Barack Obama is a “dithering” president whose ways of control and extreme risk-averse attitude to foreign policy has damaged US interests in the Middle East, claims a new book by a senior former State Department adviser.
The insider account of the damaging divisions between the White House and the State Department comes as diplomats wait to see whether John Kerry, the new US secretary of state, can persuade the US president to show greater engagement on Syria, Egypt and the wider Middle East.
Vali Nasr, a university professor who was seconded in 2009 to work with Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, recalls his disillusion at how domestic-focused advisers was erected to protect the US president.
“The president had a truly disturbing habit of funnelling major foreign policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers whose turf was strictly politics,” Mr Nasr writes in The Dispensable Nation: America Foreign policy in Retreat.
The book reveals the details how Mr Holbrooke, appointed four years ago, was systematically cut out of decision making as both he and Hillary Clinton discussed the level of engaging with the Taliban and the dangers caused by the overuse of drones.
“The White House seemed to see an actual benefit in not doing too much,” Prof Nasr writes, “The goal was to spare the president the risks that necessarily come with playing the leadership role that America claims to play in this region.”
Admiral Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is quoted in the book regretting of miserable support the former Secretary of State received from the administration, even though she remained on good terms with the president.
“They want to control everything,” Admiral Mullen is quoted as saying of a White House that Prof Nasr says longed to manage foreign policy, even by the to-be-expected standards of turf wars between diplomatic and national security teams, The Telegraph reports.
Analysts said they have found little signs that the US president intends to be more involved in foreign policy in his second term, judging by his Second Inaugural speech and last month’s State of the Union address.
“American foreign policy has been on a four-year autopilot, which I argue has been excessively risk averse and domestically focused. I don’t see any clear decision yet to change that,” said Mr Nasr in an interview.
“I wrote this book to problematise the way Obama has approached this whole region, and that it is dangerous to disengage and confuse a low-level foreign policy with success in foreign policy,” he concluded.
“My hope is that Kerry will be able to do more, but it is still early. He’s definitely trying to create more US engagement, but there has to be a fundamental, strategic decision in the White House to reorientate our approach.”