Wishful Thinking

Top 10 examples of the most unrealistic expectations in contemporary U.S. foreign policy.


A realistic foreign policy seeks to deal with the world as it is, shorn of political illusions. Realists emphasize that even close allies often have conflicting interests, that cooperation between states is difficult to achieve or sustain, and that the conduct of nations is frequently shaped by some combination of fear, greed and stupidity.

Above all, realists warn against basing policy on wishful thinking, on the assumption that all will go as we want it to. Yet the pages of history are littered with episodes where leaders made decisions on the basis of false hopes, idealistic delusions, and blind faith. And I regret to say that there's no shortage of this sort of wishful thinking today. As evidence, here are my "Top 10 Examples of Wishful Thinking in Contemporary U.S. Foreign Policy."  

1. China Won't Act Like a Great Power

Although most foreign-policy gurus recognize that China's rising power will have profound effects on world politics, some still assume that a more powerful China will somehow act differently than other great powers have in the past. In particular, they maintain that China will cheerfully accept the institutional arrangements that were "made-in-America" after World War II. They also believe that Beijing will be content to let the United States maintain its current security posture in East Asia, and will not seek to undermine it over time. Maybe so, but that's not how great powers have acted in the past, and it's certainly not how the United States behaved during its own rise to world power (remember the Monroe Doctrine?). This illusion is gradually being dispelled, I think, but one hears its echoes every time some official says that the United States "welcomes" China's rise.

2. Using the Big Stick Will Bring Big Benefits

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. leaders have repeatedly exaggerated the efficacy of using military power, and tended to assume that a little bit of military power will produce large, predictable, and uniformly beneficial results. In 1999, the Clinton administration thought a few days of air strikes would cause Slobodan Milosevic to fold -- in fact, it took weeks of bombing and Russian diplomatic intercession to end the Kosovo War. In 2002, the Bush administration assumed that the rapid ouster of the Taliban would solve our problems in Afghanistan, and in 2003 it thought toppling Saddam Hussein would trigger a radical transformation of the whole Middle East. More recently, the Obama administration's decision to intervene in Libya seems to have been based on the hope that Muammar al-Qaddafi's support would quickly dissolve as soon as NATO jumped into the fray. It might have been nice if it had, but it was wishful thinking to assume it.

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3. It Won't Take Long to Achieve Results

A closely related form of wishful thinking is to assume that a particular policy goal will be easy to achieve, and that it won't take long to see concrete results. Obama thought he could get a two-state solution in the Middle East in his first term, and believed he could get Israel to stop building settlements just by making a speech or two and by talking tough during Netanyahu's first visit. Ooops. The president later told us that the "surge" in Afghanistan would bring decisive results within a year. Obama also seemed to think that sending Iran a few friendly video messages would turn the U.S.-Iranian impasse around; when that didn't work, they decided that ratcheting up sanctions would convince Tehran to fold instead. Wishful thinking, in every case.

4. Our Allies Will Do More if We Ask Them To

For the past five or six decades, U.S. leaders have repeatedly pushed U.S. allies to make larger contributions to common projects like Iraq or Afghanistan, and to do more of the heavy lifting in their own regions, with at best modest success. You'd think we'd know better by now, but each new administration seems to succumb to this familiar form of wishful thinking. For reasons well explained by the theory of collective action, U.S. allies have usually chosen to free-ride, because they understand that they can get away with it. So they make the minimum contribution necessary to keep us on the hook, and let Uncle Sucker do a disproportionate share of the work. And we let them.

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5. We Have Just Fought the Last War  

Now, this kind of wishful thinking is a hardy perennial: the end of every major conflict is heralded as ushering in some new era of peace and prosperity. World War I was "the war to end all wars," and World War II was supposed to make the world "safe for democracy." Victory in the Cold War was said to have ushered in a peaceful "new world order" (or even the "end of History!"), and so on and so on. And once we're finally out of Iraq and (someday) Afghanistan, no doubt plenty of people will claim that all our problems are now over and that we won't have to do anything like that again.

There is evidence that the total level of global conflict has declined in recent years, but only a cockeyed optimist would believe that the danger of international conflict -- including great power conflict -- has been eradicated forever. I'd like to think so too, but I'm a realist.

6. Spreading Democracy is Easy

A central tenet of both neo-conservatism and liberal internationalism/interventionism is the idea that democracy is both the ideal form of government but also one that is relatively easy to export to other societies. Never mind that democratization tends to shift the distribution of power within different societies, thereby provoking potentially violent struggles for power between different ethnic or social groups within society. Pay no attention to the fact that it took several centuries for stable democracies to emerge in the Western world, and that process was frequently bloody and difficult. And you should ignore the fact that U.S. efforts to spread democracy in the past have a decidedly mixed track record, yet this continues to be a central pillar of U.S. foreign policy.

