The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Author:Vali Nasr

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Doubleday; F First Edition edition (April 16, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 038553647X
ISBN-13: 978-0385536479

Book Description

In a brilliant and revealing book destined to drive debate about the future of American power, Vali Nasr questions America’s dangerous choice to engage less and matter less in the world.

Vali Nasr, author of the groundbreaking The Shia Revival, worked closely with Hillary Clinton at the State Department on Afghan and Pakistani affairs. In The Dispensable Nation, he takes us behind the scenes to show how Secretary Clinton and her ally, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, were thwarted in their efforts to guide an ambitious policy in South Asia and the Middle East. Instead, four years of presidential leadership and billions of dollars of U.S. spending failed to advance democracy and development, producing mainly rage at the United States for its perceived indifference to the fate of the region.

After taking office in 2009, the Obama administration had an opportunity to fundamentally reshape American foreign policy, Nasr argues, but its fear of political backlash and the specter of terrorism drove it to pursue the same questionable strategies as its predecessor. Meanwhile, the true economic threats to U.S. power, China and Russia, were quietly expanding their influence in places where America has long held sway. 

Nasr makes a compelling case that behind specific flawed decisions lurked a desire by the White House to pivot away from the complex problems of the Muslim world. Drawing on his unrivaled expertise in Middle East affairs and firsthand experience in diplomacy, Nasr demonstrates why turning our backs is dangerous and, what’s more, sells short American power. The United States has secured stability, promoted prosperity, and built democracy in region after region since the end of the Second World War, he reminds us, and The Dispensable Nation offers a striking vision of what it can achieve when it reclaims its bold leadership in the world.

Editorial Reviews

“In The Dispensable Nation, Nasr delivers a devastating portrait of a first-term foreign policy that shunned the tough choices of real diplomacy, often descended into pettiness, and was controlled ‘by a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers.’… The Dispensable Nation constitutes important reading as John Kerry moves into his new job as secretary of state. It nails the drift away from the art of diplomacy — with its painful give-and-take — toward a U.S. foreign policy driven by the Pentagon, intelligence agencies and short-term political calculus. It holds the president to account for his zigzags from Kabul to Jerusalem….The Dispensable Nation is a brave book. Its core message is: Diplomacy is tough and carries a price, but the price is higher when it is abandoned.”

—Roger Cohen, New York Times

“The Dispensable Nation is an indispensable book. Taking us into the secretive world of high-level American foreign policy, Vali Nasr shares astounding, previously unrevealed details about the Obama administration's dealings with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. But Nasr doesn't just spill secrets—he also charts a path forward, advancing an insightful prescription for how the United States can regain its lost influence. This provocative story is a must-read for anyone who cares about America's role in the world.”

—Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of Little America and Imperial Life in the Emerald City.

“An original, powerful, and provocative critique of American foreign policy under President Obama.”

—George Packer, author of The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq

"Vali Nasr was in the room during key moments of the Obama administration's first two years as it faced some of its most important foreign policy challenges. His portrayal of strategic confusion inside Obama's White House is devastating and persuasive. Nasr writes with the dispassion of one of the United States' leading experts on the Middle East and South Asia and with the insider knowledge he gained as a senior adviser to Richard Holbrooke, the legendary diplomat. Nasr asserts that the Obama White House didn't really believe in diplomacy in its dealings with the Afghans and Pakistanis and he makes his case with great cogency and clarity in this indispensable book."

—Peter Bergen, author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden, from 9/11 to Abbottabad

"Vali Nasr is the George Kennan of U.S. policy in the Middle East. A renowned scholar but also a practitioner and insider who served two years in the Obama administration, Nasr delivers a sharp, sober, fast-paced and absolutely riveting critique of President Obama’s policies in the Middle East and Afghanistan."

—Robert Kagan, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution and author of The World America Made

“The Dispensable Nation is an important wake-up call by a thoughtful, astute and deeply knowledgeable scholar and policymaker. Anyone interested in the Middle East, China, or the future of American power should read it immediately and think hard about its message.”

—Anne-Marie Slaughter, Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and former Director of Policy Planning, U.S. Department of State, 2009-2011

“An impressive tour d’horizon which includes a personally frank eulogy to Richard Holbrooke’s failed efforts to shape U.S. policy in Afghanistan, revealing insights into White House vs. State Department collisions over U.S. strategy, and a sweeping review of the escalating geopolitical challenges the U.S. needs to address more intelligently in the Middle East, the Far East, and especially Iran. Gutsy, intriguing, and challenging.”

—Zbigniew Brzezinski

“Vali Nasr is without peer in explaining how and why political order is crumbling across the Middle East, and how and why China may reap the spoils. Along the way, he lays out in never-before-told, granular detail why President Obama's first term was such a disappointment regarding foreign policy.”

—Robert D. Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst, Stratfor, and author of The Revenge of Geography

"[A] vivid firsthand account of White House policymaking...Nasr's shrewd, very readable analyses of byzantine Middle Eastern geo-politics are superb."

—Publishers Weekly

‘The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat’
By: Warren I. Cohen,May 03, 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.”

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.

About the Author

VALI NASR is Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the bestselling author of The Shia Revival and Forces of Fortune. From 2009 to 2011, he served as Senior Advisor to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. He is a columnist for Bloomberg View and lives in Washington, D.C.

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