Early on in his introduction, Vali Nasr gets to the theme of his book by writing, “When things seemed to be falling apart, the administration finally turned to Hillary because they knew she was the only person who could save the situation, and she did that time and again.”
That quote neatly sums up a big part of what Nasr’s book, “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat ” is really about. It’s a love letter to Richard Holbrooke and Hillary Clinton for their strategic vision and genius. Anyone expecting to find the real dirt on Benghazi here will be disappointed. Nasr glosses over Libya, except to say that England, France and Hillary Clinton dragged Obama into Libya. He means this as a compliment to Hillary Clinton; though it isn’t.
Nasr only dishes dirt on Obama when his failures can be used to make Hillary Clinton look good.
The Dispensable Nation is the story of a struggle between two Democratic administrations; the one that exists and the shadow administration that Hillary Clinton attempted to create as Secretary of State. Like any fawning propaganda text, The Dispensable Nation has to be read on two levels. On one level, it’s a critique of Obama’s foreign policy. On another level, it exists to make the case for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
In 2008, Obama campaigned against Hillary Clinton as the peacenik versus the warmonger who voted to invade Iraq. Now Hillary’s people are preparing to run her as the peacenik alternative to the warmonger of the previous administration who was too hard on Iran and the Taliban.
Nasr’s critique is at times on point. He dismisses Obama’s reliance on polls for foreign policy decisions, writing, ”It was to court public opinion that Obama first embraced the war in Afghanistan. And when public opinion changed, he was quick to declare victory and call the troops back home. His actions from start to finish were guided by politics.”
The Afghanistan chapter rightly attacks many of COIN’s failures, but the alternative is more diplomacy, which could never work with the Taliban. He blasts Obama for announcing a withdrawal in Afghanistan and then negotiating with the Taliban, but the Clinton alternative of negotiating first and withdrawing later would have amounted to the same thing. Negotiating with a hated enemy is tantamount to an announcement of an upcoming withdrawal.
But in Egypt and Iraq, Nasr does make a compelling case that Obama’s “disengagement” helped lead to two disasters.
Nasr claims that in Maliki’s meeting with Obama before the withdrawal, the Iraqi Prime Minister asked Obama how he would react to allegations that top Sunni political leaders in Iraq were supporting terrorism. Obama replied that it was an internal Iraqi affair.
“That night, after the pomp was done and Panetta had flown out, Iraqi tanks surrounded the homes of Hashemi and two other Iraqiyya leaders in the government.”
That set of events helped bring Iraq to the brink of a sectarian civil war. And has kept it divided ever since.
Obama could have told Maliki a thousand ambiguous things that would have deflected the subject. In his campaign appearances, Obama has proven to be an expert at that. But instead Obama told Maliki that he could do as he pleased. Something that he never told Mubarak. And something that was certain to bring down Iraq into civil war.
Nasr goes so far as to write that Obama had trashed an Iraq that Bush had stabilized. “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.”
In Egypt, Nasr explains a puzzling event that occurred when Obama appeared to initially support a democratic transition in Egypt, only to then switch gears and call for an immediate ouster. According to The Dispensable Nation, Frank G Wisner, a former ambassador to Egypt, had been sent to tell Mubarak to transition to democracy in order to allow Egyptian liberals time to match the political organizations of the Islamists.
And then, “Wisner was still on a plane back to Washington when the president called on Mubarak to step down immediately”.
It’s doubtful that the Egyptian left would have done much more with the extra time, but it might have been enough to dampen the Muslim Brotherhood. Nasr depicts Obama responding to “young staffers… who rose from Obama’s presidential campaign to dominate foreign policy decision making” rather than to experienced foreign policy experts. It’s a theme that we will likely see often during Hillary 2016.
It’s ironic to see Nasr, who has written a campaign book to prepare the ground for Hillary 2016, complaining that Obama’s “actions from start to finish were guided by politics.” Obama may be all about politics. But so is Hillary. And the formula that Nasr is selling as a Hillary foreign policy is mostly worse than what came before it.
The cover for The Dispensable Nation may make it seem like it’s another critique of Obama’s foreign policy from the right, but it’s actually a critique of his foreign policy from the left. Its theme is that diplomacy can solve everything and that smart negotiators who really and truly understand the other side can score over the generals and CIA operatives who think in terms of brute force.
To understand how terrible the foreign policy of Hillary Clinton would be, it’s enough to know that here she is depicted as the negotiator to Obama’s militarist. If you thought that Obama spent too much time apologizing and negotiating, then just wait till Hillary arrives. And indeed, one of the few foreign policy “triumphs” of the Secretary of State that Nasr cites involved an apology to Pakistan.
The Clinton Administration 1.0 made September 11 inevitable by taking refuge in hollow diplomacy and smart tactics that proved to be very dumb. In The Dispensable Nation, Nasr argues that Obama’s plan had too much killing and not enough diplomacy. And the alternative can best be summed up in a plan that Holbrooke laid out to make Iran a partner in Afghanistan.
The Dispensable Nation has two conclusions. One conclusion is that Obama’s foreign policy was terrible. The other conclusion is the one that has to be drawn from Nasr’s version of the Clinton 2.0 vision; that Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy would be even worse.
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