Nasr Pierces Obama’s Diplomacy Mirage

Vali Nasr now serves as Dean of the School of Advanced  International Studies at Johns Hopkins.

Vali Nasr now serves as Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins.

Foreign Policy has published an excerpt from Vali Nasr’s book The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, in which Nasr relates his experiences as a key deputy to Richard Holbrooke, who served as Barack Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The title for the piece tells virtually the entire story: “The Inside Story of How the White House Let Diplomacy Fail in Afghanistan”. The piece should be read in full (as should the book, I presume), but I want to highlight a couple of passages that fit well with points I have tried to make over the years regarding US policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

First, we see an Obama tactic that has not been limited to his foreign policy actions, but is characteristic of him on the whole, where he makes a public move such as appointing Holbrooke, where the move has the appearance of a very positive step, but Obama then undercuts the move entirely by providing no further support (such as when he nominated Dawn Johnsen to head OLC and then abandoned her entirely, even when he could have forced a confirmation vote that would have been affirmative under bmaz’s whip count). Here is how Nasr described Holbrooke’s fate once he established his office:

Still, Holbrooke knew that Afghanistan was not going to be easy. There were too many players and too many unknowns, and Obama had not given him enough authority (and would give him almost no support) to get the job done. After he took office, the president never met with Holbrooke outside large meetings and never gave him time and heard him out. The president’s White House advisors were dead set against Holbrooke. Some, like Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, were holdovers from George W. Bush’s administration and thought they knew Afghanistan better and did not want to relinquish control to Holbrooke. Others (those closest to the president) wanted to settle scores for Holbrooke’s tenacious campaign support of Clinton (who was herself eyed with suspicion by the Obama insiders); still others begrudged Holbrooke’s storied past and wanted to end his run of success then and there. At times it appeared the White House was more interested in bringing Holbrooke down than getting the policy right.

What drives Obama’s craven manipulation of people in this way? Nasr nails that particularly well:

Not only did that not happen, but 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.

And this reliance on managing to the day’s news cycle ended just as badly as one would expect. Obama should pay heed to Nasr’s dire warning in his epitaph of the Afghan “adventure”, but we can rest assured that the band of political trolls surrounding him will put their fingers in their ears and shout “I can’t hear you” as Nasr warns of failure for the “exit plan” (emphasis added):

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; the United States is taking home its troops and winding down diplomatic and economic engagement — but leaving behind its Predators and Special Forces. We should not expect that the region will look more kindly on drone attacks and secret raids than it did on invasion and occupation.

Given such a craven M.O., it should not be surprising, then, that despite having Holbrooke present to inform him that the time for diplomacy was at the peak of US troop presence in Afghanistan, Obama waited until he had announced his plan to end the surge and draw down troops to attempt diplomacy, completely undercutting Holbrooke’s approach:

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. Concerns about human rights, women’s rights, and education were shelved. These were not seen as matters of vital U.S. interest, just noble causes that were too costly and difficult to support — and definitely not worth fighting an insurgency over.

And Nasr addresses the folly of one of my favorite targets within Obama’s Afghanistan policy–the training of a large Afghan National Security Force to take over as we withdraw, describing the reaction of Pakistan’s Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani:

In one small meeting around a narrow table, Kayani listened carefully and took notes as we went through our list of issues. I cannot forget Kayani’s reaction when we enthusiastically explained our plan to build up Afghan forces to 400,000 by 2014. His answer was swift and unequivocal: Don’t do it. “You will fail,” he said. “Then you will leave and that half-trained army will break into militias that will be a problem for Pakistan.” We tried to stand our ground, but he would have none of it. He continued, “I don’t believe that the Congress is going to pay $9 billion a year for this 400,000-man force.” He was sure it would eventually collapse and the army’s broken pieces would resort to crime and terrorism to earn their keep.

Kayani’s counsel was that 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. This seemed to be a ubiquitous sentiment across the region. No one bought our argument for sending more troops into Afghanistan, and no one was buying our arguments for leaving. It seemed everyone was getting used to a direction-less America.

And of course, Kayani was correct. Just in the past few weeks, we’ve seen evidence of problems within Afghanistan itself due to bits of the Afghan Local Police reverting to their militia roots and spreading terror.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
19 replies
  1. Brindle says:

    Obama has displayed no depth or really any concern for the peoples of the Middle East. He is essentially a puppet of the Wall St corporate world and they will let him muck about in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Libya—where ever, as long as he does nothing more than poke he finger in the air about the Banker/Corporate stranglehold on our nation.

  2. P J Evans says:

    Obama’s heart may be in the right place, but…
    He doesn’t seem to be a good judge of people.
    He seem to prefer compromise even in situations where it isn’t necessary.
    He doesn’t seem to have a strong moral and ethical core.
    He seems to do everything he can to ignore advice (or even input) from outside the WH.

    Some days I think impeachment might even be a good idea.

  3. Jim White says:

    @P J Evans:

    Obama’s heart may be in the right place

    I might grant that from an anatomical standpoint, but would dispute it on any other. Just look for example at how he is once again floating the idea of cutting SS & Medicare. That is not someone with a good heart.

  4. RirerCapital says:

    Let’s be honest, Obama’s a colossal failure and has no heart.

    Compared to Richard Holbrooke, he’s green. A man who funneled arms to Suharto during East Timor genocide, of Rambouillet and scuttling all hopes of peace so NATO cluster bombs could fall on Serbia and Kosovo to push NATO’s expansion eastward(outdated Cold War strategy). To think things would have been better in AfPak if Obama catered more to Holbrooke, a “well read and scholarly” gent, is laughable.

