Connect to share and comment

Opinion: Is Obama's foreign policy "amazingly lackluster" or "fairly courageous"?

Obama certainly hit the reset button. Problem is, he's still staring at a blank screen.

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech during a meeting with soldiers from the U.S. Forces Korea before his departure at the U.S. airbase in Osan, south of Seoul, Nov. 19, 2009. (Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters)

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."