Page 1 of 2 BOOK REVIEW US stuck between dispensability and decline Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat
by Vali Nasr
Reviewed by Ehsan M Ahrari
In his second inaugural address in January 1997, president Bill Clinton stated, "America stands alone as the world's indispensable nation."  Since then, that phrase has been used on a frequent basis.
America as an indispensable nation underscores its dominance since the end of World War II in resolving conflicts, its role as a major enabler of global economic stability and prosperity in Western Europe and Japan, and, most important of all, its
containment of the former Soviet Union and crucial role in bringing about its eventual implosion.
However, since 2008, in the aftermath of the global economic meltdown and enormous damage stemming from the wars of Afghanistan, Iraq, and then back to Afghanistan, the United States' capability to act as an indispensable nation has been palpably diminished.
One of the propositions that is now frequently proffered by some specialists on America's foreign policy is that the US appears to be transforming into a "dispensable" nation. Vali Nasr is one such specialist. The focus of inquiry in his book, Dispensable Nation , is President Barack Obama's policies toward Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and the rest of the Arab world.
If one were to consider the proposition that America is becoming a dispensable nation, the logical question is which country is likely to replace it by becoming an "indispensable" nation. The People's Republic of China (PRC) emerges as a highly likely inheritor of that moniker in the next two decades.
One of the chief reasons for America's emergence as a dispensable nation is the so-called pragmatic/reluctant style of President Barack Obama toward regional conflicts. Viewing one way, that role is refreshing and a radical departure from the highly interventionist style of his predecessor, George W Bush.
Examining that role from another angle, however, America's lowered global style might negatively affect its global reputation as a proactive hegemon which had been more than ready to restructure regional order for the enhancement of regional (and eventually global) stability.
By playing the leadership role, the United States improved its global standing and image. A continually reluctant and a declining superpower provides an excellent rationale for the PRC to escalate its own global presence and its attendant influence.
Vali Nasr's book is a harsh but a superb critique of the policies of Obama in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and the rest of the Arab World. He saves one of the most significant topics of contemporary global politics, the US-China rivalry, for his concluding chapter.
Barack Obama came to the presidency by promising to conduct his own "good war" in Afghanistan. (p13) That was his explicit reproof that his predecessor, George W Bush, was fighting the wrong war in Iraq. Maybe so; however, Bush was doing one thing right in the realm of his so-called "global war on terrorism". He made sure that Pakistan was supportive of the US war in Afghanistan.
Of course, one can argue ad infinitum whether Pakistan under General Pervez Musharraf was really supporting the United States. And that is a valid point, given the fact that Musharraf remained duplicitous with the Bush administration from 2001 through his ouster from power in 2008. Even in that capacity, Pakistan was doing very little to sabotage the US fight in Afghanistan.
On his part, President Obama will be known for his sustained alienation of Pakistan from his strategic endeavors to win in Afghanistan. As much as Obama has been touted by the domestic and global media as a highly intelligent and a well-read president, he never demonstrated that he read much about the complicated history of Pakistan-Afghanistan ties, and Pakistan's ostensibly obsessive quest for "strategic depth" in Afghanistan. An extremely crucial aspect of that quest has been minimizing, if not eliminating, the presence and influence of India in Afghanistan.
Since South Asia - in reality Pakistan and Afghanistan - was such an important aspect of Obama's foreign policy after he entered the White House, he appointed Richard Holbrooke as a Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, he never even met with Holbrooke on a one-to-one basis to hear Holbrooke's strategic perspectives and his deep understanding of those countries, and most importantly, about how to get out of the Afghan imbroglio.
Even though Obama needed that crucial strategic understanding of the dynamics of the Afghan crisis, the fact that his White House staff took full control of the Pakistan-Afghanistan policy became the chief reason for his palpable failure in at least coming close to resolving that conflict. The rivalry between the Department of State and the White House resulted in the lack of effectiveness of Holbrooke to serve Obama. The dysfunctionality of that rivalry set America on the road to ultimate failure in Afghanistan.
Regarding Pakistan's perspective on the Taliban of Afghanistan, Nasr writes, they were "viewed as a strategic asset that could keep India out of Afghanistan and under Pakistan's control" (p16), while the United States was fighting to eliminate them as a strategic challenge to the security and stability of Afghanistan.
Even when General Musharraf was helping George Bush in Afghanistan, the author observes, "Pakistan had made a merely tactical withdrawal from Afghanistan and was only waiting for the right time to go back. Afghanistan was simply too important to Pakistan's sense of its own security and to its strategic ambitions for it to stop meddling in its neighbors' affairs on America's say so". (p69)
While appearing to be staying in Afghanistan long enough to defeat the Taliban, Obama acted as if he knew that he was not likely to win in that country and wanted to get out "honorably", to use a phrase that was popular in the context of the discussions of America's exit from South Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Thus, an alternative strategy was to develop an Afghan army, which, along the lines of a similar hope for the Iraqi army, was expected to replace the American forces in fighting domestic insurgents and terrorists.
