require international unity. The worldwide recession will exacerbate differences and, at the very least, be a mighty distraction. Some suggest that, at least until the good times return, Obama should curb his audacious agenda in 2009.

“We can’t make the perfect the enemy of the good,” said former national security adviser Sandy Berger, ticking off a long and formidable series of treaty negotiations and international summits scheduled for this year on arms control, the economy, trade and the environment. Berger suggested that Obama prioritize.

To ask Congress to deal with all these issues — including health care reform and global warming — while grappling with the economic calamity may be too much, said Berger.

On climate change, for example, he suggested that the administration may want to use the international conference at Copenhagen in December as a way station, rather than a finish line, for global action on reducing warming gasses.

Strobe Talbott, the president of the Brookings Institution, agreed. “Defining what delivery on leadership means requires some realism about American politics,” he said. “I do not think it is realistic to expect that Congress, no matter what kind of push it gets from the executive branch, can do everything that ideally should happen on proliferation and climate change, or for that matter on the international financial crisis, because of the risk of blowing all the circuit boards.”

There is “the sense in Washington and around the world that Obama is president, everything is going to be fine,” Talbott said. “Well, no. This may be the most passionate marriage in history, but it’s going to be the shortest damn honeymoon that we’ve ever seen.”

Read more about Obama's foreign policy:

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Why Obama needs to learn the rules of cricket

Hillary Clinton confronts reality in the Middle East