Foreign Policy

Obama's Dysfunctional Foreign Policy

Under Barack Obama, American foreign policy has been both adrift and destructive.


The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, Doubleday, 320 pages, $28.95.

That a book could be written about the arc of contemporary U.S. foreign policy and its failures in the last five years and only mention Mexico in passing is testament to just how adrift and disconnected from reality the American foreign policy establishment is. In The Dispensable Nation, Vali Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, argues that drones and other counterterrorism measures have replaced diplomacy and engagement as the U.S. stumbles from one crisis to the next. Besides providing an insider's perspective on Obama's foreign policy, the book also inadvertently reveals how foreign policy insiders view themselves, their work, and their power to affect change thousands of miles away.

In many respects, Nasr explains, Obama's policies have been extensions of his predecessor George W. Bush's. On Iran, for example, while Obama campaigned on the idea of engagement (and was famously ridiculed by Hillary Clinton for suggesting he would sit down to talk with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), upon entering office Obama adopted Bush's posture toward Iran wholesale. According to Nasr, Obama added "teeth" to the Bush approach by marshaling international support for stiffer sanctions. Meanwhile, Obama ignored or dismissed multiple attempts by the Iranian regime to interject diplomacy into the confrontation, as Bush similarly did before him.

Indeed, Dispensable Nation is littered with examples of Obama and his political team scuttling efforts by the State Department and others to find diplomatic resolutions to foreign policy challenges. In a reversal of the 2008 primaries, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed for more engagement in Iran and Afghanistan, while Obama's former campaign team turned White House staff pushed for more confrontation and aggressiveness. Obama, Nasr writes, has become "one of America's militarily most aggressive presidents."

Nowhere is this more evident, or more tragic, than in the White House's relationship with Richard Holbrooke when he held the office of special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. For two years, Nasr worked for Holbrooke at the State Department, and the first three chapters of his book focus on AfPak (a term that Nasr says Holbrooke coined). The entire second chapter focuses on attempts at reconciliation in Afghanistan. Nasr confirms other accounts, such as Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Little America, that portray an adversarial relationship between Holbrooke and various members of Obama's military and political teams. In Nasr's telling, the hostility was entirely one-sided, aimed directly at Holbrooke and his efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the Afghanistan war.

Nasr describes his former boss as doing the diplomatic yeoman's work of trying to bring the various players in the conflict together by finding shared interests. In the process, Holbrooke managed to get Afghanistan and Pakistan to sign a trade treaty—the first treaty between the two countries in living memory—and was working to arrange talks between India and Pakistan when he died. Nasr is not an unbiased party here, and he may have an inflated view of his former boss. Still, much of the story of Holbrooke as a voice for diplomacy nearly alone among an administration highly deferential to the military-intelligence complex is corroborated in other accounts.

Throughout the book, Nasr makes the case that domestic political considerations were among the primary movers for foreign policy, making Obama's decisions popular enough at home but disastrous abroad. On the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, for example, Obama called for Israel to freeze its settlement building in the West Bank, a move Nasr writs Obama hoped would "placate Arab opinion," and then disengaged from the process (partially because he realized that while publicly Arab states pressed America on Palestine, privately all they wanted to talk about was pressing America into war with Iran). Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, compared Obama's public support for a complete settlement freeze to the U.S. president leading him up a tree, then climbing down a ladder and taking it with him. Through rhetoric alone, Nasr writes, Obama had boxed in Abbas' negotiation position: The president had laid down a marker, and Abbas did not feel he could politically start from a negotiating position closer to Israel's than that one. Better for Obama, and the U.S., to have left Israel and Palestine alone to talk about the tree together. Obama's rhetoric may have made the situation in Egypt worse, too. Pressed by his political team, Obama called for Hosni Mubarak to go in January 2011 even as his envoy was returning from Cairo having pressed Mubarak for an orderly transition to democracy. According to Nasr, the precipitous departure of Mubarak benefited the Islamists, who were more politically organized than the liberal forces Nasr credits for the Tahrir protests. Nasr overstates his case here: It's highly questionable that Mubarak would have made good on that promise to move toward democracy. (Mubarak had been paying lip service to an eventual transition to democracy for the better part of a decade already, all while holding his country under a decades-long state of emergency.) It isn't questionable, on the other hand, that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups benefited from Mubarak's precipitous departure: The more liberal and secular portions of the Tahrir Square revolution were indeed overwhelmed by the Brotherhood. It's unlikely America could've made a positive impact on the events in Egypt, but Obama's attempt to attach himself rhetorically to the moment by publicly calling for Mubarak's exit may have quickened it and, arguably, cut short the time in which the more secular portions of the revolution could have organized for the aftermath. And, of course, the U.S. government has sent billions of dollars to Egypt over the last three and half decades and continues to do so, despite human rights abuses continuing under the new government.

