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Bending History? Barack Obama's Foreign Policy (Brookings Focus Book) (Brookings FOCUS Books) [Hardcover]

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

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Book Description

28 Feb 2012 Brookings FOCUS Books
How well has Barack Obama carried out his duties as U.S. commander-in-chief, top diplomat, and grand strategist? He has been unable to change the climate of Washington, and economic difficulties have dominated the first two years of his presidency. But his larger success or failure will likely hinge as much on foreign policy. In Bending History? a trio of renowned foreign policy experts illuminates the grand promise and the great contradictions of a new president who has captured the attention and imagination of citizens around the world like few of his White House predecessors. Conflicting caricatures of Obama miss the mark. The Right largely believes he is a naïve apologist trying to quash American exceptionalism, or at best trying too hard to meet the demands of his Democratic Party. Conversely, while many on the Left still see him as a transformational political figure, the great antidote to George Bush s unilateralist militarism, others believe he is an accommodationist who lacks the nerve to end the excesses of Bush antiterror policies. Not surprisingly, Obama is substantially more complicated and nuanced than any of these images allows. Bending History? argues that Obama thus far has, above all, been a foreign policy pragmatist, tackling one issue at a time in a thoughtful way. On balance he has been competent and solid, choosing reasonable policies (or least-worst options, at least) with an approach typified by thoroughness, reasonably good teamwork, and flexibility when needed. The seasoned authors aim to present the first serious book-length appraisal of Obama s foreign policy. They are Martin Indyk, a diplomat with great experience in the volatile region that has seen almost unimaginable political change in 2011 (the Middle East); Kenneth Lieberthal, an oft-quoted authority on the historic rise and political economy of China; and Michael O Hanlon, an accomplished analyst of national security policy, particularly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With fairness and sophistication, the authors blend their own expertise with access to major military and diplomatic players at top levels of the administration. They find little strategic coherence in a foreign policy that is notable mostly for its individual initiatives rather than unifying themes, despite what the persona of Barack Obama himself represents symbolically and rhetorically.

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Bending History? Barack Obama's Foreign Policy (Brookings Focus Book) (Brookings FOCUS Books) + Barack Obama's Post-American Foreign Policy: The Limits of Engagement + Obama and the Middle East: The End of America's Moment?
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 200 pages
  • Publisher: Brookings Institution; 1 edition (28 Feb 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 081572182X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0815721826
  • Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 14.2 x 3 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 832,069 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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

About the Author

Martin S. Indyk is vice president and director of Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings. A former U.S. ambassador to Israel, he currently serves as a senior adviser to Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell. 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. He was a professor at the University of Michigan (1983-2009), served as senior director for Asia on the National Security Council (1998-2000), and is the author of 17 books and monographs. 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. O'Hanlon's many books include Toughing it Out in Afghanistan (written with Hassina Sherjan) and The Skeptic's Case for Nuclear Disarmament, both published by Brookings in 2010.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fair and timely analysis 29 Aug 2012
By Shiran Shen - Published on
Barack Obama spent much time on the campaign trail proposing a dramatic vision to change not only the United States for the better, but also the world.

The candidate outlined a new, multilateral global order with America still leading, particularly regarding hard power, but sharing more burdens with others. There was a strong "anything but Bush" flavor in many of Obama's campaign-trail foreign policies, such as his opposition to the Iraq war, his willingness to pragmatically negotiate with dictators, and his emphasis on a multilateral dimension to American foreign policy. He wanted--at least rhetorically--to bend the arc of history towards justice, freedom, progress, and prosperity.

Has he fulfilled his vision during his first three years in the Oval Office? That is the question addressed by Bending History, a new book that offers a timely and insightful analysis of Obama's foreign policy performance and what he could do if he wins a second term.

