The following piece originally appeared in the Berlin Journal (Fall 2010), published by the American Academy in Berlin. Ambassador Indyk was the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Visitor at the Academy in May 2010.
On January 20, 2009, a young African-American was inaugurated as the forty-fourth President of the United States. In his inaugural address, Barack Obama made clear that engaging with the world would be one of his highest priorities. He intended it to be a very different kind of engagement from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. There would be withdrawal of troops from Iraq; an outstretched hand to Iran; a reset in relations with Russia; an expanded economic partnership with China; and a commitment to pursue peace in the Middle East.
Obama’s first year turned out to be an annus horribilis. The effort to engage Iran had foundered, a victim of regime hardliners who stole the elections and then brutally suppressed the opposition. Instead of a quick start to Arab-Israeli negotiations, the president found himself caught up in an argument over Israeli settlement policy. Boxed in by his generals, he reluctantly approved sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan for a war that seemed unwinnable. The near-collapse of the Copenhagen climate negotiations underscored the limits of American influence. Political polarization and gridlock in relations with Congress had bogged down the president’s domestic reform agenda, raising doubts among world leaders about his ability to deliver. Russia’s leadership stalled on negotiations for the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (start), hoping to extract greater concessions. China’s newly self-confident leadership began to throw its weight around in bilateral relations. And France’s president gave voice to what his counterparts seemed to be thinking: Est-il faible? (Is he weak?)
Every new president’s first year is bound to be complicated. The learning curve is always steep. The adjustment from campaign promises to dealing with the world’s complex realities is difficult. The new president quickly discovers that things look different from the Oval Office.
In President Obama’s case, the degree of difficulty was heightened by the circumstances he inherited: A home-grown financial crisis unlike anything since the Great Depression; a losing war in Afghanistan; emerging powers in Asia and Latin America demanding their due; a nucleararmed Pakistan taking on the characteristics of a failing state; Iran marching toward nuclear weapons; a Europe seemingly losing its way; and in the Arab-Israeli arena, a deeply divided Palestinian polity and a newly-elected right-wing government in Israel that did not accept the two-state solution. The America that Obama inherited was no longer the Überpower it once was. Its reputation had been tarnished, its hard power strained, and its pursuit of democracy and free markets abroad discredited.
How far the United States had traveled from those heady post-Cold-War days that Bill Clinton, Obama’s Democratic predecessor, had inherited a mere eight years earlier: The Soviet Union had collapsed; the Berlin Wall was down; Saddam Hussein’s army had been evicted from Kuwait; the US economy was about to take off; all Israel’s Arab neighbors were engaged in direct peace negotiations; and Iran was licking its wounds after losing a debilitating eightyear war with Iraq. History had ended; democracy and free markets reigned supreme; and the United States had become the “indispensable nation.” It was easy in those triumphant days to imagine that the United States could use its primacy to dictate a more free, peaceful, and open world order. Those days were long gone.
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