The Dispensable Nation? A Review

Vali Nasr, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, (New York: Doubleday, 2013).

Vali Nasr’s book, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, is a dark offering. Nasr is clearly disillusioned with the process and results of America’s foreign policy in recent years, asking “why, despite our overwhelming power and potential, our influence is diminishing. The answer lies in how we exercise our power and how we see our role in the world.” In crafting this answer, Nasr’s book ranges well beyond the Afghanistan-Pakistan issue (on which he was the senior advisor to U.S. Special Representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, from 2009 to 2011) in an attempt to reestablish the foundational logic of America’s foreign policy in the Middle East.

Nasr pulls no punches in stating his case. “We have abandoned Iraq and Afghanistan to instability, pushed Pakistan away, destabilized but not ‘denuclearized’ Iran, let down countries of the Arab Spring, and still managed to also alienate authoritarian allies in the Persian Gulf.” Nasr’s goal is much larger than his criticized interpretation of events and actors in Afghanistan and alleged hagiography of Richard Holbrooke. He wants the US to do more in what he sees as “the single most important region of the world.” We should have done more in Iraq, we must do more in Afghanistan, and we should do more in Syria, Bahrain, Egypt, and the Gulf. Nasr’s activist bent does not follow the neoconservative or liberal interventionist logics that have driven America’s recent military adventures. His argument rests on a classical realist foundation: the coming great power reckoning between the US and China. “The Middle East will be at the center of that clash when it happens,” he warns (emphasis added).

Nasr offers the zero-sum, realpolitik focal point of great power competition with China as the “bedrock” that should shape US grand strategy in the Middle East. He also catalogues the factors precipitating an ignominious US withdrawal from the region: the tyranny of US domestic politics, the dysfunction and insularity of Administration staffers, and the overwhelming, often single-minded influence of the military in US foreign policy. Unfortunately, Nasr does not clearly state the linkage between these two lines of thought: without a driving, widely recognized imperative of national interest, the frictions of our democratic system and the growing accretions of a ponderous bureaucracy will stymie the production of rational policies every time. More troubling to me is that even as he enumerates the massive web of problems facing the Middle East, Nasr seems to think that if only we could rationalize our policy and apply more effort, we could manage the chaotically complex epochal transformation of a host of diverse and often hostile societies. I don’t believe we can.

His focus on China casts America’s choices in the Middle East as a binary calculation. He is sure that if America walks away, China will sweep in to exert its influence. Yet, whether it is the US or China acting as steward, the challenges are many: “The region has too many people and too few resources,” Nasr summarizes. Water, food, services, jobs, and security are chronically undersupplied, while youth bulges only increase the pressure and fan the flames of discontent. Nowhere are these problems direr than in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are the first cases in Nasr’s argument.

 In Nasr’s telling, America’s policy in Afghanistan foundered between the shoals of an Administration fixated on domestic politics, soft public support for an extended adventure abroad, over-powerful Pentagon leadership focused on a solely military solution to the problem, and a State Department whose main protagonists—Clinton and Holbrooke—were marginalized and unable to put diplomacy in its rightful place. Diplomacy—specifically reconciliation with the Taliban—was the path out of the morass in Nasr’s view, and the path that the Pentagon and the Administration would not consider. The Pentagon in particular felt that talking to the Taliban “was a form of capitulation to terrorism,” demonstrating the serious cognitive dissonance that plagues US military thinking. While the institution has professed its allegiance to the tenets of counterinsurgency—a highly political “graduate-level” form of war as some are fond of saying—it cannot let go of the unconditional surrender mentality of past, good wars, nor can it set aside a monolithic conception of countering terrorism to adopt the more nuanced consideration of varied actors that counterinsurgency demands.

In the end, meaningful negotiations were blocked and a military surge was cut short, leaving the conflict unresolved both militarily and diplomatically. Meanwhile, the US has likewise failed to effectively manage its relationship with the more regionally disruptive basket case of Pakistan. There, too, the US followed an unthinking hard line policy that gained it few, if any concessions in clamping down on the sanctuary that Taliban fighters and even Osama Bin Laden enjoyed under the noses of the Pakistani military. Not only do these policy choices undermine US goals in Afghanistan and broader hopes of regional stability, they are allowing the much less prickly Chinese to gain influence at US expense. Nasr worries that this influence will ultimately expand across the region to fill a void left by the impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan and a more insidious retreat in the face of the spreading flames of the Arab Spring.

