Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy

Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy

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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.

In Bending 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 History assesses 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780815721833
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publication date: 02/24/2012
Series: Brookings Focus Book Series
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 342
File size: 691 KB

About the Author

Martin S. Indyk is vice president and director of Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Kenneth G. Lieberthal is director of the John L. Thornton China Center and senior fellow in Foreign Policy and Global Economy and Development at Brookings. Both Indyk and Lieberthal were top foreign policy staffers for President Bill Clinton.

Michael E. O'Hanlon is a senior fellow and the director of research in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, where he holds the Sydney Stein Jr. Chair.

Read an Excerpt


By Martin S. Indyk Kenneth G. Lieberthal Michael E. O'Hanlon


All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8157-2183-3

Chapter One


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 his first year in office while the United States was still engaged in two wars in the greater Middle East, he had ample reason to feel that his destiny was to make history. And from his first days in office, Barack Obama was intent on doing more than just being there, undertaking a breathtaking array of domestic initiatives in his first year as president.

When it came to foreign policy, he had already developed an activist vision of his role in history: he intended to refurbish America's image abroad, especially in the Muslim world; end its involvement in two wars; offer an outstretched hand to Iran; reset relations with Russia as a step toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons; develop significant cooperation with China on both regional and global issues; and make peace in the Middle East. By his own account, the forty-fourth president of the United States sought nothing less than to bend history's arc in the direction of justice, and a more peaceful, stable global order.

This vision manifested itself early in Obama's bid for the presidency. It appeared at first to be a campaign tactic designed to differentiate his candidacy from the record of the George W. Bush administration as well as the policies advocated by his main primary rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton. But it would subsequently become clear that Obama's vision was thought through as both good politics and ambitious foreign policy. Its leitmotif was uplifting rhetoric—"Change we can believe in," "Yes, we can," "Our time has come"—notable more for its inspirational and emotional character than policy specifics. He borrowed a phrase from early Obama supporter and former presidential candidate Bill Bradley, as he developed the idea of a "new American story." And while his primary focus was on the home front, his messages about foreign policy, America's role in the world, and the demands of the twenty-first century across the globe were also central to his vision for what he would do if the American people chose him as their president.

When it came to specifics, there was a clear "anything but Bush" flavor to many of his stances, beginning with opposition to the Iraq war, a willingness to engage pragmatically with dictators, and an emphasis on enhancing the roles of diplomacy and multilateralism in American foreign policy. These three aspects of Obama's strategy—and his role in implementing it—were interwoven into what became a seamless and appealing message from a candidate whom the American people would soon vault into the White House.

For most other candidates, foreign policy amounted to a set of policy positions. For Obama, by contrast, his foreign policy vision became part of the atmosphere and attitudes that his campaign evoked. For example, in his "Yes, we can" speech given on January 8, 2008—after losing the New Hampshire primary to Hillary Clinton that same evening—he wrapped his global vision into his broader message of hope: "Yes, we can, to justice and equality. Yes, we can, to opportunity and prosperity. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can."

Healing the nation and repairing the world were two sides of Obama's coin—a message of change, hope, and audacity unified his domestic and overseas agendas under a common banner. And his particular "American story" spoke to many around the world as well. Indeed, a BBC poll taken in September 2008 in twenty-two foreign countries showed a four-to-one advantage for Obama over his general election opponent Senator John McCain.

Obama sought to define himself as a progressive candidate who had consistently opposed what had become an unpopular war in Iraq. This enabled him to appeal to the party's left at the same time as he distinguished himself from those candidates, notably Hillary Clinton, who had voted for the war. Among the primary contestants, he was not the most hurried in his plan to get out of Iraq; Governor Bill Richardson, Representative Dennis Kucinich, and Senator John Edwards were to his left on that point. But he was hardly the model of caution, either. His initial proposal in early 2007 would have redeployed all U.S. combat forces out of Iraq by March 2008—within fourteen months, before Obama could even become president and before the troop surge ordered by President Bush could be given a chance to work.

In a July 14, 2008, New York Times op-ed published just before he left for Iraq on a battlefield tour, he reiterated what had become his plan for rapidly downsizing forces there should he be elected president. While emphasizing the need to be "as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in," he spoke of redeploying the combat brigades in sixteen months—before the summer of 2010.

