Washington DC, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iranian-born, MIT-trained academic Vali Nasr is one of the most high-profile American pundits on Middle East affairs.
He also served on the front lines of American diplomacy, as an aide to Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department, the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, famous as the man who helped midwife the Dayton Accords that ended the fighting in the former Yugoslavia.
Since 2012 he has served as Dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book, Dispensable Nation, was published earlier this year, and stridently criticizes what he sees as the Obama administration’s lax attitude to the crises enveloping the Middle East.
Recently, Dr. Nasr spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about his new book, his fears for the future of the Middle East, his views of the Syrian crisis, and shared his opinion on Obama’s foreign policy team.
Asharq Al-Awsat: In your most recent book, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, you criticize President Obama’s decision to pursue a lower–profile foreign policy in the Middle East. There are many who agree with you in this regard and see a near total absence of an American presence in the region. What are the possible repercussions of this absence?
A: In the Middle East there are justified criticisms against the US. True, America has made mistakes in the region many times. On the other hand, the US was an important factor in stabilizing the region. Without the US we would have seen more unrest, conflicts, and wars. So, withdrawal from the region is a significant strategic change.
I don’t actually think that America is capable of paying the price of this withdrawal which I consider a product of a misunderstanding. This mistaken understanding has pushed many in the region to change their policies and their way of thinking. Don’t forget that the Middle East is a region full of crises. Not just the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. there is also the Iranian conflict with Arab states and the crises in Syria and Iraq. There are also ideological conflicts and Islamist organizations. The homogeneity that we see in many areas like East Asia and Europe is absent in the region.
Also, there aren’t strong and effective constitutions or the organizations and institutions that we find in other places in the world. For these reasons the American role is important and necessary for stability in the region. The sudden withdrawal has created instability, the effects of which have yet to be seen. I think the current administration’s insistence on this withdrawal will without a doubt prove detrimental for the region as a whole. But let me add an important point, the region is suffering from enormous economic problems. There are no economic systems capable of absorbing the increasing number of youths looking for work. There has also been a failure in family planning which has led to a marked increase in population. Water issues also need to be considered. The Middle East is suffering from all of this. It is important that the US plays a helpful and supportive role but in the end America is incapable of changing the economy or how resources are managed.
Q: What is your opinion on the deteriorating situation in Syria?
A: The situation in Syria presents four threats. The first threat, the state collapses making it a focal point for merchants of war, drugs, and terrorist organizations like what happened in Afghanistan. This is a threat to everyone. We learned from experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia that in the absence of the state and security forces terrorist organizations and drug lords take over the region.
The second threat is a humanitarian crisis. The number of refugees has grown enormously to the point that they now threaten the stability of countries like Jordan and Lebanon. The third threat: the sectarian threat. The Syrian crisis helped to create and deepen sectarian lines in the region. Every nation in the region sees a potential threat in the conflict. The war has increased harsh rhetoric in the region. The fourth threat is a threat to reputation. By that I mean when other nations see America silent, doing nothing to stop the conflict and leaving the place open for Russia to support Al-Assad and do whatever they like, they will think that they can interfere and do whatever they please.
I recently wrote an article in which I noted that the biggest danger that can come out of the Syrian situation and the American absence is the rise of an Iranian-Russian alliance in the region. The Russian role in Syria would not have come about were it not for Iranian support. The Russians can provide arms but Iran has fighters on the ground and knowledge of the region. Of course this won’t stop with Syria. It will extend to other places like, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, even nations in the Gulf and other regions.
Q: Some argue that the Obama administration has refused to support moderate forces, which has strengthened extremists forces not only in Syria but the whole region as well. What is your take on this?
This is true. During times of war extremist rhetoric gains momentum since it is the most suitable to incite fighting. The moderates aren’t skilled at war. This is a big problem. Syria will not harm moderates on a cultural or intellectual level, but it will give extremists and jihadist groups the pretext and symbolic power to impose their views on a large portion of the populace. As we learned from Afghanistan, ideas move from place to place. As I mentioned before, in its current state Syria represents a serious threat.
Q: Why does President Obama seem uninterested in the Middle East?
