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Updated: July 15, 2013 21:35 IST

America and the lost world

Chinmaya R. Gharekhan
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The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat; Vali Nasr; Doubleday, a division of Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 1009. $19.35.
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The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat; Vali Nasr; Doubleday, a division of Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 1009. $19.35.

Prof. Vali Nasr is the Dean of International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a respected academic in the United States. He is justly well known for his work, The Shia Revival. His most recent oeuvre The Dispensable Nation is a fascinating study of American foreign policy in the troubled Middle East. His basic thesis, reflected in the sub-title, is that the United States, which a decade ago was proudly, almost haughtily, described by Madeleine Albright as the Indispensable Nation has lost much of its influence and respect in the region due to the shortsighted and hands off policies followed by Washington over the past several years. The ‘pivot’ towards the Pacific and South East Asia announced by the Obama Administration is primarily meant to contain China, but it would be a huge mistake to disengage from the Middle East. America’s stakes in the Middle East are much too vital for it to reduce its profile and engagement in the region.

Prof. Nasr served for two years as senior advisor to Richard Holbrooke in his avatar as Obama’s special envoy for Af-Pak. The first three chapters deal with his firsthand experience of working at a fairly senior level in the foreign policy establishment in Washington. The chapter on Pakistan is titled ‘Who lost Pakistan?’, suggesting that Pakistan was America’s to lose. The author’s admiration for his boss, Holbrooke, borders on hero worship. He had a simple remedy for America’s woes in Af-Pak: leave it to Holbrooke. If only Obama had listened to Holbrooke’s advice, things would have gone much more smoothly. His description of the turf wars in the Beltway is fascinating, as to how the White House aides close to Obama systematically sabotaged Holbrooke’s efforts, how they managed to keep him out of some crucial meetings and conversations. But the author’s faith in Holbrooke and the latter’s prescription is somewhat naïve. Holbrooke advised reconciliation with the Taliban and believed that it was possible to bring it about. But his thesis was based on a single report from some one who had had a talk with Mullah Zeif, a former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan but who has since become quite irrelevant as a mediator with the Taliban.

Similarly, Prof. Nasr is convinced that Holbrooke could have managed to save Pakistan for the United States. The U.S. ‘lost’ Pakistan because in effect it ignored Holbrooke’s recommendations to stay engaged with Islamabad, as it later, but too late, tried to do with the strategic dialogue initiated by Hillary Clinton. Both Nasr and Holbrooke never realised that Pakistan only wanted American dollars and would play along with them so long as it was assured of a hefty aid programme. It has always been a test of who needs whom more. This is a game that the U.S. has more often than not lost. The same is true of Karzai who is happy to get American financial help and military presence to fight the Taliban; he is not too anxious to meet the demands of the U.S. in terms of reforms, human rights, women’s status, corruption, etc.

Arab Spring

The rest of the book narrates a fascinating account of the Arab Spring in various countries of the Middle East, on which the author has great expertise. His chapter on Iran is particularly insightful and forthright. He minces no words. Obama tried diplomacy ‘only to get to the sanctions track faster’ and ‘engagement was a cover for a coercive campaign of sabotage, economic pressure and cyber warfare’. Again, ‘sanctions had become the goal, not the means to get to a diplomatic solution’. He admits that Iran is not an easy country to negotiate with, as we in India are fast learning. He states that no Iranian leader wanted a deal with the U.S. more badly than Ahmedinejad, but he too, like Obama, became a victim of domestic politics. In 2003, the author reminds readers, Iran had offered comprehensive negotiations on all outstanding issues, only to be decisively rejected. Iran, he opines, craves for nuclear weapons essentially for the survival of the regime.

The chapters on Arab Spring make lucid and instructive reading. The author is convinced that the revolutions will run their course, given the disaffection among the peoples. He is deeply disappointed that Washington has decided to take a back seat and let events drift. He has an exaggerated opinion about his country’s clout and ability to influence events there as recent developments in Egypt have shown. He is bitter that the U.S. is withdrawing from the region which, he believes, needs American presence to guide it in the direction of democracy and human rights. The shale oil and gas technology, while it will reduce American dependence on Middle Eastern oil, will in no way diminish the importance of the Middle East for the United States. He advocates a kind of Marshal Plan to revive the economy of Egypt and other countries. However, foreign policy cannot operate in isolation. The U.S. is in no position, given the state of its economy and fiscal problems, to embark on an ambitious programme of salvaging the economies and societies of other countries. The professor also does not deal adequately with the dominant role that Israel has played and continues to play in shaping American foreign policy in the region.

Nasr makes an interesting point. By its policy towards Iran and generally in West Asia, the U.S. in fact is strengthening China’s and Russia’s position in the region. The United States is protecting the fossil fuel resources of Persian Gulf of which China is the greatest beneficiary, as it is in Afghanistan where NATO troops are guarding China’s copper concession.

The U.S. is still the predominant power in the world. As many have pointed out, its relative share in world GDP has declined. It is inevitable that with the rise of the rest, America’s voice will become weaker. Nevertheless, it will continue to be, if not the indispensable power, the most important one in Middle East and elsewhere. Western countries are incapable of moving without American leadership, whether in Libya or Syria, or indeed in South East Asia. It is a different matter that the results of some of these leadership ventures have not turned out as might have been expected.

(Chinmaya R.Gharekhan was formerly the Prime Minister's Special Envoy for West Asia)

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