Vali Nasr

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Vali Nasr

The Diplomat’s Zachary Keck spoke with Vali Nasr, Dean of The Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and author of the new book The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.

book-jacket200 In the book, you are highly critical of the Obama administrations decision in 2011 to give up on a strategic partnership with Pakistan, and instead seek a transactional relationship. Your criticism is based largely on the negative impact this had on U.S. counterterrorism operations and interest in a stable Pakistan. However, Im curious to know if you believe this policy, whatever its other faults, has made any appreciable difference in Washingtons relationship with India. In other words, has giving up on Pakistan made it easier for the U.S. to enhance ties with India, and ultimately do you believe having a strategic relationship with both Pakistan and India was ever possible?

U.S. relations with India have been strong for some time. It reached its height after the Bush administration signed a civilian nuclear deal with India. Since then trade ties have deepened the relationship, and now India features prominently in America's plans for rebalancing its policy in Asia, and containing Chinese power there. U.S. strategic dialogue with Pakistan was designed to influence Pakistan's policy on Afghanistan and counter-terrorism by giving Islamabad a real incentive in changing course and recalibrating its strategic calculus. That outcome would have benefited India. U.S. approach to Pakistan was not then at the cost of India, nor modeled to rival U.S. ties to India, but to achieve same results as sought by India. Finally, in 2009-2011, the U.S. attached Pakistan to its Afghanistan policy–as captured in the term AfPak–and not to its India policy which is now closer to U.S.' Asia policy.

There seems to be a growing sentiment among regional experts, yourself included, that sectarianism is on the march in the Middle East, with potential explosive consequences for the U.S., the region and the world. Can the U.S. have much impact on reversing this trend without fundamentally reorienting its adversarial relationship with Iran? If so, how can it have this impact, and if not what should it do in response to address the issue?

Sectarian conflict is both volatile and potentially damaging to the Middle East's stability. The U.S. can neither reverse this trend nor should it try to use it–it is not an issue Americans understand very well. And at the extremes of it sit Iran and Al-Qaeda, neither desired power brokers in Washington. However, the U.S. would do well not to inflame the problem and prevent sectarian conflagration by supporting stability in Iraq and Lebanon and helping end Syria's civil war sooner rather than later and in a manner that would enjoy regional support rather than further divide the region.

You base the books central argument that the U.S. should maintain a robust presence in the Middle East in no small part on the need to counter Chinas growing influence in that region. What would you say to those who might wonder whether given that extra-regional powers have always struggled in the Middle EastBeijings engagement in the Middle East will be more of a drain on its resources than anything else?

We don't know how China would navigate crises in the Middle East, but whether the Middle East drains China's resources or not, we have to be clear whether we are reconciled to what greater Chinese economic, political and ultimately military role in the region may mean, and how it will effect issues we care about: stability and security of our allies, our own security, and the price and supply of oil, which will be important to our allies and the global economy.

Finally, in the book you, like so many others, express a great admiration for your former boss at the State Department, Richard Holbrooke. If you had to choose one thing, what would you say is the most important lesson people making U.S. foreign policy could take away from his example.

The greatest lesson people can take from Holbrooke is having a strategy and then a plan of action to realize it–having a sense of the big picture before getting bogged down in details; and understanding that engagement is important–working the problem face to face and patiently. You have interests, others have interests, solution rests in finding the common ground and that only happens by looking for it.