Bending History

Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy

Martin S. Indyk
Kenneth G. Lieberthal
Michael E. O’Hanlon
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 342
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Bending History
    Book Description:

    By the time of Barack Obama's inauguration as the 44th president of the United States, he had already developed an ambitious foreign policy vision. By his own account, he sought to bend the arc of history toward greater justice, freedom, and peace; within a year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, largely for that promise.

    InBending History, Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael O'Hanlon measure Obama not only against the record of his predecessors and the immediate challenges of the day, but also against his own soaring rhetoric and inspiring goals.Bending Historyassesses the considerable accomplishments as well as the failures and seeks to explain what has happened.

    Obama's best work has been on major and pressing foreign policy challenges -counterterrorism policy, including the daring raid that eliminated Osama bin Laden; the "reset" with Russia; managing the increasingly significant relationship with China; and handling the rogue states of Iran and North Korea. Policy on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, has reflected serious flaws in both strategy and execution. Afghanistan policy has been plagued by inconsistent messaging and teamwork. On important "softer" security issues -from energy and climate policy to problems in Africa and Mexico -the record is mixed. As for his early aspiration to reshape the international order, according greater roles and responsibilities to rising powers, Obama's efforts have been well-conceived but of limited effectiveness.

    On issues of secondary importance, Obama has been disciplined in avoiding fruitless disputes (as with Chavez in Venezuela and Castro in Cuba) and insisting that others take the lead (as with Qaddafi in Libya). Notwithstanding several missteps, he has generally managed well the complex challenges of the Arab awakenings, striving to strike the right balance between U.S. values and interests.

    The authors see Obama's foreign policy to date as a triumph of discipline and realism over ideology. He has been neither the transformative beacon his devotees have wanted, nor the weak apologist for America that his critics allege. They conclude that his grand strategy for promoting American interests in a tumultuous world may only now be emerging, and may yet be curtailed by conflict with Iran. Most of all, they argue that he or his successor will have to embrace U.S. economic renewal as the core foreign policy and national security challenge of the future.

    eISBN: 978-0-8157-2183-3
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. 1-23)

    ON JANUARY 20, 2009, Barack Hussein Obama was sworn into office as the first black American president of the world’s most powerful country. He bore the name of his Muslim father from Kenya, but his white mother and her parents—who hailed from Kansas—had raised him in Indonesia and Hawaii. He was already a historic figure on the day that he entered the Oval Office, and history has weighed heavily on his shoulders ever since. Elected president at a time when the U.S. economy was plummeting into the Great Recession, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at the end of...

    (pp. 24-69)

    ONE OF THE KEY CHARACTERISTICS of the current international system is the increasing importance of the emerging powers. This trend, under way for several decades, has arguably become more significant in the wake of the global financial crisis. China’s development has been the most consequential for the international system to date, and since January 2009, Beijing has posed the full array of issues for President Obama that the emergence of new major players entails. While Obama’s handling of China has had many features unique to the particulars of the U.S.-China relationship, it also reflects his broader goal of reshaping the...

    (pp. 70-111)

    DESPITE HIS DESIRE TO BEND history on a global scale, upon assuming office Barack Obama quickly realized that two critical obligations would necessarily occupy much of his time and resources: to repair the nation’s economy and to manage the nation’s wars. Even with a crowded domestic and foreign policy agenda, the hard-power issues of counterterrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have been particular focus points. And the hallmark of Obama’s approach quickly became a blend of pragmatism and patience, especially toward Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, combined with resoluteness, especially toward Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    There have been elements of ambivalence in the...

    (pp. 112-140)

    NOWHERE IN OBAMA’S FOREIGN POLICY has the gap been wider between promise and delivery than in the Middle East. This is both surprising and ironic. During the presidential campaign, Obama had criticized George W. Bush for only taking up the effort to make Middle East peace in the last year of his second term in office; Obama vowed to make peacemaking a priority from day one of his presidency. Indeed, on his second day in office, Obama traveled to the State Department to witness his new secretary of state swear in George Mitchell, the former senator who had negotiated peace...

    (pp. 141-184)

    BY JANUARY 2011 THE PRESIDENT’S inability to make progress on the Palestinian issue and his loss of popularity on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide had combined with a sluggish economy and a burgeoning debt problem to leave the United States poorly positioned for dealing with the unexpected problems or opportunities bound to arise in the unpredictable Middle East.

    Nothing could have been more unpredictable than the uprisings that swept across the Arab world, beginning in January 2011 with the overthrow of the regime of Zine al Abedine Ben-Ali in Tunisia. North Africa—the Maghreb—had never featured prominently in...

    (pp. 185-228)

    SHAPING AN EMERGING GLOBAL ORDER required Obama to develop a strategy for dealing with those states that were determined to remain outside it or were fixated on doing battle with its norms and institutions. In earlier eras the great battle between empires or ideologies made the whole notion of international society a contentious one. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the cold war, and the onset of globalization, the potential for building an international consensus around such norms while reforming existing institutions or building new ones to reflect them became a lot more possible, even...

    (pp. 229-257)

    BEYOND COPING WITH THE REALITIES of a China in ascendance, an Afghanistan and Pakistan in turmoil, and a Middle East in revolution, Obama has had to deal with other tectonic shifts at work in the world. Promisingly, powers like India, Indonesia, Turkey, and Brazil are getting their own houses in order, tapping into global investment and trade opportunities to innovate and grow, and reshaping regional power balances in the process. As a result, hundreds of millions of people are being lifted out of poverty in an ongoing trend that represents an often underappreciated and hugely encouraging development in the current...

    (pp. 258-286)

    BARACK OBAMA’S FOREIGN POLICY TO date has been more pragmatic than visionary. It has displayed eminently competent stewardship of the nation’s interests on most issues, though lacking—with the notable exception of the elimination of Osama bin Laden—in signature accomplishments that might create a distinctive historical legacy. Keeping the country safe and helping prevent an even worse economic meltdown are considerable feats. But they are measured mostly against negative counterfacts—bad things that could have happened but were prevented, such as another big terror strike or another great depression. They are also less momentous achievements than Obama set for...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 287-330)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 331-342)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 343-344)