The Dispensable Nation

Parsing the tale of a State Department insider.

The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. By Vali Nasr. Doubleday, New York, 2013. 320 pp. 

On his last trip to Afghanistan, in October 2010, Holbrooke pulled General Petraeus aside and said, ‘David, I want to talk to you about reconciliation.’ Petraeus replied, ‘That is a fifteen-second conversation. No, not now.’”

From the moment Barack Obama became president, the White House refused to entertain the idea that the war in Afghanistan could come to an end through political means. This is but one of the failings recounted by Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, in The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, a searing indictment of the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy, particularly in the Muslim world. The critique is all the more telling because it comes from an insider: from 2009 to 2011, Nasr served as senior advisor to Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Opportunities for American engagement in the Muslim world have changed dramatically over the past few years, and the fast-moving nature of the continued Arab Spring revolutions means that they won’t wait around for U.S. leaders to grab them. Other established and rising powers like China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran are vying for influence in the new Middle East, yet a guarded United States seems to be opting out of the competition.

Obama took office with campaign promises that he would win the “good war” in Afghanistan, while winding down the “bad war” in Iraq. But his administration was wary of involvement in the region following the disastrous George W. Bush years, and so embraced a decidedly light footprint rather than a broader strategy for dealing with the deeply entrenched issues there: namely the spread of jihadist militancy, the festering Israel-Palestine wound, and a myriad of economic and societal challenges.

The hands-off approach might not have proved disastrous, but it hasn’t been particularly successful either. Iraq is consumed by sectarian violence and its increasingly autocratic government has grown closer to Iran, consequences that Nasr argues might have been mitigated if the administration had ordered a more gradual withdrawal of troops and had engaged constructively with the Iraqi people in the wake of the war. But the Iraq war was not “Obama’s war,” so the president felt little responsibility for its aftermath.

Meanwhile, in the war that Obama did lay claim to, the prospects of a peace deal with insurgents have all but faded from view, as talks between the United States and the Taliban ground to a halt. The Taliban officials who traveled to Qatar in 2010 for the negotiations are now just “enjoying the air-conditioning, driving luxury cars, and making babies,” as Nasr puts it. There are many competing explanations as to why negotiations with the Taliban haven’t worked out. Some of the people involved say the Taliban has no interest in laying down its weapons and rejecting Al-Qaeda. Others—like Nasr—argue that Obama didn’t give reconciliation even half a chance. What seems clear is that the U.S. approach has never been consistent—whether under Bush or Obama—thus giving the Taliban little reason to trust that Washington will actually do what it says it’s going to do.

By Nasr’s account, the Obama administration has let domestic political considerations—re-election prospects as well as the domestic opponents’ relentless attacks on anything that might be construed as a White House “failure”—get in the way of smart foreign policy. The most damning allegations he makes involve the White House’s sidelining of the officials at the State Department who were calling for a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan—including Holbrooke—largely for petty political reasons. Holbrooke had been a fervent supporter of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primary campaigns, and his robust foreign policy credentials threatened the clout of the president’s National Security Council—and Obama clearly wanted to keep U.S. foreign policymaking inside the White House. “At times it appeared the White House was more interested in bringing Holbrooke down than getting the policy right,” Nasr writes.

Politics aside, the Obama administration should be given credit for some positive developments in Afghanistan. Although reconciliation doesn’t seem like a viable option anymore, massive U.S. investment in Afghanistan’s infrastructure and security forces may ensure that the population will not be subjected to draconian Taliban rule after the U.S. withdrawal at the end of 2014. Nor is it likely that Al-Qaeda will ever again find safe haven there.

Nasr argues that the Obama administration deferred to the military on the issue of reconciliation out of fear that the president would be seen as “soft” on foreign policy if it engaged in negotiations with the Taliban. The government’s top generals, including then-commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan General David Petraeus, were opposed to bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table until after the 2010 “surge” had a chance to put the insurgents at a disadvantage on the battlefield.

There seems to be little disagreement among those who have reported on U.S. foreign policy over the past five years that the Obama administration defers heavily to the Pentagon and the CIA. Far from being the dovish president that many Americans expected, Obama has taken quite a militarized approach to foreign policy. On Afghanistan, “the White House decided early on to walk in lockstep with the military,” writes Nasr. And on Pakistan, Daily Beast reporter Daniel Klaidman has written that the president once told a meeting of cabinet officials, “the CIA gets what it wants.” Nasr’s vantage point from inside the State Department gives readers a unique perspective on how foreign policy decisions were made during Obama’s first term: in his words, by “a White House that had jealously guarded all foreign policy making and then relied heavily on the military and intelligence agencies to guide its decisions.”

And the CIA did get what it wanted in Pakistan during the Obama administration—though that may be changing with reports that the robust paramilitary capabilities the agency built up over the past decade will soon be drawn down. Drone strikes soared to their peak in Pakistan during 2010, when drone-fired missiles were striking North Waziristan every three days, on average. It is unclear what the goal of the drone campaign was; strikes certainly weren’t a last resort. Under Obama, the drone program went from a decapitation strategy that targeted high-value Al-Qaeda leaders, to a counterinsurgency campaign that frequently targeted low-level Taliban militants. Just 2 percent of some 3,000 casualties from drone strikes in Pakistan have been known militant leaders, and the perception that Pakistani sovereignty continues to be violated has fueled anti-Americanism there. Nasr observes, “The president seemed to sense that no one would fault him for taking a ‘tough guy’ approach to Pakistan.” But, by taking a counterterrorism-only approach in the region, the Obama administration has arguably helped destroy whatever tenuous relationship the United States had with Pakistan when it took office in 2009.

If in Afghanistan and Pakistan the Obama administration has substituted tactical counterterrorism victories for long-term strategy, “its approach to unfolding events [in the Middle East] has been wholly reactive,” in Nasr’s view. In response to the intrusive nature of George W. Bush’s policies in the Arab world, the Obama White House has endorsed a cautious strategy, making decisions only when its hand is forced. That approach is a sad excuse for a strategy, which should provide a framework within which the United States can leverage diplomacy, trade, aid, and the threat of military action to actively influence and shape events abroad to protect American interests and uphold American values.

Clearly, the United States is shrinking from its leadership role in the world by interacting with adversaries largely through the ten-foot pole of drone strikes and economic sanctions. Nasr’s experiences at the State Department are a powerful testament to that. Yet, at times, his argument is clouded by his emotions: a deep respect and affection for Holbrooke, and anger and disillusion toward the Obama administration. By Nasr’s account, Obama never agreed to meet one-on-one with Holbrooke, though Nasr often makes bold claims about what the president “felt” and “thought” about different policies or events, with scant evidence given to support his perceptions.

The insider perspective in The Dispensable Nation provides invaluable insight for those concerned with how U.S. foreign policy is formed. It also demonstrates that a shrinking U.S. role in the world is not going to be a good thing for anyone. With the largest economy in the world, America remains a major driver of global economic development. And no other nation has matched or is currently willing to match American use of foreign policy for good—from rebuilding Europe after World War II to ending a genocide in Bosnia in the 1990s. Similar existing crises in Syria and elsewhere cry out for the attention of the world’s superpower. Ignoring them should not be an option.

Jennifer Rowland is a program associate in the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC. She is a regular contributor to and edits the AfPak Channel and its daily news roundup for Foreign Policy.