A dispensable superpower?
According to Vali Nasr, of Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. does not have a strategy for the Middle East
One line sums up Vali Nasr’s latest book, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat: Obama’s “modus operandi has been disengagement.” Differently put, Obama seems to have discovered a new way of conducting foreign policy: the do nothing and walk-away strategy. A case in point will be completed next year in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is likely to return to power. Obama can get away with this lack of strategy “as long as he has the support of the public opinion,” says Vali Nasr, Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a leading political scientist. The Iranian-born American citizen Nasr is certainly well-placed to criticize Obama’s foreign policy. Not only is he an expert on the Middle East, but he was also the senior adviser of Richard Holbrooke, from 2009 to 2011 the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak), and the diplomat who oversaw the Dayton Peace Accords that put an end to the war in Bosnia. As a State Department insider, Nasr tells us about the rivalry between the White House and the State Department in conducting foreign policy. Although Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did her best to make Obama listen to Holbrooke, the president relied primarily on the White House experts who, in turn, privileged the military and secret agencies – instead of Holbrooke’s diplomacy. According to Nasr, a superpower like the U.S. should have a global strategy, and the strategy adopted in Afghanistan has influenced the way Obama has disengaged in the Middle East. The young American President, who in his June 2009 speech impressed the world when he asked Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank, proved to be a disappointment. Meanwhile, China is wasting no time in occupying the regions the Americans leave behind. “But when you are not indispensable in the Middle East, then you are dispensable.” Nasr asks: “But do Americans really want to be irrelevant in the Middle East? What will be the consequences of that stance?”
Gianni Carta: The most problematic regional epicenter of the world is, as Richard Holbrooke told you, the AfPak. Yet, the Americans and NATO are leaving Afghanistan in 2014. What can we expect from, among other threats, the Taliban?
Vali Nasr: We are leaving a cornerstone without having defeated the Taliban. Nothing in a fundamental way has really changed in the Afpak. The Taliban still have the same strategic objectives as they had before: to rule Afghanistan. And there is reason to expect that the Taliban will return.
GC: During his presidential campaigns, “Obama said he would engage in the Muslim world, and not just threaten or attack it,” as you write in your book. He claimed that he would show leadership, but he has had no strategy. Why has Obama’s foreign policy been so terrible?
VN: Obama is not very engaged in foreign policy. He has equated good foreign policy with disengagement. Somehow he believes it is not important to engage in the Middle East and that whatever happens there will not be terrible to the U.S. either. The level of rhetoric of the Obama administration regarding the Middle East has been significant, but it has never had any follow through. Obama’s foreign policy is the same everywhere. Whether there is democracy in Tunisia, civil war in Syria, or a sectarian war in Iraq, the answer is always the same: the United States does not need to engage because it has no national interest in those regions.
GC: You say Obama’s White House experts worried about domestic politics rather than with foreign policy per se. But has not such been the case with all presidents and prime ministers around the world?
VN: Yes, but there is a balance you have to maintain. You have to be sensitive to domestic public opinion, you have to manage it. But then there is a point at which you should not try to hide behind domestic public opinion but rather have to lead foreign public opinion. Look what is happening in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel is aware that the German public is not keen on bailing out the rest of Europe, but she is still trying to maintain a balance. Merkel argues that it that the euro is in the interest of Germany, and it would not be positive for the country to leave the Eurozone. In other words, you cannot hide behind domestic politics and avoid tackling foreign policy issues.
GC: Numerous Middle Eastern experts have maintained that the core of the problem in the worldwide conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims has been the failed peace process between Palestine and Israel. Why has Pakistan, as you say, become the most dangerous country in the world?
VN: These are different sets of problems, but they are somewhat interconnected because they impact America’s image and policy. Pakistan has had a weak government, it has economic problems, a very young population, it has been sucked into the Afghan conflict since the 1980s and that involvement has deepened extremism in Pakistan. It has also lived through other conflicts such as that in Kashmir. On top of that it has nuclear arms. All of this added together makes for an unstable situation.
GC: What do you expect from Pakistan after the recent victory in the legislative elections?
VN: I expect a country in a slightly better position. You have a civilian government that is stronger than the previous one, and it also has a more competent team. Sharif is a strong party leader, and he does not seem to be afraid of confronting the military. He is the person who opened up to India in the 1990s. Also, having a stronger central government in itself is just good for Pakistan. Yes, the previous government was secular – but so what? A secular government that fails on every single issue is no good. I am not saying that Sharif can solve everything, but I believe he can make some improvements.
GC: I assume that you appreciate the fact that Sharif wants to negotiate with the Taliban, which was Richard Holbrooke’s plan.
VN: The Taliban in Pakistan is different from the Taliban in Afghanistan. The United States has embraced the idea of speaking to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Why shouldn’t Pakistan do the same? The government in Pakistan is fighting a massive internal civil war. There must be a way to stop the fighting. But we have to evaluate the terms for the negotiations between Sharif and the Pakistani Taliban.
GC: How did you perceive Turkey’s Premier Recept Erdogan’s brutal reaction against pacifist environmentalists who were protesting against the construction of a commercial center in a green park in Istanbul?
VN: Erdogan has been a skillful leader who has achieved a great deal in his ten years as premier. The problem, I believe, is that he miscalculated on this crisis. He overestimated the opposition. It is like Margaret Thatcher, who lost her premiership over a rebellion within the Conservative Party. Erdogan’s miscalculation will weaken him within his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as well as nationally.
CC: Is the “Turkish Model” (an Islamic Government that rules under secular laws and promotes a free market), which has been such an inspiration to the emerging Arab countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, both governed by the Muslim Brotherhood, in jeopardy?
