Still, it’s not wrong to detect a presidential step back. Partly it is sensible — as he did domestically, Obama piled too much on his foreign policy agenda his first year. The prospects are not good for an early Israeli-Palestinian peace, so the president is right to let an envoy manage it. Obama visited Europe six times in 2009, often for meetings that produced few results. His advisers are rightly trying to use his travel time more wisely this year.
Yet there’s also a disquieting aspect to Obama’s retreat. It’s not just Zapatero who has trouble gaining traction in this White House: Unlike most of his predecessors, Obama has not forged close ties with any European leader. Britain’s Brown, France’s Sarkozy and Germany’s Merkel have each, in turn, felt snubbed by him. Relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are tense at best. George W. Bush used to hold regular videoconferences with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Obama has spoken to them on only a handful of occasions.