09 July 2013

"The Dispensable Nation: American foreign policy in retreat" by Vali Nasr

There are two ways you can pursue the foreign policy of a country.  One is to do what is good for the country (strategic interests, shared values etc) and the other is to do what is good for the ruling administration (popularity, acceptance to legislature etc).

Vali Nasr, an insider in Hillary Clinton’s State department (and a scholar in US foreign policy from John Hopkins University) thinks Obama is prone to do what wins votes than what serves US interests.

An insider can provide an insight that a dispassionate outsider cannot.  To that extent, the book is a value-add.  However, an insider can suffer from bias.  To that extent, the book can disappoint.

At start, the bias comes through more often than analyses.  According to Nasr:
  1. Obama gets high mark on foreign policy because his decisions are popular; not strategic.
  2. The State department did not have a reasonable independence in shaping US foreign policy.  There was disproportionate influence from (a) Military and (b) a small cabal of inexperienced political advisers in White House,  
  3. Richard Holbrook had strong insight and experience; but Obama did not make best use of Holbrook.  Obama let Pentagon run Afghanistan and CIA run Pakistan.
There are some snippets that only a frustrated insider can provide:
  1. An Arab Minister told US that it would be far less costly to buy off Afghan warlords than wage a war to keep Al Qaeeda away.
  2. General Kayani of Pakistan predicted that US will fail and leave a half trained Afghan army that will break into militias and add to the lawlessness in the region.
  3. Obama passed an opportunity to deal with Iran because a deal would be difficult to sell within US and to Israel; sanctions on the other hand were very popular.
However, the tour d'horizon Nasr provides reflects the intellect and experience of this John Hopkins scholar:
  1. US engagement in Afghanistan suffered a mission creep.  What started as a fight against terrorism (with Al Qaeeda as the enemy) became an attempt at nation building (with Taliban as the enemy).    Fighting insurgency is a challenge.  The challenge is even tougher when the insurgency has a safe haven in a friendly population and finance/intelligence support from a government.   Pakistan was “Laos, Cambodia and China all rolled into one” in this modern day Vietnam that Afghanistan became.  The counterinsurgency strategy (of winning the local population) as a tool in an asymmetric engagement with terrorists required governance; and governance required government.  This was missing in Afghanistan.  US did not end the Afghan war in battlefield; or in negotiating table.  All it aspires is for a decent interval between its departure and the chaos that would follow so that US is not blamed for it.
  2. Pakistan had two objectives:  Keep India out of Afghanistan and prevent Pashtuns carving out a Pashtunistan from Pakistan.  An Islamic jihad helps in keeping Pashtuns in and India out.  US tacitly tolerated Pakistan’s duplicity and used aid alone as a leverage to shape Pakistani thinking. However, the aid was small and misdirected to have any meaningful impact.  US’s Pakistan policy did not achieve either the immediate security goals or the long run strategic interests.
  3. Iran is trying to gain leadership in Arab world by pursuing an anti Israel agenda.  However, the Sunni/Shia divide prevents Iran from emerging as such a leader.  Iran’s investment in defense is very tiny when compared with the defense spend of its Arab neighbors.  Iran sees nuclear capability as a poor man’s way of acquiring strategic parity.  US is pursuing “sanctions” as a tool to contain Iran.  This tool is blunt and suffers a questionable track record.  US paid a huge price to win Russian/Chinese support for sanctions against Iran.  US tolerated Russian invasion of friendly neighbors.  US facilitated the economic rise of China as a price for Chinese support of sanctions.  Was Iran that important? 
  4. The Arab Spring is not likely to result in liberal Arab order.  It is more likely to give rise to Islamist states that are adversarial to US and Israel.  However, shifting the focus from Middle East to South/East Asia (in the name of containing China) ostensibly because US is not likely to depend on Middle East for energy is a bad idea.  This would provide elbow room for China to spread its influence in the Middle East. 
Vali Nasr has one prescription for US to retain its leadership in global order: Fashion foreign policy based on shared values and shared interests; not just on military power.

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