A former foreign policy insider takes aim at President Obama's handling of the international scene. Photo: barnesandnoble.com
President Obama has single-handedly kept thousands of American workers in their jobs by spawning dozens of best-selling books about how awful he is. He can ignore almost all of them, and so can you, if your goal is to learn something new about the Obama presidency. But every once in a while, a book comes along that it would be foolish for Obama, or anyone else, to disregard. Vali Nasr's The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, is the most trenchant criticism of the Obama administration I've yet read. Nasr was an adviser to diplomat Richard Holbooke before the latter died of a heart attack, and he writes from a perspective sympathetic to Obama's broad goals. He was a participant, a player at the table of power. He is intellectually well-equipped to survey the totality of Obama's policies from orientation to execution. What he finds is not heart-warming.
Put aside his parochial complaints about Holbrooke being marginalized by Obama's close circle of White House advisers. What emerges from the rest of the book is a portrayal of a president with extreme myopia, a condition that hides behind the skirt of long-term strategic thinking.
1. Obama wanted to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions without military action — a good thing, in Nasr's mind, but he failed to conceive a strategy that did anything but drive the Iranians to pursue a more aggressive nuclear strategy of their own. Rather than containing a nuclear Iran, Obama chose to accept the "improbable goal" of becoming convinced that Iran could actually be pressured out of the nuclear game. He also bought into the game that Arab rivals of the Persian country and Israel were playing, and several times spurned real outreach by Iranians who were ready to engage with America on the nuclear issue. So critical was the goal of giving Obama a political victory by getting Russia and China on board with harsh economic sanctions that the U.S. bribed itself into a thicket of problems with both countries down the road, angered Iranians who had no connection to the regime, isolated Turkey and Brazil's good-faith and not-completely-crazy second-track nuclear bargaining strategy, and seemed to go back on its word several times. Nasr believes that Iran's nuclear cravings are too deep to be filled by sanctions.
2. The lack of a grand strategy for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey; instead, he treated every moving piece as secondary to tactical counter-terrorism concerns. Particularly brutal is the way that Obama bungled, repeatedly, the Pakistan account, insisting on policies that empowered the very irritants (like the Pakistani intelligence service's connections with Afghanistan tribal elements) that they were set up to contain. He also refused Iranian offers to engage on the future of Afghanistan. (The White House worried that talking to Iran on anything other than the nuclear issue "would show weakness").
3. He put in place a strategy in Yemen that basically allowed President Saleh to rule without officially ruling, and tied itself down by becoming far too over-reliant on the Yemeni government for counter-terrorism cooperation.
4. Obama over-relies on the CIA, which is, in some ways, like a country within a country, and has a foreign policy that is often contrary to the one the official U.S. government espouses. Example from just this past week: The U.S. wants Afghanistan's government to be seen as legitimate. The CIA wants to give Hamid Karzai literally bags of cash, just to, you know, have cash.
5. His non-strategy strategy in dealing with the Arab Spring, which was based on the idea that any American imprint on the future of the Arab World would be seen as too heavy-handed? Indeed the White House has bragged about how few American flags were seen burning in Arab Spring street protests. That's fine, and one marker of the internal dynamics, but, as Nasr says: "What sort of strategy are we following when we aggressively push for democracy in Egypt while we double down on support for the region's anti-democratic yet none-too-stable royal regimes?" Yes, it's true that U.S. over-involvement in the Middle East is antithetical to Obama's way of thinking. But under-involvement, particularly as these countries try to re-order their economies and political systems, could have the effect of empowering a far more insidious and sharp-edged Islamism that will threaten regional and global peace even more than the status-quo-anti-Spring.
I have some problems with Nasr's account, including his minimization of Obama's own commitment to global non-proliferation, which is one reason why it would be folly for Iran to nuclearize under Obama's watch, and with his reading of Iran's repeated efforts to negotiate with the U.S. as something other than a consequence of successful economic and covert pressure.
But I find many of his arguments to be compelling. Russia and China were given keys to the vault in order to get them on board with economic sanctions; in many ways, U.S. policy is pushing rogue countries right into "the bosom" of China and Russia. Consider: "Does it make sense that American spends blood and treasure to keep the Persian Gulf secure while China gets cheap oil — at our behest?" and "The price for Russian cooperation from here on out will likely be facilitating Russian dominance over energy supplies to Europe," which basically guarantees that Western Europe has to rely more on Russia, and by overtly neglecting the Russian government's horrible human rights record of the past decade?
It's hard to say exactly what strategies Nasr would have had the president pursue outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan; the book is constructive with its criticism but rather silent in meaningful ways, like what containment of Iran would actually look like, or what our counter-terrorism policy in Yemen ought to be.
It's still the best anti-Obama book out there. And I do hope that Obama himself reads it.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 7 ways to be the most interesting person in any room
- Why is American internet so slow?
- What the collapse of the Ming Dynasty can tell us about American decline
- Colorado’s new ‘drive high, get a DUI’ commercials are actually pretty clever
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- 22 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Who are the real gay marriage bigots?
- Ukraine's fraught relationship with Russia: A brief history
- SNL tackles Vladimir Putin's Ukraine invasion, politically and personally
- What would a U.S.-China war look like?
Subscribe to the Week