For this reason, Nasr implores the US to lead the Arab world out of the morass. He wants to see a Marshall Plan for the Arab world or an American-led “Washington Consensus” aid campaign, like the lifelines tossed to Europe after World War II and Cold War, respectively. In short, America must do something. Yet, between Nasr’s exhortations to do something and the messy real world our actions exist in, there lies a large gulf. This isn’t the sort of book in which a blueprint for an Arab Spring salvation plan would fit comfortably, yet his prescriptions are little more than sensible-sounding slogans that make action sound far easier and likelier to succeed than is the case. While he expertly guides us through the multifarious regional problems, he fails to disclose the many factors that suggest that a US-led Marshall Plan is neither remotely likely to happen nor if it did somehow happen would it be likely to succeed over anything but the longest of terms.

For starters, the US today is haunted by public debt from the Great Recession and the ghosts of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its European allies face continued economic crisis, making a broad-based aid effort unlikely. There is little appetite for further intervention on America’s part, even if it is only diplomatic and economic. Middle Eastern publics are mistrustful if not outright hostile to America’s ham-handed attempts at help. Yet, the answer to problems in the Middle East only seems to be more, more, more…

Nasr’s is another voice in the chorus for more, supposedly better interventions. While he argues refreshingly that American foreign policy must restore diplomacy to its rightful place and stop trying to solve every problem with military force, his prescriptions can’t help but invite more, longer military adventures. His confident statements about more, better American leadership contrast jarringly with his enumeration of the litany of regional crises, many compounded disastrously by previous attempts to apply the same more, better American leadership. “A more gradual withdrawal from Iraq or an earlier push for political settlements in Bahrain and Syria would have kept the embers of sectarianism from erupting into raging flames,” he says.

The raging flames of sectarianism in Iraq and Syria are not symptomatic of insufficient US engagement. They are the result of much deeper problems—the foremost being that the authoritarian governments in the Middle East have repressed political expression, stunted economic growth, distributed power and wealth so unequally, and tampered with primary identity for so long that it will take a generation if not more for the damage to be undone. As volatile as it has been, the region has been held in an artificial stasis by repressive regimes and great power intervention for decades with pressure building all the while. This pressure is beginning to boil over now and the deep, dark dysfunction that lurked below the surface is coming out with brutal clarity in Syria, as it did in Iraq. Remaking the political and socio-economic power structures into a form that better accommodates the needs and desires of the entirety of these populations will be a slow and massive process—one that exceeds the bounds of Americans’ political and policy calendars.

There are deeper issues at play here. The world is undergoing an epochal transformation demographically and economically. Many of the leading status quo states have aging and shrinking populations and face deep structural economic challenges. Meanwhile, developing states have young, bulging populations but not enough resources or jobs to sustain them. While there has been a spurt of development in many countries on the borders between these two worlds, dysfunctional economic and political systems mean that the rewards from this development have not been evenly distributed. Thus, they have exacerbated rather than relieved tensions. This is the underlying story of the Arab Spring, which we are beginning to see in Turkey is not solely Arab nor is it a quickly passing phenomenon. Shock trauma diplomacy simply cannot stave off the unfortunately violent and protracted struggles that will accompany this transformation, Dr. Nasr’s urgings notwithstanding.

Critically, China is extremely vulnerable to this transformation. While China’s aggregate economic clout is rapidly growing, it is still a middle income country with a per capita gross national income less than that in many Middle Eastern countries. What is more, China is unique among these countries in that its population is aging and will soon be shrinking—just as it will be hitting the make-or-break point where the population will be clamoring for continued improvements in living standard and political expression. China may fall prey to its own season of unrest… or it may try to channel its people’s energies into projects of nationalistic expansion. America’s foreign policy elite would do well to be on the lookout for a potential clash with China in the future. We must be careful, however, not to expend our energy and our diplomatic capital on Sisyphean struggles. If we follow Dr. Nasr’s prescriptions of trying to stake US credibility on the outcome of upheaval in other nations, we may end up demonstrating to the world that we do not have the magical powers we like to think we do.

We cannot ignore the possibility of a coming confrontation with China, and for that very reason we should be circumspect in our consideration of just how deeply to insert ourselves into the Middle Eastern morass. Nasr briefly references Vietnam, noting that “belief in the persuasive power of coercion” led to a “failure of imagination, widespread throughout Johnson’s team, [that] was singularly responsible for the calamity that followed.” Nonetheless, Nasr seems not to have heeded the Lessons in Disaster that stemmed from that war: that staking US credibility on the outcome of another country’s political transformation is a losing business that ultimately undermines the very credibility he so desperately wants us to uphold. Incredibly, officials advocated throwing good money after bad in Vietnam, arguing that while there was no foreseeable way to win the conflict there, the US had to double down in the name of “credibility.” Nasr repeats this hubris here while citing the book that warns against it.