Pakistan immediately became palpably nervous about the US training of the Afghan force. In fact, Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani was quite explicit in advising the US delegation not to train the Afghan army and then leave that country.
Since the US Congress will not continue to pay billions of dollars in maintaining such an army after the US departure from Afghanistan, Kayani stated that the "half-trained army will break into militias that will be a problem for Pakistan". (p11)
The bottom-line advice of the Pakistani general was: "If you want to leave, just leave - we didn't believe you were going to stay anyway - but don't do any more damage on your way out." (p12) Needless to say, America did not take his advice. It was only after numerous murderous attacks by the Afghan army personnel on the US and British trainers and colleagues that brought about the vanishing of American public rhetoric related to "as the Afghan army takes over, the security of their country, the American forces will start to redeploy from Afghanistan".
Future historians will discuss at length the rationale for Obama's AfPak strategy, which was anything but a strategy for at least two significant reasons.
First, it did not recognize the role of Pakistan in the resolution of the Afghan war, and it effectively snubbed Pakistan's security concerns. Second, by only focusing on Pakistan and Afghanistan for the resolution of the Afghan conflict, it deliberately excluded India only because India objected to such an inclusion. Consequently, instead of coming together on bringing about a meaningful end to the Afghan conflict, it became a constant source of mounting antipathy between Islamabad and Washington.
The assassination of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 created a rift between the two countries that promises to linger for a long time. Pakistan has started to become more assertive toward the United States in its acrimonious criticism of Obama's drone war (aka "the dirty war").  The growing rift between the two purported allies have put the issue of the US's mega-assistance to Pakistan in a state of limbo. However, that country continues to be assertive and defiant toward the US. The dispensability of the United States was very much in the making.
At least viewing it from Pakistan's point of view, the AfPak strategy became a symbol of the Obama administration's endeavors to marginalize that country. One can argue that that was not the intention of President Obama; however, that was the conclusion drawn by Pakistan's army, the real ruler of that country.
The US-India strategic partnership also played a crucial role in enhancing Pakistan's sense of marginalization. That strategic partnership, viewed in conjunction with the AfPak strategy, made Pakistan develop its own strategic options. Since both India and Pakistan's foreign policies operated on the basis of a zero-sum game, Pakistan's best option was to use its "China card".
The Sino-Indian strategic rivalry is legendary. China has eagerly and proactively been attempting to keep India out of balance by using the "Pakistan card". Now, under Obama, Pakistan was reciprocating against both the US and India by visibly escalating its own preference for the PRC.
Nasr writes, "By effectively conceding Pakistan to China, we have set ourselves back in the far more important rivalry with Beijing". (p90) Assessing the Obama administration's overall policy toward Pakistan, he states, "We failed when it came to strategic vision and imagination." By doing so, "We further destabilized the world's so-called most dangerous place." (p94)
America's overall approach toward Iran may best be characterized as a "malignant neglect/attempted regime change through sanctions". Iran has always been one of the most important countries of the Middle East; however, since the Islamic revolution of 1979 that ousted the "America's shah",  American policy toward Iran under all US presidents, starting with Jimmy Carter, has been vacillating between either ignoring it or doing everything - short of a full-fledged invasion (a la Bush's invasion of Iraq of 2003) - to bring about regime change in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Obama's election to the presidency created high hopes that US-Iran relations would be transformed perceptibly. Alas, that was not to be. As under other presidents, the US policy under Obama toward Iran has been highly disoriented and frequently appears confused because, first and foremost, it has either remained a hostage to or is heavily influenced by Israeli interests.
It should also be kept in mind that, while blaming the "usual suspect", the Israeli lobby of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, for its bloated presence in the US Congress, the fact is that the strategic interests of the United States and Israel have continuously remained highly congruent, except on the issue of actually going to war with Iran.
The United States has failed to establish a direct process of negotiation with Iran, whose top leadership has remained persuaded that America's real intent is to bring about regime change in their country.
Moreover, as Nasr points out, "Iranians are not easy to negotiate with ... The Western expectation of quick, straightforward deal making has met with frustration when it comes to Iran". (p111)
That aggravation has been quite apparent in the US-Iran dealings on the issue of the latter's refusal to abandon its nuclear research program or even to agree to reduce its scope in return for equally significant concessions from the United States. That is not to say that Washington has offered such concessions to Iran.
In its near obsession to force Iran to abandon or reduce its nuclear research program or reduce its scope, the Obama administration persuaded China and Russia not to veto further economic sanctions on that country at the UN Security Council. The cost, as Nasr sees it, is Russia and China gobbling up Central Asia, cornering Europe's energy markets, and planting themselves "smack in the middle of the Middle East". (p122)