Misreading Obama

Looking back, Vali Nasr's Dispensable Nation has turned out quite wrong.

Vali Nasr doesn’t think very highly of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. In his book Dispensable Nation, Nasr charges the President with foreign-policy malpractice, flouting basic standards of American international leadership. To catch an administration in this kind of flagrant incompetence is quite scathing stuff, and especially juicy coming from one who served in that very government.

Unless, of course, the critique actually represents the author’s mere disagreement with the policy rather than the administration’s violation of objective principles. Nasr slams his former colleagues for being blind to realities in today’s world, when they simply see the world differently. And in at least one case, the Iranian nuclear program, the months since the book’s publication have put Nasr’s analysis to the test.

The interim deal reached recently in Geneva does no more than lay the groundwork for a possible diplomatic resolution. Yet according to Nasr’s confident appraisal of the policies in Washington and Tehran, we shouldn’t even have been able to reach this point. From the American side, a president hypersensitive about any perceived softness had supposedly backed himself into a corner—turning down multiple diplomatic openings in favor of sanctions, threats of force, and even more sanctions. Meanwhile, Washington’s heavy reliance on pressure tactics could only stiffen Iranian leaders’ resistance to compromise:

For some time now, the Obama administration has lamented the security forces’ growing control over decision making in Tehran. But that is the consequence of saber rattling. Talk of war does not empower moderates and reformers.

Nasr misreads Obama policy by treating its alignment with the views of traditional US allies in the region as more significant than the differences in approach. The author correctly highlights worries in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states that Iran would “talk and enrich”—going through the diplomatic motions to buy time—a concern that the Obama administration indeed shares. The difference lies in how this concern manifests in policy and decisions about returning to the negotiating table.

Rather than being fundamentally leery of diplomacy or setting impossible preconditions, President Obama has held out for signs of Iranian seriousness to avoid the trap of sham negotiations. The overtures from the newly elected Iranian government met that test, leading to the Geneva interim agreement. And as for saber rattling, the author gives President Obama due credit for boldly resisting a rush to war in spring 2012, though obviously such credit is missing from the passage quoted above. Then in terms of internal power shifts and Iranian domestic politics, Nasr rules out the very scenario that has just transpired: an election with a popular mandate to reach a nuclear deal and the supreme leader’s backing of prominent reformers to pursue it.

By Nasr’s reckoning, the international support that the Obama administration mobilized to pressure Iran is a blot on its record, not a reason for pride. Nasr sees the United States on the losing end of the bargain:

To get Russia to say yes to sanctions, Obama stopped talking about democracy and human rights in Russia (until 2012 when Russians took to the streets to protest Putin’s ham-fisted victory at the polls), abandoned any thought of expanding NATO further eastward, washed his hands of the missile-defense shield that had been planned for Europe (Moscow hated the shield), and betrayed tiny Georgia...

China could build a global company on the back of Iranian oil. Since 2009, while supporting sanctions, publicly calling on Iran to cooperate on the nuclear issue, and warming up to Saudi Arabia, China has expanded its trade with Iran ... [sanctions] have pushed Iran further into China’s bosom, and China is far from unhappy about that.

From here Nasr expects matters to get much worse. Because the Obama administration has been too solicitous a coalition-builder on Iranian nukes instead of engaging the geopolitical struggle for control over energy resources, Nasr expects Russia and China to gain ascendancy in the Middle East—and, along with it, a chokehold on vital energy supplies. So while President Obama was patting himself on the back for forging a unified front of the international community, he was actually opening the way for a Sino-Russian Century.

There is certainly no mistaking the high-contrast nature of this dispute; either Barack Obama or Vali Nasr is laboring under a major set of illusions. So what shifts in perspective are required in order to join Nasr? The diplomatic struggle over the obligations and penalties of international norms must be recognized as mere posturing when compared with the real action of geostrategic competition. The importance of preventing Iran from getting the bomb has been overhyped, or at least isn’t worth the payment of significant inducements for Chinese and Russian support. Former president Medvedev, the Russian interlocutor for the key period, was not a genuine figure of reform and moderation. It is a good idea to have a missile shield that would undercut Russian confidence in its deterrent—because Russia is a more worrisome threat than Iran, I guess. And the deal over Iran sanctions kept the US from rolling back Russian intervention in Georgia’s internal affairs.