Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Vali Nasr and Our Foreign Policy Failures

Vali Nasr's book, "The Dispensable Nation," is informative and thought provoking reading for anyone with a serious interest in how our country has come to the current situation, where we have minimal diplomatic credibility and influence, aside from projecting our military power.  Dr. Nasr is Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies and a senior fellow at the Brooking Institution.

The front part of the narrative is an encomium for his late mentor Richard Holbrooke, an advisor to President Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Senator John Kerry.  Holbrooke's last role in public service was as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP).  Holbrooke persuaded Dr. Nasr to join him and his team in forging a personal diplomatic web of communication with his counterparts which would serve to open doors for meaningful policy engagement by his bosses, Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama.

Referring to the foreign policy environment surrounding the SRAP, Holbrooke tells the newly recruited Nasr,
"This place is dead intellectually.  It does not produce any ideas; it is all about turf battles and checking the box."  Of course, to some extent, this is the permanent structure of our foreign policy apparatus: a White House hierarchy that changes every 4-8 years, inexperienced staffers looking to make names for themselves, and a permanent bureaucracy in both the State Department and the military high command.  The latter groups wearily put up with the changes, knowing that they will outlast every administration; their influence is pervasive and out of the public eye.

The best example of how Ambassador Holbrooke did his work and what it produced is the story of the 2010 trade agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  A seemingly innocuous, photo opportunity in our press, it represented a significant breakthrough which meaningfully increased Afghan exports, increased trade between the two countries and represented a thaw in relations frozen since the mid-Sixties.  Holbrooke had the trust and respect of Secretary of State Clinton, who pushed the Holbrooke initiative over the finish line.  Clinton was able to have her voice heard in the Obama White House, but as Nasr recounts, it was never without major battles, particularly with White House staffers who distrusted her motives!

Holbrooke, unfortunately, didn't succeed in getting his voice heard, although when his risky initiatives bore fruit, they were played as good political theater.

Nasr writes, '...my time in the Obama administration turned out to be a deeply disillusioning experience."  Where Candidate Obama promised to bring fresh thinking, better relations with foreign leaders and a high level of foreign policy expertise with his new administration, President Obama brought nothing new.

Fresh ideas, tactics and diplomatic initiatives met "a Berlin Wall of staffers."  Nasr concludes that the fundamental characteristics of our current foreign policy were profoundly influenced by the decision to funnel "major foreign policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf as strictly political."

Notions like "leading from behind" played well as a slogan in the domestic press, but they left our friends confused and our enemies emboldened.  Nasr writes that the Taliban were ready for talks with the U.S. in April 2009; after a two year initiative to bring them to the table, the initiative failed.  Part of the reason was the decision to accede to our military leaders for fear of being seen as soft on foreign policy.  The military had no truck with talking to our enemies.

Soon after our decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, all opportunity was lost.  Whereas our prior position had been "to fight and talk," it became "we're leaving" and not interested in talking.  Both the Afghans and Pakistanis were confused by our foreign policy maneuvering, driven by domestic political objectives.  Ironically, the U.S. warmed to a policy of negotiation and reconciliation with enemy forces after announcing the withdrawal.  Of course, our enemies have since launched their own initiatives of boldly attacking our forces in open, public places, which also serves to send a message to the remaining Afghan security forces.

The most interesting of the book for me is the series of chapters about the individual trouble spots around the world, from Pakistan to Afghanistan and the Middle East, Southeast Asia and China.   The depth and complexity of the Shia-Sunni enmity is something which Nasr has written about extensively, in another book. Here one sees that it makes for different sets of allies in each regional trouble spot.

Our woeful diplomatic effort and serial missteps will leave a difficult path for the U.S. to navigate in the future.  Foolish ideas like leading from behind and a foreign policy based on apologies and climate change will continue to weigh down our ability to influence events on the world stage.

The end to Nasr's book is extremely disappointing, as are the policy prescriptions by academics who understand the complexities and can articulate them, but who feel the need to come up with the magic policy bullet.  The Big Idea: a Marshall Plan for the Middle East.

The international community, working together can't implement a meaningful reconstruction effort in a small island like Haiti.  Billions are spent and little accomplished.  Imagine what would happen in the Middle East, fraught with Shia-Sunni tensions, an unstable situation in Syria, and a volatile face-off between Israel and Iran.  The kind of extended, in the trenches, consistent diplomacy exemplified by Holbrooke needs to rekindled.  It's not about a foreign policy savior, but about a consistent process which has the backing of our entire foreign policy apparatus.  It's always good to be hopeful.

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