Early life

Robert Leiken was born in New York City in 1939. Leiken grew up in Great Neck, New York, where he attended public school through the tenth grade. He graduated from theDeerfield Academy.


Leiken held a B.A. from Harvard University in English (he graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and wrote a Summa Cum Laude thesis on Henry James), an M.A. from Harvard University in History, and a doctorate in Politics from St Antony’s College, Oxford University. In 2003 he was awarded the Bosch Berlin Prize in Public Policy by the American Academy in Berlin. Leiken was fluent in Spanish. He also studied French, German, Classical Greek and Latin.

University teaching

After receiving his M.A. from Harvard, Robert Leiken served as an Acting Assistant Professor of Humanities at Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1968-1971. In 1971 he went to Mexico, where he served as a Professor of Economics at the National Agricultural University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Agricola Autonoma de Chapingo) and also as a Professor of Economic History at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching. He also served as a Visiting Professor of Political Scienceat Boston College and as a Visiting Professor of Communications at Boston University.

Community organizing


In 1971 Robert Leiken left the United States for Mexico, where he stayed until 1975 and returned from 1977-1980. In Cuernavaca he taught English at a labor union center called CEFESOM and political economy at a research university CIDOC.


Robert Leiken returned to Boston in 1975. Between 1975 and 1977 Leiken worked as a community organizer, helping to integrate blacks and whites in Dorchester neighborhoods.

Policy and research centers

Upon returning to the United States in 1980, Leiken became a Senior Fellow at the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies. Since then, he has served as a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Research Associate at the Harvard University Center for International Affairs, a Visiting Fellow at the International Forum for Democratic Studies, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and The Center for the National Interest. The wide ideological variety of these organizations is emblematic of Leiken’s effort to resist the tendency in Washington to derive policy from politics rather than investigation and earned him a reputation for patient, concrete and unbiased analysis.


Leiken’s October 1984 article in The New Republic entitled “Nicaragua’s Untold Stories” criticized the Sandinistas for mismanagement, corruption, and human rights abuses, and political indoctrination. A 1986 profile in The National Journal wrote

The turning point came in the fall of 1984, when, after an intense 10 day trip to Nicaragua, Leiken returned “appalled and angry” over conditions there. He wrote an article criticizing the Sandinistas in terms that were, for a liberal Democrat, unmistakably powerful and all the more striking because they appeared in the traditionally liberal The New Republic, which itself was undergoing something of a political reorientation to a more centrist line.

Leiken’s article caused controversy among both Democrats and Republicans, according to Time Magazine:

The idea that a well respected liberal analyst would launch such a strong attack on the Sandinistas caused considerable stir in Washington. Leiken’s apparent conversion was seen by the entrenched left as a betrayal and by Reaganites as a vindication of their long held views. Most important, many Democrats who had relied on Leiken’s analyses began to reconsider their Sandinista sympathies. Senator Edward Kennedy had the article read into the Congressional Record. Suddenly, Leiken became as controversial as Nicaragua itself.

Diana West of the Washington Times added:

“…soon after returning from a trip to Nicaragua in 1984 that fundamentally altered his thinking- an intellectual evolution to which President Reagan referred in yesterday’s address on aid to the Nicaraguan resistance- Mr. Leiken became almost as controversial as the wartorn country itself.

There were jeers and cheers to be heard on the left and the right. ‘Sellout,’ snarled some, ‘He’s seen the light,'” exulted others. But perhaps the greatest impact of Mr. Leiken’s change of heart and mind was felt somewhere in the middle those who had come to rely on his scholarship and who now felt moved to reexamine their Sandinista sympathies.”

Leiken’s account of the Sandinistas and of the Contras made him a target of former leftist colleagues. He was to experience similar attacks later from conservatives upon the publication of his 2005 Foreign Affairs article, “The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood”. The article argued that Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood are bitter enemies, and that the Brotherhood’s “relative moderation offers Washington a notable opportunity for engagement — as long as policymakers recognize the considerable variation between the group’s different branches and tendencies.”

Clinton Administration

Robert Leiken served as the Executive Director of the Presidential Commission on Broadcasting to Cuba under President Bill Clinton.

Later work

Mr. Leiken’s later work focused on jihadis, European Muslim immigration, Mexico, and immigration. Mr. Leiken’s last book, Europe’s Angry Muslims, was published in January 2012, by Oxford University Press. It received an enthusiastic review in the cover story of the May 24, 2012 New Republic and strongly favorable reviews in The Economist, the Christian Science Monitor, The New Statesman and The Evening Standard and elsewhere. At the time of his passing, he was working on a memoir (entitled ‘How I Lost All My Friends)’ of his times and thoughts as a labor and clandestine revolutionary organizer in Mexico, a community organizer during Boston’s busing crisis of the mid-1970s, a critic of the Sandinistas, and a controversial analyst in Washington.


Robert S. Leiken died on June 7, 2017 in Boston, MA.