Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Insights Missing Nasr Offers Little New on Foreign Affairs

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Insights Missing Nasr Offers Little New on Foreign Affairs

Article excerpt

A new book by Vali Nasr, an ex-State Department official and dean of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, was billed as dishing some inside dirt on how the secretive administration of President Barack Obama conducts U.S. foreign affairs.

The first chapter or so does cast some light on the pushing and pulling between part of the Department of State and part of the White House that produces sometimes flawed policy in certain parts of the world, particularly the Middle East. But, fairly shortly into the book, it turns instead into a sprawling not-very-original exposition of Mr. Nasr's prescriptions.

About halfway into "The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat," it became a book that I finished only because I already had invested time and energy in it and because I kept hoping to find something useful in it. There were bits and pieces, but I would not recommend it to a serious analyst of U.S. foreign policy with limited time on his hands.

Mr. Nasr describes himself as "a child of the 1979 Iranian revolution." That's fine; there is a lot to learn from the children of that cataclysmic event. What is less fine is that Mr. Nasr is also a devoted believer in the late U.S. Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, whom he sees as having been the only foreign policy official capable of delivering salvation to the foundering American republic.

Mr. Nasr has an equally uncritical appreciation of former Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton, who would have named Mr. Holbrooke secretary of state had she not been defeated for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination by Mr. Obama. Mr. Holbrooke, who employed Mr. Nasr when he was special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, presumably would have employed Mr. Nasr in a suitably decisive role if he'd become secretary of state. But that didn't happen either.

All of that said, there are some important ideas in Mr. Nasr's book. He believes, for example, that Mr. Obama has allowed the military to gain a disproportionate role in determining foreign policy. In Afghanistan, for example, he says "the president's advisers thought the political fallout of going against the military would be too great." He refers to "the president handing foreign policy over to the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies." He comments, "Drones, not democracy, drive American policy."

Mr. Nasr's main contention is that Mr. Obama's pivot away from the Middle East toward Asia misses the point. The point, as he sees it, is that in spite of what America might like to do, the Middle East remains the cockpit of U.S. foreign affairs and that even the competition with China will be worked out with that region as the centerpiece. He calls U.S. foreign policy "directionless."

In that context, Mr. Nasr makes strong arguments that China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia will remain the principal players and that the United States must concentrate on them. …

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