August 13, 2013


Hard on Obama : a review of The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat by Vali Nasr  (Steve Coll, 7/11/13, The New Yorker)

In The Dispensable Nation, Nasr dissects what he regards as the overlapping failures of the Obama administration's foreign policies across the Middle East and South Asia, from Pakistan to Iran to revolutionary Egypt. The book begins as a detailed, analytical memoir of disappointment over how "a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers" undermined Holbrooke's diplomatic mission in South Asia, as Nasr looked on. The author then embarks on a withering review of first-term Obama administration diplomacy.

He concludes with criticism of Obama's most important foreign policy conception, the announced American "pivot" toward Asia and away from the Middle East, a reorientation of policy, alliance priorities, and military deployments made possible by the reduction of American involvement in the wars Obama inherited in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most provocatively, Nasr argues that by retreating from the Middle East--and by signaling a withdrawal from "the exuberant American desire to lead in the world"--Obama has yielded strategic advantage to China, for which the United States will pay a heavy price in the future.

Nasr writes that he did not want to use his book as "a political bludgeon," yet he describes Obama as a "dithering" president prone to "busybodying the national security apparatus" who allowed Holbrooke, in particular, to be marginalized at the White House in an internecine "theater of the absurd." At the same time, the author offers only hagiographic generalizations about his bosses, Holbrooke and Hillary Clinton, "two incredibly dedicated and talented people" who "had to fight to have their voices count." When things went badly for Obama, the administration "knew [Clinton] was the only person who could save the situation, and she did that time and again." This uncritical, not to say hackneyed, view of the secretary of state is difficult to reconcile with the fact that she helped formulate, and often enthusiastically sold in public, the very Obama administration policies that the author finds so wanting.

Nasr has serious arguments to make. Some of them are detailed and deeply informed, as in his brilliant and important chapter on Pakistan, but others come across as more hurriedly composed. What finally recommends the book is the very quality that often makes it jagged: Nasr's willingness, as a well-positioned insider, to attack viscerally the complacent belief among Obama and his national security advisers that they have constructed a rare left-leaning presidency that is tough-minded, restrained, and above all effective on foreign, defense, and counterterrorism policy. Along the way, Nasr offers confident views about America's place in the world; its capacity to influence South Asian and Middle Eastern nations in crisis; and rising geopolitical competition with China. Unusually in Obama's Washington, where muted loyalty to the president has generally prevailed among Democrats, Nasr has written a pugnacious book. Of greater interest, however, is to what extent his arguments about Obama's forays into the Middle East may be right.

Because Obama's aim has been to "shrink [America's] footprint in the Middle East," Nasr writes, the president's approach to the Arab Spring

has been wholly reactive. It may get a passing grade in managing changes of regime as old dictators fall, but it has largely failed at the real challenge, which is to help the new governments...move toward democracy and reform their parlous, sclerotic economies. [...]

[O]bama should have done much more after the Tunisian revolution began late in 2010, Nasr believes. And because of Obama's hesitation, it is impossible to "say now that the Arab Spring would have been such a disappointment had we engaged with the region quickly and forcefully."

By "engagement" Nasr means a Marshall Plan-scale package of economic aid on par with the more than $100 billion the United States poured into formerly Communist Europe in the decade after the Berlin Wall's fall. "It is true that the global financial downturn and the Greek crisis had left little for Cairo, but that is no excuse. Egypt is a hinge upon which the fate of the whole Middle East may turn."

Posted by at August 13, 2013 12:16 AM

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