Book thoughts: “The Dispensable Nation” by Vali Nasr (2013)

A Middle East scholar and former aide to the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke at the State Department, Vali Nasr holds back no punches. His latest book, The Dispensable Nation, rips into the Obama administration—particularly the White House—on one foreign policy challenge after another. The America he portrays is of a country in retreat abroad (read: intentional retreat, not objective decline), an America without a guiding strategy for dealing with emerging challenges (Arab Spring, Iran, China, AfPak)—despite its centralization of decision-making in a single branch of the nation’s foreign policy apparatus: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. While his observations about the inner workings of interagency foreign policy-making—and politicking—are welcome, The Dispensable Nation reads far too much like a tirade by an academic with a grudge, confronting an institution and a process which he found unsuitable.

U.S._Special_Representative_for_Afghanistan_and_Pakistan_Richard_Holbrooke_meets_with_U.S._Army_Col._William_Hager,_the_commander_of_Afghan_Regional_Security_Integration_Command_West,_during_his_visit_to_Herat_0 (1)

Richard Holbrooke, Vali Nasr’s boss at the State Department,
meets with a U.S. Army commander in Herat, Afghanistan (2009).
By SrA Dustin E. Payne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The good

There are some redeeming qualities about Vali Nasr’s book. He is not afraid to demonstrate his regional expertise—reflected in his chapters on Iran and Pakistan. In many ways, his depictions of foreign governments—a schizophrenic Pakistan hungry for U.S. aid and a decentralized Afghanistan with little prospects for peace without reconciliation—are far more believable, and therefore more valuable, than his portrayal of an America in retreat.

Some of his observations on America’s foreign policy decision-making process are also useful. Echoing what many others have observed, he depicts the Obama administration as PR-obsessed—developing and packaging policies to satisfy domestic public opinion, at the cost of reaching sub-optimal policy solutions and marginalizing our allies abroad. Since it has been corroborated by others, this claim seems about right. So too are the general contours of the argument that the White House has taken a more assertive role in foreign policy during this administration, even while some of the particulars Vali Nasr describes seem to tell only one side of the story. One anecdote he borrows from Rajiv Chandrasekaran is particularly powerful:

“On one occasion the White House’s AfPak team came up with the idea of excluding Holbrooke from the president’s Oval Office meeting with Karzai and then having Obama tell Karzai, ‘Everyone in this room represents me and has my trust’ (i.e., not Holbrooke)…The message to Karzai was: ignore my special representative.” (p. 39)

Similarly, recent events in the Middle East have added fodder to Nasr’s claim that this administration has marginalized America’s Middle East allies: namely negotiations with Iran and a decision to pull back on striking Assad’s regime in Syria. Saudi Arabia is the most obvious case of ally-turned-critic of the United States. It is hard to argue that there is considerable frustration from Riyadh to Amman to Tel-Aviv with what appears to be America’s unpredictable policy in the region. (Conversely, remember that, in light of 8 years of Bush-Cheney, America is similarly criticized for having too heavy a hand in the region.)

The not-so-good

Unfortunately, Nasr’s incessant criticism—almost disdain—of the Obama administration blemishes the book’s potential. Nasr focuses overwhelmingly on foreign policy failures, and scarcely gives the Obama administration credit for almost anything. If the event of rare successes, they were the brainchild of his ex-boss Richard Holbrooke or his supervisor, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Nasr repeatedly heaps blame on the White House with insufficient supporting evidence. (Perhaps this sentiment is a reflection of his rather convoluted writing style—long-winded and poorly structured, almost mirroring the style of Henry Kissinger’s mammoth volumes.) He makes bold claims about the White House (e.g., “The White House resented losing AfPak to the State Department”) without having served on the National Security Council staff. He holds the White House responsible for quandaries that are beyond its control (e.g., Arab Spring)…or for not doing enough (ignoring Iran during the Green Revolution of 2009)…or for doing too much (focusing too much on Iran sanctions today). He incessantly critiques Obama’s advisers (Tom Donilon, David Petraeus, etc.) in what comes off as petty politicking (one should perhaps read The Dispensable Nation in conjunction with the memoirs of other Obama administration officials). Nasr attempts to lay siege to the White House using every trick in the book—with the consequence being that the siege undermines the book’s credibility. Michiko Kakutani’s review of the book in the New York Times perhaps puts it best:

