Vali of Doom
The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat
By Vali Nasr
Doubleday, 320 pages
Hell hath no fury like a government staffer scorned. Every U.S. administration suffers its share of painful defections: political appointees who, after quitting or being pushed out of their posts, take to the public sphere to vent grievance, expose scandal, or air internal disputes. For the Clinton White House, there was the Dick Morris headache. The George W. Bush administration had to contend with Colin Powell and Scott McClellan, among others. But what about the Obama administration, with its ironclad political discipline? Thus far the most damaging defection for the 44th president has been that of Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American international-relations professor who shook the Beltway last March when he took to the pages of Foreign Policy magazine to claim that the Obama White House had lost Afghanistan through a combination of incompetence and cravenness.
From 2009 to 2011, Nasr was a senior adviser to the late Richard Holbrooke at the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. This experience informs The Dispensable Nation, the book from which Nasr’s now famous Foreign Policy essay was excerpted. Nasr’s revelations are indeed explosive: As soon as he and Holbrooke—the architect of the 1995 Dayton peace accords that settled the Bosnian War—entered the cockpit of “AfPak” policy, they found themselves sidelined and frustrated by the White House. Obama was determined to prevent Holbrooke from negotiating with the Taliban or finding a broader regional solution to the conflict, Nasr alleges, because the president feared the electoral impact back home of being seen as soft on the enemy. When it comes to foreign policy, Nasr says, Obama’s “principal aim is not to make strategic decisions but to satisfy public opinion.”
The appeal of this charge to critics of the administration, coming as it does from an insider—and a mild-mannered professor to boot—is obvious. Nasr, who today serves as dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, has long cultivated the image of the consummate expert: smooth and erudite, high-toned and serious. But is Nasr in fact as nonideological as he appears?
Holbrooke selected Nasr as an adviser notwithstanding the fact that Nasr’s main areas of expertise are Iran and Shia politics. As Nasr recounts in The Dispensable Nation, the two men immediately hit it off upon first meeting in 2006. When Holbrooke was tapped to serve as SRAP in 2009, he called on Nasr to join his team. Holbrooke, Nasr says, “knew I preferred to work on the Middle East, and in particular on Iran.” Nevertheless the legendary diplomat urged him to dive into the AfPak morass. “This [Afghanistan and Pakistan] matters more,” Holbrooke insisted, according to Nasr. “This is what the president is focused on. This is where you want to be.”
Holbrooke’s tenure at SRAP was troubled from the outset and cut tragically short in December 2010, when he died of an aortic dissection. But perhaps we should be thankful to him for his last (unintended) act of public service: namely, keeping Nasr from directly weighing in on the Iranian problem from within the executive branch—a development that undoubtedly would have pushed the Obama administration’s already failed approach to the Islamic Republic into the catastrophic zone. For when it comes to Iran, Nasr is the most articulate—and therefore most pernicious—proponent of bowing to Tehran’s hegemonic aspirations in the Middle East. Indeed, a close examination of Nasr’s work reveals him to be the progenitor or key amplifier of some of the most persistent myths that in recent years have distorted U.S. policy toward Iran.
“The road to foreign policy disasters,” Nasr begins his book’s chapter on Iran, “is paved with false assumptions that…can take the quality of self-evident truths.” That’s probably true. The trouble is that the author’s own thinking on Iran is riddled with such assumptions, which in turn give rise to a flawed and self-contradictory account of the U.S.–Iranian conflict. If one reads Nasr closely, Iran is both an unstoppable rising hegemon and a threat that the United States and its allies can easily contain; Tehran’s leaders are both radical Islamists and pragmatic stakeholders who merely use religious rhetoric to mask legitimate national aspirations; and U.S.–Iran relations are a two-way street, but the superpower is the only party with any moral agency.
It’s a narrative that, thanks in large part to Nasr’s aura of disinterested expertise, has filtered down to the journalistic realm and up to the policymaking arena. So it’s worth unpacking some of these shibboleths as they appear in The Dispensable Nation and in Nasr’s other writings.
Nasr has long argued that the balance of sectarian forces in the Middle East is shifting in favor of the long-suppressed minority Shias. This was the central thesis of his previous work, The Shia Revival. The long-term decline of the Sunni-Arab world, combined with the U.S.-led removal of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni dictatorship, he argued, triggered a Shia awakening that is rapidly altering the shape of power in the region, with most of the resulting dividends accruing to Shia-majority Iran. In 2006, when The Shia Revival was published, radical Shia insurgents were wreaking havoc on the newly liberated country. The same year, Israel fought Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese-Shia militia, to a bloody stalemate.
These developments made Nasr’s “Shia revival” thesis look powerful and prescient. More recent events, however, have embarrassed his predictions. With the exception of the failed Shia uprising in Bahrain, the Arab Spring has been a Sunni phenomenon. With brutal assistance from Saudi security forces, Bahrain’s al-Khalifa dynasty crushed its Shia opposition. Meanwhile, Syria’s sectarian civil war has arrayed sundry Sunni forces, secular and Islamist—not to mention Arab public opinion—against Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite regime and its Shia backers in Tehran and southern Lebanon.
