by Sherard Cowper-Coles

Vali Nasr is a good man, but this is not a good book. In early 2009, Nasr, one of America's greatest experts on Shia Islam in general, and Iran in particular, was asked by Richard Holbrooke to join the team supporting America's new Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Nasr spent nearly two years with Holbrooke, until his untimely death, in harness, in December 2010. This book is the fruit of Nasr's time working with and for one of the greatest American diplomats of recent times.

The first, and better, half of the book is a partial account of Nasr's rollercoaster ride in the 'creative chaos' of Holbrooke's SRAP shop, squeezed into a suite of offices beside the State Department canteen. Much of this rings true.

Nasr paints a persuasive picture of Holbrooke's anarchic style, of his conviction that, on its own, a military-heavy strategy could not work (as Holbrooke knew from his time as a junior diplomat working in and on Vietnam), and of the good relations between Holbrooke and Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State at the time.

Where this part of the book strains credulity, however, is in its Manichean depiction of Holbrooke and Clinton as all good, and of Obama and the White House team as all bad.

Even Holbrooke's greatest admirers -- of whom I count myself one -- knew that he had faults, of egoism and insensitivity to others that alienated important potential allies in Washington, Kabul and beyond. If Clinton had backed Holbrooke rather than the generals in the dispute over whether to fight and then talk, or do both at the same time, Obama might well have felt obliged to come down on the right side.

The two chapters Nasr devotes to Afghanistan, followed by one each on Pakistan and Iran, offer plenty of genuine insights about the Obama administration's fumbling conduct of what the presidential candidate had called 'the good war'.

On the fundamentals, Nasr's instincts are surely right. But the account still comes across as thin and somewhat selective, full of assertions supported only by Nasr's black and white view of relations between the State Department and others in Washington.

The same theme dominates the even less satisfactory second half of the book. In a sharp change of gear, Nasr shifts from an insider account of Af-Pak policy to a more general download of his views on the Obama administration's performance in relation to the wider Middle East.

Here too the tone is highly critical. In Nasr's view, Obama's failure satisfactorily to end the war in Afghanistan has combined with his failure properly to engage on other issues -- Iraq, the Arab Spring, Israel/Palestine, the challenge of China -- to speed up America's retreat from the world.

Nasr makes virtually no allowance for the domestic political and economic pressures on the President. For him, it is only the lack of political will in Obama's White House that stands between America's long recessional and a reassertion of US leadership in the Middle East that could do so much to right the region's wrongs, and shut China out.

If only the Middle East, if only history, if only the American Republic's conduct of its foreign affairs, were that simple. Nasr's book is essential reading but, sadly, it is far from the essential truth.


Available at

The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat


Sherard Cowper-Coles served as Britain's Afghan envoy 2007-10. His memoir 'Ever the Diplomat' is published by HarperPress

Article: Copyright ©, Tribune Content Agency.

Book Review - Unfair Obama Bashing - The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat