Obama believed, and those around him believed perhaps even more strongly, that his own oratorical and convening gifts — the sharp break from Bush which he was prepared to make — was itself a powerful diplomatic tool that would raise America’s standing in the world and change its relations with adversaries and rivals. The policy of “engaging” even adversaries like Iran and North Korea was based both on a calculus of mutual interest and on the magic of a new moment and a new man. But it turned out that the “Obama Effect,” as one senior State Department official called it, was much weaker than expected. “The idea was that there would be something reciprocal from bad actors,” the official said, “and we found out very quickly that wasn’t the case. We’ve gone back to a more traditional sort of approach.” …

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.