Friday, January 22, 2016

The Unapologetic Diplomat: A Review of Vali Nasr’s "The Dispensable Nation"


Diplomats are typically known for couching their aims and opinions in even, inoffensive terms designed to convey meaning without alienating. Mr. Nasr, a former high-ranking diplomat in Richard Holbrooke’s AfPak (Afghanistan-Pakistan) group within the State Department, has dispensed with this approach in his memoirs, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. Mr. Nasr appears to find it difficult to hide his bitterness with what he purports to be a major failure on the part of the Administration, particularly when it comes to Middle Eastern policy. Nasr writes that continued sanctions against Iran and a general reluctance, verging on refusal, to engage the Iranian regime on Afghanistan was a serious failure by the Administration, “which showed a lack of imagination in managing both those challenges” (Nasr, Location 934). Nasr’s work contrasts starkly with the recent works of Secretaries Panetta and Gates. One of the most positive characteristics of Gates and Panetta’s works was their tendency to refrain from passing judgement on the Administration. Their criticism of the Executive largely came in questioning the consolidation of power among a few members of the National Security Staff. In a world full of pundits who seek to color history with their own lenses, both Secretaries wrote books which laid out their version of the facts without excessive spin. While one can feel their patience wear increasingly thin as they recount the sequence of events during their time in office, both of their works start out positively, whereas Mr. Nasr’s disappointment is palpable from the beginning of The Dispensable Nation.
      Nasr asserts that the military was allowed to run rampant by an administration too timid to control it. In regard to the American decision to sever close ties with Pakistan after years of rocky relations, Nasr writes,” Ours was not just an empty bluff, it was worse than that—it was folly we believed in and crafted out policy on, and all Pakistan had to do was wait for reality to set in…We did not have to break the relationship and put Pakistan’s stability at risk…We have not realized our immediate security goals there and have put our long-run strategic interests in jeopardy. Pakistan is a failure of American policy, a failure of the sort that comes from the president handing foreign policy over to the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies” (Ibid., Location 1612). Gates and Panetta, alternatively, both felt that the Administration hamstrung the military and failed in Iraq by allowing relations to deteriorate to a point when US troops withdrew from the country altogether. The Secretaries largely refrain from sweeping language, with the exception of their horror at what they characterize as an American abandonment of our duty in Iraq. Nasr is clearly a gifted academic and diplomat, but his broad stroke denunciations of the Administration’s decisions do at times, feel less like careful consideration of all aspects of policy affecting a decision and more an embittered complaint that his team’s specific aims were not achieved. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Nasr is not-so-subtlety arguing that the Administrations problems could have been solved had they just listened to Nasr and Holbrooke’s team.
Partially as a result of this, the work is certainly less fulfilling than those of Gates and Panetta. Because Nasr chooses to be so clearly biased in certain places, one is tempted to question objective analysis throughout the rest of the work. However, as a critique of the national security and foreign policy team in the White House, Nasr’s piece is valuable in that it highlights the deeply divided stances of at least some members of the diplomatic apparatus and the defense department. Similarly to the Defense Secretaries, he critiques the Administration for centralizing too much of the decision making, but he disagrees with those decisions for almost directly opposing reasons from the leaders of Defense. Where they feel the Administration has not gone far enough, Nasr argues it went too far, and vice versa. Importantly, his work contrasts with those of Gates and Panetta to show that the Administration took something of a middle road in its decision making between State and Defense. By looking at criticism from both sides, we find that perhaps the Administration was not ignoring its advisors as much as trying to find a way to mediate a series of heated debates.
      Though clearly flawed in certain ways, Nasr’s work is an insightful critique of American policy and provides an interesting warning regarding President Obama’s stated policy to pivot away from the Middle East and toward the Pacific. He cogently argues that if America does seek to counter the growth of Chinese influence globally, it is important to do this not only in East Asia but also in those areas of the world where Chinese influence is quickly increasing. In particular, he notes that if Chinese influence on the Gulf Monarchies were to continue to grow unchecked, as it has in Pakistan and Africa, “Chinese interest in Middle Eastern energy sources [would] threaten to put at a disadvantage the very allies—India, Japan, South Korea, and even much of Europe—that America needs to balance China. If these countries became dependent on China for their energy supplies they would have to align their foreign and economic policies with China, which would mean moving away from the United States. That would put a big dent into our plans for containing China in the Asia Pacific and ensuring the region’s continued prosperity and openness” (Ibid., Location 3876). His appraisal seems prophetic in light of the recent tour of the Middle East undertaken by Chinese President Xi Jinping. With stops in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran, the trip illustrates China’s strategy to bridge both sides of the dangerous Shiite-Sunni divide in which America has taken a decidedly Sunni bent. China is the largest trading partner with all three powerful Middle Eastern states (“Xi Jinping’s tour of the Middle East shows China’s growing stake there.” The Economist, 20 Jan. 2016. Web.) Nasr reminds his readers that the world has become far too interconnected to allow us to focus on any particular region at the expense of the rest. To do so would be to apply 20th century Containment policy on a fluid 21th century world, no more useful than trying to grab a handful of water.
       It’s unsurprising that Nasr left the Administration embittered. Brought into government on a wave of hope for change and into a State Department led by respected personalities such as Secretary of State Clinton and Ambassador Holbrooke, Nasr expected to be able to achieve what he saw as a triumphant success in American relations with the Middle East. What he found, instead, were the harsh realities of a region and US government pulled apart by various entrenched and opposing interests. Nasr’s very unwillingness to recognize the validity of competing interests in the Administration highlights the desperate need for American leaders, across agencies and the White House staff and throughout both parties, to see that in order to engender compromise and success globally, we must first be willing to reach out with compromise at home.

--Benjamin Spacapan

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