Despite the provocative title, Nasr's thesis in Dispensable Nation is actually quite the opposite, that the United States remains indispensable despite the lack of strategic vision in Obama's foreign policy. Nasr relies on several assumptions here: that the United States has a national interest in promoting political and economic reform abroad, that the United States is and ought to be the guarantor of the liberal world order, and, perhaps most dangerously, that as a global power the United States will always have challengers to that role that will need to be contained, like China. Yet these same assumptions have caused some of the quagmires in which America is currently embroiled.

There is, for example, the U.S. role in the coup that returned the shah to power in Iran in 1953, an episode Nasr's narrative leaves out. That event, perhaps more than any other, set off the political chain of events that would lead to the Islamic revolution in 1979, which in turn set up the current antagonistic relationship between Washington and Tehran. Nasr himself points out that Iran has not invaded a neighbor since 1859, and that the discussion within the Iranian regime over the last few years has been about who was more dangerous to regional stability, the Taliban or the United States. To the U.S. foreign policy establishment, it seems self-evident that Iran is the bad guy and America is the good guy. But the view's not so clear in Tehran, or in Baghdad or Ankara for that matter. Similarly, while Nasr devotes a chapter to the perceived threat of China and its economic and military expansionism, he doesn't really acknowledge Beijing's concerns about the economic and military power of the United States. There's a ring of U.S. military hardware surrounding China, not the other way around.

And in the meantime, what about Mexico? A very real drug war there, fueled in part by America's militantly prohibitionist domestic policy, has taken more than 45,000 lives while the U.S. prosecutes a war on the other side of the world. Or what about Cuba, which is still under a Cold War-era embargo? Nasr is right that international trade has been a powerful force for peace and stability. The attempt to prohibit the narcotics trade has been an equally powerful opposing force, seen vividly at America's southern border. And the attempt to prohibit or restrict trade in places like Cuba—or Pakistan—leaves Nasr to lament that Lahore is full of Chinese businessmen doing business. Free trade ought to be Americans' business. America's policing role, on the other hand, is only as indispensable as Washington has made it.

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  1. Obama’s incompetence in foreign policy was obvious the day he tossed the department of state to Hillary as a consolation prize. The man is a dilettante.


    1. Let us know when he invades the wrong country after the largest attack on US soil in 180 years.

      1. Tu quoque, ladies and gentlemen: the height of political sophistication.

        1. It’s the best he can do.

          1. It’s the best only thing he can do.


            1. Correction accepted.

      2. Obama doesn’t have to wait for the largest attack on US soil or any attack, remember Libya?

        1. But because our involvement with Libya is an order of magnitude less in terms of commitment or spending than Iraq, it may as well never have happened. Nor the drone wars (Bush’s, even if they’re far more numerous under the reigning administration), nor creepy executive assassinations.

          Not to worry: once a Republican takes the Oval Office in 2016, the switch will flip and PBP will be adamantly anti-war.

        2. A NATO and Arab League supported operation that involved no ground troops?

          Just like Iraq. Got it!

          1. Yep, the US totally wasn’t involved in Libya at all.

          2. Because bombing people is so much better than using guns to kill them.

          3. A NATO and Arab League supported operation

            But no US Congressional approval. Which is the one that matters.


          4. I’m not sure why you’re worried, PBP; with one oe the other party constantly in power there will forever be enough brown murderbabies to maintain your warboner.

      3. Remember everyone, if you criticize Obama it means you supported Bush.

        Shreek, it’s been five years, the old buh-buh-buh-but Booosh was worse is getting fucking old.

      4. “Wrong country”? What country would that be? No country, with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia, was behind the 9/11 attacks. We don’t want to fight Saudi Arabia because we don’t want to win a war with Saudi Arabia, because we don’t want to be in charge of Mecca.

        Bush picked two countries to use as nasty object lessons. Afghanistan had a lot of Al Q’aeda hiding in it, and its history made overrunning it impressive. Iraq was technically still at war with us from the first Gulf War, which meant that Saddam had to be slam dunked if we wanted people to take our terms of surrender seriously in the future.

        Do I think George Bush was a strategic genius, whose every plan was perfect? Oh, hell, no! But criticism like “Wrong country!:” or “No WMDs!” or “Blood for oil!” is ill-judged, cartoonish, left-pigswill. It has no substance, and certainly doesn’t address Obama’s apparent compulsion to meddle in every middle-eastern piss-up going.

  2. Sounds like a solid plan to me dude. Wow.

    1. Is it just me or have the anonbot’s been kicking their spam up a notch lately?

      1. They have.

        Pedo-bot’s posts are eerily on topic lots of times, then suddenly generic and bland. Its like the AI gets bored with it’s job, turns on the autobot and sneaks off to cruise the net for underage porn.

