• Vali Nasr, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, Anchor Books, 2013, 300 pages, $19.00.
RALEIGH — The Dispensable Nation failed to make much of a media splash last year, a shame because the book packs material relevant for 2016 and beyond. The initial low profile was partly by design.
“I didn’t want the book used as a bludgeon,” explains Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. That is, he didn’t want the “American Right” and Republicans to use the book against his former boss, Barack Obama.
When the Right was belittling Obama’s background as a community organizer, Nasr explains, “I thought to myself that the Middle East could use a little community organizing.” And that “is why I joined the administration.” But as senior adviser to ambassador Richard Holbrooke, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Nasr was in for a surprise. He found “truly disturbing” the president’s habit of “funneling major foreign policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers whose turf was strictly politics.” Further, “the primary concern of these advisers was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans in the relentless war they were waging against the president.”
The author says Obama gets “high marks on foreign policy” from the public because his “principal aim is not to make strategic decisions but satisfy public opinion.” Likewise, any praise for his “successful handling of foreign policy,” whatever that means, had less to do with accomplishments “than with how American actions in that region of the world were reshaped to accommodate partisan political concerns in a way unimaginable a few decades ago.” Maybe that is the transformation of America the president wanted all along.
Nasr also has some fascinating observations about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an “incredibly dedicated and talented” person who wants to be president. Hillary proved she was a “team player,” but Obama’s inner circle “remained concerned with her popularity and approval ratings, and feared that she could overshadow the president.” Even so, “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, and she did that time and again.” Many readers will wonder what situations the author has in mind.
The Dispensable Nation contains nothing on the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, which Clinton claimed was part of a protest over a video. Interestingly enough, Nasr told The New York Times that he held off on releasing his book before the November 2012 elections, lest he “meddle” in the political debate. Presumably the introduction of facts to the debate is unacceptable in scholarly circles.
Obama, meanwhile, wants to lead from behind, but Vali Nasr wants the United States to be, as Bill Clinton said, “the indispensible nation,” the world leader by default, solving problems everywhere. Readers will not be convinced this is a great idea.
Nazr goes into detail on America’s “frenemies” with their warring Sunni and Shiite factions. When these frenemies are disposed toward America, the reason is usually money.
In the decade after 9/11, the author notes, Pakistan got $20.7 billion in assistance from the United States. But Pakistan’s finance minister Hinna Rabbani Khar tells Richard Holbrooke most of the money gets spent in Washington, and that of every dollar maybe 10 cents gets to Pakistan. So the aid accomplishes nothing.
In similar style, an Arab foreign minister tells Holbrooke, “You can pay to end this war. One billion dollars.” And this was the discount price.
In Afghanistan, “yes, there was waste and graft and millions were embezzled.” But of course, Nasr explains, it is “still a tribal society” where such things were seen as a duty to the community. And after all, “that sort of corruption is not alien to politics.”
Egypt, the author says, “would have to open its economy, shrink its bloated and corrupt public sector, reform its laws and financial regulations,” and also “promote privatization, trade, and direct foreign investment.” It has escaped the author’s notice that the United States also has a bloated and corrupt public sector, as well as an overregulated economy in need of privatization. What kind of example is that?
In Saudi Arabia, “jacked-up entitlement spending has poured oil on the troubled waters,” but this can’t last. No word whether the creation of new entitlements like Obamacare, and jacked-up spending on the others, will make the United States a shining star for the region. No matter, because “we still have all the ingredients for global leadership,” and Nasr is even talking Marshall Plan for the Middle East. “We have done it in the past,” he says, “and we can do it again.” But Nasr gives readers reason to be skeptical.
The Arab Spring “is not a rising liberal order but an ascendant Islamist one,” and the Taliban “will win Afghanistan again.” And what about the prospect of nuclear weapons in Iran? Why, the Ayatollah Khameini has declared nuclear weapons a “great sin.” So no worries.
On the other hand, Nasr is more upbeat about the United States escaping dependence on Middle East oil. “The Right’s solution is to find more oil at home,” he says, “and this might well work.” Readers and presidential candidates may well agree. Better to drill here, get our own house in order, and let the Middle East fund its own community organizing.
Lloyd Billingsley is author of Hollywood Party: Stalinist Adventures in the American Movie Industry, and the true crime book Exceptional Depravity: Dan Who Likes Dark and Double Murder in Davis, California, both now available for Kindle on Amazon.