Presidents, like the rest of us, only learn that their intuitions about the world are wrong when painful experience teaches them so. Some grip their convictions all the harder and blunder onward. Woodrow Wilson could not accept that neither Europe's leaders nor American politicians shared his vision for a post-war reordering of the world; Lyndon B. Johnson could not admit that he was losing Vietnam; George W. Bush could not see that America's own allies would not sign on to his swaggering Global War on Terror. Others adapt, as John F. Kennedy did when his bellicosity almost provoked World War III.
Neither Barack Obama nor his senior advisors are about to admit in the last weeks of a re-election campaign that experience has forced the administration to reconsider its collective worldview; but it has.
When I interviewed Obama on the campaign trail in the late summer of 2007, he told me that if and when he became the "face" of U.S. foreign policy and power, people around the world would see that America's president understood their plight. Although he was careful to add that none of this would matter unless he made "prudent strategic decisions," Obama believed that his face, his voice, his biography would allow the United States to recast itself and to climb out of the deep reputational hole into which Bush had plunged it. Once he had gotten the world to see the United States in a different light, Obama thought, he could make progress on frozen issues like nuclear nonproliferation or peace in the Middle East. His advisors thought so too, as did many of those who most passionately supported him, not to mention sympathetic journalists like me.
It was this intuition, in turn, that shaped Obama's spontaneous response when he was asked in a debate with Hillary Clinton whether he would meet "without preconditions" with the leaders of states like Iran or North Korea. "I would," Obama said. Clinton said she wouldn't. Samantha Power, then one of Obama's closest advisors, told me that Obama had found the disagreement "galvanizing and orienting." This is who he was: A leader who would disdain diplomatic orthodoxy to address both states and peoples in a way they had not been addressed before. Thus was born the policy the Obama White House came to call "engagement." White House officials sometimes used the term narrowly to refer to Obama's bid to open talks with rogue states, above all Iran; sometimes they used it more broadly to describe diplomacy with rivals like Russia and China, and sometimes it was used almost metaphysically to describe the president's very personal outreach to the world.
In March 2009, Obama sent a New Year's message to Iran proposing "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect." He demonstrated his bona fides by addressing the country as "the Islamic Republic of Iran" -- a subtle signal, according to Dennis Ross, the former White House official in charge of policy towards Iran, that the administration accepted the regime and was not contemplating regime change. Obama continued to hold out hope for a breakthrough, which is one of the reasons he at first declined to criticize sharply the grossly rigged Iranian elections of June 2009. Then he spoke out more bluntly, and the Iranians rang down the curtain.
Did Obama really believe that Iran would respond to his deferential blandishments? A senior White House official says that while the administration did, indeed, hope that engagement would work, the "theory of the case" was that "if we can demonstrate that we're not the problem," and Iran was, the president would be able to assemble a strong coalition to impose tough sanctions on Tehran. And that is precisely what happened, though of course it hasn't yet changed Iran's behavior. If Plan A was based on Obama's special brand of magic, Plan B rested on prudent strategic decisions.