'Controlling, dithering Obama left foreign policy on autopilot'
Ex-adviser has written scathing account of White House politics, says Peter Foster in Washington
Barack Obama is a "dithering" president whose controlling tendencies and extreme risk-averse attitude to foreign policy have damaged American interests in the Middle East, according to 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 if John Kerry, the new US secretary of state, can persuade Mr Obama 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, Mr Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, records his profound disillusion at how a "Berlin Wall" of domestic-focused advisers was erected to protect Mr Obama.
"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 sets out in detail how Mr Holbrooke, appointed in 2009, was systematically cut out of decision making as he and Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, tried to argue the merits 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."
Adml Mike Mullen, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until September 2011, is quoted lamenting how little support Mrs Clinton received from the White House, even though she remained on good personal terms with Mr Obama.
"They want to control everything," Adml Mullen is quoted as saying of a White House that Prof Nasr says was "ravenous" in its desire to manage foreign policy.
As Mr Kerry prepares to return home from his first trip abroad in his new role, Western diplomats in Washington said he had been "left under no illusion" by his European allies of the desire for greater action in Syria, but it was still far from clear if the White House was serious about stepping up aid.
Analysts looking for signs that Mr Obama might be more engaged on foreign policy in his second term found little to suggest a change of heart in 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," said Mr Nasr.
"I don't see any clear decision yet to change that. 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.
"My hope is that Kerry will be able to do more ... 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." (© Daily Telegraph, London)