Vali Nasr has written a book, a portion of which has been excerpted in Foreign Policy. His piece represents another curious effort to discredit Obama from the left, and is far more hard-hitting than Bill Keller’s.
Nasr is a Tehran-born American academic mover and shaker, writer and expert on the Middle East. Nasr was brought into the Obama administration at its outset by the late Richard Holbrooke, who was appointed by Obama as envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan at State despite his earlier support of Hillary Clinton rather than Obama. Nasr signed on, too, with high hopes of helping to implement a different—and better—kind of diplomacy for the region. He doesn’t feel that either he or Holbrooke was treated well, or even decently, by Obama and especially his closest advisors, the inner circle.
The pattern of these exposés seems to be: wait till Obama has been safely elected, because you’re a Democrat. Then tell all the bad stuff about him.
Nasr qualifies as that familiar type, the disgruntled former employee. In this case, part of his motivation seems to be to champion his old mentor, Holbrooke, as well as to further the narrative that Hillary was the only other good thing about Obama’s foreign policy.
Whatever Nasr’s motivations, a great deal of what he is saying about Obama in terms of style and process rings very true with what has been demonstrated over and over before. The pattern is that Obama hires advisors either to be his weak and sycophantic toadies without a thought of their own, or as window-dressing to foster the appearance that he has strong and knowledgeable advisors and then to ignore them almost entirely, leaning instead on his more trusted alter egos such as Jarrett and Donilin, neither of whom are foreign policy experts but both of whom are political operatives.
Here’s some of what Nasr has to say:
But my time in the Obama administration turned out to be a deeply disillusioning experience. The truth is that his administration made it extremely difficult for its own foreign-policy experts to be heard. Both Clinton and Holbrooke, two incredibly dedicated and talented people, had to fight to have their voices count on major foreign-policy initiatives…
Time and again, when things seemed to be falling apart, the administration finally turned to Clinton because it knew she was the only person who could save the situation…The president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics. Their primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans. The Obama administration’s reputation for competence on foreign policy has less to do with its accomplishments in Afghanistan or the Middle East than with how U.S. actions in that region have been reshaped to accommodate partisan political concerns.
Bingo. I have to say that I have no idea whether Nasr was correct about what should have been done about the Middle East, but he shows a remarkable naivete about Obama himself if he thought he’d encounter anything different.
Some tough words here from the liberal Nasr:
By September 2012, when violent anti-American protests swept the Muslim world, claiming the lives of four members of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya and dozens of demonstrators, it became clear that we had gotten the broader Middle East badly wrong.
The American people are tired of war — rightly so — and they welcome talk of leaving the region. The president has marketed the U.S. exit from Afghanistan as a foreign-policy coup, one that will not only unburden America from the region’s problems but also give the country the freedom it needs to pursue other, more pressing national security concerns.
This is an illusion. Ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the broader, ill-defined “war on terror,” is a very good idea, provided it is done properly and without damage to U.S. interests or the region’s stability. But we should not kid ourselves that the rhetoric of departure is anything more than rhetoric…
Gee, he almost sounds like—us.
Here’s how Nasr describes Obama’s decision-making process on Afghanistan. After Nasr and others had prepared and submitted almost endless folders and reports and Obama had read and read and read them:
Obama was dithering. He was busybodying the national security apparatus by asking for more answers to the same set of questions, each time posed differently. Holbrooke thought that Obama was not deciding because he disliked the options before him, and that the National Security Council (NSC) was failing the president by not giving him the right options. What Holbrooke omitted from his assessment was that Obama was failing to press the NSC to give him other options.
In other words, he was dithering because he wanted to dither rather than make a decision and go on record.
Nasr describes a chaotic, political White House, confusing and ineffective, disjointed and meandering. Really, he describes a lack of what one might call foreign policy at all. This rings true, as well; and it’s been largely covered up so far–even by Nasr, who waited till now to write this:
Afghans and Pakistanis were not alone in being confused and occasionally amused by the White House’s maneuvers. People in Washington were also baffled. The White House encouraged the U.S. ambassadors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to go around the State Department and work with the White House directly, undermining their own agency. Those ambassadors quickly learned how easy it was to manipulate the administration’s animus toward Holbrooke to their own advantage.
Obama showed not the most rudimentary notion of tactics or strategy in the conduct of war (unless you call politics “war”):
The Obama administration’s approach to reconciliation, however, is not exactly what Holbrooke had in mind for a diplomatic end to the war. Holbrooke thought that the United States would enjoy its strongest leverage if it negotiated with the Taliban when the country had the maximum number of troops on the ground in Afghanistan. He had not favored the Afghanistan surge, but once the troops were there, he thought the president should use the show of force to get to a diplomatic solution.
But that did not happen. The president failed to launch diplomacy and then announced the troop withdrawal in a June 2011 speech, in effect snatching away the leverage that would be needed if diplomacy were to have a chance of success. “If you are leaving, why would the Taliban make a deal with you? How would you make the deal stick? The Taliban will talk to you, but just to get you out faster.” That comment we heard from an Arab diplomat was repeated across the region.
Yet it was exactly after announcing the U.S. departure that the administration warmed up to the idea of reconciliation. Talks with the Taliban were not about arranging their surrender, but about hastening America’s departure.
This rings true, as well–Obama has a long history of voting “not present”:
The White House seemed to see an actual benefit in not doing too much. It was happy with its narrative of modest success in Afghanistan and gradual withdrawal — building Afghan security forces to take over from departing U.S. troops. The goal was to spare the president the risks that necessarily come with playing the leadership role that America claims to play in this region.
It will be interesting to see whether this article has any effect at all. It will also be interesting to see if other “now it can be told” books and articles written by Democrats start coming out, and if they end up mattering, either.
[Hat tip: commenter “expat.”]