  3. their power to affect change thousands of miles away


  4. “””argues that drones and other counterterrorism measures have replaced diplomacy and engagement as the U.S. stumbles from one crisis to the next. “”‘

    Actually its diplomacy and engagement which causes the US to stumble from one crisis to the next. As long as the US gets involved with every countries problems around the world we will have no way to keep out of those problems. Drones and counterterrorism is just the results of our diplomacy an engagement.

  5. Speaking of foreign policy, the BBC reports on the video of a Syrian Islamist rebel cutting the heart out of a fallen solider and eating it. Of course the article fails to mention that the motivation of such cannibalism of enemy soldiers is a long standing tradition that is advocated by the orthodox Shafi’i school of Islamic law.

    One may eat the flesh of a human body. It is not allowed to kill a Muslim nor a free non-Muslim under Muslim rule (because he is useful for the society), nor a prisoner because he belongs to other Muslims. But you may kill an enemy fighter or an adulterer and eat his body (716 in volume 1, Al-Kortoby)

    This is not a unique phenomenon. If you will remember the two Israeli soldiers who took a wrong turn in Ramallah and were seized by a Palestinian mob who then led the soldiers into a post office. The two Israeli soldiers were then beaten to death and their bodies were actually torn apart by the mob’s bare hands. Pieces of their flesh were thrown to the crowd, some of which took bites from the body parts. (Look up the Ramallah lynching of 2000 for more information.)

    Oh yeah, one of the most visible of the mob leaders, the Bloody Hands Guy, was freed in a prisoner exchange in 2011.

      1. The religion of pieces.

    1. Did you also hear that a black guy shot up the crowd in New Orleans on Mother’s day? I was thinking when I heard the news “I’ll bet it was a black guy”…cuz…well…you know.

  6. I undertand that as Republican aligned libertarians most Reasonoids are duty bound to side against team blue on every issue, but I’ll give Obama credit on foreign policy….so far.

    He’s kept us out of Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Reduced our roles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Limited our role in Libya – which I’ll admit was bullshit. And allowed the French to lead in Mali, without getting involved beyond logistical support.

    In disengaging us from policing the world (and pivoting us from the ME and Europe towards Asia), he, and successive presidents will stumble. But considering the enormous structural barriers that he has to work against, in my opinion Foreign Policy is the one part of Obama’s presidency that has not been dissapointing.

    1. What did that strawman ever do to you?

      1. He told me to die in a fire when I forgot to doubly bash a Democrat after bashing a Republican. It’s a rule here don’t you know?

        1. This is your strawman:

          I undertand that as Republican aligned libertarians most Reasonoids are duty bound to side against team blue on every issue

          So nice of you to follow it up with another.

    2. Yeah, and we don’t have boots on the ground in Brazil or Red China either! That guy Obozo is really sumptin’!

    3. Reduced our roles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

      Major operations in Iraq ended in accordance with the SOFA signed in the last days of Bush’s presidency over the objections of Obama’s then defense secretary, Leon Panetta. Afghanistan is still ongoing. Remember, Afghanistan is Obama’s “good war”. Operations in Africa have escalated. That our intervention in Libya without authorization from Congress is consistently defended only by comparison to Iraq pretty much serves as its own indictment. I’m hesitant to suggest that naked partisanship duty binds you to defend Obama for the exact same set of policies you opposed under a Republican president. You sound more like a garden variety moron.

  7. How do you protect free trade without military intervention in hotspots across the globe?

    1. Lyle,
      There are ways of persuading people which do not include weapons or threats of violence. You should read up on them.
      And get lost until you do.

      1. Granted, there ARE ways of persuading people that do not involve violence. Historically, they have worked only with fairly civilized people who believe that if they don’t play nice, violence is still a possibility.

        Diplomacy is preferable to force, but diplomacy is also credit. And the jihadist nitwits have show an unfortunate tendency to insist on cash.

      2. You seem to be the one who needs to read up on world history and pay closer attention to what is going on around him in his on lifetime.

        Get to work Sevo, you have so much to learn yet.

  8. ‘upon entering office Obama adopted Bush’s *POLICIES* wholesale.’


  9. Um, he has a foreign policy? Not seeing it really.

    Drone strikes here and there, undermining allies seemingly at random, arming arab terrorists and mexican drug lords is not much of a policy. A policy derives from strategy and his over arching strategy involves smoking crack and playing golf.

    1. Sure Jug-Ears has a policy; he apparently wants to get mixed up in just about everything just far enough to claim credit if matters fall out well, but not enough that he will catch any blame if they go pear-shaped.

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    1. Yeah, but your neighbor’s step-mom does, so-to-speak, pay-per-view ‘animal-husbandry’, and then sells the pups.

  11. President Obama seems to truly believe that the rest of the world respects oration and supposed good intent over strength and ability to project that strength. Misguided to say the least and it will not help achieve even the domestic goals.

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  13. what Charles explained I am blown away that people can profit $5562 in 1 month on the computer. did you look at this page

  14. like Marvin implied I cant believe that a mother able to earn $8413 in 4 weeks on the computer. have you read this web link

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