Americans cannot seem accept that we cannot solve all the world’s problems, and that when we do try, the foreign policy apparatus of our messy, cacophonous democracy almost always turns up sub-optimal performances. Yet, we keep telling ourselves that if we just try a little bit harder for a little bit longer we can find the better war, or the better diplomatic intervention. The reality never seems to live up to the easy, compelling prose. America still wants to live by John F. Kennedy’s exhortation to “pay any price, bear any burden… in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” We have forgotten, though, that he changed his tone after less than a year as president: “We must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent or omniscient—that we are only 6 percent of the world’s population—that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind—that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity—and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.”

For anyone interested in America’s involvement in the Middle East, this is a must-read book, but I ask you to read it with a healthy dose of skepticism as to just how much more deeply America should entwine itself in the morass that the region presents.

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Below is a review sent by Hamid Hussain, an occasional contributor to SWJ and it has been lightly edited.

Vali Nasr’s latest work The Dispensable Nation is a tour of back alleys of diplomacy with all the cat fights of bureaucracy as well as a broad review of U.S. policy and some prescriptions about the future course. Part of the book is based on his experience of working inside the tent. He was senior advisor to Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) late Richard Holbrook from 2009 to 2011. Vali is an academic and currently Dean of School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at John Hopkins University. His previous research especially about new fault line of sectarianism in Muslim world and Shia Revival is ground breaking work about a very important shift. He came to Af-Pak theatre with some advantages. He has done research work on evolution of Pakistan’s Islamist party Jamaat-e- Islami and being Persian speaker gave him an edge as one of two main languages of Afghanistan is Dari; a dialect of Persian. Vali’s book gives details of friction in policy making circles of Washington but shares the same drawback which is common to all such works written by those who spend sometime ‘inside the tent’. These works try to convince the readers that others messed up things and only if their advice was heeded, a perfect solution was at hand. They fail to comprehend the complexity and ignore the simple fact that no one can even comprehend let alone control third and fourth tier consequences of actions. Every course of action has its own set of benefits and risks and no one no matter how intelligent can accurately predict how events will unfold.

The first three chapters of the book deal with Af-Pak. Nasr was directly involved in Af-Pak diplomacy therefore this segment is based on his direct knowledge of events. He argues that if negotiation process with Taliban was started as advised by Richard Holbrook in 2009 then U.S. may have been in a better position. The reason he gives is that in 2009 U.S. was in a better position militarily therefore it could have forced Taliban hand on negotiation table. This is too simplistic view of a very complex situation. He is correct when he points that diplomacy got the back seat as Pentagon and CIA were at the forefront of Af-Pak policy and not the State Department. He is also correct in his assessment that more engagement with Pakistan may have been better than coercion. However, this is only one half of the story. Pakistan is openly supporting its proxies in Afghanistan and anger of the intelligence community and the Pentagon is based on hard evidence of Pakistan’s double game.

Nasr argues that more aid to Pakistan could have changed the behavior of its military brass but sixty years of history does not provide any evidence that this could have been the case and even he admits this fact. Pakistan’s military brass has its own calculations and most of these calculations are diametrically opposite to U.S. interests. Even vigorous diplomacy and increased aid advised by Nasr will result in cooperation on very narrow and limited interests. A majority of Pakistanis now consider the United States as their biggest threat surpassing arch-rival India and this is no mean achievement. Both parties generously contributed towards reaching this impasse.

An astute person like Nasr should be able to comprehend the ground reality to some extent when attending meetings in the fortified compound of the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. Many U.S. missions are now mini-fortresses in seas of hostile populations seething with anger and hatred. A more prudent approach is a little pull back as more involvement will inevitably embroil Washington in internal squabbles of power players of these countries. The results of two recent U.S. efforts in Pakistan should be enough reason for pause and ponder. In 2007-08, Washington was actively involved in bringing together General Pervez Mussharraf and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) through a deal named as the National Reconciliation Order (NRO). This severely undermined the legitimacy of the government although it had won the elections. In the second effort to strengthen civilian hands, some clauses were inserted in the Kerry-Lugar bill of assistance to curtail military’s power. The military brass went on the offensive undermining its own government through overt and covert means further weakening the state and increasing the gulf between civil and military authorities. As far as the argument that more money to help people will generate good will also need careful analysis. One example will show where things stand in the real world. Washington spent several million dollars on various projects in Pakistan's tribal areas. However, neither the Pakistan nor United States could disclose to local population that United States had funded the projects fearing that militants would bomb them.

