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Hard on Obama

Sebastian Abbot/AP Images
Richard Holbrooke, then US special envoy to Pakistan, visiting Pakistani children displaced by floods, Sindh province, September 2010

The Dispensable Nation is strongest when Nasr lays into the Obama administration’s policies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, three countries he knows exceptionally well, and on which he worked day-to-day at the State Department. The journalists Ahmed Rashid, Bob Woodward, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran have earlier chronicled the infighting over policy and ego between White House aides and Holbrooke’s team in 2009, as President Obama ordered thousands of additional American soldiers to fight the Afghan war.2 Nasr confirms these accounts and adds new details. He also synthesizes his memoir with a number of fresh arguments about why the “surge” of troops Obama ordered into Afghanistan failed to achieve the expansive goals military leaders set out.

Nasr chronicles Obama’s growing ambivalence about the counterinsurgency doctrine he was being sold—and oversold—with enthusiasm by the Pentagon. This instinctive skepticism caused the president to slow down and seek less grandiose military deployments—but not to abandon the surge altogether. Where Nasr sees “dithering,” others may see a learning president who realized that his own promise during the 2008 election campaign to support Afghanistan’s “good” war with new troops may have been premature, and who understandably recoiled from the car showroom sales techniques of Pentagon counterinsurgency enthusiasts.

In any event, there can be no question, as Nasr argues, that the half-measures Obama chose at the end of his policy reviews in 2009—announcing a withdrawal date at the same time that he ordered fresh troops in, and keeping the numbers of troops too low to be able to fully blanket Afghanistan—did contribute to the Taliban’s ability to wait out the American-led assault, and to achieve the strategic military stalemate that now prevails, at a high cost in American blood and treasure.

Obama ceded Afghan strategy in substantial part to General David Petraeus, an understandable decision given Petraeus’s record and stature. Petraeus served in three roles during the president’s first term—as overall commander of US forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, as field commander in Afghanistan, and finally as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Nasr’s argument is that Petraeus, an outstanding West Point graduate who earned a doctoral degree at Princeton University, might have been a thinking man’s general, but he undervalued diplomacy. In Nasr’s experience, Petraeus regarded diplomacy merely “as a useful tool for getting governments around the world to contribute soldiers and money to the Afghan war. It was not a solution to the war, but its facilitator.”

Richard Holbrooke had negotiated an end to the Bosnian war and was one of the most experienced, forceful diplomats of his generation. He was restless, often distracted, and self- centered—certainly not everyone’s cup of tea—but he could equally be engaged, brilliant, curious, and unconventional, the rare diplomat who aspired to turn geopolitical tides by force of will. Petraeus, however, referred to Holbrooke as his “wingman,” a transparent bit of condescension Obama allowed to stand, apparently because Holbrooke’s self-dramatizing irritated him. Obama lacked the conviction either to back Holbrooke’s diplomacy or to fire him—another half-measure. Therefore, the Pentagon’s commanders and paramilitaries at the CIA took over Obama’s Afghan strategy and squeezed Holbrooke’s team, or forced them into subordinated roles. “This imbalance at the heart of American foreign policy was Obama’s to fix,” Nasr writes. But the president did not.

Nasr makes much of the fact that Petraeus and his allies in Obama’s war cabinet—who included, at times, Hillary Clinton, Holbrooke’s boss—refused to allow Holbrooke to open talks with the Taliban as early as 2009, when “the Taliban had been ready” to negotiate. Petraeus and his war fighters wanted to pummel the Taliban first, seek defectors from the guerrillas’ ranks, and then open strategic talks with the enemy from a position of military strength. Direct talks began only late in 2010, as Ahmed Rashid has earlier described in groundbreaking detail, but the initial discussions failed to gain traction and were later suspended by the Taliban.

Nasr’s view is that if talks had been started right away, they might well have reduced violence and pointed the way toward a durable political settlement. This is a counterfactual that can’t be disproved, but recent evidence does not support it. During 2012 and earlier this year, President Obama authorized an all-out effort to reopen a negotiating channel with the Taliban, but the Taliban’s fractious leadership has been unwilling to join in. For all of Holbrooke’s energy and skill, he may never have had a plausible negotiating partner in Mullah Mohammed Omar.

The best chapter in The Dispensable Nation is entitled “Who Lost Pakistan?,” which chronicles, step by step, the collapse of the US-Pakistani partnership between 2009 and the end of 2011. Holbrooke and Nasr believed that the surge into Afghanistan was misguided, Nasr writes, because the key to ending the Afghan war was not the defeat of the Taliban on the battlefield, but the change of “Pakistan’s strategic calculus.” Under this calculus, Pakistan covertly supported and sheltered the Taliban as an instrument of political influence in Afghanistan, partly to thwart India. Holbrooke and his team were thinking big:

If we wanted to change Pakistan, Holbrooke thought, we had to think in terms of a Marshall Plan. After a journalist asked him whether the $5 billion in aid was not too much for Pakistan, Holbrooke answered, “Pakistan needs $50 billion, not $5 billion.”

