Still Indispensible?

After the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and collapse of the ex-USSR a few years later, the U.S. ruling class was jubilant.

It had defeated the Russian empire and now hoped to secure a new unipolar world order. Washington pushed neoliberal globalization to the benefit of U.S. multinationals, attempted to incorporate all the world’s states into American-designed institutions like the World Trade Organization, tried to prevent the rise of potential competitors and threatened to crush any so-called rogue states like Iraq that bucked its dictates.

Whether Democrats or Republicans were in charge, each presidential administration over the last two decades has attempted to implement this strategy of global domination. George Bush Jr. came to power at the apogee of U.S. strength, but with the imperial overreach that came with the “war on terror,” he proceeded to squander it in disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Great Recession further compromised America’s ability to control the world system.

Make no mistake, though–the U.S. remains the dominant imperial power in the world, with the largest economy and military, and therefore the greatest political clout. But the U.S. had suffered a relative decline compared to potential rivals, especially its rising competitor of China. After the catastrophe of the Bush presidency, the U.S. ruling class hoped Barack Obama would rehabilitate its reputation and restore its imperial standing in the world.

To the great disappointment of his liberal supporters, Obama has been no peace president, but an advocate of imperial supremacy. In his 2012 State of the Union address, he declared, “America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs–and as long as I am president, I intend to keep it that way.”

Obama hasn’t shirked from backing up these words with nefarious deeds.

He delayed and compromised his promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq until he was forced to pull out; he copied Bush’s “surge” of forces in Afghanistan; and he paired this with his own signature military strategy of drone warfare, not only in defense of Hamid Karzai’s kleptocratic puppet regime, but across the border in Pakistan, where U.S. drone wars have destabilized the country.

Book Review

9780385536479Vali Nasr, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. Doubleday, 300 pages, 2013.

Yet despite Obama’s best efforts, the U.S. has endured an ongoing relative decline of its power. He has been unable to extricate the U.S. economy from stagnation. Washington struggles to retain its historic control over the Middle East, and is therefore unable to command the world system in the same way.

As a result, China–along with other beneficiaries of the neoliberal boom like Brazil, India and a refurbished Russia–has sensed the moment and become more assertive in world politics. China’s rise has so alarmed the Obama administration that it has initiated its so-called “pivot to Asia” in an effort to contain and cajole it into subservience to the U.S.

Establishment Critics

A host of establishment critics now openly worry that Obama’s failures have compromised America’s ability to keep the world unipolar, with itself on top. Unsurprisingly, neoconservatives are apoplectic at what they perceive as Obama’s acceptance of decline. Robert Kaplan makes just this argument in his book The World America Made–a paean to the supposed achievements of U.S. imperialism in the past and a plea for its continued dominion over the world.

In a more surprising twist, however, Obama’s own allies and former cabinet members have joined the chorus of critics. The most significant of these is Vali Nasr, whose new book The Dispensable Nation is a withering attack on the Obama administration. Nasr is an acolyte of the late Richard Holbrooke and served under him in the Obama administration, overseeing policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Nasr contends that the U.S. is not objectively in decline, but instead remains the pivotal nation in the world. Based on this power, Nasr argues that it should enforce a neoliberal world order. But, he claims, the Obama administration has failed to do so, acting as if the U.S. is no longer able to control key regions of the world like the Middle East.

Nasr laments that Obama’s foreign policy is not guided by a coherent diplomatic strategy of the sort once advocated by people like Holbrooke. Instead, Obama has followed the advice of the military and his pollsters. Because he listened to these poor councilors, says Nasr, Obama has continued Bush’s “war on terror” in Central Asia, foolishly retreated from the Middle East and launched a misconceived “pivot to Asia” to contain China.

In the process, Nasr claims, Obama has compromised American rule around the world:

Gone is the exuberant American desire to lead in the world. In its place there is the image of a superpower tired of the world and in retreat, most visibly from the one area of the world where it has been most intensely engaged. That impression serves neither America’s long-run interests nor stability around the world.

Nasr examines the three key areas of Obama’s foreign policy–Central Asia, the Middle East and Asia–and argues that the administration has bungled each one.

Failure in Central Asia

In Afghanistan, Nasr contends, Obama followed the military’s advice to launch a troop surge and expand the drone war into Pakistan, thereby blowing the opportunity for a negotiated solution with the Taliban.

Obama implemented a combined strategy of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. He deployed tens of thousands of troops to occupy Taliban strongholds and attempt to win over the population. At the same time, he launched a wave of Special Operations attacks and drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan that killed innocent civilians, alienated the population of both countries and angered both governments.

