Saturday, May 21, 2011

Foreign Policy, the 'Say-Do' Gap, and Strategic Choices in the Mid East

Admiral Mike Mullen first really impressed me when he issued a much needed corrective to the concept of "strategic communications" as it had developed in military circles over the course of OEF and OIF. I cant count the number of times serious military officers would say to me in frustration that if we could just tell the story of what we were doing more effectively, then we would be so much closer to success. This is an understandable frustration because they know when they are doing good work in their AO and they rightly want friend and foe to know how effective they are being. The problem really lies at the strategic level.
Strategic communication should be an enabling function that guides and informs our decisions and not an organization unto itself.
We hurt ourselves more when our words don’t align with our actions...
I would argue that most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all. They are policy and execution problems... We need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate. 
America's greatest strength is its soft power - the attraction of the ideas underpinning the Republic. We live in an imperfect union but unlike so many other places around the world, we have committed ourselves to some universal principles and we daily make the effort to strive towards their attainment. Sometimes we have difficulty in coming to grips with the fact that other peoples are not always as motivated to adopt the universal principles which we strive so hard to keep alive here at home.

We can overreach when our enthusiasm to propagate what we see as self-evidently good exceeds the capacity or the will of others to embrace and live universal values. As a superpower (for now) the US sometimes experiences both domestic and international tension when our ideals have rubbed up against our national interests. These two great forces in international affairs are infrequently in alignment. To outsiders this can make us look hypocritical and create a 'say-do' gap.

The difference between our positions on Libya, Syria and Bahrain perfectly illustrate this conundrum. Libya is strategically and economically (oil) irrelevant. The Libyan operation is almost entirely a humanitarian one. The US also got involved in part to support the President of France who had done so much to repair NATO by reintegrating French forces into the alliance fighting in Afghanistan. President Sarkozy took up the humanitarian mission and really ran with it. Both he and President Obama (via Samantha Power) were adamant that they would not have another Rwanda on their hands. I do not think that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Rwanda is the right historical rhyme (pace Mark Twain) but that is another essay in its own right.

By contrast, Syria is strategically pivotal with respect to a series of critical issues and bad actors on the world stage. Hamas, Hezbollah, Lebanon, and Middle East peace, are all intimately linked to Syria. If the Arab spring really takes off in Syria where a minority Shia dictatorship is in power - Iran's ability to make trouble in the region would take a very serious hit. Perhaps a change so close to home might rekindle the Persian spring of 2009? Iran is a far greater prize than Gaddafi. I wonder if a strategic comparison between the cost/benefit of action in Syria instead of Libya was contemplated in the White House?

Finally, due to its proximity to Saudi Arabia's eastern oil fields, its Shia majority, and Iranian efforts to destabilize Bahrain, pure realpolitik is in play. When a humanitarian friend sent me this video on the political scene in Bahrain I could not help but respond by asking him what the cost of a gallon of gas was in the country where he lived. He did not get the irony.

It is in this complex context that the President's Middle East speech has upset so many different interests and actors. But I think it was a courageous speech that took head on a number of key dilemma's where actions and words have for so long been in tension. First, I thought it was interesting that he talked about "the self-determination of individuals" - this is a radical but logical step from his predecessor Woodrow Wilson's equally radical idea that in many ways accounts for decades of post colonial strife all around the world - but also much subsequent progress.

In the 21st century, information is power, the truth cannot be hidden, and the legitimacy of governments will ultimately depend on active and informed citizens. 
After Gorbachev decided he would not use hard power to stop the people of Eastern Europe determining their own future, as his predecessors did on so many occasions, the floodgates were open for change at the individual level - and it seems only a matter of time for the hold outs. The Mahatma was really on to something.
Let me be clear, America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard, even if we disagree with them. And sometimes we profoundly disagree with them.
This is pure America. This passage is a master stoke - it praises those who sought change through peaceful resistance. It criticizes the regimes that would seek to crush them. It makes the moral canvas clear. But can it be supported in the instance of Bahrain? The President deftly implies that Iran has provoked trouble there by force, thereby delegitimating the protesters by reference to the kingdom's desire to restore law and order. As rhetoric goes, its clever stuff. It almost balances principle with interests.

Finally, the president charts a new course on how the US intends to fund change.
We think it's important to focus on trade, not just aid; on investment, not just assistance.
I have to say I am quite taken by the criticism of the aid machine. Too often the US answer to a problem is to give money - public or private - to a cause. Microfinance is so exciting because it enables people to help themselves. Where ever initiatives can crop up that push that particular ball down the road it should be seriously considered.

Israel's reaction. I understand that Israeli's might be fearful of all that apparent instability right now and in the short term, things could take a turn for the worse very easily, but the longer view is a great one for them. All those seeking change want a future where their societies resemble the West more than they resemble Taliban-led Afghanistan. Transitions are fraught times but after decades of stalemate the Israeli's need to be strong and have the vision to use the moment to reach for a brighter future. If the last ten years haven't taught us that only a people can seek their destiny, it cant be forced from outside, then we have learned nothing. Wild cards can happen but I am cautiously optimistic. According to all IR theory, Indonesia should have gone down in a ball of flames in the late 90s. The opposite happened, against all odds. Everyone expects the worst from the ME, maybe the Israeli's need to stop worrying and chill. Either way, the Israeli's are spectators on this one.

No comments:

Post a Comment