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Hard on Obama

Jean-Pierre Jans/REA/Redux
Vali Nasr, Amsterdam, 2012

For the last decade or so, Vali Nasr has published original, pragmatic work about Middle Eastern politics. The Shia Revival, his 2006 book, confidently mapped how the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq strengthened Iran and reanimated sectarian conflict in the Arab world and beyond. Forces of Fortune followed three years later; it described presciently the potential of Arab middle classes just before Tunisian, Egyptian, and Libyan urbanites helped ignite the “Arab Spring.” By that time Nasr had entered the State Department as a senior adviser to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, whom President Obama appointed as a special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. After Holbrooke died suddenly in December 2010, Nasr left the State Department and in 2012 became dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.

In The Dispensable Nation, Nasr dissects what he regards as the overlapping failures of the Obama administration’s foreign policies across the Middle East and South Asia, from Pakistan to Iran to revolutionary Egypt. The book begins as a detailed, analytical memoir of disappointment over how “a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers” undermined Holbrooke’s diplomatic mission in South Asia, as Nasr looked on. The author then embarks on a withering review of first-term Obama administration diplomacy.

He concludes with criticism of Obama’s most important foreign policy conception, the announced American “pivot” toward Asia and away from the Middle East, a reorientation of policy, alliance priorities, and military deployments made possible by the reduction of American involvement in the wars Obama inherited in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most provocatively, Nasr argues that by retreating from the Middle East—and by signaling a withdrawal from “the exuberant American desire to lead in the world”—Obama has yielded strategic advantage to China, for which the United States will pay a heavy price in the future.

Nasr writes that he did not want to use his book as “a political bludgeon,” yet he describes Obama as a “dithering” president prone to “busybodying the national security apparatus” who allowed Holbrooke, in particular, to be marginalized at the White House in an internecine “theater of the absurd.” At the same time, the author offers only hagiographic generalizations about his bosses, Holbrooke and Hillary Clinton, “two incredibly dedicated and talented people” who “had to fight to have their voices count.” When things went badly for Obama, the administration “knew [Clinton] was the only person who could save the situation, and she did that time and again.” This uncritical, not to say hackneyed, view of the secretary of state is difficult to reconcile with the fact that she helped formulate, and often enthusiastically sold in public, the very Obama administration policies that the author finds so wanting.

Nasr has serious arguments to make. Some of them are detailed and deeply informed, as in his brilliant and important chapter on Pakistan, but others come across as more hurriedly composed. What finally recommends the book is the very quality that often makes it jagged: Nasr’s willingness, as a well-positioned insider, to attack viscerally the complacent belief among Obama and his national security advisers that they have constructed a rare left-leaning presidency that is tough-minded, restrained, and above all effective on foreign, defense, and counterterrorism policy. Along the way, Nasr offers confident views about America’s place in the world; its capacity to influence South Asian and Middle Eastern nations in crisis; and rising geopolitical competition with China. Unusually in Obama’s Washington, where muted loyalty to the president has generally prevailed among Democrats, Nasr has written a pugnacious book. Of greater interest, however, is to what extent his arguments about Obama’s forays into the Middle East may be right.

Because Obama’s aim has been to “shrink [America’s] footprint in the Middle East,” Nasr writes, the president’s approach to the Arab Spring

has been wholly reactive. It may get a passing grade in managing changes of regime as old dictators fall, but it has largely failed at the real challenge, which is to help the new governments…move toward democracy and reform their parlous, sclerotic economies.

Here as elsewhere in his book, Nasr employs a “to be sure” form of argument to challenge what he sees as Obama’s passivity. To be sure, that is, “there is plenty of evidence today that the Arab Spring will produce illiberal new regimes” that warrant caution. To be sure, “there will be civil wars, broken states, sectarian persecutions, humanitarian crises,” and other intractable difficulties. To be sure, Europe’s sovereign debt crisis and America’s fiscal hole after the worst recession in three quarters of a century left the West with shallow resources and inward-looking politics just when Arab populations rose up against their oppressors. And yet, even so, Obama should have done much more after the Tunisian revolution began late in 2010, Nasr believes. And because of Obama’s hesitation, it is impossible to “say now that the Arab Spring would have been such a disappointment had we engaged with the region quickly and forcefully.”

By “engagement” Nasr means a Marshall Plan–scale package of economic aid on par with the more than $100 billion the United States poured into formerly Communist Europe in the decade after the Berlin Wall’s fall. “It is true that the global financial downturn and the Greek crisis had left little for Cairo, but that is no excuse. Egypt is a hinge upon which the fate of the whole Middle East may turn.”

Is this a realistic basis for criticism of the Obama administration? Nasr’s case is that “Egypt’s best chance for real change came early, right after Mubarak left. That is when America and its allies should have put a big financial package on the table in exchange for big changes.” Yet even if Obama could have waved a wand and summoned such sums from Western, Persian Gulf, and Asian treasuries, there are many reasons why an effort to leverage large-scale aid in order to win private-sector reforms in Egypt might have failed, as Nasr readily acknowledges.

The Egyptian military enriches itself from state-owned industry and resists market reforms skillfully. Nationalist and anti-American strains of Egyptian politics have long undermined outside economic reformers from the International Monetary Fund and elsewhere. After Mubarak’s departure from leadership, Egyptian politicians, trying to win votes, competed to be more nationalistic and anti-American than ever. Besides, are we really to regard shock capitalism, Washington’s direct economic intervention, and major foreign financial flows as solutions to Egypt’s endemic woes of corruption, sectarianism, police-state thuggery, unemployed youth, and poor education? The records of weak states suddenly doused with dollars—Afghanistan in wartime, recently, or petro states of sub-Saharan Africa such as Nigeria and Angola—are not causes for optimism.