Nasr demonstrates that the combined strategy was a disaster–but then goes on to argue that once it was adopted, it shouldn’t have been abandoned. Instead, Obama should have maintained the troops and used the position of strength to pursue a diplomatic solution. The administration didn’t take that opportunity and instead shifted to a new policy of diminished expectations for what was possible in Afghanistan–symbolized by the phrase “Afghan good enough.”

Obama hoped against all the evidence that he would be able to bolster the Karzai regime, train a new Afghan Army and police force to enforce order, and then withdraw the bulk of U.S. forces, leaving bases behind to conduct the drone war against supposed terrorist threats.

Nasr concludes that policy has ended in failure:

We have not won this war on the battlefield, nor have we ended it at the negotiating table. We are just washing our hands of it, hoping there will be a decent interval of calm–a reasonable distance between our departure and the catastrophe to follow so we will not be blamed for it.

Obama’s policy in Pakistan has been just as disastrous, but in a strategically far more important country in the region. Again, Obama abandoned diplomacy and instead hoped to use the drone war to compel the Pakistani state to turn on the Taliban, which it has backed against the Afghan force supported by its regional rival India.

Realizing that Obama was not serious about staying in Afghanistan, Pakistan has refused to abandon its alliance with the Taliban. It hopes to support it as its “cat’s paw” in post-U.S. occupation Afghanistan. Thus, the only result of all the pressure on Pakistan has been to drive it into opposition to the U.S. and into a growing alliance with China.

Retreat from the Middle East

Nasr is even more concerned about how Obama has mismanaged U.S. imperial policy in the Middle East. Again, he contends that the administration has opted for coercion over diplomacy, with calamitous results for the aim of maintaining American hegemony over the region.

Despite the fact that Obama rose to prominence in the 2008 presidential campaign as an opponent of the Iraq war, he continued Bush’s “surge” of U.S. troops to Iraq. He continued to support Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian regime even though it lost the popular vote in the most recent Iraqi election.

The U.S. hoped that Maliki would agree to extend the American occupation. Instead, Maliki rejected the terms of a U.S.-proposed Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would have denied Iraq jurisdiction over U.S. troops. Without the SOFA, Obama was unable to extend the occupation and ignominiously withdrew U.S. troops in 2011.

As a result, Iran secured its alliance with the Shia-dominated regime in Baghdad, adding Iraq to its list of other allies in the region, including Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon–the so-called “Shia Crescent.”

According to Nasr, just as the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a choice, so was Washington’s defeat. There was a failure of diplomacy to secure an ongoing occupation, which could have eventually brokered a solution to the sectarianism.

Obama compounded his failure in Iraq with his disastrous policy toward Iran. Nasr shows that, contrary to Obama’s promise to pursue diplomatic methods with Iran over its nuclear program, all the talk of engagement has been a cover for militarist policies, with the goal of regime change. At every turn, Obama has declined opportunities for negotiation and essentially continued Bush’s policy of encirclement, covert operations and sanctions.

Nasr argues that this policy is a failure on its own terms. He contends that “Obama’s sanctions-heavy approach did not change Iranian behavior; instead, it encouraged Iran to accelerate its race to nuclear capability.” Essentially, the sanctions organized by the U.S. presents Iran with the choice of becoming a failed state or surviving by securing support from America’s imperial competitors in the region–China and Russia. Either outcome is a failure from the point of view of U.S. policy, which will exacerbate tensions and destabilize the region.

Nasr saves his most scathing criticism for Obama’s response to the Arab Spring. He criticizes Obama for never offering “a vision or a grand strategy to guide America’s response to the cascade of events unfolding in the Middle East.” Instead, Obama zigzagged between support for its dictatorial allies and at least verbal support for the mass protests, alienating both sides in these conflicts and weakening America’s influence in the process.

As a result, argues Nasr, Obama has balked at the opportunity to remake the Middle East in accord with America’s overarching neoliberal goals. He contends that Obama should have supported Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak as part of an orderly transition, used that as a model for other countries, and promised a Marshall Plan for the region on the condition that Middle Eastern regimes accept democratization and neoliberal economic reforms.

Instead, Obama used Bush’s old playbook from the “war on terror.” Nasr summarizes the strategy as follows: “Keep Egypt from getting worse, contain Iran, rely on Turkey, and build up the diplomatic and military capabilities of the Persian Gulf monarchies. In other words, play defense with regard to the Arab Spring, play offense when it comes to Iran, and maintain continuity in waging the war on terror.”