President Obama personally thinks that the region isn’t as important as many think it is. He wants to prove that US non-intervention in the region will not harm the US. About two months ago he told The New Republic that he will not intervene in Syria just as he cannot intervene to stop the massacres in Congo. He wanted to clearly say that as far as he is concerned, Syria’s importance is no different from that of the Congo’s. I consider this a mistaken assumption because Syria is not Congo, and the Middle East is not Central Africa. This is not limited to Syria.
Since the beginning President Obama has tried to withdraw from the entire region. He saw that as the fundamental strategy. He withdrew from Afghanistan and then Iraq and he doesn’t want to intervene in Syria. It doesn’t matter to him if the story seems good or bad. He would not intervene in Tunisia or Egypt. He does not want to intervene, whatever the solution. When he visited the region recently he did not visit any nations of the Arab Spring, that was a clear sign of his lack of interest in the region in general.
Q: In your book you noted that the current US administration has sought to reduce the importance of the Middle East and turn to the East to compete with China. At the same, the Middle East is increasingly important to China whose economic presence in the region is growing. It is clear that the nations of the Middle East have deepened their relations with China.
If these countries sense a lack of an American presence they will try to make new friends. This is natural and expected. Such significant shifts have serious strategic implications. The Chinese see the Middle East as a place full of opportunities for investment and a means to revitalize their economic force. They also see the region as an essential source for the energy that they dearly need. Don’t forget that stability in the region is also stability for China which isn’t that far away. Unlike the Obama administration, the Chinese see extremely important strategic interests in the region. In my opinion this assessment is mistaken and dangerous. It is not easy to withdrawal from a vital region leaving it open for great powers to play political and economic roles there.
Q: What do you think about the situation in Egypt? You criticized American inaction after the fall of Mubarak and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.
I’m a child of the Iranian revolution. During the last days of the Shah when protesters were demanding he step down the mood was just like what we saw in Tahrir Square. Everyone wanted him to leave right away. This was a mistake as the liberal forces were not as strong as the conservatives.
Ayatollah Rafsanjani once said about the liberals: “Those idiots, they think they’ll win if we had elections.” The Islamists had the numbers and their relations with the poorer classes was strong while the liberals lacked links to the poor and destitute. The liberals seemed important to those abroad, where they spoke French or English and followed events through western media but the reality on the ground was different. I can see that fate in Egypt also. A country with a population of eighty million. Yes, the liberals are strong but not enough.
It would have been better if Mubarak left in a slower manner. This would have given the new political parties the opportunity to organize themselves. It would have given the opposition the time to agree on basics and rules everyone could agree too. The American administration could have offered support and economic help without interfering in domestic politics. And as we see now the number of unemployed in Egypt has increased. Instead of economic growth we’re seeing the economy go in the opposite direction.
Q: What about Iraq, which is also seeing difficult times? You criticized America’s hasty withdrawal.
I think that America withdrew very quickly from Iraq. If we look at the Bosnian example we’ll see that the US kept forces there until an agreement could be reached between the forces on the ground. Political agreements are like trees. As more time passes their roots dig deeper into the ground. American and NATO forces are still there. There is a new generation born used to this new reality. If America had hastily withdrawn then the killing could have started again. In Iraq we saw the counterinsurgency, the fight against terrorist groups, and the political agreement that no one liked but was still there. The hasty American withdrawal tipped the scales and created a giant vacuum. Every party has become scared of the others. Everyone has their own interests and aren’t inclined to political agreement. For that reason we have seen these clashes and rapid decline.
Q: You described the team surrounding President Obama responsible for foreign policy as young, inexperienced, preoccupied with the domestic struggle between Republicans and Democrats, and obsessed with headlines.
It is good that he gathered a mix of specialized individuals from different backgrounds. There are individuals specialized in government work and skilled in working with governmental bureaucracy. There are economic experts. The same goes for foreign policy. Whoever is working on foreign policy should not only be familiar with the region but also should have worked in the region as a diplomat or consultant. Also, you want individuals who have experience dealing with crises like what occurred in Kosovo or Afghanistan.
This balance is lost in the Obama administration. Despite the fact that the government is full of competent individuals, the influential inner-circle does not have experience in foreign affairs and view the world through the lens of Democrat-Republican competition, through newspaper headlines. They want to portray the president as strong, that he asked Mubarak to step down. In this situation he appears to be the strong man in the eyes of the media. But then what? He has to think about how to deal with a nation of eighty million and not about what the papers will write the next day.