Nasr describes well the contradictions in the Obama administration’s responses to the Arab revolts and revolutions of 2011. The administration tilted toward those Arab revolutionaries who seemed most likely to prevail against their dictators—in Tunisia and Egypt—but then held firm to guns-for-oil alliances with the autocratic royal families of Saudi Arabia and smaller Gulf states, where the political status quo seemed likely to hold. In Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Obama initially managed to irritate both the aspiring revolutionaries and the presiding royals. In Libya, Obama ceded to France the leading role in providing external support to a revolution whose outcome is still murky. The president tacked back and forth in reaction to the chaotic revolts in Yemen and Syria. His administration’s policy was certainly “confusing and unconvincing,” as Nasr puts it.

It eventually became clear that Obama would back successfully oppressive Arab dictators friendly to the United States, but not unsuccessful or unfriendly ones. Such situational contortions of principle understandably frustrate Nasr, but they are hardly a new feature of American engagement in the Middle East. “If we don’t think the region is in the throes of historic change, why embrace the Arab Spring at all?” Nasr asks. He wishes for “a vision or a grand strategy to guide America’s response to the cascade of events.” Yet his recommendations of nation-building and generation-spanning economic aid would require a checkbook and bipartisan support that the Obama administration simply did not possess.

Nasr is too well informed and subtle an analyst to gloss over the complexity of his subject matter or the problems with his own bold arguments. In one passage, he makes a clearer case for Obama’s regional policy than the president or his aides typically offer in their own defense:

If there is any American strategy at play in the Middle East these days it can be summed up as follows: Keep Egypt from getting worse, contain Iran, rely on Turkey, and build up the diplomatic and military capabilities of the Persian Gulf monarchies. In other words, play defense with regard to the Arab Spring, play offense when it comes to Iran, and maintain continuity in waging the war on terror.

Nasr finds many faults with this “realism,” as some of Obama’s aides would style it. It is certainly not an imaginative group of strategies. Yet from the perspective of Americans struggling with high unemployment and nursing young wounded home from Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama’s reticence may seem to offer ample wisdom.

Arguably, the most urgent case for renewed American activism in the Middle East today lies in Syria, in response to a grave humanitarian crisis that is burdening and endangering American allies in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Liberal and neoconservative interventionists want Obama to step in militarily, to protect civilians, reduce sectarian violence, contain al-Qaeda–influenced groups, and thwart Iran and Hezbollah, which are fighting as proxy allies of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad.

Yet Nasr does not join with the interventionists or advocate a plunge into Syria’s civil war. In general, he argues, the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency have too often persuaded Obama to embrace military and covert interventions in the region, when diplomatic and economic investment would be superior. Nor does Nasr dwell on another commonly criticized aspect of Obama’s Middle East record, his administration’s accommodation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who continues to authorize settlements in the West Bank and sidestep attempts to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Nasr instead locates his major criticism of the Obama administration’s Middle East policies in its conduct of Great Powers strategy. “We not only have to remain fully engaged with the Middle East, we have to increase our economic and diplomatic footprint there to match our show of military force,” he writes. The reason, he believes, is China’s rise. A “retreat from the Middle East will not free us to deal with China,” he argues, but instead, “it will constrain us in managing that competition.”

In the late 1960s, a fiscally strapped, post-imperial Britain pulled back from the Arab world and invited the United States to fill the gap. The US was expected to secure oil supplies for all the world’s free-market economies and to keep the Soviet Union at bay. Nasr fears that a similar changing of the guard is now underway, and that energy-hungry China

will soon welcome the American exit from the region even at the cost of shouldering the security cost itself. American retreat from the Middle East will be welcome in China as a strategic boon; and this is exactly why it should not happen.

Nasr cites some work I published recently describing China’s “mercantile” attitude toward oil supplies in Africa and the Middle East.1 He cites this Chinese activity as evidence that Beijing may seek to replicate America’s position as a security guarantor and privileged oil customer of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf producers. Actually, my own view is that it is just as likely that China’s attempts to lock up far-flung oil supplies exclusively will be abandoned because they will prove to be irrational and self-defeating.

Partly this is because of the accelerating pace of technological change in the energy industry. Horizontal drilling and other new extraction techniques are unlocking extensive new oil and natural gas supplies in the Americas and elsewhere. Truck fleets fueled by natural gas and investments in better batteries for automobiles may well upend the global transportation industry—and therefore world oil markets—during the next several decades. It is hard to foresee how these changes might spread but the history of energy innovation cautions against extrapolating past patterns in a linear fashion. Whatever China’s position as a world power in 2030, it is not likely to replicate America’s place in the oil geopolitics of the late twentieth century. Equally, cyberspace and outer space look to be more important to China’s future projection of global military power than control of the Straits of Hormuz.

Middle Eastern oil will remain an important part of the world economy for decades, but it seems premature to worry, as Nasr does so acutely, that China will have better luck than America did managing the Arab world as a kind of instrumental gas station. Even if Nasr is correct that China hopes to secure long-term fossil fuel supplies by intervening in Arab and Iranian politics, an American might offer the sort of exhortation that Russian diplomats uttered when the United States went barreling into Afghanistan late in 2001: Good luck with all that.

  1. 1

    Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power (Penguin, 2012). 

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