In his new book, Nasr barely acknowledges the blows dealt by history to his theory. That’s because he is deeply invested in the view that Iran is still the most dynamic force in the Middle East and that, therefore, the United States must accommodate its hegemonic designs on the region. “Washington…concluded that Iran was the big loser in the Arab Spring,” he writes in The Dispensable Nation. “America saw the crisis in Syria for the most part as a strategic loss for Iran (which it was).” But—and here the absurdity of Nasr’s picture of the region is laid bare—“that closed the door to talking to Iran on Syria, which would have led to an early resolution of the crisis. Failing to do so put regional stability at risk.”
Set aside the moral frame of such counsel: How can the mullahs—who early on dispatched members of their murderous Quds Force to assist Assad with suppressing the Syrian rebellion—play the part of honest brokers in a spiraling sectarian conflict, let alone help enforce the terms of whatever settlement might have been negotiated between the rebels and the Alawite regime?
The Iran-as-unstoppable-hegemon theme is so central to Nasr’s outlook that it impels him to make outlandish claims in the face of evidence that the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis is on its knees. The Arab Spring, he insists, looks “very different” from the ayatollahs’ perspective:
Democracy in the Arab world proved fleeting….What came out of the Arab Spring would hurt America more than Iran: Islamic fundamentalism and, even worse, Salafism were on the rise, threatening stability and pro-Western regimes that have protected it. The Arab Spring was a cauldron of instability, and that would affect American interests more than Iranian ones—even Syria, Iran thought, could prove more calamitous to America’s allies in the region than to Iran. The value of the Arab Spring to Iran is that it will ensnare America in conflicts and distractions; Iran is not as weak as America thinks, because America is not as strong as it thinks.
Here again Nasr makes sweeping and unfalsifiable claims about the regional state of play. And as with The Shia Revival, the message is that Iran is ultimately indomitable: Even Tehran’s defeats are more calamitous for the U.S. bloc than for the mullahs.
When describing Iran’s internal dynamics and external behavior, Nasr takes care not to sound like a crude apologist for the Islamic Republic. In The Dispensable Nation, he readily admits that “anti-Americanism is embedded in the ideological fabric of the Islamic Republic”; that “Iran has continually dabbled in terrorism”; and that “Iran has given radical Palestinian factions substantial material support.” Nasr says that “Iran’s leaders know in their bones that their system of government and view of the world are anomalies in a global order that reflects the American imagination far more than it does their own.”
Yet it quickly becomes apparent that these preemptive concessions function as a sort of political throat-clearing. Having conceded that anti-Americanism is the regime’s very raison d’être, Nasr nevertheless goes on to paint a picture of the U.S.–Iran conflict in which the mullahs are constantly offering olive branches, only to be dismissed, first by warmongering Bush-administration officials and now by an Obama White House too cowardly to say yes to peace. Thus Nasr rehashes the old yarn about a secret 2003 memo allegedly transmitted by the mullahs to Washington via the Swiss ambassador to Tehran, in which, the author claims, “Iran offered comprehensive negotiations on all outstanding issues between the two countries” and even committed itself to ending “its support for radical Palestinian groups” and affirming the 2002 Saudi proposal for a comprehensive agreement between the Arabs and Israel. The so-called Guldimann memo, of course, was too good to be true: The document’s author turned out to be the activist Swiss ambassador himself, and the Iranians have never offered anything similar before or since.
As Nasr sees it, Obama has continued and even intensified the hawkish policies of the Bush administration since first coming to office—despite more positive outreach by Iran. What about the president’s Persian New Year postcard to Iran, to which Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei responded by threatening that the “divine laws” would change the Great Satan unless it changed its ways on its own? Nasr saw a silver lining: “The significance…lay not in what Khamenei said but in his answering at all”—akin to the domestic-violence victim who thinks beatings are something to be thankful for since they are really the abuser’s way of communicating and expressing love.
Khamenei is at the center of Nasr’s more sophisticated brand of Iran apologetics. He writes of the theocrat-in-chief in reverential tones. He has praised the leader’s “austere lifestyle” in a 2007 Washington Post op-ed. In the same article, Nasr also claimed that Khamenei “says that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic but heartily approves of the knowledge and fuel required to build them” and “has not been averse to talking to Washington.” According to Nasr, Khamenei represents a responsible strain in the Islamic Republic’s leadership—whereas President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is behind the country’s “politics of defiance,” as Nasr put it in another 2007 op-ed. Six years later in The Dispensable Nation—and notwithstanding six years’ worth of crazed Iranian rhetoric, Holocaust denial, terror plots on U.S. soil and in Europe, and the relentless progress on the nuclear front—Nasr maintains this understated admiration for the figure of Khamenei. “In 2012, as domestic pressure to build the bomb continued to intensify,” Nasr writes, the leader “repeated his 1995 fatwa declaring nuclear weapons a ‘great sin.’” Iran won’t move from nuclear capacity to actual nukes, he wrote in a 2012 column for Bloomberg View, “if the supreme leader’s fatwa is any guide.”
This, then, is the basis of Nasr’s optimism about Iran: that Shia Islam moderates Tehran’s leaders. Never mind that Iran’s leaders violate all sorts of other religious edicts in the quest for domination at home and abroad. Never mind, too, that the Islamic Republic’s fundamental theory of governance holds that earthly rulers can ignore, alter, or violate divine doctrines should expedience require it. The possible existence of a fatwa—which a Shia jurisprudent can scuttle or overwrite at any time—suffices for Nasr to stop worrying and learn to love the Iranian bomb. Call it a “hail Mahdi.”