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7. Anti-Americanism Can Be Cured By Skillful "Public Diplomacy"  

Ever since 9/11, there's been a tendency to assume that anti-Americanism in the world was mostly due to poor marketing, and that it would decline if we just came up with a better sales pitch. So the Bush administration appointed a former advertising executive to work on polishing America's "brand" (without success). This response is understandable, because Americans (and some other countries) don't want to admit that a lot of the opposition they face isn't due to a misunderstanding about what they stand for or what they are doing. On the contrary, opposition has arisen because other societies do understand what we are doing, and they don't like it anymore than we would if someone were doing the same thing to us.

To be sure, President Obama is more popular in many parts of the world than President Bush was (admittedly a low bar to clear), but in the areas where opposition to U.S. policy is most apparent (i.e., most of the Middle East), he has had little positive impact. Bottom line: To believe that you can fool people into liking policies that are contrary to their interests is a pernicious form of wishful thinking, because it discourages us from asking whether it is the policies themselves that ought to change.

8. The United States Is a Benign Hegemon

Americans tend to see their own global role in glowing terms: Because we think our intentions are noble, we tend to think that most other countries ought to appreciate what we are doing. In short, we see ourselves as a benign hegemon, and we are quick to assume that other states appreciate us and want to be like us. Although some countries are undoubtedly grateful for U.S. protection, and some people admire certain aspects of American society, we probably exaggerate the degree to which other societies either welcome U.S. dominance or want to emulate U.S. society. Weaker actors often resent being dependent on a stronger actor's good will, and especially if the stronger actor is constantly telling others what to do and using its power arbitrarily. Yet weaker actors may not always tell us what they really think, precisely because the United States is stronger and they still hope to get things from us. In short, it may be wishful thinking to believe that the United States is as popular as Americans think they deserve to be, and it may go a long way to explaining why we aren't doing very well in places like Afghanistan or Pakistan.


9. We Can Control Our Foreign Policy Agenda

During a presidential campaign, staffers and transition team members draft memos and position papers laying out what the new administration is going to do once in office. But once in power, they invariably end up wrestling with issues they never anticipated and sometimes get blown off course completely. This shouldn't really be surprising: International affairs is unpredictable and there are almost 200 other countries out there whose actions may suddenly impinge on U.S. interests. So George W. Bush came into office intending to focus on great power politics and to avoid "nation-building," but then he got blindsided by 9/11 and ended up neck deep in nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Similarly, Barack Obama's foreign policy team didn't expect to be dealing with transitions in the Arab world, along with a tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan.

More than any other realm of public policy, international affairs demands a capacity to improvise, and to deal with events that were wholly unforeseen. And that's why an overly ambitious foreign policy is usually a mistake: you need to leave some capacity in reserve to deal with the unexpected.

10. Everything Will Be OK after the Next Election

Despite the low regard that Americans have for politicians, there is a surprising tendency to assume that everything will be OK once we toss out the current leaders and bring in a new team. When Bush was elected in 2000, some of my Republican friends were positively gleeful in announcing that the "grownups" were back in charge once again. They saw the Clinton team as a bunch of amateurs who didn't know how to do foreign policy, and they were certain that Bush's victory had put the pros back where they belonged. (It would have been nice if it had been true, but Bush's first term managed to make Clinton's performance look good.) And then in 2008, it was the Democrats' turn to go euphoric about Obama, and to argue that his administration would quickly reverse Bush's blunders and lead the United States back to its rightful position as the (much-loved) Leader of the Free World.

Both hopes were illusory, of course. As I've noted before, there's just not that much difference between the Democratic and Republican foreign policy establishments, which means that tossing one party out doesn't affect the mainstream consensus on foreign affairs. Furthermore, the other forces that drive U.S. policy (interest groups, lobbies, alliance commitments, legal constraints, geopolitics, etc.) don't disappear just because there's a new resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Which is why Obama's policy on a host of issues is remarkably similar to Bush's (especially in the latter's second term), even in those areas (e.g., Guantanamo, war powers, etc.) where candidate Obama took a different view.

There's a flipside too: Instead of indulging in wishful thinking, one can also err by assuming that difficult problems are insoluble and therefore not worth addressing. In other words, "worst-casing" can be just as serious an error as excessive optimism.

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The List

Who’s Who in the Syrian Opposition

Meet the brave souls who dare to stand up to the guns of Bashar al-Assad.