Another signature Obama idea from the campaign emphasized his willingness to negotiate with rogue state leaders in places such as Iran and North Korea. He was careful not to sound apologetic for these countries' actions or optimistic that talks would themselves quickly produce breakthroughs. But he opened himself to the charge, amplified by Senator McCain, that he was too willing to negotiate personally with such leaders. Obama retorted that he would choose the time and place of any such meeting in a manner consistent with American interests. While this did not satisfy critics who thought he was demeaning the office of the presidency and displaying naïveté about what it would take to convince the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez to change their hostile policies toward the United States, Obama was willing to run that risk. He was happy to appear the anti-Bush candidate on the matter, but it also fit his pragmatic approach. In situations of conflict in his own life, he had always sought to bridge differences through dialogue, and he believed that dealing with foreign leaders—for which he had almost no experience—should be no different.

This approach offered a pathway toward better relations with allies and neutral countries—who often perceived the Bush administration as unilateralist and too quick to use force—if not necessarily with the extremists themselves. By returning to diplomacy and countering the perception of America as prone to knee-jerk military interventionism, Obama hoped to find a way to restore U.S. standing, especially in the Arab and Muslim worlds. As he put it in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington in the summer of 2007:

The lesson of the Bush years is that not talking does not work. Go down the list of countries we've ignored and see how successful that strategy has been.... It's time to turn the page on the diplomacy of tough talk and no action. It's time to turn the page on Washington's conventional wisdom that agreement must be reached before you meet, that talking to other countries is some kind of reward, and that Presidents can only meet with people who will tell them what they want to hear.

Going beyond what he saw as repairing the damage of his predecessor's mistakes, Obama also emphasized a more fundamental reorientation of American foreign policy. In substance, Obama argued, it needed to pay more attention to the "global commons" that were threatened by terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, and pandemic disease. In style, American leadership required a new spirit of humility, "of quiet confidence and sober intelligence, a spirit of care and renewed competence." But there was nothing humble about his objectives, as he outlined them in his July 2008 speech in Berlin: a planet saved from famine, rising oceans, and carbon emissions; a world without nuclear weapons; and the redemption of those left behind by globalization through providing them with dignity, opportunity, and "simple justice."

Clearly Obama knew that he would not end global hunger, abolish nuclear weapons, and end the threat of global warming within a four-year or even an eight-year presidency. Taking all of his goals so literally would be unrealistic and unfair. But it would be equally incorrect to dismiss his focus on such high-minded objectives as simply cynical campaign politics. While he would be quick to acknowledge that the road would be long and arduous, he nevertheless believed that he could make meaningful progress on all or most of these historic challenges on his watch—and he certainly recognized the degree to which laying out such ambitious visions could motivate followers and electrify the world at the prospect of his presidency.

Not all of Obama's words were peacelike. In addition to his toughness on Afghanistan' promising to deploy at least two more brigades there—the candidate was also firm in his statements about how to handle terrorists and insurgents who resided in Pakistan's tribal areas. In the same summer 2007 speech notable for its promise to return to diplomacy, even with extremist states, Obama declared, "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets [in Pakistan] and President Musharraf won't act, we will."

At the time, both Senators McCain and Clinton lambasted Obama for showing his inexperience by suggesting that he would ignore Pakistani sovereignty when pursuing terrorists. Commentators saw it—together with his promise to step up the war in Afghanistan—as an attempt by Obama to cover his flanks from Republican charges that he was weak on defense as he advanced his progressive foreign policy agenda. But as the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, would demonstrate, the candidate was deadly serious.

Above all, Obama was promising a major break with the past and historic change for the future. This image of a new domestic agenda, a new global architecture, and a transformed world was crucial to his ultimate success as a candidate. Just how well it would set him up to assume the reins of power once elected was, however, a different matter. There was inevitable tension between his soaring rhetoric and desire to depart fundamentally from the policies of the Bush administration, on the one hand, and his instinct for governing pragmatically, on the other. He may have recognized the tension all along, but certainly not all of his followers did. Nor did many of those in Congress and foreign capitals with whom he would have to work in pursuing his vision.

In seeking to resolve that tension, Obama's foreign policy has repeatedly manifested a combination of the realist's pragmatic approach to the world as it is and the idealist's progressive approach to a new world order that he seeks to shape. He is, in that sense, a hybrid president: a progressive pragmatist. He is progressive in his earnest efforts to promote the big-picture goals of reducing nuclear dangers, the risks of climate change, poverty, and conflict—bending history in the direction of justice, as Martin Luther King inspired him to do. At times this stance has served him well, but at other times it has generated a yawning gap between his declared objectives and the means he is prepared to use to achieve them. Obama has proven to be progressive where possible but pragmatic when necessary. Given the harsh, tumultuous reality of international politics in the twenty-first century, that necessity has won out most of the time.


Obama's pragmatic side manifested itself early in his presidency, as the state of the U.S. economy required immediate and sustained attention. Even as Obama's victory was making history, developments of historic proportions were occurring in the nation's financial sector. For Obama, this became issue number one, not only for domestic policy but foreign policy, too, as the president-elect began to build his team and prepared to assume office.

