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Former State Dept. Official Offers Critique of American Foreign Policy Decisions

May 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Margaret Warner gets a behind-the-scenes look at the making of U.S. foreign policy from former State Department official Vali Nasr. His new book, "The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat," critiques the Obama administration's handling of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight, the first of two takes on America’s role in the world.

Margaret Warner has our book conversation, which was recorded before President Obama’s national security speech yesterday.

MARGARET WARNER: In his new book, “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat,” Vali Nasr, a former adviser to the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, blames the White House for mishandling those countries and the broader Middle East.

Politics and the Pentagon drove too many decisions, Nasr argues, while overlooking broader strategic solutions offered by his former boss, the late Richard Holbrooke, and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

And Vali Nasr joins me now.


VALI NASR, Author, “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat”: Good to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: Why did you feel the need to write this book?

VALI NASR: Because I think it’s important for us to have a good gauge of our foreign policy-making, particularly with regards to Afghanistan, which was a very important foreign policy issue at the beginning of the Obama administration, and because I think the way we handled it has an impact on our standing in the region and our standing globally.

And I think we in many ways didn’t handle that war and the end of that war in a way that protects our interests. And I think the same set of approaches and attitudes towards foreign policy-making is now governing our approach to Syria, to the Arab spring, and also potentially more broadly in terms of the style of foreign policy that’s very tactical, it’s timid and cautious, and it is too much driven by domestic political considerations.

And I think also, still, we are looking at our main form of engagement with the Middle East through the prism of military and security issues.

MARGARET WARNER: You were on the inside for two years. There’s a lot in this book of — in the way of tidbits from meetings. Did you have any qualms about writing it?


I thought very hard about this. And I thought that, after the election, once the politics is over, it’s time to go back to really considering, are we on the right track with foreign policy? Did we make the right strategy for Afghanistan? Was it right to surge when we did and then immediately withdraw? And have a debate about how we are projecting our role in the world to allies and enemies and how we are being perceived.

And I think, by and large, the perception outside is that we’re not keen on leading, and we are retreating from many policy areas globally. And I think Americans ought to think about these issues before going down that path.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when you say the administration is driven by, say, politics and by the military, do you mean in terms of both surging in Afghanistan — let’s take Afghanistan, which you were deeply involved in — and now also in setting this timetable for withdrawal?

VALI NASR: Yes, I think …

MARGARET WARNER: Or isn’t it — or is it the realistic thing to do, given all the financial constraints that the U.S. finds itself in?

VALI NASR: Well, then we shouldn’t have surged — we shouldn’t have surged in the manner that we did.

That was largely a domestic political consideration, because the military came out of Iraq victorious and triumphant. It had saved the day in Iraq. So we surged. But then he didn’t like that policy, and he immediately put a deadline on the surge, which made it basically dead on arrival as far as the Taliban/Pakistan/Iran, et cetera, were concerned.

And then we began to withdraw. So in the end result, we didn’t win in Afghanistan and we didn’t achieve a political settlement that would allow some kind of stability when we leave.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment, who worked a lot in Afghanistan and served as an adviser to some U.S. military figures, she wrote a real rebuttal of your book. And I’m sure you read it in Foreign Policy magazine.

And she agrees with you that the military — the Pentagon had too much to say about the policy, but she actually faults your shop and the State Department. She says: “Neither Holbrooke nor Clinton ever produced a serious analysis of issues like the corruption of the Afghan government or the Pakistan military’s coziness with the Taliban, nor developed coherent approaches for addressing them.”

VALI NASR: That’s actually not a valid criticism, because that’s about operational issues at the lower level.

The most important thing that the State Department tried to do was to convince the White House that, instead of just either choosing between the surge, all in, or just withdrawing everything and relying on drones, which is all out, there has to be a medium approach to ending the war, which is focus on diplomacy. Give the primacy to a diplomatic solution that would engage the neighbors and also the Afghan government and the Taliban. Put enough troops on the ground that would back up this plan.

At the highest level, the solution that the State Department was looking for was never part of the options the president considered for Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: But there were these arguments within your meetings, which you make clear. Isn’t this what — because the Pentagon of course was pushing back against engaging the Taliban while the Taliban was ascendant militarily.

Isn’t this just the sort of disagreements that are supposed to take place among the different players in an administration and voiced vigorously inside, and then the president decides?

VALI NASR: But it wasn’t.

The president considered two options. One was a fully resourced counterinsurgency, a military solution to the war. And one was the idea of counterterrorism-plus, which was advocated by the vice president, which means we should just abandon this war and focus on counterterrorism.

It wasn’t debated. The whole idea is that, yes, it could have been debated and it could have been rejected based on its merits, but it wasn’t.

MARGARET WARNER: So what now? I mean, what’s done is done.

What do you predict Afghanistan and the region will look like two years from now?

VALI NASR: I think everybody is in a holding pattern until we leave, because they factored us out.

We announced we’re leaving without any kind of a closure to this war. We have come out with a narrative that we will have an Afghan security force that can take over from us. I don’t think many people in the region take that as a serious solution for Afghanistan. And everybody around Afghanistan still has vital interests there. And they are likely to pursue those interests.

And that means the potential for breakdown of the current order, ultimately, potentially, civil war in Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I look forward to continuing our conversation online.

Vali Nasr, author of “The Dispensable Nation,” thanks for being with us.

VALI NASR: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those extra questions and answers are indeed online, as is Margaret’s second conversation. It’s with Richard Haass, who served in both Bush administrations. His new book is titled “Foreign Policy Begins at Home.” We will air that on the NewsHour next week.