Bashar al-Assad never saw it coming. In a Jan. 31 interview with the Wall Street Journal, the Syrian autocrat boasted that his regime was immune from the revolutionary wave spreading across the Middle East because it "very closely linked to the beliefs of the people."

Over the past month and a half, Syrians have made a liar out of their president. Small protests broke out in Damascus on March 15 and have slowly spread to towns and cities throughout the country. And as the movement has gained strength, Assad's crackdown has increased in brutality. The Syrian regime has killed at least 450 people since the uprising began, according to human rights groups, and this week sent tanks into the mutinous southern town of Daraa to quell the protests.

So far, the regime's attempts to quash the demonstrations have only caused them to increase in size. Tens of thousands of Syrians came out to the protests this Friday, with crowds demonstrating in more than 50 towns throughout the country. The protests' growing strength has produced a reaction in Washington: Following days of escalating statements, President Barack Obama issued new sanctions today against three of the regime's most notorious officials, including Bashar's brother, Maher al-Assad. The U.N. Human Rights Council also denounced Assad's use of violence against peaceful protesters on Friday, calling for a team to visit Syria in order to "ensur[e] full accountability" for those who perpetrated the attacks.

So who's leading the charge against Assad? The president has accumulated no shortage of enemies over his decade-long rule, many of whom have little in common besides their enmity toward the Syrian president. If he continues his ruthless crackdown, however, it just may be enough to unite them.


With most foreign journalists banned from Syria, a small group of Internet activists are playing an outsized role in spreading information about the nascent revolt inside the country.

One of the most prolific is Ausama Monajed, who, from his home in Britain, tracks the death toll across Syria, connects eyewitnesses on the ground to international media organizations, and links to the most recent gruesome YouTube videos from inside the country. Monajed uses the Syrian Revolution News Round-Up group on Facebook, as well as an active Twitter feed, to distribute information across the globe.

Wissam Tarif, the Lebanese-born executive director of the international human rights organization Insan, also plays an important role in sifting through the massive stream of videos and firsthand reports coming out of Syria. "#Daraa streets isolated. City cut into slices. Information coming out from specific few streets. rest in Dark for 4th night," reads one representative tweet from his frenetic feed.

But neither Tarif nor Monajed are a one-man operation. Both depend on brave witnesses of events on the ground and a coalition of volunteers that translate material and confirm its accuracy. Shortly after the first protests broke out on March 15, Monajed held a conference call with the administrators of the largest Facebook groups, YouTube channels, and activists on the ground to pool their efforts. This coalition, he said, has only expanded his reach. "As anyone who has studied business would tell you, when you merge two groups with 20 percent of the market, you don't end up with 40 percent -- you end up with 60 or 70 percent of the market," he told FP.

Monajed, a professed devotee of non-violent protest guru Gene Sharp, said that he is thankful that Syria's uprising occurred after the revolts elsewhere in the Arab world. It has given Syrians a chance "to learn from these past experiences," he said. "From Libya, for example, we have learned never, ever to use violence."

Twitter accounts to follow on Syria: @MalathAumran, @RulaAmin, @RazanSpeaks, @calperryAJ, @BSyria, @SyrianJasmine, @Razaniyat.

"Damascus Spring" Veterans

Following the death of Bashar's tough-minded father Hafez in 2000, a brief window of political debate appeared to open in Damascus -- before being slammed shut as the younger Assad consolidated power. But in this abortive moment of political liberalization, a number of regime critics continue to play a prominent role to this day.

Among the best known is Michel Kilo, who defines himself as "a democrat, an Arab, and a leftist, in that order" in Dreams and Shadows, journalist Robin Wright's book about reform in the Arab world. It's not an ideological combination that has endeared him to the Assad regime. Kilo was one of the organizing forces behind the 2005 Damascus Declaration, which called for political liberalization in Syria and denounced the Assad regime as "authoritarian, totalitarian, and cliquish." He was then jailed in 2006 for three years for signing the Beirut-Damascus Declaration calling for a normalization of relations between Lebanon and Syria, which then occupied Lebanon.

Kilo has treaded more carefully during the current round of protests. In an article published in the Lebanese daily As-Safir earlier this month, he called for a negotiated solution to the Syrian unrest rather than a revolution. As the protests gained strength and the government crackdown has grown more brutal, however, Kilo's rhetoric has sharpened. If the Assad regime attempts to quell the protests solely through force, "they will be turning Syria into a breeding ground for all kinds of extremist movements," he warned on April 20.

Riad Seif, a businessman and a former MP in Syria's rubber-stamp Parliament, was moved to oppose the Assad regime after his attempts to change the system from within failed. Seif would write that his time in the legislature convinced him that the Assad regime was incapable of internal reform, and that "corruption is a natural result of tyranny and its legitimate offspring."

