Obama, Holbrooke and The Dispensable Nation
Obama, Holbrooke and The Dispensable Nation
A Pivotal Moment for EU Foreign Policy
A Pivotal Moment for EU Foreign Policy
Op-Ed / Global 10 minutes

Obama, Holbrooke and The Dispensable Nation

Foreign-policy writing is not meant to be passionate. As in other endeavors where the stakes are too high, it has a cult of calculation. Whether its basis is national interest or something more ideological or expansive, foreign policy is supposed to be much more head than heart. Perhaps for just that reason, in foreign affairs big personalities can look even bigger, and passion is spoken of in code phrases like "political will."

Richard Holbrooke was one of those big personalities. He was rarely, himself, short of political will. Across several generations in the State Department you could warm up dull moments by mentioning his name. The reaction was often negative, but at least it was heartfelt, as Holbrooke was. After he died unexpectedly in December 2010, Derek Chollet and Samantha Power put together an excellent volume (The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World) combining some of Holbrooke's own articles with essays on his work and remembrances of various kinds. One of the more powerful contributions was Holbrooke's own angry piece from 1970 ("The Machine That Fails"), written with the door swinging behind him, about State's many shortcomings -- an essay that stood all too well the test of time. That the book was compiled by two people themselves in the system (Chollet and Power were both then at the National Security Council) gives you an idea of the tensions and contradictions their subject, and they, and so many other people in government service wrestle with as they grind away, then find themselves participating in terrible choices and watching in wonder as the unanticipated consequences blossom.


Vali Nasr's new book, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, is a work of passion. Its first few chapters are ostensibly about Afghanistan and Pakistan, but as policy writing they don't get you as far as they might, because Nasr's passions keep pulling him back to Holbrooke, the White House, and his profound doubts about the core of President Obama's foreign policy.

Nasr is currently dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. When Holbrooke became Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan -- one of several "czars" whom Obama brought in early on, hoping they would disrupt bureaucratic habit -- Nasr joined him as senior adviser. He, Barnett Rubin (now back at NYU) and a few others were at the center of an operation that tried to solve one of the great foreign-policy challenges: making Af-Pak lastingly stable and unthreatening. Nasr's early chapters tell what they tried, where their successes were (notably the transit-trade agreement between India and Pakistan), some of the more out-of-the-box tactics they used (freelancing a semi-public chat with Iran's deputy foreign minister), and why most of the effort, in the end, seemed to be a failure.

In significant part, he blames "a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers whose turf was strictly political." He also singles out General James Jones, Obamas's first national security adviser; General Douglas Lute, who advised President Bush on Afghanistan and was carried over into the new administration; and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. Of course none of these men were inexperienced at all. They just didn't feel they really needed Holbrooke's help so, as Nasr describes, they sidelined him.

Nasr also attacks the military and intelligence agencies, believing that they had got far above their station. Diplomacy had been made subordinate to military priorities, but the deepest problems were not susceptible to military solutions: the uncertain border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and ingrained Pakistani fear of India being the main ones, though by no means the only ones. Barnett Rubin's new book, Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror, gives a sense of how critically important diplomatic work with Pakistan and Iran had to be in finding any lasting solution. Rubin also (like Nasr) stresses talks with the Taliban, although they both, as insiders, withhold information on just how extensive such talks have been. There have been channels open to Iran as well, more than is usually admitted. Such discussions, and the strategic diplomatic approach they were based on, were what Holbrooke talked about the last time I saw him, two weeks or so before his death. They were not embraced by the military or the intelligence agencies.

Of course, the military and the agencies were able to overreach only if President Obama let them. And Nasr, daringly, puts much of the blame on the president.


That has gotten the book attention. There have been several pre-publication articles about it, in prominent places, beginning with George Packer in the New Yorker; there was an excerpt in Foreign Policy and then responses to the excerpt. There have been prominent reviews and there will be more ahead.

Presumably Nasr knows how to play with this kind of fire. Like Holbrooke himself, Nasr is very much of the foreign-policy establishment but at odds with the broad policy America is following. Holbrooke was in this position with some frequency. As Chollet described in the Festschrift he co-edited with Power, Holbrooke basically freelanced Balkan policy before his pounding at the door got President Clinton to let him in, after an interlude as ambassador to Bonn. ("Holbrooke's two trips to Bosnia in 1992," Chollet wrote, "followed a standard practice throughout his career: to get into the field and see problems firsthand (often paying his own way)...") Holbrooke had not particularly wanted the German ambassadorship, but once he had it he did an immense amount with it (as Strobe Talbott recalled, "he gave new meaning to the phrase 'extraordinary and plenipotentiary'"). He was given the UN ambassadorship at a time when the US owed (on the low estimate) $925 million in dues; the president was not keenly interested in the problem; Holbrooke's confirmation by the Senate took almost eight months; and the person standing in the way of dues repayment was the redoubtable senator from South Carolina, Jesse Helms. And so on. The Af-Pak job had the same dynamic: Holbrooke was by then perhaps America's best-known diplomat, but he was still an outsider, too.

Nasr's position is different in many ways; Holbrooke's refuge when out of power was investment banking, while Nasr's is in the academy. But the biggest difference is that Nasr's fundamental quarrel is not over Af-pak policy or anything as specific as Slobodan Milosevic or UN dues repayment. Nasr's quarrel is about what he sees as American withdrawal: from Afghanistan and Iraq, from the greater Middle East, and to some degree from the world stage generally. It is, ultimately, a strategic argument, and it takes up the latter two-thirds of the book, once his passions about Holbrooke and the AF-Pak madness have spent themselves.


