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An Afghan security force keeps watch near the entrance gate of the Presidential palace in Kabul on June 25, 2013. Source: AFP Photo/Shah Marai

[inset_left]The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat

By Vali Nasr

Doubleday, 2013[/inset_left]The Dispensable Nation is a frustrating book. It offers some valuable insights into some of the recent history and current trends of American foreign policy, but the person who picks it up expecting a thorough, consistent and objective assessment of Barack Obama’s policy in the Middle East should beware that the insights it offers are interspersed with long sections in which the author uses to grind axes.

Nasr’s experience at the senior levels of Washington’s foreign policy apparatus forms much of the first half of the book, the more valuable portion. Nasr served as an aide to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the State Department diplomat who held the Afghanistan-Pakistan brief, and much of the material here discussing the behind-the-scenes machinations of the US foreign policymaking apparatus rings true and there is interesting material to be found here.

This is also true of his description of Holbrooke’s meetings with diplomats from other states, particularly the officials responsible for Afghanistan-Pakistan issues, all of whom seem to have advised the US to buy their way to a graceful exit from Afghanistan by bribing their enemies. This comes as a refreshing moment of candour, which confirms much of the suspicion the public hold about the conduct of international diplomacy behind closed doors.

The Dispensable Nation by Vali Nasr

The Dispensable Nation by Vali Nasr

However, these sections also have their flaws, flaws that arguably expose the author’s ideological and institutional loyalties. Holbrooke, Hilary Clinton and the efforts of the State Department are presented positively, while Obama’s national security and foreign policy aides in the White House are drawn in more negative terms. Nasr’s accuses Obama’s inner circle of being obsessed with spin, focused only on the short-term, and unwilling to listen to anyone but the Pentagon.

While there is a grain of truth in this description—struggles between the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House to shape policy have a long and complex history in American politics—the divisions Nasr draws are too stark. Rather than a reasoned analysis of the pros and cons of US policy and its formulation, his account seems to be tinged with the bitterness of someone who found himself on the losing side of a behind-the-scenes bureaucratic power-struggle.

Additionally, Nasr takes a rose-tinted, uncritical view of the ability of the US and its diplomacy to influence events in other countries, one that seems over-optimistic in a post-Iraq, and soon to be post-Afghanistan, world. While Nasr argues, perhaps rightly, that the US approach to Afghanistan has been dominated by the military, with little scope left for diplomacy, he does not seem to consider that the US will have very little at stake—and perhaps even less leverage—in Afghanistan once the American forces are pulled out of the country. This leaves the reader with a nagging feeling of a question left unanswered—when the US leaves Afghanistan, why should Afghanistan, Pakistan and other neighboring states listen to US attempts to influence their policy? Nasr rightly takes the Obama administration to task for its diplomatic failings in Afghanistan, but does not make a convincing case as to how it might exert influence effectively.

Finally, there is another inconsistency in the work as a whole, a seeming contradiction that does not seem to trouble the author. Nasr, rightly, highlights the trend in Washington towards threat inflation—the tendency to allow interest groups to stampede lawmakers and pundits into blowing the danger posed by minor threats to US interests out of all proportion to the real danger they pose. However, at the same Nasr fails to acknowledge the political limits on the power of President Obama, whom he levels a laundry list of complaints against. This may be only natural—he was, after all, an employee of the State Department, and agency that relies on being able to capture the president’s attention to influence policy. Nonetheless, while the president is the most powerful actor in the shaping of American foreign policy, his powers are still constrained by the need to take account of a host of political and economic factors, including Congress, which is often much more willing to listen to warnings of dire threats on the horizon, however outlandish.

The final section of Nasr’s book follows in the footsteps of others, and is of less interest. The recent “pivot” of the US and its vast military/national security establishment towards Asia has been viewed in many quarters as a deeply unwelcome development. This is often accompanied by warnings of the rise of Iranian or Chinese power to fill the perceived vacuum left by the “departure” of the US. The Dispensable Nation re-treads some of this ground, warning of the consequences of American indifference in key regions like the Gulf and the threat posed by an emboldened China.

Nasr’s warnings are not based on any new or particularly penetrating insight or analysis. Moreover, no convincing evidence of either is offered. Instead, Nasr simply assumes a lower-profile role for the US and a growing economic stake for China in the stability of its energy suppliers are in and of themselves bad. Bearing this in mind, it is difficult not to view his warnings as an attempt to plead for the continuing relevance of his field of study to policymakers.