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The Dispensable Nation
Cover of The Dispensable Nation
The Dispensable Nation
American Foreign Policy in Retreat
by Vali Nasr
In a brilliant and revealing book destined to drive debate about the future of American power, Vali Nasr questions America's dangerous choice to engage less and matter less in the world.
Vali Nasr, author of the groundbreaking The Shia Revival, worked closely with Hillary Clinton at the State Department on Afghan and Pakistani affairs. In The Dispensable Nation, he takes us behind the scenes to show how Secretary Clinton and her ally, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, were thwarted in their efforts to guide an ambitious policy in South Asia and the Middle East. Instead, four years of presidential leadership and billions of dollars of U.S. spending failed to advance democracy and development, producing mainly rage at the United States for its perceived indifference to the fate of the region.
After taking office in 2009, the Obama administration had an opportunity to fundamentally reshape American foreign policy, Nasr argues, but its fear of political backlash and the specter of terrorism drove it to pursue the same questionable strategies as its predecessor. Meanwhile, the true economic threats to U.S. power, China and Russia, were quietly expanding their influence in places where America has long held sway.
Nasr makes a compelling case that behind specific flawed decisions lurked a desire by the White House to pivot away from the complex problems of the Muslim world. Drawing on his unrivaled expertise in Middle East affairs and firsthand experience in diplomacy, Nasr demonstrates why turning our backs is dangerous and, what's more, sells short American power. The United States has secured stability, promoted prosperity, and built democracy in region after region since the end of the Second World War, he reminds us, and The Dispensable Nation offers a striking vision of what it can achieve when it reclaims its bold leadership in the world.
In a brilliant and revealing book destined to drive debate about the future of American power, Vali Nasr questions America's dangerous choice to engage less and matter less in the world.
Vali Nasr, author of the groundbreaking The Shia Revival, worked closely with Hillary Clinton at the State Department on Afghan and Pakistani affairs. In The Dispensable Nation, he takes us behind the scenes to show how Secretary Clinton and her ally, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, were thwarted in their efforts to guide an ambitious policy in South Asia and the Middle East. Instead, four years of presidential leadership and billions of dollars of U.S. spending failed to advance democracy and development, producing mainly rage at the United States for its perceived indifference to the fate of the region.
After taking office in 2009, the Obama administration had an opportunity to fundamentally reshape American foreign policy, Nasr argues, but its fear of political backlash and the specter of terrorism drove it to pursue the same questionable strategies as its predecessor. Meanwhile, the true economic threats to U.S. power, China and Russia, were quietly expanding their influence in places where America has long held sway.
Nasr makes a compelling case that behind specific flawed decisions lurked a desire by the White House to pivot away from the complex problems of the Muslim world. Drawing on his unrivaled expertise in Middle East affairs and firsthand experience in diplomacy, Nasr demonstrates why turning our backs is dangerous and, what's more, sells short American power. The United States has secured stability, promoted prosperity, and built democracy in region after region since the end of the Second World War, he reminds us, and The Dispensable Nation offers a striking vision of what it can achieve when it reclaims its bold leadership in the world.
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    1

    Afghanistan

    The Good War Gone Bad

    In late 2011, fighting in Afghanistan and frozen relations with Pakistan were endangering the president’s plans to wrap up the Afghan war. The administration decided that it could use China’s help. After all, the Chinese should want a stable Afghanistan, and should be worried about Pakistan, too. Beijing had made fresh investments in Afghanistan’s mining sector, which appeared set for massive growth after the 2010 discovery of vast new mineral riches.1 And China had long and deep economic ties with Pakistan. So the administration asked a veteran diplomat, an old China hand, to reach out to the Chinese leadership. The diplomat made the rounds in Beijing, meeting with the Chinese president, premier, foreign minister, and a host of other political players. Their answer was clear and unequivocal: “This is your problem. You made this mess. In Afghanistan more war has made things much worse, and in Pakistan things were not so bad before you started poking around. We have interests in this area, but they do not include pulling your chestnuts out of the fire. We will look after our own interests in our own way.” In short, “You made your own bed, now lie in it.” Once they were done pushing back, they invariably asked, “What is your strategy there, anyway?”

    Afghanistan is the “good war.” That was what Barack Obama said on the campaign trail. It was a war of necessity that we had to wage in order to defeat al-Qaeda and ensure that Afghanistan never harbored terrorists again.2 Obama took up promoting the Afghan war at least in part as an election-year tactic, to protect himself against perennial accusations that Democrats are soft on national security issues. Branding Afghanistan as a “war of necessity” gave him cover to denounce the Iraq war as a “war of choice” that must be brought to an end.

    Obama’s stance was widely understood at home and abroad to mean that America would do all it could in Afghanistan—commit more money and send more troops—to finish off the Taliban and build a strong democratic state capable of standing up to terrorism.

