No policy position more thoroughly distinguished candidate Obama from his campaign rivals than his pledge to meet unconditionally with leaders of troublesome states such as Iran and Cuba. As secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton is on the front lines of implementing the president's policy, but as a rival Democratic primary candidate she called Obama's openness to meeting with America's enemies "naive" and "irresponsible."
(Secretary Clinton's husband, former President Clinton, visited North Korea earlier this month in what the White House described as a private mission to secure the release of two imprisoned American journalists. That event, plus Pyongyang's release of a South Korean worker Thursday, have raised some hope of a slight thaw in North Korean relations. But any concrete shifts remain to be seen.)
As Americans went to the polls last year, they were apparently ready to give Obama's approach a try, after the perceived failures of the Bush administration's practice of freezing out enemy states. As president, Obama wasted no time converting a campaign pledge to official policy, declaring in his inaugural address, "We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
More than six months later, Obama can claim no breakthroughs or cite any obvious unclenched fists. Of the cases where the policy faces its biggest test – Iran, North Korea, Syria, Cuba – responses to Obama's outstretched hand range from a bite back on the nuclear front (North Korea) to silence (Iran) to modest movement (Syria and Cuba).
Administration officials have met with Syrian and Cuban officials, and the White House has said the US will return its ambassador to Damascus. But critics say the months since the extended hand of the inauguration have allowed adversaries time to further their own goals.