Seif went on to found one of the most important forums of political debate during the short-lived "Damascus Spring." For his efforts, he has spent the last decade in and out of prison. In 2001, the Syrian regime accused him of "attempting to change the constitution by illegal means" and "inciting racial and sectarian strife," jailing him for five years. He was imprisoned again from 2008 to 2010 for his support of the Damascus Declaration. He currently resides in Damascus, though is reportedly in hiding as the regime tightens its grip on its old enemies.

The Ancien Régime

Bashar's ascent to a leadership role in 2000 was not entirely smooth, and he earned himself enemies among former regime stalwarts that persist to this day. Former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, an architect of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon in the 1990s and a prominent ally of Rafiq al-Hariri, the late Lebanese prime minister, was the most prominent casualty of this changing of the guard in the House of Assad. After being excluded from any role in Syria's political affairs, and following the 2005 assassination of Hariri, Khaddam abruptly resigned his remaining government positions and fled to Paris.

Khaddam has spent the years since trying to organize an opposition movement from France, to little effect. He forged an alliance with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in 2006, only to see it collapse in 2009.

Khaddam's failure is at least partially due to the fact that regime opponents detest him for the same reasons that they detest the Assads -- and often for the same crimes. Only a particularly naïve observer could believe that Khaddam's true objection to Assad is his failure to liberalize, rather than his anger at being excluded from the political spoils.

Khaddam's widespread unpopularity has made him a useful boogeyman for the Assad regime as it attempts to discredit the protest movement. Wiam Wahhab, a staunch Syrian ally in Lebanon, revealed on Saturday a check for $400,000 allegedly signed by Saudi Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz made out to Khaddam's son, Jamal Khaddam. Syria's government-controlled press has also recently accused Khaddam, a Sunni from the restive village of Banias, of sponsoring armed gangs and trying to foment chaos in the country.

Muslim Brotherhood/Kurdish Opposition

The Assad family relies on support from the Alawite population, an Islamic sect that makes up perhaps 10 percent of Syria's population, to perpetuate its rule. Over the Assads' four decades at the top of Syria's political pyramid, they have curbed the political influence of groups outside their clique and brutally suppressed communities viewed as a threat. Infamously, Hafez al-Assad put down a revolt by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 by massacring tens of thousands of Sunnis in the city of Hama -- a lesson in indiscriminate brutality and collective punishment that came to form the "Hama rules" of Syrian politics.

The Brotherhood, though a shadow of the organization it was before Assad's crackdown, has thrown its weight behind the protests. The organization released a statement Friday accusing the regime of "perpetrating genocide" and urging the Syrian people to "not let the tyrants keep you in slavery." Former Brotherhood leader Ali al-Bayanouni, based in London, also penned an article for the Guardian assailing Assad as a "dictator," while disavowing claims that the Brotherhood organized the protests.

Perhaps more interesting than the Brotherhood's support of the demonstrations is the country from which they've issued their denunciations of Assad: Syria's erstwhile ally, Turkey. The group's Secretary General Riad al-Shaqfa and political chief Mohamed Tayfur held a press conference in Istanbul in early April, pouring cold water on the idea that Assad would ever reform Syria's political system and encouraging the protests.

It's not only the Muslim Brotherhood that would be eager to see the Assad regime go. Syria's Kurds, who make up around 10 percent of the country's population, have long been marginalized by the Syrian regime; one of Assad's first concessions as protests escalated was to grant Syrian nationality to as many as 300,000 long-stateless Kurds on April 7. That doesn't appear to have been enough to assuage Kurdish anger -- protesters have turned out en masse in the city of Qamishli, a Kurdish stronghold in Syria's northeast.

New Enemies

Just as the Damascus Spring inspired the rise of a small cadre of regime critics, the current unrest is bound to elevate new opposition leaders to the forefront. For now, however, many of the organizers remain underground due to Assad's efforts to squash the movement.

There are, however, a few names to watch: Nasser al-Hariri and Khalil al-Rifae, two Syrian members of Parliament representing Daraa, resigned their seats on April 23 to protest the government crackdown. More than 200 members of the ruling Baath Party from the regions around Daraa also resigned during the past week, as well as at least two dozen Baathists from the city of Banias. There are also reports that a Syrian army division made up of conscripts from Daraa defected to the side of the protesters, leading to clashes with a loyalist army unit.

And that's not even counting the thousands of Syrians who have lost a family member or friend during the crackdown. Even if Assad manages to cling to power, these new opponents will be a thorn in his side for years to come -- and a constant reminder that the president's boast of his close relationship with the Syrian people was nothing more than self-delusion.