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Book Review: Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy by Martin S. Indyk et al

Eugenio Lilli - 30th May 2012

Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy by Martin S. Indyk, Kenneth G. Lieberthal and Michael E. O'Hanlon. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2012. 200 pp., £18.99 hardcover, 978 0815721826

The United States is quickly moving toward a new presidential election at the end of this year. Bending History, by the authors’ own admission, is an effort to provide the American public with an informed evaluation of President Obama’s foreign policy performance. Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael O’Hanlon hold distinguished positions at the Brookings Institution, one of America’s oldest and most renowned think tanks. At the time of this writing, none of them has been a member of the Obama’s team, although they all have had the opportunity to advise the administration on some aspects of its foreign policy. Given the experience and expertise of the authors, and the timing of the publication, at the outset of another electoral campaign, this book is certainly a must-read.

Bending History’s main thesis is that Barack Obama is an hybrid president or as the book puts it: “a progressive pragmatist.” According to the authors, “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.” During the first three years of his mandate President Obama’s original vision of bending the arc of history toward justice, peace, and stability has had to come to terms with the reality of the world as it is: complex, sometimes seemingly intractable, and partisan. Therefore, “Obama has proven to be progressive where possible but pragmatic when necessary.” However, Indyk, Lieberthal, and O’Hanlon argue that by setting very ambitious goals for his administration and then following more cautious and incremental foreign policies, Obama has laid himself open to criticism.

Bending History provides a point-by-point assessment of the main issues of the United States’ foreign policy: US relations with an emerging China; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the wider effort against international terrorism; the difficulties of the Arab-Israeli peace process; the revolts that swept across the Arab world between 2011 and 2012; nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea; and finally the issues of energy policy, climate change, and weak states, aka the “soft security” agenda. In addition, in the last chapter the authors also discuss the existence of a specific Obama doctrine in foreign policy and explain some policy proposals to maintain the United States competitive in the future. In particular, they save no energy in reminding us the importance for any future US president of putting the American economy back on its feet as the first and indispensable step in order to achieve any other successive goal.

The book gives an overall balanced assessment of the 44th president of the United States’ foreign policy record, as it singles out both the accomplishments, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden and other prominent members of al-Qaeda, and the failures, for example the lack of improvements in the Middle East peace process. When faced with less clear-cut issues, however, the authors have a tendency to take the side of the administration, as in the case of its inability to reach an agreement with Iraq to keep some US troops in the country, and in achieving substantial progress in controlling Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs. Considering US strategic interests in Yemen, above all in terms of fighting international terrorism and proximity to Saudi Arabia, it is surprising that an analysis of the country is absent in the chapter on the Arab Awakenings, and only a quick reference is made to it in the one on War, Counterterrorism, and Homeland Protection. Despite these minor issues, Bending History represents a detailed, well-researched, and up-to-date book indispensable for understanding and evaluating the foreign policy performance of President Barack Obama during his first three years in office.

Eugenio Lilli is currently a Postgraduate Researcher at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, and a Teaching Fellow at the UK Joint Services Command and Staff College. His research interests include terrorism and US foreign policy, particularly United States’ relations with the Muslim world.