The Obama administration is neglecting the Middle East and allowing China and Russia to expand influence in the region due to a flawed foreign policy strategy that could have long-term detrimental impacts for American power, a former Obama administration official said Tuesday.
“I think there’s a fundamental assumption this administration has made that the Middle East doesn’t matter,”said Vali Nasr during a panel discussion promoting his new book “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat” at the Brookings Institution.
Nasr’s book draws on his experience working as a senior adviser for the late Richard Holbrooke.
The current dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Nasr said the administration has sought “to downgrade the Middle East as important to global politics and American foreign policy,” and has not used its full influence to support democracy movements during the Arab spring and to support the Syrian rebellion.
“This is couched in the pivot-to-Asia language, but it’s become the bedrock of our approach to the region,” he said.
While Nasr said he does not believe “that the Chinese are gunning to replace us” in the Middle East, he does see a “rising strategic concern [for China]” in the region.
“They need the energy,” he said. “The energy comes from central Asia, comes from the Persian Gulf.”
China has been making significant investments in building infrastructure, including pipelines and ports, aimed at bringing minerals and oil out of the Middle East, Nasr said.
Brookings senior fellow Robert Kagan, who has critiqued the idea of inevitable American decline, pushed back on parts of Nasr’s argument during the discussion.
“Far be it from me to defend the Obama administration,” said Kagan. “[But] the missing part of your story so far is, what is the situation that Obama inherited?”
Kagan said the economic crisis could have discouraged the Obama administration from making a larger investment in Arab spring democratization and added that there was “a real [domestic] unhappiness with the policies that had been conducted by the previous administration, rightly or wrongly, in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Nasr responded that the administration still has a responsibility to “push back against domestic sentiments.”
“You don’t have the luxury of saying you can hit a pause button on foreign policy because you have domestic issues or you have a fatigue,” he said.
Nasr also criticized the U.S. surge in Afghanistan, which he said was unsustainable and signaled to the Taliban that America did not have the stamina for a long-term fight.
“The way that we conducted this war essentially was that there is no victory and there is no political settlement,” he said.
While acknowledging the constraints the financial crisis placed on the administration, Nasr argued for a scaled-back approach to Afghanistan that he said would have been more sustainable.
“Three months, two months of the war in Afghanistan would have been transformative in Egypt,” he said.