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BOOKS: Afpak Insider Dissects Obama’s Policy Missteps

WASHINGTON, Apr 3 2013 (IPS) - Publication this month of Vali Nasr’s “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat” is well-timed.

The U.S. and the NATO allies are disengaging from Afghanistan, without clarity about the West’s continuing interests or how to secure them.

The Syrian civil war continues, without apparent U.S. efforts to fit that conflagration within regional developments as a whole. President Barack Obama has visited the Near East, but there is as yet no promise that serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will resume.

The standoff with Iran and its nuclear programme continues, without a viable U.S. strategy to resolve it short of war. And there is widespread questioning about future U.S. commitments toward the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

For some observers, including Vali Nasr, all this raises profound questions about U.S. foreign policy and leads him to judge: “retreat.”

The author, now dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, has had a special vantage point. From January 2009 until 2011, he was special advisor to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke (who died in December 2010), the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan – “Afpak.”

Dr. Nasr’s brief but intense experience in the U.S. government at a high level was both disappointing and disillusioning.

His principal conclusions are that the Obama White House failed to take seriously the diplomatic opportunities afforded the U.S.; that it tolerated excessive militarisation of U.S. policies, at the expense of a proper role for diplomatic instruments; that the president himself was long on language but short on action, thus failing to come to grips with a number of regional developments; that the best efforts by the State Department, including by Secretary Hillary Clinton, to intervene in critical policy-making, were often rebuffed or ignored by “the White House;” and that the U.S. thus failed in its essential leadership role.

What Nasr says about the way in which the White House dominated and controlled foreign policy in Obama’s first term and made it subservient to domestic politics is a damning indictment – even if only partly true, and at this point in history, no outsider can judge.

This helps explain why a pre-publication book has gained so much attention, along with the Washington parlor game of welcoming “kiss and tell,” merged with a desire to see the sitting president stub his toe or worse.

Thus “Dispensable Nation” is a compelling read. And while Nasr is not part of the new cottage industry of “declinists”, he does warn that, without radical changes to the making and carrying out of U.S. foreign policy, this nation can do itself and its role in the world serious injury, not least to its reputation and others’ willingness to rely on us.

So far, so good. But some other facets of this book present a somewhat different perspective. One might be called an “old school” approach to government service: that someone who willingly “takes the King’s shilling” assumes a burden not to tell tales out of school, at least not until all the narrative’s senior players have left the stage. Breaking with that unwritten practice makes for a juicier read, but it does make one ponder.

A more serious question is raised by the assumption running throughout the book that if a different approach had been taken to X or Y — in particular a greater reliance on diplomacy and, even more so, diplomatic approaches advanced by the Special Negotiator, Ambassador Holbrooke — very different and positive things would almost surely have come about.

But with regard to the Middle East/Southwest Asia and its long history of complexities and imponderables, one must be chary of drawing straight-line conclusions about the impact of policies different from those pursed.

It is hard to believe that U.S. leadership on its own would have transformed Arab-Israeli peacemaking; that a different U.S. approach to Egypt and other Arab countries would necessarily have produced a better course for the Arab Spring; that earlier intervention (but just what?) would have stopped the slaughter in Syria; that following the negotiating strategy and tactics advocated by Ambassador Holbrooke would have brought the Afghanistan war to a successful conclusion — without taking us all back to Square One, with the Taliban in full control – and with U.S. relations with Pakistan on a better footing and the region stable.

In short, in addition to highly-relevant and well-argued analysis of the Obama administration’s shortcomings, most of the author’s suggestions for alternative approaches are more wishful thinking than the product of a depth of knowledge about the region and seasoned judgment concerning the limits of power.

Perhaps that conclusion is unfair, given that his role in Afpak has so far been the author’s only venture into government, but that argues for being doubly cautious about making sweeping predictions about the putative success of alternative strategies.

