"The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat" by Vali Nasr, Doubleday, 300 pages. Hardcover, $28.95.CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Growing tensions in the Middle East seem increasingly complex, making it difficult to figure out what the United States should do.
Media coverage typically downplays or overlooks real problems and real solutions. An "exclusively military approach to foreign policy" does not work, says Vali Nasr, a native of Iran who became an American diplomat, in his new book "The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat."
Strong diplomacy and economic relations are critical to influencing other countries and cultivating less confrontational relationships. Focusing on "soft power" is critical to rescuing "American foreign policy from the path to confrontation," Nasr writes.
Born in Tehran in 1960, Nasr is now dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Between 2009 and 2011, Nasr was a senior adviser to the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, our "special representative" in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nasr is also a Brookings Institution fellow.
The American military, Nasr stresses, must continue to play a key role in foreign policy.
But the U.S. "has relied more on war (and nowadays on drones) than on trade. ... We should be a participant in the flow of regional politics and not just a military arbiter," Nasr writes.
Looking at the Middle East "through the narrow lens of counterterrorism" will fail to achieve social stability and long-term peace.
Nasr writes about the dangers of extreme economic pressure turning Iranian society into disarray -- a point almost never made during any media or political debates.
Even if solutions are sometimes unclear, or if readers disagree with some of Nasr's thoughts, "The Dispensable Nation" raises intriguing and important questions the American public tends to ignore.
Some may believe he is too critical of Obama. But his questions must be addressed to have any hope for long-term peace.
Nasr believes our current foreign policies are closely tied to domestic politics.
Throughout the debates about Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine and other nations, Obama has been "very concerned with shielding his right flank so as not to open himself to right-wing criticism. It is not going too far to say that American foreign policy had become completely subservient to tactical domestic consideration."
@bod:"The Dispensable Nation" reports how Barack Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan, giving little attention to diplomacy and politics in that long-divided nation.
"A commitment to finding a political settlement to the war would have put diplomacy front and center and organized military and intelligence operations in Afghanistan to support it.
"But the White House was not buying," Nasr writes. "The military wanted to stay in charge, and going against the military would make the president look weak."
Holbrooke, a longtime diplomat and friend of Hillary Clinton, "thought the impulse to hand over foreign policy to the military was a mistake," Nasr writes. "There was going to be fighting in Afghanistan, but diplomacy alone could bring that war to a satisfactory end."
But U.S. military leaders opposed reconciliation and negotiation as keys to solving growing hostilities in the Middle East.
"Talking to enemies was a good campaign sound bite," Nasr adds, "but once in power Obama was too skittish to try it."
No one in the administration, except for Hillary Clinton, agreed with Holbrooke when he pushed for talks and negotiations with Iranian leaders.
Nasr, like Holbrooke, believes the U.S. government should focus its primary attention on diplomacy, not on threats and sanctions to coerce other countries to comply with our policies and goals.
U.S. sanctions imposed on Iraq during the 1990s, Nasr points out, did nothing to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Those sanctions also cost the lives of tens of thousands of impoverished Iraqi children.
Obama never capitalized on the Arab Spring, the recent grass roots democratic protests, nonviolent and violent, that erupted in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, beginning in December 2010.
Nasr argues Obama never really promoted democratic governments in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a result, "We now rely even more heavily than before on our old authoritarian allies, the Persian Gulf monarchs" in countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait.
Intervention and colonialism