It is revealing that two former Obama administration officials have become critics of current US policy in the Middle East. Both are respected academics, have a high profile in media, and have argued that Washington is not using all the instruments at its disposal to advance its political interests in the region.
The first is Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University, who has denounced the administration's policy in Syria. Slaughter, who served as director of policy planning at the US State Department between 2009 and 2011, has lamented President Barack Obama's lethargy. Theodore Roosevelt once said, "Speak softly and carry a big stick", she writes, but Obama's predisposition in Syria has been to "speak loudly and throw away your stick".
Slaughter is no neoconservative who opposes the president on ideological grounds. But like Vali Nasr, the second one-time official ill at ease with Obama's disinterest in the Middle East, she is concerned that the US risks no longer standing for much in the world. Nasr, a former adviser to Richard Holbrooke, the late US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, came away disillusioned from his experience, and has just published The Dispensable Nation, on the absence of a coherent US policy in the broader Middle East. Exiled from Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution, Nasr is currently dean of John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC, and one of America's most authoritative commentators on international relations.
In his introduction, Nasr writes that he thought long and hard about writing his book, as he did not want it to become a "political bludgeon". Whatever his intentions, the book is a devastating broadside against Obama's approach to a region at the centre of his predecessor's preoccupations. What makes the book so effective is that it rises above the limiting neocon versus realist dichotomy prevailing during the George W Bush years, and addresses the topic squarely from the realist perspective favoured by the president.
Nasr argues, first, that the Obama administration has concentrated foreign policy decisions in the White House, giving undue authority to two groups of people with limited experience in the matter: the president's coterie of political advisers, who based their decisions on how foreign policy issues would play at home; and the military and intelligence agencies, who offered "swift and dynamic, as well as media-attracting, action …"
The loser in this context was the foreign policy establishment, the experienced hands such as Holbrooke and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who time and again found themselves rectifying administration errors. What they unsuccessfully sought to advance, Nasr writes, is a "patient, long-range, credible diplomacy that garners the respect of our allies and their support when we need it".
Nasr is calling for something that is indeed woefully lacking under Obama: a cohesive foreign policy strategy that integrates and gives meaning to American actions in the Middle East and South Asia. Instead, Obama's administration has seemed without direction, avoiding decisive decisions in crises demanding urgent action, while expressing grand ambitions - such as working to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict - that it makes no serious effort to fulfil.
Instead, the administration's tendency has been to "lead from behind", which speaks volumes about Obama's desire to have his cake and eat it too. The president is a man who avoids taking political risks - a tendency Nasr has particularly seen in US policy towards Iran, Afghanistan and the Arab world - his perennial caution suffocating his ability to exploit valuable political openings.