A large segment of the book covers broader foreign policy subjects ranging from the upheaval in Arab world, sectarian war in the house of Islam, nuclear Iran and rise of China. Nasr provides a conceptual framework and gives rational arguments for an activist American foreign policy. He is advocating more U.S. global involvement that is pegged to diplomacy and not military power. In theory, this is fine but many would argue that rapid spread of instability in some very dangerous parts of the world is the direct result of aggressive U.S. foreign policy. Internal factors in many nations will surely cause upheavals, but direct U.S. involvement has changed the dynamics of conflict in many countries spreading from Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Pakistan.

Nasr is an academic and he presents his case very lucidly advocating more vigorous American involvement from Middle East to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran as well as containment of China. However, he conveniently forgets to mention what will be the cost of such an ambitious project? He sounds more like a shrewd travel company salesman who is giving all shiny brochures of exotic places but forgets to tell the customer how much it will cost.

American engagement is one thing but Nasr’s recipe of diving head first into the hot spots of the world is not the answer. The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan should not be forgotten so easily. U.S. policy makers will benefit from paying some attention to the simple fact acknowledged by President John F Kennedy in 1961. He said that “we must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient ……… there cannot be an American solution to every world problem." Experts should have their place on the table but sometimes common sense can save a lot of blood and treasure.

Nasr’s criticizes Obama’s White House for making every foreign policy decision based on domestic political calculations rather than their broader strategic context. Nasr as an academic has the luxury to construct his prescription of foreign policy devoid of all constraints of a democratic system. He forgets that public support for any given policy is crucial for success. In the last few years, there has been steady increase in number of Americans who want speedy withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and that number now stands at 66 percent. Political leadership cannot ignore these trends. Nasr side-steps the crucial question of cost of overseas engagements whether military or economic assistance. According to estimates provided by Congressional Research Service (CRS) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the price tag of Afghan war is so far $641 billion and for the year 2012-13 the estimate is $198 billion. In case somebody is interested, the cost has been put on the credit card. It is probably a good time to listen to the advice of Liddle-Hart to ‘adjust your ends to your means’.

No U.S. President can continue on the present trajectory of spending on overseas projects when civic bankruptcy looms for cities in California, Alabama and Detroit. For any politician, there are two essential elements to a project; first is it ‘doable’ and second is it ‘sellable’? Even if projects like Afghanistan are ‘doable’, no politician can now ‘sell’ it to a weary public. No country lives in isolation and the United States will act when its security is threatened but the instruments used will be different. As things stand today, the country does not have the luxury of using large scale military operations, nation building or massive economic assistance as leverage to influence foreign policy.

Nasr ignores the plain fact that United States is too exhausted, disillusioned and broke to care for generational projects in god forsaken lands even if it has some value for American interests. One example will show what kind of effort is needed for such social engineering. General Abraham Roberts spent fifty years in India and his son General Frederick Roberts spent forty years. This comes to ninety four years between father and son and British Raj was successful to some extent to have deep social, economic and cultural influences that reshaped the societies they governed. In return, these men were content to have KCB, GCB and CBE after their names as recognition of their services. Young American men and women are doing only six to twelve months tours of places like Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan and what they want is CEO and CFO after their names. This mindset and such efforts are not conducive to have massive social engineering projects in far off lands. Americans in general are not in favor of ambitious overseas projects. Even if their interventionist Presidents or diplomats drag them into a quagmire, they somehow find their way back to the shores usually in less than ten years. Maybe we should ponder over President John F. Kennedy’s words that “I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit”.

Munson got it mostly right. Vali Nasr is sometimes wrong, but never in doubt. Nasr shows impressive awareness of the nuances of political Islam and that alone makes the book worth reading. But the certainty of his conclusions is inconsistent with the nuances he outlines. His digressions into criticism of Obama were OK for awhile but then got, well, boring. And I was disappointed overall that the book was full of "cudda, wudda, shudda" when maybe the right thing to be asking was "what are we doing there in some of these situations and places in the first place?"

Wonderful review. Thank you. I enjoyed reading it.

"Activist bent" is a very good phrase. It describes why I think the Holbrooke-Clinton diplomacy for AfPak in its larger initial outlines was a mistake, especially with time pressures and our troops involved.

The basic idea of transforming the region via ground breaking diplomacy made huge assumptions about American understanding and ability. It also turned other nations into bit players, only needing the proper encouragement to change complicated societal and domestic situations. It didn't help that some people on the team had lobbying or other histories in the region. Maybe the State Department bench is that low due to funding, or maybe it's insiderism of some kind.