  5. Jim White says:

    @RirerCapital: Other than pointing out that this time, with regard to when was the right time to engage the Taliban in negotiations, I’m not addressing Holbrooke and his legacy at all. I’m pointing out the accuracy of Nasr’s pointing out of Obama’s craven catering to the news cycle of the day and how it has doomed the whole Af-Pak region.

  6. P J Evans says:

    @Jim White:
    Maybe I should have used the word ‘might’. But definitely not the upstanding figure he presented himself as.

    There’s a diary by bobwern over at the Great Orange Satan, where it’s been pointed out that O has always been in favor of ‘entitlement’ cuts. A few people are still trying to argue that it’s eleventy-dimensional chess, but I think most of the commenters no longer believe that.

  7. scribe says:

    Well, it needs be remembered that Obama has repeatedly said that compromise is a principle.

    Not a tool. A principle.

    This is the blather of a dun-fer, i.e., someone who’s had a lot (if not everything) dun-fer him his whole life. IIRC, he never tried a case to verdict but always settled.

  8. Julie says:

    Obama’s idea of “compromise” is to sit down and negotiate with a serial killer. The killer wants to kill 20 people, so Obama thinks it’s a great “compromise” if he gets the serial killer to agree to kill only 10 people.

    We need to remember that his own mother doubted that he would ever develop a social conscience, which is why she is all but ignored in his memoires, but a loser abusive alcoholic is obsessed over.

    Obama is an empty soul looking for approval from abusive people, just as he always has been.

  9. joanneleon says:

    More evidence that Obama’s Haldemann, Erlichmann, Rove, et al really f’d things up. One of them is now wrecking a major American city. Two are being all fair and balanced on MSNBC. Another is probably headed for the Supreme Court. I don’t know what Jarrett is doing.

    One of the things that is really a shame is how they let their Clinton paranoia permeate everything they did. I once read an article, wish I could remember where, about the military having similar complaints about the WH. Maybe this is a perennial thing, I don’t know, but they said that White House staff thought they could just send the military on missions when they came up with an idea, with no planning, no impact assessment, etc.

    Anyway, political trolls is a great way to describe the original Obama inner circle. I don’t know much about the people he surrounds himself with now.

  10. joanneleon says:

    “Kayani’s counsel was that 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. This seemed to be a ubiquitous sentiment across the region.”

    This really surprises me because the reporting across a wide array of news organizations was the opposite and it focused on the Afghans’ concerns about what would happen to their country after our troops left. Was that propaganda spoonfed to the media? Or perhaps it was after this meeting, when the training of the Afghan military had already been decided upon and was going full force.

  11. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Nice piece, Jim. Thanks.

    Foreign policy has always been more about domestic partisan wrangling than about managing US relations with foreign players, partners or opponents. America’s China policies, especially 1949-76, are a good example. So, too, Vietnam; Latin American policy from bananas to Arbenz to Nicaragua; Congo policy since Lumumba; ad nauseum.

    That’s not an excuse for Mr. Obama; he probably thinks he’s carrying on and “strengthening, putting on a better foundation,” a longstanding course of conduct. Hmmph.

  12. orionATL says:

    obama has directly stated, from the beginning of his presidency, that he will view the decisions he makes as president as political decisions untainted by his personal values, or by any other than political-benefit-to-him values.

    this he has done very consistently.

    he is no different than lindsay graham or charles schumer or mitch mcconnell or max baucus.

    he would sell his grandmother into slavery, as would everyone of the other senators i’ve referenced above, in order to gain a political advantage. and when i say “other senators” i am emphasizing my view that obama is fundamentally a senator, not a president.

    this president is just as power-aggregating, and just as amoral, as dick cheney and george bush were, but, unlike those constitutional miscreants, highly susceptible to intense political pressure.

    that’s the key to getting to obama, as he has said many times, “make me do it” !!

    that’s the difference in a democracy as opposed to a bush autocracy: bush/cheney would just say “go fck yer elf”.

  13. jawbone says:

    Way back in 2007 Obama mentioned wanting to do something like the St. Ronnie and Tip O’Neill’s Not So Grand Bargain for the Rest of Us.

    From this site’s listing of Obama comments on SocSec —
    http://www.ontheissues.org/2012/Barack_Obama_Social_Security.htm

    @P J Evans: Q: We all know that Social Security is running out of money, but people who earn over $97,500 stop paying into Social Security. The Congressional Research Service says that if all earnings were subject to payroll tax, the Social Security trust fund would remain solvent for the next 75 years.

    A: I think that it is an important option on the table, but the key, in addition to making sure that we don’t privatize, because Social Security is that floor beneath none of us can sink. And we’ve got to make sure that we preserve Social Security is to do the same thing that Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill were able to do back in 1983, which is come up with a bipartisan solution that puts Social Security on a firm footing for a long time.

    Source: 2007 YouTube Democratic Primary debate, Charleston SC , Jul 23, 2007

    More statements about SocSec at the link.

    And in November of 2007, Krugman was deeply worried about Obama’s tendency to use Republican talking points about SocSec and Medicare.

    Obama has beens showing his hand for a long time now. I had found in the past a cite from early 2007, can’t find it just now. Anyone have that link?

  14. DocP says:

    Every policy step Obama has taken has been a mirage. I see no reason why diplomatic policy would be any different.

Comments are closed.