Americans, Nasr tells us, love the Clintonian description of themselves as "The Indispensable Nation". In this blunt and analytical book, Nasr seeks to show why that vision is not only inaccurate but that the reverse might be the case, and if not already, then soon unless America gets its foreign policy right. Nasr worked as senior adviser to Richard Holbrooke, the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan ("SRAP") and is clearly in awe of his chief and mentor who died before his mission could be accomplished. Part of this book is about what that mission was. The main theme was the Holbrooke vision of achieving global peace by means of a diplomacy and power combination. The problem for Holbrooke was that the State Department which is in charge of diplomacy did not trust or respect Holbrooke, and the Pentagon, which is the marshal of the American military might, disdains diplomacy. Nasr explores his theme in three connected and interwoven stories. The first reveals the difficulty Hilary Clinton and Holbrooke had in getting their views across to the White House. The second story concerns the difficulties that the foreign policy administrators faced when they had to persuade American allies, especially those in the Middle East, who had been increasingly skeptical about America's wisdom in the use of the military might it possesses. The third story concerns the imminent geopolitical tussle for supremacy between USA and China. In this story, which Nasr considers the most important, he warns that if the lessons are not well-learnt and the right foreign policy pursued, America might lose that tussle.
Nasr provides a detailed account of the policy failures in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq. American foreign policy, it seems, nose-dived from Iraq, but Nasr begins his account with Afghanistan. Afghanistan was a "good war gone bad" in Nasr's view. The war started in 2001 after the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11. By 2006 more international troops died in Afghanistan than in Iraq. By the time Obama realized it was an unsustainable war, the decision to withdraw was, in Nasr's view, hastily made. Holbrooke and Clinton (Hilary) would have preferred to commence negotiations with the Taliban before the announcement. The Taliban now knows that come what may, the Americans are leaving in 2014. They need not talk, and if they did, they need not be serious. It was something so basic anyone but the White House appreciated the situation.
Pakistan was a mess to begin with. It only got messier. The Pakistanis were supposed to be America's staunchest ally in the region but they behaved like enemies. Neither trusted each other. Described by the Americans as "the Ally from Hell", Pakistan had its own reasons for behaving like the "frenemy" it has become so regarded. When Afghanistan and American troops opened fire at Pakistani soldiers, they (the Pakistanis) shot back under fire, believing that the Talibans were firing at them. That, in turn, brought in American firepower from the air "for hours".
When it came to Iran, the Americans were misguided in their approach. It is a fact that the Middle Eastern countries are no match for America's might. The Americans thus believed that force or the threat of force is the way to deal with Iran. Iran knows that too. It also knows that the difference between Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein is that Kim Jong Il had nuclear weapons, Saddam did not. Watching the American mess in Pakistan, where America kept pouring in US dollars in spite of blatant bad behavior from the Pakistani government, Iran learnt that "it is easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission." They will not give up its nuclear ambition because that is the only thing that will save its government from the fate of Saddam Hussein. How then should American formulate its policy towards Iran? Nasr acknowledges that diplomacy with Iran will be difficult for it is a hard bargainer. But the current policy of sanctions, Nasr argues, only serves to benefit Russia and China; and as for Iran, its economy might shrink to that of a shrimp state, but it will still get its nuclear capacity, perhaps not in five but ten years. In the meantime, Nasr postulates, Russia and China "would have gobbled up the entire Central Asia, cornered Europe's energy markets, and planted themselves smack in the middle of the Middle East". The fear now is that the situation might already be too hot for any talks with Iran. America might have to approach afresh. Its present position does not inspire any trust or carry any respect from the Iranians.
Nasr believes that Obama's "pivot to Asia" policy needs to be tweaked. It cannot abandon the Middle East and rush to Asia in an urgent mission to contain China. It is true that China's rising economic and military might pose a threat to American interests. America has abandoned Iraq and Afghanistan after devastating them, it has in Nasr's words, "destabilized Iran but not denuclearized it", and it has "let down the countries in the Arab Spring", and now having done all that, it has declared its intention to shrink its presence in the Middle East. That, Nasr believes, would be a mistake. China is already cultivating Turkey. Turkey is rapidly becoming China's economic partner, getting much (including China's old nuclear technology) in return for a Chinese foothold in that region. Unlike America, China sees East and West Asia (its term for the Middle East) as linked. Nasr observes that China does not divide the world into separate policy domains the way the Americans do. The lesson from the Second World War in which the Western allies choked Japan of crucial oil and resources is not lost to China. Thus it is and will be active in countering any American strategic alliances from India to Japan.
The world is watching to see what the result will be of James Fallow's observation that "Either the growing power of the Chinese economy will change the rest of the international system, effectively making it more Chinese, or the growing prosperity of the Chinese people will change their own country's system, making it more international." Which will it be? Can America afford to let the ball land in the Chinese court? If it thinks that it must be instrumental in the direction for China, it has to do something and it will. The point Nasr is driving home is whether America can come up with the right foreign policy to sustain its effort to contain China.
Andrew Alexander makes similar observations in his 2011 book, "America and the Imperialism of Ignorance" (Biteback Publishing). Alexander's book traces the start and missteps in the Cold War. In brief, he takes the view that US foreign policy grew out of its miscomprehension of the world.