May 3, 2013

Vali Nasr — dean of the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins, a Middle East specialist and an acolyte of Richard Holbrooke — has always believed that the Middle East is the center of the world. He recently discovered to his dismay that the White House rather than the State Department generally decides foreign policy, that domestic politics often influence foreign affairs. Too bad he never spoke to some former secretaries of state, such as Warren Christopher or Colin Powell, before he entered government service as a senior adviser to Holbrooke. Indeed, it’s surprising that Holbrooke, who had been frustrated by White House interference when he served in the administration of Jimmy Carter, did not prepare him.

Nasr’s new book, “The Dispensable Nation,” argues that meddling by the Obama White House in foreign affairs has severely damaged American interests abroad. Nasr’s focus on the Middle East is so sharp that he decries the American “pivot” to East Asia and contends that the outcome of the contest between the United States and China will be determined ultimately in West Asia (read Middle East). Usually supportive of the efforts of former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nasr finds intolerable her suggestion that the Asia-Pacific has replaced the Middle East as the world’s most important region for the future of American interests.

On the other hand, he gives new credence to the China threat. He sees U.S. policies pushing Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Pakistan into China’s orbit, creating opportunities for Beijing to promote illiberal institutions in those countries. And yet he endorses the be-nice approaches toward China trumpeted by Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. His understanding of China, Chinese foreign policy and American policy toward China is clearly limited.

Nasr argues that President Obama’s policies, especially toward Afghanistan and Iran, are not based on strategic considerations but rather are designed to satisfy public opinion. Although his case against White House intrusions into policymaking is persuasive, Nasr’s inability to perceive any justification for such interventions is disturbing. He appears to have no grasp of the importance of domestic politics to foreign policy decision-making in a democracy.

Nasr’s critique of Obama’s management of Middle Eastern affairs is unquestionably valid. He contends that the hasty departure from Iraq unleashed chaos in the region and that the current plan to withdraw from Afghanistan is an abandonment that will leave American goals unmet. A more gradual departure from Iraq and a demand for political settlements in Syria and Bahrain, he suspects, might have stopped the sectarian violence in the region. He is appalled constantly by the White House’s apparent indifference to diplomacy, especially when Holbrooke was involved. Obama, he insists, should have listened to Holbrooke but instead ignored him and gave him minimal support and insufficient authority. Nasr argues that only Clinton’s tenacity and the respect she commanded retained any influence for State. As he puts it, “When things seemed to be falling apart, the administration finally turned to Hillary because they knew she was the only person who could save the situation.”


’The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat’ by Vali Nasr (Random House )

Nasr’s discussion of relations with Pakistan, much of which he observed first-hand, is superb. Holbrooke, he notes, thought American interests in Afghanistan were important but deemed our interests in Pakistan vital. Nasr reminds us that the powerful Pakistani military was always focused on India and had supported the Taliban to check Indian influence in Afghanistan. Obama’s advisers understood this and realized that the Pakistani strategic calculus would have to change before the war in Afghanistan could be ended on acceptable terms. But Nasr claims that the White House — and especially national security adviser Tom Donilon — undermined Holbrooke. Policy toward Pakistan was dominated by the Pentagon and the intelligence community — and with Holbrooke’s death, failed completely. Nasr contends that the United States now treats Pakistan as an adversary rather than as a friend, applying pressure in place of diplomatic engagement — to the benefit of China.

In addition to Donilon, Nasr points to Dennis Ross as an obstacle to wise policy in the Middle East. Ross, a longtime presidential adviser on the region, was responsible for relations with Iran and efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. According to Nasr, the appointment of Ross as senior adviser on the Middle East for the National Security Council signaled to Iran that the United States mistrusted Tehran’s overtures and would rely on pressure rather than diplomacy. Obama’s policy toward Iran was “a strategic blunder.” Nasr also holds Ross responsible for an inadequate American response to the Arab Spring. The United States should have been involved more diplomatically and economically.

Nasr suggests that America’s Arab allies would rather see war between the United States and Iran than a rapprochement. He insists that sanctions that weaken Iran will open the Middle East to Sunni radicalism and greater penetration by China and Russia. And, shades of the Cold War, he argues that the real threat to American interests comes not from Iran but from China and Russia.

Mostly, Nasr faults Obama for what he perceives as the president’s disengaged attitude toward the Middle East — and for pandering to public opinion. He fears that America’s influence in the world is diminishing because it exercises power poorly, and he blames the White House staff for interfering with the just operations of the State Department.

Nasr’s description of the interplay between the politicians and the diplomats suffers from two problems. First, though a brilliant scholar of Middle Eastern affairs, he is unable to see beyond his area of expertise and his brief experience in government. Today we lose the Middle East, tomorrow the world. Second, he lacks historical perspective. He has little sense of how policy has been made in the past, specifically the part played by domestic politics. Holbrooke knew — and countless historians and political scientists, including some of Nasr’s colleagues at SAIS, have written about — the need for public support to sustain policy. Nasr can teach us much about the Middle East, but there is still much for him to learn about the policy process.

bookworld@washpost.com

Warren I. Cohen is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the general editor of the New Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations.

THE DISPENSABLE NATION

American Foreign Policy in Retreat

By Vali Nasr

Doubleday. 300 pp. $28.95