“The problem with this book is that its genuinely interesting analyses are often undermined by Mr. Nasr’s certainty about matters that are subject to an incalculable number of variables; his vitriolic anger at the Obama White House; and his penchant for making overly broad, sometimes willfully alarmist generalizations.” (New York Times, 4/18/13)

Building on Kakutani’s last point, The Dispensable Nation is full of contradictions. In one particularly bold section, Nasr blames the Obama administration for prioritizing sanctions against Iran while ignoring the rise of Russia and China:

“America got Russia and China on the hook for Iran, but at what cost? Is Iran, a country whose economy is not all that much bigger than that of Massachusetts, a larger threat to U.S. interests than China or Russia? Is Iran so severe a danger that America should subsidize China’s economic rise by pushing the Saudis with all their oil right into China’s lap?…The price for Russian cooperation from here on will likely be facilitating Russian domination over energy supplies to Europe…When the dust settles…China will have gobbled up Central Asia, cornered Europe’s energy markets, and planted themselves smack in the middle of the Middle East…Is it really smart to contain Iran’s threat by subsidizing China’s and Russia’s rise to the top?” (p. 122)

Never mind that these worst-case scenarios are questionable at best (and assumes the U.S. is capable of thinking about only one adversary at a time). The more confounding contradiction is this: he speaks like a realist on China and Russia, but like a liberal interventionist on other matters. If we take Nasr’s premise that the Obama administration has limited resources and should selectively pick and choose its battles, why should we double down in Afghanistan—of low strategic interest—as Nasr advocates? Why should we aim to place ourselves in the middle of revolutions in tiny Tunisia or Bahrain, as Nasr argues, if our attention should be on Russia and China?

Take another example. Nasr’s best chapter is the one titled “Who Lost Pakistan?” But it contains one obvious contradiction. Throughout the chapter Nasr criticizes Islamabad’s “cozy” relationship with the United States, by which Pakistan has exploited and siphoned away billions of dollars in U.S. assistance since 2001. Later in the chapter, however, he endorses Holbrooke’s argument that:

“The key to winning over Pakistan was simply giving Pakistan more (much more) aid for longer (far longer) in order to change the dynamic of the relationship…If we wanted to change Pakistan, Holbrooke thought, we had to think in terms of a Marshall Plan. After a journalist asked him whether the $5 billion in aid was not too much for Pakistan, Holbrooke answered, ‘Pakistan needs $50 billion, not $5 billion.’” (pp. 79-80)

In 2009, the landmark Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation (which Nasr treated as too “modest”) was passed, promising $1.5 billion in non-military assistance to Pakistan in each of the following five years. As of 2013, Kerry-Lugar-Berman has fallen far short of these goals: while meeting the $1.5 billion mark in 2010, Congress has dispensed barely $400 million in each of the years since. Why has it failed? Not least in part due to Pakistan’s continued recalcitrance and corruption, a perpetuation of the “cozy” relationship that Nasr critiques, then implicitly endorses. What sense does it make to pump $50 billion into a corrupted government when the billions already spent have achieved little in building a stronger bilateral relationship? Without a more convincing case that a “Marshall Plan” can overcome the fundamental problems with aid to Pakistan—corruption and the inability to translate money to leverage—there seems little reason for Obama to approve the measure.

No solutions

Perhaps most frustrating, Nasr diagnoses plenty of problems (the verdict is normally: Obama messed up), but offers next to no solutions. His Iran chapter is rife with accusations (principally that the White House began to treat sanctions as an end in itself rather than a means to and end) but scarce on policy recommendations. In the AfPak chapters, he defers to his boss: WWHB, or What Would Holbrooke Do? For the Middle East and Afghanistan, Nasr advocates “a little community organizing”—eerily echoing George W. Bush’s misguided vision that America could actively re-wire societies about which it knew little. The Dispensable Nation is long on criticism and vague rhetorical alternatives, but short on constructive, actionable recommendations.

At its essence, The Dispensable Nation is a brutal charge against the Obama administration’s foreign policy, but not an effective one. Readers are likely to walk away from this book bewildered by Vali Nasr’s roundabout writing style and frustrated that it is long on complaints and short on solutions.

(See here for another book review by Steve Coll for New York Review of Books and here for one by Michiko Kakutani for the New York Times.)

Full citation: Vali Nasr, The Indispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat (New York: Doubleday, 2013).

This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Book reviews, Central Asia, Iran, Middle East and North Africa, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Asia, US policy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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