VN: Not at all. I think, if anything, it suggests that the Turkish economic model under Erdogan has significantly entrenched democracy. The “Turkish Model” in itself cannot be challenged. Turkey’s economic growth could only be disturbed if the political conflict escalates.
GC: Was Obama’s not having a strategy for the Arab Spring his biggest failure in terms of foreign policy?
VN: A country like the United States has to have a global strategy. So what are America’s aims in the Arab Spring? And how is Obama going to realize those goals? The reaction was, “Oh great, the Middle East is becoming democratic and all we have to do is to cheer for them, but we don’t have to articulate any goals.” The goals will be automatically fulfilled on their own. That was simplistic thinking.
GC: You argue that Obama was too quick to demand that Hosni Mubarak, then Egypt’s leader, step down. Do you believe that democratic political parties would really have more time to prepare to face the more experienced Muslim Brotherhood’s politicians?
VN: The democrat politicians would have had more of a chance than they did then and do now. Obama, however, felt that he had to say the right thing then to look good. But the day Mubarak left his post the U.S. President did not do anything for Egypt. That’s when the real hard work started.
GC: You suggest that the U.S. could live with a nuclear Iran as it does with a nuclear Pakistan, among other nuclear countries. Can we expect any political changes from an Iran with a new president?
VN: The elections make a difference domestically. But the larger problem, that is the nuclear negotiations, have nothing to do with personalities. The United States is not going to offer the new Iranian president anything different from what it offered to his predecessor. And the new Iranian president cannot offer the United States something substantially different from what (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad did, unless he has an expectation of getting something in return. No Iranian president, however liberal he is, would survive politically if he just surrendered in any way to the U.S.
GC: There was a Brazilian-Turkish initiative to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. We often talk about the so-called “international community,” which obviously does not include all countries. In fact, some were clearly jealous of the Brazilian-Turkish initiative.
VN: China and Russia were particularly annoyed at Brazil and Turkey stealing the show. But the United States was very happy for Brazil and Turkey to do this because Washington, which was focusing on economic sanctions against Iran, was completely unprepared for success. And the U.S. actually got angry with the fact that Brazil and Turkey were successful.
GC: Brazil and Turkey got Iran to sign the Tehran Declaration, the first document Iran signed on their nuclear program. In your book you say that Obama did not capitalize on this important declaration.
VN: Obama was only interested in sanctions.
GC: Because he would be seen as a “soft” president by the Republicans if he negotiated with Iran?
VN: Yes, soft to the Republicans – but I believe Obama never had a strategy for negotiating with Iran. I think he is talking about talking without any serious commitment to diplomacy, as is the way he is conducting U.S. foreign policy in Syria today.
GC: Brazilian diplomats were also involved in peace negotiations between Bashar al-Assad and the rebels in Damascus. Do you think the solution there can be achieved through diplomacy?
VN: The solution is becoming more and more difficult. I think there is still room for diplomacy, but you have to structure it properly. This means that it is not enough to engage the Russians and other regional players, but you have to create the conditions for diplomacy to succeed. You have to arm the rebels because otherwise Assad will not take you seriously. You have also to put before the Russians a cost for failure at the negotiating table. If you look at the Dayton Agreements, (Slobodan) Milosevic understood that, after we started arming the Croats and the Muslims, he was not going to win, before he knew that NATO might start bombing him. And that’s of course what we did. So diplomacy was always on the table, but it was backed by convincing the other side that all other options would be worse if diplomacy did not succeed.
GC: Do you think it was a positive step for the former Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva to speak to Ahmadinejad?
VN: Definitely. But ultimately the Brazilian and Iranian relationship was never leveraged by the United States to help them process it.
GC: As you write in your book, Holbrooke told Bill Clinton during the Dayton Agreements to sit in front of Milosevic and to tell him, “Sign the peace deal or we will send the bombers.”
GC: You argue that the coming geopolitical competition between the United States and China will be played in the Middle East. Is China the new Soviet Union in a more economic context?
VN: The U.S. has identified China as the most likely country to be its rival as a global power. This rivalry has nothing to do with the Cold War as it does not have the ideological component that existed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Also, the United States does a lot of business with China. But the United States sees China as a rival.
CC: It seems to me that one of the main motivations for you to write this book was to tell the story of Richard Holbrooke, a man who had great diplomatic ideas that were not taken into consideration by President Obama …
VN: That’s part of it. Clearly I wanted to tell the story of his post as U.S. representative of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I thought it was important as we try to write the history of this very important American war (against Afghanistan), the longest one after Vietnam and the first and most important foreign policy venture of Obama. We should have the correct record of everything that has happened. And that’s what I could do. But I also think that the Obama Administration took the wrong lessons from Afghanistan. And this interpretation affects the Middle East.
GC: So the title of the book really means that eventually America is a dispensable nation?
VN: It was Bill Clinton who said that the U.S. was an “Indispensable Nation” – that is, that the world ought to look at the United States and see it as the one country that can lead the world in every sense of the term. But when you are not indispensable in the Middle East, then you are dispensable. Despite all their complaints about foreign affairs, Americans are not actually prepared to wash their hands of the conflicts such as those in the Middle East. But do they really want to be irrelevant to the Middle East? What will be the consequences of that stance?
GC: So America remains a superpower?
VN: It still remains a superpower. China is rising and so is Brazil but they do not have the capacity to act at a global level yet. In fact, the rise of China and Brazil was much facilitated by America’s stabilizing power. And even in the Middle East, America is the sole global power. We may move into a world in which the U.S. would not matter, but it won’t happen overnight. That requires gradual changes in institutions. If that happens too quickly it is going to be disruptive for Brazil, China and the Middle East. You can’t just say we were an indispensable nation yesterday and today we no longer are.