It might also have been useful if Vali had drawn upon his experience to discuss whether using special representatives instead of regular diplomacy is good or bad.

In some cases, appointing a U.S. special negotiator has proved to be good — like Arab-Israeli peacemaking, thus relieving a secretary of state from having to deal virtually full time with these demanding partners; or lengthy arms control negotiations, where having experts at the table is essential.

But in general, creating special representatives as substitutes for regular practices of the U.S. government is asking for trouble. This was certainly true regarding the plethora of special representatives appointed during the first Obama administration, such that the expertise and experience needed for effective policies was often missing or sidelined.

Certainly, balancing contending (and legitimate) points of view within the bureaucracy (e.g., state, defence, CIA, NSC staff) was regularly lost, to the detriment of coherent policy.

Add to this the appointment of a special representative for Afpak who had achieved almost superstar status, with personal ambitions to match and a well-deserved sobriquet of “bulldozer,” and it would be surprising if all had gone smoothly — not least because Holbrooke had no experience in the region and no prior knowledge either of the issues or the local political cultures.

Indeed, it did not go smoothly, predictably so given Amb. Holbrooke’s career-long disdain for anyone who got in his way (along with his methods for eliminating competitors for either position or limelight), his lack of capacity for genuine strategic thinking as opposed to short-term tactical fixes, plus his most undiplomatic approach to both friend and foe.

In fact, from the moment of his highly publicised spat with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, Holbrooke’s usefulness ended.

In sum, Nasr has given us not just a good read but also judgments about what happens when a U.S. administration does not place a high enough priority on getting right the U.S. role in the world; does not assess adequately what the nation truly needs to do abroad; that inserts domestic political judgments at the start of the process instead of (as is indeed necessary) after due consideration of foreign policy choices; that permits a continuing imbalance between military and non-military instruments of power and influence; and that fails to “think strategically” about the future, fully two decades after the end of the Cold War made such strategic rethinking imperative.

One conclusion, not in the book but flowing from its argument, is that a second-rate team appointed by the president and secretary of state cannot produce first-rate foreign policy, an outcome that Nasr argues forcefully.

*Robert E. Hunter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, was director of Middle East Affairs on the National Security Council Staff in the Carter Administration and in 2011-12 was Director of Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University.


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  • Kati Marton

    In addition to a surprisingly nasty take down of a former colleague, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Hunter’s review is full of glaring factual errors. Here are a few: Since when do heads of state get to choose American envoys to do business with? That is Hunter’s claim when he says Karzai’s spat with Holbrooke ended Richard’s usefulness. (Karzai called me when Richard was fighting for his life to say that he was urgently needed back in the field. As Richard’s State Department team will tell you, they had developed a good working relationship. Karzai’s erratic temperament is no secret, however.) Milosevic wouldn’t have picked my late husband to do business with either. That is not how American diplomacy works–autocrats don’t get to pick their favorites. Hunter clearly was not present at the three memorials where thousands of Richard’s colleagues gathered to grieve and honor him, and continue to do so around the world. As to Hunter’s claim that Richard was all about tactics and not strategy: the exact opposite was the truth. Richard was always about the Long Game and was inching his way toward a regional and diplomatic end to the terrible AfPak crisis. He had spent 40 years writing and pondering and acting on behalf of America’s strategic role in the world. Hunter’s take down of my late husband reveals much more about himself than about Richard. –Kati Marton

  • Uncle Sam

    Mr. Hunter expresses doubt as to whether or not the United States could have achieved peace talks in Palestine/Israel if that objective had received sufficient attention. Isn’t he aware that the United States is Israel’s only friend and benefactor, constantly providing even more promises of eternal partnership, weapons, and diplomatic cover for this client state that has consistently operated in violation of international humanitarian law since the Nakba in 1947-48? Does he imagine that Israel would reject our instructions to return to pre-’69 boundaries immediately if we cut off all support, recalled our ambassador, and sent theirs packing now?

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