New Book Reveals the Politics of Obama’s Foreign Policy

| March 12 2013
John Walker

Sometime next month a blockbuster book will be published that will reveal how the Obama White House  injected politics directly into the making of U.S. foreign policy to the detriment of the war in Afghanistan and the overall effort to project American power in the Middle East.

Anyone who pays the slightest attention to the current debate over federal spending knows that President Obama has placed politics over policy with an eye firmly focused on the midterm elections in November 2014.

Now we have convincing evidence that the political operatives in the White House tightly control foreign policy as well as domestic affairs. This evidence helps to explain the administration’s actions on everything from the Benghazi tragedy to the coming crisis over a nuclear-armed Iran.

The book in question is “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat” by Vali Nasr, Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. Nasr served in the first few years of the Obama administration as a deputy to the late Richard Holbrooke in a special State Department office dedicated to formulating policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

An extended excerpt from the book has been published in Foreign Policy magazine. The New York Times, hardly a harsh critic of the president, immediately seized on the story as a rare glimpse of political decision-making in the White House.

Nasr concludes that Obama “dithered” over decisions, was given to excessive control, and was risk-averse in the extreme. Nasser recalls that candidate Obama pledged to get things done in the broader Middle East. In addition, Nasr says Obama wanted to reverse what he saw as damage done by the previous administration’s reliance on faulty intelligence and military solutions.

“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,” Nasr writes. “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.”

Then Nasr delivers a devastating conclusion that reaches across the entire foreign-policy spectrum.

“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.”

In other words, from the outset of his first inauguration, Obama had his eye on November 2012 and beyond. He shunned the advice of his national security team and relied on the comfort of his political advisors.

Holbrooke and his special Afghanistan – Pakistan State Department unit eventually failed in its efforts to pursue diplomatic as well as military solutions in the Afghan war. After Holbrook died in December 2010, the effort was doomed.

Much of the tension between Obama and Holbrooke was rooted in Holbrooke’s long association with Bill and Hillary Clinton. If Hillary Clinton had been nominated and elected president, Holbrooke was the leading candidate to serve as Secretary of State. In addition, Nasr points out that Hillary Clinton herself operated under constant suspicion of White House political operatives who feared she would upstage the president.

It is no secret that Obama’s failure to respond to the terrorist attack in Benghazi last September 11 was a purely political decision. The attack occurred only days after the conclusion of the Democratic National Convention when the mantra was “GM is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead.” Speaker after speaker declared that the president had eradicated Al Qaeda for good.

What is more, the attack occurred shortly before the first presidential debate and only two months before the election. On the night of September 11, Obama played it safe and did nothing, ignoring his Defense Secretary, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of State.

We see the same politically centric foreign policy on a host of other issues. The failure to respond responsibly to the slaughter in Syria is only one example. Looming on the horizon is an inevitable showdown with Iran over its determination to develop nuclear weapons and the capacity to deliver them against its neighbors. Once again, politics and the views of Obama’s base will prevail

Vali Nasr is no disgruntled bureaucrat out to score political points. He is a distinguished foreign policy scholar who had a front row seat to witness how the political operatives in Obama White House called the shots on major decisions, reflecting the cautious and decisive views of their boss.

It is one thing to play politics with domestic issues; it is quite another to apply the same standard to the security of the nation. The Nasr book will be more than the usual foreign-policy tome. It should be required reading for everyone who wants a look inside the Obama White House.

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