States of indifference

The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, by Vali Nasr, Doubleday, RRP$28.95, 320 pages

The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power, by James Mann, Penguin, RRP£18.99/Viking, RRP$26.95, 416 pages

The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power, by Kim Ghattas, Times Books, RRP$27/Henry Holt, £RRP10.99, 368 pages

Washington’s foreign policy establishment has spent much of the past four years debating whether Barack Obama, the US president, is an idealist or realist. It probably speaks well of him that no label has yet stuck. But there is another view, bolstered by Vali Nasr in his coruscating new book, The Dispensable Nation, which contends that Obama isn’t much interested in foreign policy at all.

According to this, electoral arithmetic has trumped grand strategy on all the big decisions, from the surge in Afghanistan to the president’s stance towards Iran. “It is not going too far to say that American foreign policy is completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations,” writes Nasr.

Nasr advised the late Richard Holbrooke, a near-legendary figure of US diplomacy, but a persona non grata in Obama’s White House, so his somewhat jaundiced take should come as little surprise. Holbrooke, who died in office in December 2010, was the Obama administration’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan – or “AfPak”, as it was dubbed. Yet he was never granted a one-to-one meeting with the president. Fresh from the 2008 election, Obama’s White House had little patience for “the Bulldozer’s” frenetic diplomacy. It was one thing having to work alongside Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. It was another to put up with her favourite diplomat. Yet she had insisted on Holbrooke.

The result was a rolling humiliation. Holbrooke was cut out from meetings, dropped from big trips, copiously leaked against and continually sidelined. For all his faults and shortcomings as a team player, the treatment was brutal.

Holbrooke continued to be a fount of AfPak diplomatic initiatives in a Washington that only seemed interested in counterinsurgency. “Forced to freelance,” in Nasr’s words, he chalked up some successes, such as the Pakistan trade transit route to Afghanistan. By then anti-Holbrooke feeling was so acute the White House did not acknowledge the deal until weeks later.

At a meeting with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, from which Holbrooke was excluded, Obama’s advisers scripted for him the following line: “Everyone in this room represents me and has my trust.” This, of course, meant that anyone not in the room was not to be trusted. Clinton scuppered the plan at the last minute by insisting that Holbrooke be invited. Such are the methods of feuding bureaucrats. At one point, Obama was on the verge of sacking Holbrooke. Again, he was saved by Clinton.

Holbrooke never allowed the ostracism to deflate him (perhaps he was undeflatable). Right to the end he kept probing for a diplomatic exit from an Afghan war that he rightly believed was flawed.

Shortly before he died, he excitedly told his wife that he had finally “got it”. Holbrooke thought he had come up with a plan to unlock what Nasr calls the AfPak “Rubik’s cube”. He would not disclose what it was until he had first told the president – “the president who did not have time to listen”, writes Nasr.

As his title suggests, Nasr’s book is more than a lament for Holbrooke. Now dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, Nasr directs his most telling criticisms at Obama’s handling of the Middle East. He argues that Obama’s “lean back and wait” approach to Egypt, Syria and the Gulf monarchies since 2010 has helped turn the Arab Spring into what at least one statesman has called the “Arab headache”. Such indifference is bad enough, Nasr says. But in the apparent desperation to “wash our hands” of the region’s problems, from Afghanistan to Libya, Obama also stands accused of incompetence.

Nasr’s chief complaint is that Obama’s foreign policy is based on a dangerously false trade-off between pushing for a “smaller footprint” in the Middle East and his signature “pivot to Asia”. Far from freeing up resources to check China’s growing power in its region, the Asia pivot is helping to facilitate Beijing’s growing stranglehold on Pakistan, Iran and other parts of the Middle East, he says. Meanwhile, Russia demands ever-larger bribes to agree to UN sanctions on Iran in exchange for freedom to dominate central Asia’s energy routes and tighten its gas monopoly on Europe.

The best that can be hoped from Obama’s approach is that Iran’s nuclear moment will be postponed rather than prevented – 10 years as opposed to five, in Nasr’s estimation. But by then, China and Russia will have nudged the US out of key strategic areas of the world. “Is it really smart to contain Iran’s threat by subsidising China’s and Russia’s rise to the top?” he asks. There is barely a corner of Pakistan’s economy not dominated by China nowadays. Ditto for Iran. Pakistan calls China its “all weather friend” – America, by implication, being a fair weather friend. “If we could tell what the Chinese were thinking, or what they were afraid of, the Middle East would be right at the heart of it,” says Nasr.

