Marc Lynch and Andrew Sullivan both have posts up today that share a similar theme. Marc looks at Obama's effort to jumpstart the Israel/Palestine peace talks, while Sullivan looks at the efforts to close the Guantanamo prisons. Both Lynch and Sully make the same points:
1) These are good ideas;
2) One year in, these initiatives are completely bogged down;
3) A key reason they've been bogged down is the fecklessness of the Obama administration.
Well.... maybe. External circumstanves play a role here as well. I'm sympathetic to generating forward momentum for Israel/Palestine peace talks, but it strikes me that people who bewail the lack of progress on this issue suffer from the liberal variant of Matt Yglesias' Green Lantern Theory of International Relations. Given the state of Israeli public opinion and the state of Palestinian political coherence, a Netanyahu-led Israeli regime was not going to acquiesce to outside pressure. An Obama administration that tried such pressure and failed would actually be in a weaker position than they are now.
Similarly, on Gitmo, when Obama seemed to push forward on this issue, he ran up against the political reality that Americans like closing Gitmo down in theory more than in practice. And Obama then acted... politically.
What I find striking is that many people who consider themselves part of the "reality-based community" now want the Obama administration to absorb the Bush administration's ontological beliefs and thereby create their own realities.
In a manner of speaking, the Bush team did have a small point. What the Bush administration excelled at was making irreversible policy decisions. You can't uninvade Iraq or Afghanistan -- and, as Obama is finding out, undoing Gitmo is much harder than it souds on the campaign stump. There are some policy decisions that, once they are made, are so path dependent that they are either impossible or really difficult to reverse.
The thing is, I don't see a lot on Obama's foreign policy agenda that qualifies (though Gitmo might). Policy initiatives that require multilateral cooperation are pretty easy to undo. So unless there's buy-in from other key actors, there's only so much the Obama administration can do on things like Israel/Palestine.
Which is Reason #451 why Obama won't be turning to foreign policy post-SOTU.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.