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.