Nasr is capable of making almost Kissinger-like connections – a sophistication that often seems lacking in Obama’s White House. “America does not need to pivot to Asia geographically; it needs to do so conceptually,” Nasr argues. But he is not always convincing. For example, he too easily dismisses the view that a nuclear Iran would quickly be matched by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. Neither South Korea nor Japan has emulated North Korea, Nasr points out. Nor has Sri Lanka followed India. Why should the Middle East be different? But these are weak parallels. Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka are incomparably different countries. And India is no Iran.

Yet much of what he says is hard to refute. Having promised to end America’s wars and reinvigorate US diplomacy, Obama has only delivered on the former, says Nasr. Whether it was the low priority he accorded to Holbrooke’s “reconciliation” efforts with the Taliban, avoiding real engagement with Iran, or failing to make a vigorous effort to stave off slaughter in Syria, Obama has been reluctant to use the diplomatic tools he once championed. In practice, he has relied on drones rather than diplomacy. Over time the US may reap the consequences.

“The White House was ever afraid that the young Democratic president would be seen as ‘soft’,” writes Nasr. “It did not want to try anything as audacious as diplomacy. It was an art lost on America’s top decision makers.”

Nasr’s book makes the case against Obama – and much of it is brilliantly argued. But his clarity often comes at the expense of charity. James Mann’s The Obamians offers a far more sympathetic account. Implicit in Nasr’s critique is the view that the US still has the means to impose solutions on the knottiest parts of the globe; Mann starts from the very different premise that Obama inherited an America “whose primacy can no longer be assured”. In The Rise of the Vulcans (2004), Mann’s definitive portrait of George W. Bush’s neoconservative advisers, he explored whether the US had reached the “outer limits of the expansion of American power”.

By the time of The Obamians, Mann’s America is grappling with the “realities of limited money and diminishing US sway over an increasing number of new powers”.

A lot can happen in 10 years. “We don’t have the money, we just don’t have the money,” Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, tells Mann about Obama’s war in Afghanistan. “They’ve sure got a lot of money to throw around,” remarked a senior White House official in wonderment about China and Saudi Arabia. In Mann’s view, Obama is handling America’s straitened circumstances with growing skill. As the president has gained experience, he has become more adept at matching means with ends. Mann does not overlook Obama’s weaknesses. But where Nasr lacerates, he only chides. “It was almost as if the speeches came from one side of his [Obama’s] brain and the policies from a different one,” Mann says.

In his first year in office, Obama gave dramatic set-piece addresses in Prague (about a nuclear-free world), in Ankara (his first overture to the Muslim world) in Cairo (his second), in Ghana (his first overture to Africa) and in Oslo (to accept a Nobel Peace Prize). Except in the case of the Nobel address, when the president somewhat bravely made the case for drone warfare, there was little follow-through.

But the big speeches have become less frequent. The next few months will show whether Obama is prepared to follow up his recent oration in Jerusalem – the first big foreign policy address of the second term – with a sustained effort to revive the Arab-Israeli peace initiative. Most would be sceptical. Mann, whose book came out in the US last year, would probably see the glass as half-full. In John Kerry, Obama has a new secretary of state. And the president no longer needs to seek re-election. We shall see.

Sceptical is the last word that springs to mind when reading Kim Ghattas’s The Secretary. As the BBC’s state department correspondent, Ghattas followed Hillary Clinton for much of her record, almost 1m, air miles. Unfortunately, her book has little to say on the deeper foreign policy questions of Obama’s first term, or on Clinton’s often fraught relationship with the White House.

Ghattas writes in detail about the whats and whens of Clinton’s frenetic schedules, rushed press conferences and hurried aircraft briefings. But there is too little on the whys. If nothing else, the book offers a convincing account of Clinton’s growing exhaustion. And it drops some amusing anecdotes along the way. When a senior Pakistani politician confessed he had thrown rocks at the US embassy in London during the Vietnam war, Clinton interrupted: “Don’t worry, Mr Governor, so did I.”

But for insights readers should turn to Nasr and Mann. Both books come too soon to be definitive. Obama’s presidency is only halfway done. But in their different ways each sheds light on a US whose indispensability much of the world is starting to question. Obama had no hand in creating today’s circumstances. And for all of his flaws – not least a tendency to place too much emphasis on monologue and too little on dialogue – he could be handling things a lot worse.

Edward Luce is the FT’s chief US commentator and author of ‘Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline’ (Little, Brown)

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