Insights missing in foreign affairs

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A new book by Vali Nasr, an ex-State Department official and dean of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, was billed as dishing some inside dirt on how the secretive administration of President Barack Obama conducts U.S. foreign affairs.

The first chapter or so does cast some light on the pushing and pulling between part of the Department of State and part of the White House that produces sometimes flawed policy in certain parts of the world, particularly the Middle East. But, fairly shortly into the book, it turns instead into a sprawling not-very-original exposition of Mr. Nasr's prescriptions.

About halfway into "The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat," it became a book that I finished only because I already had invested time and energy in it and because I kept hoping to find something useful in it. There were bits and pieces, but I would not recommend it to a serious analyst of U.S. foreign policy with limited time on his hands.

Mr. Nasr describes himself as "a child of the 1979 Iranian revolution." That's fine; there is a lot to learn from the children of that cataclysmic event. What is less fine is that Mr. Nasr is also a devoted believer in the late U.S. Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, whom he sees as having been the only foreign policy official capable of delivering salvation to the foundering American republic.

Mr. Nasr has an equally uncritical appreciation of former Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton, who would have named Mr. Holbrooke secretary of state had she not been defeated for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination by Mr. Obama. Mr. Holbrooke, who employed Mr. Nasr when he was special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, presumably would have employed Mr. Nasr in a suitably decisive role if he'd become secretary of state. But that didn't happen either.

All of that said, there are some important ideas in Mr. Nasr's book. He believes, for example, that Mr. Obama has allowed the military to gain a disproportionate role in determining foreign policy. In Afghanistan, for example, he says "the president's advisers thought the political fallout of going against the military would be too great." He refers to "the president handing foreign policy over to the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies." He comments, "Drones, not democracy, drive American policy."

Mr. Nasr's main contention is that Mr. Obama's pivot away from the Middle East toward Asia misses the point. The point, as he sees it, is that in spite of what America might like to do, the Middle East remains the cockpit of U.S. foreign affairs and that even the competition with China will be worked out with that region as the centerpiece. He calls U.S. foreign policy "directionless."

In that context, Mr. Nasr makes strong arguments that China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia will remain the principal players and that the United States must concentrate on them. He notes that Mr. Holbrooke understood this, particularly with respect to Iran, and referred to Mr. Holbrooke's "repeated requests to be allowed to talk to Iran." He argues that America's Iran policy has now become almost exclusively concentrated on sanctions, and that Israel holds a veto over U.S. Iran policy. That happens to be only partly true: the United States has continued to pursue talks with Iran, including over its nuclear program, in spite of no visible success in that regard.

Mr. Nasr signals Saudi Arabia as the next likely blockbuster of a policy problem in the region as it becomes less adept at avoiding the dual contagions of the Arab Spring and the Sunni-Shia Muslim conflict swirling around it. He points out that America is becoming less dependent on Middle Eastern -- Saudi -- oil. U.S. hands will be freed. Saudi Arabia will need new clients for its oil and China, a very different customer, is the most likely choice. In the meantime, 45 percent of Saudi Arabia's gross domestic product goes to support its 60,000 or so princes, a long-term recipe for disastrous upheaval.

Some of Mr. Nasr's observations are heterodox but may be correct. He thinks Turkey has important influence in Kurdish northern Iraq. A contrary interpretation is that Turkey is seriously worried about Kurdish irredentism based in northern Iraq.

He sees the control of Iraq by Shiites -- given to them by America -- as a long-term "given." But given that the Sunnis controlled Iraq from 1932 until the American invasion in 2003, Shiite control may not last.

He sees Turkey having problems with the number of Alevi, a religious minority, in its armed forces. I think Turkey has more problems with its Kurdish minority.

Mr. Nasr declares that resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute is the most important thing America could do for Middle Eastern stability and would thereby help the Arab world find its way to peace and security. I agree, and would add that such resolution would also go a long way toward ending the conflict between the West and the Islamic world.

At the same time, Mr. Nasr's analysis underplays the importance of America's relationship with Israel in determining both U.S. Middle East and global foreign policy. The fact that the new secretary of state, John F. Kerry, felt it necessary to criticize Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly during his first visit to Israel, in spite of the importance of Turkey to U.S. interests in the region and in the world, because of a remark Mr. Erdogan made about Zionism suggests that U.S. policy, with its roots in domestic politics, turns on much more than relations with China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1976). First Published March 13, 2013 12:00 AM


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