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.