WASHINGTON - As 2009 draws to a close, the big question here is whether President Barack Obama is succeeding in digging out of the hole - international as well as financial - that he inherited from George W. Bush or digging deeper into it.
The answers to that question are both varied and decidedly mixed.
One school of thought, for example, sees Obama as having gone far in restoring Washington's image as a generally law-abiding hegemon with a renewed commitment to multilateralism and international cooperation after the neo-imperialist trajectory on which Bush, especially in his first term, set the nation's course.
Obama's has adopted more humble rhetoric and outreach to the Muslim world, banned torture, promised to close down the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and cleared all U.S. arrearages owed the U.N.
These moves, and his dispatch of delegations to treaty conferences shunned or outright rejected by Bush, not to mention his personal participation at the Copenhagen Climate Summit and his policy of diplomatic engagement with U.S. foes, have all been cited as evidence of a decisive break with his predecessor that is reestablishing Washington's "authority and respect as a global leader", as the international relations scholar John Ikenberry recently put it.
"If this were a poker game," wrote Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in a recent symposium published by The American Interest, "Uncle Sam now sits with a large pile of chips in front of him that he didn't have before. He may still lose some big hands, but the odds have shifted importantly in his favour."
Some proponents of this view believe that the president is moving slowly but steadily toward building a somewhat more democratic global order of great powers - including emerging giants, as well as longstanding heavyweights. This would permit an increasingly cash-strapped Washington to gradually devolve some of its more costly responsibilities to other states and international institutions while retaining its "indispensable" status.
They see Obama's championship of the G20, which he hosted at the Pittsburgh Summit in September, as the replacement for the G8 - as well as the last-minute deal he crafted in Copenhagen with China, India, Brazil and South Africa - as indicative of his vision for a new world order.
While that vision may indeed guide Obama's long-term ambition, however, policy decisions based on shorter-term political and tactical calculations, as well as his cautious and non-confrontational temperament, may be moving the U.S. in the opposite direction.
That is particularly true regarding the Greater Middle East, where Bush's unilateralism and belief in "hard power" clearly did the most damage to Washington's global standing and influence.
While the slow U.S. drawdown from Iraq appears to be on track, Obama has repeatedly characterised the conflict with the Taliban in Afghanistan as a "war of necessity". His deference to the Pentagon has resulted in a major military escalation in that country with only the vaguest notion of an "exit strategy" that may or may not get underway 18 months from now.
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As Mathews put it, it is a war "that could gobble up the Obama presidency".
At the same time, the administration has backed what appears to be a more aggressive - if largely covert - counterterrorist strategy from Pakistan through Yemen and into the Horn of Africa that relies heavily on the accuracy of Predator drones and cruise missiles and the full cooperation of local potentates and militaries whose interests may not always be aligned with Washington's.
Concerns are growing in some quarters that the increased U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and related conflict in Pakistan's frontier regions could reverse whatever gains Obama has made in his efforts to reassure Muslims that Washington is not waging war against Islam.
Those efforts have already been badly set back throughout the Arab world, in particular, by his failure to stand by his demand that Israel cease all settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and to exert serious pressure on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to address final-status issues in a way that would make Obama's promised two-state solution a far less distant prospect than it has become over the last 11 months.
"The next few months will be critical, and the time for decisive action is running out," wrote Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in the cover article of the latest Foreign Affairs journal.
Brzezinski praised Obama's overall grand strategy but warned that it was "vulnerable to dilution or delay by upper-level officials", some of whom "may even be unsympathetic to the president's priorities regarding the Middle East and Iran".
Indeed, pressure on Obama from Israel and, more important for domestic political reasons, the so-called "Israel Lobby" here - as well as the continuing post-election turmoil in Iran itself - is moving the administration toward a more confrontational stance with Tehran, one that could very well make a peaceful compromise on its nuclear programme more difficult.
While the administration insists it wants to keep the door open to a diplomatic solution, it is also moving to impose new sanctions against Tehran. However, the growing conviction among Iran specialists here is that such efforts, unless extremely well-targeted, could well prove counterproductive, both by strengthening hardliners in the regime and by losing the support of key powers, notably Russia and China.
And, if, as most experts believe, sanctions fail to bend Iran to Washington's will by mid-2010, Obama may well be faced with demands - already voiced with increasing frequency in the mainstream media - that he attack Tehran's nuclear facilities or at least acquiesce in Israel's doing so.
Unless backed by the U.N. Security Council - a most unlikely prospect given the veto power wielded by Russia and China and the likely opposition of such key emerging powers as Turkey, Turkey, and Brazil - such a step would not only deepen the hole into which Bush began digging Washington's international position nine years ago. It could well put paid to Obama's larger strategic vision as well.