Vali Nasr's latest book landed on my desk primarily because it made quite a splash when it was first released. I had read an advance excerpt in Foreign Policy and was positively intrigued. Vali Nasr had worked for the late Richard Holbrooke, a seasoned diplomat who was asked by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to come in and try to fix AfPak, the buzzword for the insurmountable security complex of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Foreign Policy excerpt made a rather interesting read and that preview stirred quite a controversy. He argued, after all, that President Obama was keeping the Secretary of State sidelined and rested his foreign policies primarily on the take of the Pentagon, making diplomacy no less but more difficult than it had been under his predecessor George W. Bush. Poignantly summed up in a small anecdote that had Hillary Clinton asking for larger binders than her counterpart at the Pentagon, Robert Gates, had available.
Thus adequately intrigued, I took to reading the book right away. And Vali Nasr is not pulling his punches. He accuses the administration of having fumbled the war in Afghanistan, a war that President Barack Obama, after all, had called the “war of necessity” during his first election campaign in 2008. Since Nasr had some insights and Afghanistan was supposed to be a priority for the administration, the book should have been an interesting read. Unfortunately, however, Afghanistan is covered only in a single chapter, the rest of the book is just a broad outline of the problems the Obama administration is facing across the globe. And in these areas, Nasr is more an academic than a policy practitioner.
Now, being an academic is all the more reason to write a book. Its just that this wasn't the book I was hoping for. Moreover, for someone who has worked in diplomacy the book is rather disappointing, if not outright naïve. He spends a lot of ink on Iran and he is right in asserting that Iran and the US could be allies. But not, as Nasr implies, by changing US policies. There is, after all, a reason that Iran is at loggerheads with the rest of the world and its not US intransigence – at times one is tempted to cry out when reading Nasr's one-sided analysis: its Iran that is maintaining a nuclear programme that it covered up for more than a decade and in all probability this clandestine effort wasn't made to cover medical research.
However, I share his disenchantment with the Obama administration, except I was never really enchanted – I had hoped John McCain would win 2008. But Nasr is right in asserting that the Obama administration dropped the ball on Iraq. He rightly argues that there was no reason Iraq should be lost in 2011, in fact loosing Iraq was a choice, as he calls it, a choice, moreover, the world could not afford. Yet, its the choice the Obama administration made. That is regrettable and will cast a long shadow over the Obama legacy. And he is right in arguing that Obama was never really interested in the promotion of democracy abroad. In Obama's worldview, the US in an important superpower, but its no longer an indispensable nation, which Nasr summarises in an aptly phrased paragraph:
“Obama had turned Bush's Iraq policy on its head. America went into Iraq to build democracy, but left building an authoritarian state as an exit strategy. It is obvious now that—talk about democracy in his Cairo speech notwithstanding—Obama was not really committed to democracy in the Middle East. We did not know it then, but Iraq in 2009 and 2010 was a preview of how the Obama administration would react to the Arab Spring in 2011, and a window onto his thinking about the Middle East.” (p. 148).
Notably absent in a book that Zbigniew Brzezinski characterised as a tour d'horizon (always a good indicator that you might be wasting your time), is Vali Nasr's ultimate boss during his stay in Foggy Bottom: Hillary Clinton. She is mentioned a couple of times, usually in passing and it is clear that Nasr holds her in high regard and he frequently excuses her lack of focus by pointing to her many duties. However, it is Vali Nasr himself who argues that Clinton went to great length to carve AfPak out as the one area, where her department was going to be in the lead. It is flummoxing that she allowed for that area to go without direction and ultimate purpose. And her often media-driven policy style clearly stood in the way of diplomatic accomplishments. That was won her praise from msnbc, it has not allowed her to make inroads in the many protracted conflicts the West is currently facing. But if her record is reflected in the number of times, she is mentioned in the book, its not that much of a record.