Mittwoch, 31. Juli 2013

Still Indispensable? Vali Nasr's Take of All Things Falling Apart

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.

Dienstag, 30. Juli 2013

A Vision for Europe

A little more than a year ago, the good people of the Atlantic Council of the United States (ACUS) called me into the Young Atlanticist Working Group. Its been a tremendous experience and the programme has offered plenty of new contacts. Together with four colleagues from Slovenia, the UK and Portugal, I penned a paper that was more than a bit daring. We aptly called it the Europe We'd Like to Inherit and the Atlantic Council has just published it, the report is available here

Montag, 29. Juli 2013

Egypt: Its a Dangerous Coup

It is true, Egypt presents a particular difficult challenge. One the one hand, the first democratically elected president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, was hardly a dedicated democrat. On the other hand, his ouster through a military coup d'etat does not bode well for the chances of this crucial Middle Eastern country to become a fully democratic state any time soon. And I fully admit that I have trouble in picking sides in this particular situation – and picking sides, after all, is what a pundit is usually being paid for.

It is therefore hardly surprising that the Obama-administration and its European allies find it equally difficult to square this particular circle. I've been to Egypt recently, to Cairo, to be more precise, and it is gut-wrenching to watch the reports of Egyptians killing and torturing each other.

The way in which the Obama-administration is handling the situation in Egypt, however, is bizarre, to say the least. Following the coup on July 3rd the administration was quick to urge Egyptians to unite and form a government of national unity, yet it could not bring itself to condemn the coup. In fact, it could not even bring itself to call it a coup. Anyone who has been reading the State Department press briefings over the past couple of weeks could feel the frustration journalists had when trying to understand the administration's position, if it actually had a position. Since the administration is not calling a coup and insisting its not not calling it a coup either, one wonders how the administration is referring to the events of July 3rd.

The administration, of course, does not want to call the coup a coup because it would than be legally bound to cease granting assistance to Egypt, which after all is its major leverage on the government. The administration, however, is rapidly reaching a point where it has to ask itself what it wants to preserve: the tenuous progress toward democracy or its leverage. It seems to me that at this point in time, it is largely trying to preserve its leverage as an end in itself. Obama and his State Department seem to believe that its influence over the military is the best guarantee that the military is living up to its promise to quickly realise democratic elections. But Robert Springbord is quite right to caution against any expectation that the military, of all actors, will be the watchdog for the country's transition to democracy.

Sonntag, 28. Juli 2013

Acting On Syria

Over the past months, I neglected the blog a bit. Thats largely because I was practically overwhelmed by writing a regular column, finishing my first book and traveling. Needless to say, the world just kept on spinning, so here is my latest take on Syria:

Over at the North Africa Post, you'll find my long argument for intervention. I made the same argument in a nutshell over at the Atlantic Community