    Four years later, President Obama is no longer making the case for the “good war.” Instead, he is fast washing his hands of it. It is a popular position at home, where many Americans, including many who voted for Obama in 2008, want nothing more to do with war. They are disillusioned by the ongoing instability in Iraq and Afghanistan and tired of eleven years of fighting on two fronts. They do not believe that war was the right solution to terrorism and have stopped putting stock in the fearmongering that the Bush administration used to fuel its foreign policy. There is a growing sense that America has no interests in Afghanistan vital enough to justify a major ground presence.

    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 and they played well at home. But abroad, the stories we tell to justify our on-again, off-again approach to this war do not ring true to friend or foe. They know the truth: that we are leaving Afghanistan to its own fate. Leaving even as the demons of regional chaos that first beckoned us there are once again rising to threaten our security.

    When President Obama took office, the Afghan war was already eight years old. America went...
About the Author-
  • VALI NASR is Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the bestselling author of The Shia Revival and Forces of Fortune. From 2009 to 2011, he served as Senior Advisor to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. He is a columnist for Bloomberg View and lives in Washington, D.C.

Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine The author is a former Obama administration official who worked closely with Hillary Clinton on Afghan and Pakistani affairs when she was secretary of state. His major point is that under this president, the United States is pulling back from involvement in the world. That, he believes, is weakening us and endangering the growth of democratic governments around the globe. Narrator Stephen Hoye has an authoritative, reportorial, sometimes ominous voice that accurately reflects the author's intent. He's also appropriately snide and sarcastic when Nasr questions Obama's policy choices. While it's difficult to listen for long stretches because he doesn't vary his pitch and tone enough, his diction and pacing are excellent. R.I.G. (c) AudioFile 2013, Portland, Maine
  • Roger Cohen, New York Times "In The Dispensable Nation, Nasr delivers a devastating portrait of a first-term foreign policy that shunned the tough choices of real diplomacy, often descended into pettiness, and was controlled 'by a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers.'... The Dispensable Nation constitutes important reading as John Kerry moves into his new job as secretary of state. It nails the drift away from the art of diplomacy -- with its painful give-and-take -- toward a U.S. foreign policy driven by the Pentagon, intelligence agencies and short-term political calculus. It holds the president to account for his zigzags from Kabul to Jerusalem....The Dispensable Nation is a brave book. Its core message is: Diplomacy is tough and carries a price, but the price is higher when it is abandoned."
  • Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of Little America and Imperial Life in the Emerald City. "The Dispensable Nation is an indispensable book. Taking us into the secretive world of high-level American foreign policy, Vali Nasr shares astounding, previously unrevealed details about the Obama administration's dealings with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. But Nasr doesn't just spill secrets--he also charts a path forward, advancing an insightful prescription for how the United States can regain its lost influence. This provocative story is a must-read for anyone who cares about America's role in the world."
  • George Packer, author of The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq "An original, powerful, and provocative critique of American foreign policy under President Obama."
  • Peter Bergen, author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden, from 9/11 to Abbottabad "Vali Nasr was in the room during key moments of the Obama administration's first two years as it faced some of its most important foreign policy challenges. His portrayal of strategic confusion inside Obama's White House is devastating and persuasive. Nasr writes with the dispassion of one of the United States' leading experts on the Middle East and South Asia and with the insider knowledge he gained as a senior adviser to Richard Holbrooke, the legendary diplomat. Nasr asserts that the Obama White House didn't really believe in diplomacy in its dealings with the Afghans and Pakistanis and he makes his case with great cogency and clarity in this indispensable book."
  • Robert Kagan, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution and author of The World America Made "Vali Nasr is the George Kennan of U.S. policy in the Middle East. A renowned scholar but also a practitioner and insider who served two years in the Obama administration, Nasr delivers a sharp, sober, fast-paced and absolutely riveting critique of President Obama's policies in the Middle East and Afghanistan."
  • Anne-Marie Slaughter, Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and former Director of Policy Planning, U.S. Department of State, 2009-2011
    "The Dispensable Nation
    is an important wake-up call by a thoughtful, astute and deeply knowledgeable scholar and policymaker. Anyone interested in the Middle East, China, or the future of American power should read it immediately and think hard about its message."
  • Zbigniew Brzezinski "An impressive tour d'horizon which includes a personally frank eulogy to Richard Holbrooke's failed efforts to shape U.S. policy in Afghanistan, revealing insights into White House vs. State Department collisions over U.S. strategy, and a sweeping review of the escalating geopolitical challenges the U.S. needs to address more intelligently in the Middle East, the Far East, and especially Iran. Gutsy, intriguing, and challenging."
  • Robert D. Kaplan, chief geopolitical analyst, Stratfor, and author of The Revenge of Geography "Vali Nasr is without peer in explaining how and why political order is crumbling across the Middle East, and how and why China may reap the spoils. Along the way, he lays out in never-before-told, granular detail why President Obama's first term was such a disappointment regarding foreign policy."
  • Publishers Weekly "[A] vivid firsthand account of White House policymaking...Nasr's shrewd, very readable analyses of byzantine Middle Eastern geo-politics are superb."
  • Kirkus Reviews, starred review "An informed, smoothly argued brief that will surely rattle windows at the White House."
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