Bending History

Barack Obama's Foreign Policy

A Brookings FOCUS Book

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 unlike 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.

Author Commentary and Media Appearances:

Praise for the book:

"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

Related content from the book's authors:

Martin Indyk and Itamar Rabinovich went on Charlie Rose to discuss Obama's speech in Jerusalem during the president's visit to Israel in the spring of 2013.  Read the interview here or watch the video at