That might seem an outlandish amount, but the United States was spending $100 billion or so a year on its war in Afghanistan after 2009, to unclear strategic ends. Nasr’s case is that mustering funds to provide Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 180 million, with energy, water, and finance to sustain economic growth and to support its urbanizing middle classes as they challenged the Pakistan army for political power was indeed a better bet than funding the US Marines to chase Taliban stragglers around the poppy-laced, dust-blown reaches of Helmand province.

To paraphrase the late Senator Everett Dirksen: a Marshall Plan here, a Marshall Plan there, and pretty soon you are talking about real money. Moreover, Pakistani nationalism is a fierce force; the country’s elites have long resisted, under many blandishments, American ideas about how they should define their strategic interests, whether in Afghanistan, toward India more generally, or in regard to their nuclear deterrent. Yet there can be no doubt that Holbrooke and Nasr were correct in their basic insights: Pakistan was critically important to American interests, and the country was changing and growing economically in subtle but positive ways that required American investment and patience. The intensified war next door in Afghanistan—particularly Obama’s heavy use of drones to strike Taliban and al-Qaeda targets inside Pakistan, which stirred anti-Americanism and made Pakistan’s government look feckless—undermined the long-term goals that Obama himself had defined for Pakistan.

On Iran, as Trita Parsi has also argued,3 Nasr believes the Obama administration gave up on diplomacy too soon and “succumbed to exaggerated Israeli and Arab fears” about Iran’s nuclear program. Like his argument for earlier talks with the Taliban, his case for more sustained and “rigorous” diplomacy is a counterfactual that cannot be disproved. Yet European and American negotiators have been arm-wrestling with Iranian counterparts for almost a decade now, with no grand bargain or even a sustainable détente in sight. More original and arresting is Nasr’s forecast of where the Obama administration’s current policy of covert action to attack Iranian nuclear facilities and ever-tighter economic sanctions will lead. It may “eventually turn Iran into a failed state,” Nasr fears. That is a prediction that deserves notice and debate.

The Dispensable Nation proceeds from the premise that the United States can still decisively influence fractious, violent, poor, crisis-ridden nations like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Iran. Of course, the United States spends more on its military than most other nations combined, and its economy remains the world’s largest, even if China’s is on a trajectory to surpass it. Yet America’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan reminded both American voters and the world’s nations about some of the limits of American hard power. The State Department’s indirect influence campaigns since September 11—to win Muslim cooperation, for instance—have faltered, too. In Nasr’s winkingly provocative formulation, the evidence of the last decade is that while the United States is not dispensable, neither is it indispensable; American power is in transition.

Yet Nasr sidesteps the arguments by foreign policy specialists such as Fareed Zakaria about how American influence may have changed or been diminished, at least in relative terms. There are important questions that he does not address: What are the implications for American strategy in the Middle East of the global recession, weak economic recovery, and heavy debt burdens faced by the United States and Europe? By what math can President Obama fund multiple Marshall Plans while also addressing America’s deficits in jobs, infrastructure, education, and middle-class incomes? In criticizing the administration, Nasr avoids an essential assumption of Obama’s foreign policy: that to revive global leadership in future decades, the United States must fix itself.

Nasr describes powerfully how American foreign policy has been militarized during the Bush and Obama administrations, and how diplomacy has too often been assigned a subordinate role as the civilian arm of expeditionary armies. Too many American ambassadors have spent too much time negotiating rights of way and logistics lines for the Pentagon during the past decade and not enough time on human rights, voter enfranchisement, disease eradication, and economic growth in the Middle East and elsewhere. Yet the ragged performances of the State Department and USAID in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be explained only by the Pentagon’s overweening supremacy in those theaters.

The Gates Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, Google, Facebook, Apple, and (alas) even the Walt Disney Company have arguably projected more influence in the Middle East and Africa in recent years—including on the course of the Arab Spring—than the Department of State. These corporate and philanthropic actors have sometimes bigger budgets but also strategies that are better attuned to changes in technology, demography, and culture that are weakening states and empowering people and small groups worldwide. Nasr grades the Obama administration by the balance-of-power scorecards of international relations scholarship. Yet if the United States is to contribute to development, stability, and pluralism in developing societies, the next generation of foreign policy thinkers will have to reckon with the changing character of state power—and of American influence.

  1. 2

    See Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars (Simon and Schuster, 2010), Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Little America (Knopf, 2012), and Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink (Viking, 2012). 

  2. 3

    See my “ Will Iran Get That Bomb?,” The New York Review, May 24, 2012, which reviews in part Trita Parsi’s A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press, 2012). 

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