Obama believed that Bush had unnecessarily alienated almost everyone -- bad actors, Russia, China, Western allies -- and that a new policy of "mutual respect for mutual interests," as he often put it, could serve as an emollient. The new policy worked in Europe, the one region where leaders and citizens cherished Obama's gifts as much as American voters did (or more). It worked temporarily in Russia, whose leaders wanted to patch up relations with the United States in the aftermath of the war with Georgia. It did not work in China, however, where both Obama and Hillary Clinton hoped that putting aside irritants like Taiwan, Tibet, and human rights would lead to progress on a range of bilateral and global issues. China, like Iran, did not see its interests as "mutual" with those of the United States, and so simply pocketed the American show of respect.
One official I spoke to argued that Clinton had never been quite as persuaded of the magic of engagement as Obama had been, and that in any case both understood that trying and failing to repair relations with Tehran and Beijing put Washington in a stronger position to get tough with them afterwards. That is, no mistake -- so no lesson. Perhaps what this demonstrates is that it's hard to learn a lesson from a policy which does not work out as you had hoped but also does not ruinously fail. But the proof of the learning process is in the subsequent action. White House policy towards Iran, Russia, China, and others now feels more traditional than "transformational," to use a word once very much in vogue. There has been a regression to the mean.
And this is true beyond the realm of bilateral relations. In early speeches and in his national security strategy, Obama laid great stress on rebuilding international institutions. He has, in fact, embedded the G-20 at the heart of global economic policymaking, but he has also learned the limits of bodies like the United Nations. "American leadership," says an administration official, "will depend on our capacity to mobilize a coalition of countries to solve a particular problem" -- that is, on what George Bush would have called "a coalition of the willing." And Obama's conduct of the war on terror has of course come to resemble Bush's. A policy initially described as "countering violent extremism" -- and intended to mix soft power, diplomacy, development, criminal justice, and military strikes -- has gradually given way to a militarized approach involving drones and special forces.
On balance, we should be grateful that Obama has learned useful lessons from mistakes of modest proportions. White House policy in the second term is likely to be more chastened, and to raise fewer expectations that it cannot satisfy. The pivot to Asia will allow the president to operate in a region which does not require impossible choices under the most urgent conditions. And a national security team led by Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel would offer the prospect of stability, caution, and realism.
I wonder, though, if there is a danger of some learning some lessons too well. Obama has found that the world is more intransigent than he had thought, and American influence more limited. This has reinforced his own cautionary impulses. He now faces a calamity in Syria, and he has responded by giving it a wide berth. John Hannah of FP's Shadow Government blog recently accused Obama of failing to act decisively in Syria out of craven political calculations. I think Hannah is right that Washington should have acted weeks or months ago, but wrong about the motive for inaction. The president and his team are now deeply imbued with an awareness of the limits of American power in the face of profound upheavals. They know all too well that a forceful American role can make things worse.
As George W. Bush erred on the side of recklessness, Obama is now erring on the side of caution. He should have helped to organize and equip the Syrian insurgents while the rebellion was still largely local; now the war is turning into an international jihadist cause, and thus giving the United States and other outsiders yet more reason to hesitate. The effect has been to allow a very bad situation to get very much worse. Lessons may have been learned. But a president who was once prepared to take risks to change the world seems to have lost sight of his courage.