Vision and Reality

According to the authors, Obama should be seen as a "progressive pragmatic" or a "reluctant realist." Obama has recognized that America's future will be inextricably tied up with Asia, the most crucial region in the world for American prosperity in the long run. With U.S. troops withdrawn from Iraq and (one hopes) in the process of being withdrawn from Afghanistan, the president called for a "strategic pivot to Asia" last November, a move not only to assert the U.S. role as a Pacific power but also to boost U.S. trade in the region. In his vision for a multi-polar world with the emerging powers sharing more responsibilities, Obama has been trying to get China and India on board to manage the "global commons" through combating climate change and promoting trade and development. Kenneth Lieberthal, the main writer for the Asia section, believes that Obama has pragmatically modified his strategy to maintain at least a functional U.S.-China relationship.

In the Middle East, Martin Indyk and Michael O'Hanlon argue that Obama has strived to balance national interests with American values. Obama's purported desire to promote political freedom in Egypt--the most significant country in the Middle East--overrode the usual U.S. interest in preserving Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. In the case of Bahrain, however, protecting the U.S. Fifth Fleet's access to the Persian Gulf took precedence over the democratic aspirations of Bahrainis. Saudi Arabia made the difference in the treatment between giant Egypt and tiny Bahrain, as the oil-rich Saudi Arabia extended its protective umbrella over the Sunni Bahraini monarchy. With the economic recovery sluggish in the United States and Obama's reelection prospects hinging upon job creation, the president simply could not countenance pushback from Saudi Arabia.

Elsewhere, Obama decided pragmatically to negotiate with heads of the so-called rogue states, dispensing with the Bush administration's "axis-of-evil" rhetoric--with mixed results. The authors seem to support Obama's "strategic patience" with North Korea, a potentially controversial assessment. Some pundits believe that "strategic patience" is simply willful ignorance--it buys United States time, but may cause many missed opportunities to resolve perennial security threats. It would be helpful if the authors integrated a cost-benefit analysis of engaging rogue states into their overall discussion of vision versus pragmatism.

While giving a relatively positive rating to Obama's dealings with rogue states to date, the authors suggest that it is important to forge clearer agreement across the White House, State Department, Defense Department, and other relevant agencies to work accordingly with Congress to prevent the North Korea issue from becoming a political football in the 2012 election.

Although national interests have been fairly well protected, the authors believe that Obama's first three years in the Oval Office are defined by a considerable gap between his vision and his record. Despite limited success, the president has not yet bent history in any major way, especially when measured against his own standards.

One's Own Affairs

Importantly, the authors argue that robust and strategic foreign policy cannot be achieved without having one's domestic affairs in order. Sadly, according to the authors, America has not done what it should to sustain its future global primacy. The country has been disinvesting in infrastructure and education, walking away from a serious program for clean energy, failing to address social divisions, and making merely partial fixes to the financial system that produced the crisis of 2008. Whoever occupies the Oval Office come 2013, Obama's foreign policy successes will matter little if the economy fails to sustain American power.

The authors conclude that Obama's foreign policy to date has been more pragmatic than visionary. It suggests no clear road map for the future, no particularly compelling overall strategy for how the president would advance American interests and bend history in a second term. Obama's accomplishments should be better understood as effective damage control than historic breakthroughs.

Overall the book's analysis is compelling, although more attention might have been paid to the president's own role as a political leader and a strategic thinker. But all things considered, Bending History does a superb job of detailing what happened during the first three years of Obama's presidency. It provides a timely and insightful analysis worth reading for anyone interested in U.S. foreign policy.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good 26 Sep 2012
By Bartosz - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A very interesting book. It shows very well the mistakes USA made in the Middle East. Also there is a very good description of US policy toward China. The last two chapters aren't very good, even a bit boring, but generally this book is worth reading.
5.0 out of 5 stars A well balanced and complete analysis of Obama's first term foreign policy 10 July 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Fits both informed readers and scholars looking for a compact and well balanced evaluation of Obama's foreign policy, its successes and failures.
1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Useful and Timely 15 July 2012
By KitabMan - Published on
This is a sober and insightful look at what Obama has accomplished in foreign policy in his first term. It has a lot of detail and useful analysis.
0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very illuminating 13 Oct 2012
By JAFriend - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The insight of the author and his knowledge of foreign affairs is outstanding. The book gives an unbiased view of Middle East foreign policy for the present
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