This strategy compels the U.S., in Nasr’s words, to “double down on the monarchies of the Persian Gulf and in so doing take sides in the sectarian power struggle driving the region’s conflicts.” Worst of all, Nasr fears that Obama is becoming a reluctant imperialist, as evidenced by his reluctance to intervene in the Syrian conflict–and that he is increasingly leaning toward disengagement from the Middle East through his “pivot to Asia.”

A Misconceived “Pivot to Asia”

Nasr contends that the Obama administration is right to see China as a rising rival that must be compelled to play by America’s neoliberal rules. He argues that China is a mercantile power that violates those rules, and if the U.S. isn’t careful, China can become, given its economic power, a rival that can acquire allies from the growing list of countries, like Iran and Pakistan, which the U.S. is isolating through its overly militaristic foreign policy.

But Nasr insists that Obama is making a terrible mistake by shifting out of the Middle East to Asia. He makes the point that China is not just a major power in Asia, but is increasingly active throughout the rest of the world, from Africa and Latin America to the Middle East in particular. By shifting American attention out of these regions, the U.S. is leaving them open to Chinese imperial assertion, Nasr claims.

In fact, China is itself “pivoting” from Asia to the Middle East, as it seeks relationships with countries like Iraq to secure oil supplies. China and Russia established the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes Central Asian states, but also Pakistan and Iran, as a bridge to increasing political and economic engagement with the Middle East.

That’s why Nasr argues “the Middle East remains the single most important region of the world–not because it is rich in energy, or fraught with instability and pregnant with security threats, but because it is where the great power rivalry with China will play out and where its outcome will be decided.”

To head off China’s encroachment in the Middle East, Nasr argues, the U.S. must not disengage from the region, but instead establish itself as the key mediator with all the countries and conflicts. In doing so, he believes that America can prevent countries like Pakistan, Iran and others from drifting into China’s camp.

With such an approach, Nasr believes that the U.S. can secure “a chokehold position next to China’s energy lifeline” in the Middle East. Thus, he argues that “America does not need to pivot to Asia geographically; it needs to do so conceptually. That means it must recognize the Middle East as an integral part of Asia.”

The Delusions of Liberal Imperialism

Nasr’s book is a devastating insider’s critique of the Obama administration’s inability to overcome America’s imperial crisis. But he wrongly believes that Obama’s predicament is principally subjective. In reality, the combination of imperial and economic crisis has led to the relative decline of the U.S. against potential rivals–most obviously China.

Consequently, Nasr’s claim that the U.S. can easily overcome this changing balance of power by more effective diplomacy is wishful thinking. It is hard to imagine how the U.S. will be able to re-impose the unipolar order that it achieved after the Cold War.

Moreover, Nasr’s strategy will only stoke more conflict between the U.S. and its rivals, especially China. Chinese officials reading Nar’s book will rightly conclude that the U.S. sees their country as a rising rival that must be contained. China will therefore respond as it has already been doing to Obama’s “pivot” by increasing its imperial assertiveness.

Nasr’s depiction of the U.S. as a benevolent force in the world is delusional. Throughout its history, American imperialism, from the Spanish American War to the Iraq War, has served its capitalist class to the detriment of the majority of the world’s population. And since the end of the Cold War, its pursuit of a unipolar neoliberal order has led to class polarization, economic crisis and, now, increasing conflict between it and China.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the Middle East, where the U.S., through both soft power and hard power, has backed the Arab autocracies alongside Israel, and pushed them toward neoliberal economic policies that have impoverished the region’s population. It has long been the enemy of peace, democracy and equality.

The U.S. also bears an enormous amount of responsibility for the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia populations and states in the region. When it invaded and occupied Iraq, it divided the Sunni and Shia resistance in order to conquer both. The U.S. thereby deepened the sectarian division that led to the catastrophic civil war in Iraq. Then, after the U.S. left Iraq, it backed Sunni autocracies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar to combat what it called the “Shia Crescent,” effectively regionalizing Iraq’s civil war.

Given this track record, the last thing the people of the Middle East need is any kind of intervention–soft or hard–by U.S. imperialism. And they certainly won’t benefit from the increasing intervention by other rising imperial powers like China or Russia, who while smaller powers than the U.S. are just as predatory.

Instead, the hope for a better future lies in the rebellion from below of workers and peasants against U.S. imperialism and any other. Only through such mass struggle from below can we forge a new left to fight for a new world that puts people before profit and empire.

• This article first appeared at

Ashley Smith is a writer and activist from Burlington, Vermont. He writes frequently for Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Review. He can be reached at Read other articles by Ashley.