Nasr's contention is that the U.S. under Obama is the only great power in the world that wants to get as far out of the Middle East as it can. The U.S. believes it is pivoting to Asia, positioning American power to deal with the rise of China, India and others. Nasr believes China's future is not so much in the Pacific as in the Middle East and Central Asia, where it will compete with Russia, Europe, and the United States for oil and gas and minerals, and for alliances with the main local players such as Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.

This is the best part of the book and will likely receive the least attention. Nasr's passages on Turkey convey how complicated and ambitious a nation it is becoming. He is brilliant at explaining Iranian strategic thinking and at illuminating the Shia-Sunni divide across the region -- Shiism being his scholarly specialty. And because he also argues, pretty convincingly, that the Arab Spring has made an already fragile region even less cohesive, the strategic competition there among large and medium powers will intensify.

Whether it is quite the center of the world might still be questioned. There are resources, markets and instability elsewhere, too. But his concern really is great power strategic confrontation and the Middle East is a more likely place for that than the East Asian littoral. This is Nasr's fundamental point -- he "is capable of making almost Kissinger-like connections," the FT's Edward Luce said in a review -- and it deserves the most serious attention, including by people in government whom much of this book will irritate at best.

"American retreat from the Middle East will be welcomed in China as a strategic boon," Nasr writes, later adding: "All the talk these days in American foreign policy circles is about how to leverage U.S. relations with Japan and South Korea to pressure China. But those two Asian countries depend on the same Middle Eastern energy sources as China, and the more China's influence grows in the Middle East, the more they will have to fall in line with China to protect their energy supply. If America wants Japan and South Korea to stay independent of China and be able to stand up to Beijing, then it must protect Tokyo and Seoul's position in the Middle East -- not from the Arab suppliers, but from China."

Nasr is refreshingly unintimidated by China. ("The Chinese... are not looking that far ahead.") His chapters fit with an important literature that has appeared in the last six months in English, beginning perhaps with Odd Arne Westad's very rich and subtle meditations in Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750 and on to Zheng Wang's fascinating Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations. David Shambaugh'sChina Goes Global: The Partial Power takes us on a march through the institutions to see who actually makes the decisions. All this work is focused on what has become a crucial question for everyone: What is Chinese foreign policy? How is it made? And what do its makers actually believe about the world?

The Establishment

These are the questions America's foreign policy establishment needs to be wrestling with. And along with his open passion Nasr deploys one other unusual narrative strategy, which is to speak on behalf of "those of us in the foreign policy establishment." He rather emphatically does not consider the Obama White House part of that establishment.

This is not entirely right. Obama's foreign policy -- for credit or blame -- has been shaped by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Robert Gates and Joe Biden, who are establishment figures. It was shaped by people Nasr criticizes, like Jones, Lute and Eikenberry; by people he is clearly ambivalent about (Tom Donilon); by people who are demonstrably "pro-Holbrooke" (Chollet and Power), and people like Susan Rice and Anthony Blinken and Kurt Campbell and Anne-Marie Slaughter and others who cannot be considered to be outside the establishment.

Nasr also passes a bit lightly over the extent of Congressional opposition to Obama's foreign-policy formation. People in both parties were irritated Obama won and worried over his lack of foreign policy experience. They let him know that -- it had been a feature of Hillary Clinton's primary campaign against him, after all. Obama faced a wealth of domestic enemies in his efforts to forge effective foreign policy. When the death of bin Laden made him proof against any charges of weakness in the re-election campaign, the list of enemies just got longer.

So it's complicated. Obama might have done much more to bring the establishment to his side, but the establishment also, somehow, could not get him on its side, either. (The combined presence of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Kagan, Robert Kaplan and Anne-Marie Slaughter giving their endorsements on Nasr's book jacket is itself suggestive.) Today the foreign-policy establishment has settled into the belief that Obama is not theirs, is temporary, and is on his way out (after, you know, a few more years). Nasr's book and the controversy surrounding it can be seen as a sort of announcement that the end is beginning.

Obama's unarticulated premise was that America needs to let the world run itself a bit more... which was actually George W. Bush's premise, in a very different key. Bush articulated it in terms of a real distaste for the rest of the world, and even at times contempt. Obama is more respectful in some ways, but also vulnerable to hurt feelings (as at the Copenhagen climate summit early on, an unfortunate turning point detailed in Charles Kupchan's No One's World: The West, the Rest, and the Coming Global Turn) and politically flummoxed (notably by both Israel and the Arab Spring) and dangerously needful of the impression of control (which is what drones give) and given to somewhat resentful tough love (as in the slow dance with France and Britain on Libya) and, finally, uninterested. It's this last one that is Nasr's deepest criticism: "Our aim for the past four years has been to engage less, do less, and have a smaller footprint. But then we should be prepared to also matter less and influence less -- to become irrelevant to outcomes, be they large or small. It has been a losing proposition for us, and that should matter to us. So it is that in the past decade we have gone from leading everywhere to leading nowhere."

In terms of American power or destiny in the world, the Obama administration's tone is fundamentally retrospective -- fundamentally post-boomer. The political will is not there, and neither is the passion. But it has to be said that the will and passion are not there in Congress either, probably even less so than in the White House. Nor are they there in the population at large.

So we have had an internationalist president presiding over a period of renationalization (the other great theme of Kupchan's book), by which I mean: looking to the state for an increased role in protecting citizens from the downsides of globalization, while reversing the movement of political power to global institutions. The question is what is over the horizon in this unexpected process. That post-post-Westphalian world will be more for the next president to deal with and the next establishment, in which Nasr is almost certain to play his part.

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