Dr. Nasr praised Holbrooke's idea of a Marshall Plan as part of changing the regional South Asian calculus. I've read Ahmed Rashid and Praveen Swami make the same sort of suggestion, too. This completely misunderstands the Marshall Plan.

It's like a magical incantation for some people, saying a region needs a Marshall Plan. Just wave a magical wand, throw some money at a problem, and issues are, well, magically solved.

Americans cannot seem accept that we cannot solve all the world’s problems, and that when we do try, the foreign policy apparatus of our messy, cacophonous democracy almost always turns up sub-optimal performances.

I love our messy cacophony and the creative energy of America. It always saddens me to sense that certain elite members of American society dislike the very thing that we are meant to be.

The New Criterion movie site some time back had a nice piece that discusses a certain German director (can't find remember the name), as long as we are using movies as analogies....The director made some incredible movies set in the US and explored our country in beautiful ways, found a kind of humane way to look at American society from outside-in. It made me think of Richard Haas' latest book, Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America's House in Order, which I haven't read. The topic interests me, though.

A chunk of our humanitarian aid hasn't even got to the Syrian region yet according to some reports, and we've been involved quietly behind the scenes for some time now, not to mention the State Department cultivation of opposition members starting several years ago with offices in London and so on. Oddly, the State Department as an institution has militarized ideas in its penchant for democratic regime change via its own methods of supporting various "GONGOS' around the world.

I still don't understand the China-Mid East angle, and why Dr. Nasr thinks that means we should "double down" on the region? I've seen more than one op ed saying something similar?

I sometimes think the Foreign Policy Apparatus confuses its own international prominence for American interests. It's not fun to have globalization threaten jobs, eh? Now you all know how a chunk of everyday Americans feel....

If nothing else, Munson's review has convinced me to purchase and read Nasr's book. Frankly, there are just not enough pro-engagement voices left in the realist school, and even if Nasr's arguments are a few degrees off center, that is better than going in 180 degrees in the wrong direction, which is what Munson's argument does. Sadly, we have bred an entire new generation equivalent to Vietnam Era veterans, to counsel policies of weakness, isolation and retrenchment in a world that requires constructive American involvement more than ever. Now, lets get to some of the details.

1. While the counter-China argument is a nice instance of inside-the-beltway reasoning, what this country really needs is a power realist argument for selective engagement based on assumptions of systemic multipolarity. Whether or not American political, economic and military power remains unchallengable, the darnedest thing about international politics is that nations are sovereign entities, forming and seeking their own interests and goals. Discussion of American foreign policy needs to stop assuming that only America's interests matter, only American decisions are important, that the whole thing is all about the United States - with all power, authority and purpose emanating out from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and its nearby environs in Foggy Bottom, K Street, and Capitol Hill (to say nothing of that five-sided building across the Potomac). Leadership is about uniting with and serving others interests. That is the only real "smart power" there is. Don't like it ? Tough. Stop whining and get to work.

2. No, the fact is that the "raging flames of sectarianism in Iraq and Syria" are indeed the result of diffident and inconsistent US policies. The military forces in this part of the world are as breakable as egg shells. The asymmetric threats in this region are Level 1 insurgencies backed by state sponsors of terrorism. No self-respecting realist would relent for a moment at the chance to break the back of such unworthy opponents, to get in and do the job right. And yet, we have an entire generation of whiners who think that war is an indecisive exercise of power, and that only through political processes can it be ended. Wrong in ttheory, wrong in fact, as the Syrian/Iranian/Russian alliance is demonstrating at this moment.

3. I might add that this insincere and dishonest diffidence has even permeated into our popular culture. And so, witnessing the latest Star Trek film this past weekend, I was disabused of the fantasy that Star Fleet had anything to do with interstellar MCOs, that Captain Kirk's primary job was to fight his ship - as opposed to leading endless shore parties. Indeed, Chris Pine, having prevailed once again against a superior and ruthless foe, commemorates the reconstruction of Star Fleet headquarters with a speech that would make Dave Petraeus proud. We cannot, says he, use force in a way that makes us no better than our dastardly enemies. When had I heard that before - ah yes, those were the words of Episcopal Dean Nathan Baxter, on the occasion of George W. Bush's memorial service held at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001.

I asked my daughter why and how the Klingons had turned into such incompetent tools that they would not even mobilize their fleet when the Enterprise was found to have penetrated the neutral zone - and got a complicated Trekkie response with vague and esoteric references to Deep Space 9 in reply. My earnest prayer is that Vladimir Putin complete the task of making the Russian Armed Forces a respectable foe once again, so that our national mythology not be deprived of a decent and dastardly foil.