The magnitude of the economic crisis that President Obama inherited was profound. Just before the rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and the bailout of AIG in September of 2008, the Congressional Budget Office issued a semiannual projection of the country's future economic prospects. Among its prognostications were deficits for the following three fiscal years of $438 billion, $431 billion, and $325 billion. GDP growth rates for 2008 and 2009 were expected to be low but positive—1.5 percent and 1.1 percent, respectively. That was then.

In practice, the situation deteriorated rapidly and drastically. Deficits skyrocketed, a result of the crisis and ensuing slowdown in the economy (meaning reduced tax revenues and increased countercyclical costs for programs like unemployment insurance) as well as the costs of the financial bailout and subsequent Obama stimulus package. A 4.1 percent reduction in GDP made this the steepest peak-to-trough recession in the post—World War II era. Actual deficits exceeded $1 trillion in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Warren Buffett described the situation as an economic Pearl Harbor, the equivalent of a wartime situation—phrases that he had never used before in his career. Real estate values declined by 10 percent before the recession even began, and then by more than 20 percent additionally before beginning an anemic and only piecemeal recovery. Household wealth fell by more than 20 percent across the nation over the course of the recession. Unemployment grew to 10 percent and declined from those heights only very slowly, even well after the recession technically ended. Obama and his team—Michael Froman and Larry Summers at the White House, Timothy Geithner at Treasury, together with the Federal Reserve's Ben Bernanke and others—worked furiously to arrest the mushrooming crisis.

Arguably the most difficult steps to avert catastrophe were taken late in the Bush presidency, with the Troubled Assets Relief Program, passed by Congress early in October, as well as associated actions by the Treasury and Federal Reserve designed to bail out or otherwise sustain key financial institutions. But Obama still had to play a major role in determining which institutions to rescue (like General Motors) and taking other steps to arrest the economy's free fall and attempt to stimulate growth.

The economic collapse and threat of worse things to come had profound implications for Obama's foreign policy. The crisis, though largely—if not primarily—American made, quickly became global in its economic effects. For example, in the last quarter of 2008, global GDP declined at a 6 percent annual rate. If a global collapse were to be avoided, quick collective action with other powerful economies would be essential.

The Obama administration did this, first informally and then more formally, by working with a broader group of countries than the traditional G-8 of the world's larger economies. The formal membership of that group excluded countries such as China, India, and Brazil, whose economies were still experiencing rapid growth and could help most in staving off collapse. As a result, Obama turned to the larger but nascent G-20, in which all the emerging economic powers were represented. At the April 2009 G-20 summit in London, Obama succeeded in persuading most key countries to pass major stimulus packages, with the combined effects of new policies and existing countercyclical tools totaling upwards of $5 trillion in aggregate demand.

The London summit provided additional resources to the International Monetary Fund so that it could help countries in particular need with rescue packages, and undertook a coordinated tightening of rules regulating financial institutions. The danger of each country acting to protect its own economy at the expense of others was largely avoided, demonstrating a surprising degree of collaborative common sense about shared interests.

Even achieving these limited goals required a great deal of effort during the administration's early months. The president personally, along with Secretary Geithner and much of the administration's foreign policy and economic teams, was frequently involved in promoting and coordinating the international bailout packages. In the early weeks, many of Obama's initial calls to foreign leaders focused on the crisis, as did his first meeting with a foreign head of government (the Japanese prime minister, in February), his first trip abroad (to Canada), and his first major overseas trip (to Europe).


Excerpted from BENDING HISTORY by Martin S. Indyk Kenneth G. Lieberthal Michael E. O'Hanlon Copyright © 2012 by THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION. Excerpted by permission of BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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"This is an extremely thoughtful and intelligent analysis of the Obama administration's foreign policy —a model of serious research on contemporary foreign affairs. It is the best account of the Obama foreign policy that I have read." —Fareed Zakaria, CNN, host of "Fareed Zakaria GPS"

"This is the single best assessment to date of the Obama administration's foreign policy. Although praising the policy as competent and pragmatic, the authors seek to explain why it has generally failed to live up to the visionary goals of the Obama 2008 presidential campaign. A must read to understand the foreign policy challenges that will face whoever is sworn in as President in January 2013." —Stephen J. Hadley, former U.S. national security adviser

"A perceptive and incisive review of President Obama's foreign policy through the end of 2011, with the successes and failures clearly explained, explored, and exposed. The three authors bring to the volume deep and up-to-date expertise in the fields about which they write, sharing trenchant analysis and conclusions which readers will find new and interesting. An unusual 'group book' which hangs together and presents an integrated picture." —Thomas R. Pickering, former U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs

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