The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat


Politics, meet the water’s edge. One sense of the old phrase “politics stops at the water’s edge” is that it’s one thing for foreign affairs to impact politics and it is another thing entirely for political considerations to dictate strategy. The foolishness of politics-as-strategy is the central theme of Vali Nasr’s The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. Formerly special advisor to the late Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Nasr laments America’s current vision for the world.

Or, more precisely, the lack thereof.

Dispensable Nation discusses this vision vacuum in light of our current political leadership. Specifically, Nasr argues that a smaller footprint in the Middle East appears to be the only guiding light for the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Nasr considers this folly in the extreme, particularly in light of the events of the Arab Spring. But the book is no partisan screed: as an Iranian-born naturalized American and as a foreign policy insider with a front-row seat to the Obama administration’s handling of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Nasr is personally and culturally aware of the conflicting political motivations in Central Asia and the Middle East in a way few experts are.

A prime example of Nasr’s thesis, he asserts, is the lack of a coherent strategy in Afghanistan. He argues that the Obama administration’s half-hearted commitment to counterinsurgency was emblematic of a crumbling rationale for continued military action, and that Obama’s attempted reproduction of the “surge” in Iraq was mostly for show, calculated to avoid appearing weak to the American public. The half-heartedness of this strategy was confirmed with the subsequent announcement that American troops would leave Afghanistan by 2014. “The dizzying change of pace in policy,” Nasr says, “presented America as indecisive and unreliable… Our only goal seemed to be getting out, first of Afghanistan and then the whole region.”

And that goal of total withdrawal, Nasir suggests, was wholly determined by politics. “In the cocoon of our public debate,” Nasr says, “Obama gets high marks on foreign policy. That is because his policies’ principal aim is not to make strategic decisions but to satisfy public opinion.”

The dangers of this approach are particularly evident in recent events in Egypt and Syria, and Nasr is eerily prophetic in his analysis. The current state of both Egypt and Syria illustrate opportunities lost by a strategy adrift in the winds of public opinion. By failing to provide early support to opposition groups in countries affected by the Arab Spring, Nasr argues that the United States missed its chance to have a meaningful influence on whatever regimes ultimately take power after strongmen like Hosni Mubarak (and now, perhaps, Bashar al-Assad).

“[T]here is plenty of evidence today,” Nasr predicts, “that the Arab Spring will produce illiberal new regimes, hybrid governments blending surviving security forces with rising Islamic parties of various hues. There will be civil wars, broken states, sectarian persecutions, humanitarian crises, faltering economies, and new foreign policy challenges.” Indeed, developments in Egypt support Nasr’s assertion, and the crisis in Syria may soon prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. The administration’s politics-as-strategy approach has put the United States on the sideline as the better-prepared, better-organized Islamist factions take over as the main source of opposition to established regimes.

Of course, such a comprehensive critique of America’s current policy demands an alternative proposal. If public opinion cannot effectively drive foreign policy, what should? Nasr believes that the world still looks to the United States for leadership, but the leadership they want is diplomatic in principle and economic in practice. Accordingly, Nasr argues the United States should give the world what it wants—diplomatic solutions and economic aid. Unfortunately, throwing money at the world’s problems under the guise of “more aid” seems simplistic. The interests of other nations are not benevolent enough for money to solve every problem. Our policy must recognize the difference between investing in societies on a path towards responsible participation with the rest of the world and bribing governments who use their position to leverage their power however they can.

An alternative answer may be a reinvigoration of ethical constraints on America’s considerable military power. Indeed, a principled application of just war theory—rooting conflict in proper authority, good and just purpose, and the pursuit of peace—would crystallize American foreign policy in a way not seen since the Cold War.

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