In my 25 years of government service, I came up with more than my fair share of bad or just plain dumb ideas (see Arafat, Yasir, invitation to the Holocaust museum). In fact, I consider myself something of an expert on the subject.
But life's about learning, right? And like Justice Potter Stewart's famous 1964 opinion on pornography, these days I've come to know a bad idea when I see one.
The Middle East provides a particularly fertile ground for both the birth and demise of dumb ideas. And they come in varying shapes and sizes. Here are five candidates for some of the most inconsequential, ill-advised, or potentially dangerous dumb ideas proposed during the past year or so.
I'm grandfathering them in as potential nominees for the Dumb Idea Hall of Fame, a new feature to which I intend to devote at least one column a month.
Dumb Idea No. 1: Palestinian statehood at the U.N. The most woolly-headed and inconsequential idea goes to the Palestinians for pretending (they actually may not really believe it themselves) that action at the United Nations might help their cause for statehood. Having tried this idea once last September with predictable results -- a big, fat nothingburger -- the PLO may be gearing up again for another run.
One can only wonder why. The Palestinians are desperate, to be sure, and the U.N. statehood gambit (like faux unity talks with Hamas) plays well on the street. But their lack of strategy and penchant for bad timing are breathtaking. So far, the U.N. initiative has produced implacable American opposition, U.S. congressional constraints on funding for the Palestinians, and America's withdrawal from UNESCO.
The last thing a U.S. president is going to do in an election year is support such an initiative. And it gives the Israeli government, already uninterested in real negotiations, just another reason to blame the impasse on the Palestinians. But hey, the Palestinians are going to do what they're going to do whether it makes sense or not. The best thing that can be said about the U.N. gambit is that it really doesn't matter.
Dumb Idea No. 2: Safe zones in Syria
Dumb ideas are one thing; potentially dangerous ideas are quite another. And that distinction goes to the idea of creating safe zones in Syria in an effort to pressure, if not topple, the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The proponents of this idea are either interminably obtuse or quite calculating and see the creation of such zones as a way to sucker the United States or other external powers into military action against the Assads. Either way, this approach has every sign of being half-baked, ill-advised, and open-ended. Indeed, it's driven by the most dangerous idea of all: that America needs to act and do something, regardless of the consequences.
Safe zones or humanitarian corridors have at least three purposes. The most obvious is to offer sanctuary to Syrians fleeing the fighting and the regime. The Turks would have the most incentive here, if cross-border refugee flows get out of control.
The other objectives -- providing a safe haven to train and organize rebels who oppose the regime, and hoping to further cause splits in the regime by occupying Syrian territory -- are far more dubious. These areas would have to be defended, which would mean more boots on the ground over time (remember: it took eight months to bring down Muammar al-Qaddafi's rinky-dink army). Syrian air defenses would need to be suppressed to avoid regime attacks. And poof -- before you know it, we have an open-ended escalation. This kind of piecemeal intervention is the worst outcome of all -- getting involved militarily without getting results. Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security has it right on this one: When it comes to military options, either the United States intervenes decisively -- as a matter of vital national interest -- or it stays out. Half-measures and incremental efforts to increase the pressure will likely result in additional costs without real results.
Dumb Idea No. 3: Bombing Iran Now
Nobody can or should blame a tiny country living on the knife's edge with a dark past -- even one with an estimated 200-plus nuclear weapons -- for worrying deeply about a mullah-controlled Iran with the bomb.
What Israel does about the prospects of a nuclear Iran and when is a more complex matter. Striking Iran anytime soon -- even if the nuclear talks don't produce a deal quickly -- would be dumb. It's a different thing to assume grave risks if success is likely and you have broad support even if you fail.
An attack now will not prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capacity. It would be tantamount to mowing the grass; Iran would accelerate its nuclear program, most likely with greater international support. The world would be furious with the Israelis (see: higher oil prices, financial markets tanking, regional tensions), and nobody -- not even the United States -- would really understand why Israel struck when Iran didn't have enough fissile material to make a bomb and hadn't mastered the assembly of components, let alone tested a nuclear weapon. The Israelis' claim that they needed to strike because Iran's nuclear sites were now immune from attack would not be judged compelling by anyone.
It's much smarter -- though hardly easy -- for the Israelis to allow more time for sanctions to take their toll, see whether some deal on enrichment is possible, and if not, press the Americans to do what the president in March publicly articulated he would: not just contain Iran but prevent it from acquiring a weapon.
Knowing the Israelis, they've likely built extra time into their assessment regarding when and how Iran's nuclear sites will be immune from attack. If sanctions and diplomacy can't stop Iran from acquiring a weapon, a military option can't and shouldn't be ruled out. The dumb idea is exercising it now.
Dumb Idea No. 4: Obama's push for a settlement freeze
Rarely has any U.S. president committed more of a stumble during his first year than when Barack Obama decided to make Israeli settlements the focus of his approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking.
In one fell swoop, the president set himself up for failure, turned his relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into a macho contest of who had bigger cojones (Obama lost), and alienated the Palestinians and the Arabs because he backed down. And for all this, the United States succeeded in getting no real freeze, no deal, and no negotiations. The president's tough rhetoric on settlements only made the problem worse as the gap between words and deeds swallowed his credibility whole.
Fighting with the Israelis is an occupational reality for any president or secretary of state who wants to do serious peacemaking. The fight, however, needs to be at the right time and on the right issue. If done correctly (i.e., with a strategy), it can actually be productive and benefit not only the United States, but the Israelis and Palestinians too.
The fight worth having, with both sides, is over the actual substance of an agreement. But given the gaps that separate the two sides and Obama's own indecision about what he wants, that fight isn't worth having. Yet.
Dumb Idea No. 5: A bad idea is better than no idea
Dumb ideas come along for many reasons. Sometimes they result from bad analysis, imperfect policy options, or desperation. They can also arise from wishful thinking or from an obsession with fixing things.
It's a variation of that last notion that represents the dumbest idea of all: that action -- any action, no matter how harebrained and ill-advised -- is better than no action. This idea is quintessentially American and results from the unique blend of idealism and pragmatism that cuts to the core of who Americans are as a people and how they see the world.
The fact is, Americans can't help themselves. America isn't a potted plant. Americans believe they can always make a bad situation better. This fix-it mentality is in our DNA. If it's harnessed and rigorously controlled, the United States can actually accomplish some things, particularly if it actually thinks through a strategy. But if not, it leads to what my friend Gamal Helal, an Arabic-language interpreter and confidant of presidents and secretaries of state, calls the United States' rush toward disaster. America is headed that way on Syria, I'm afraid.
My fondest hope would be to avoid dumb ideas altogether. This may not be possible. The need to act is just too strong. Perhaps we can at least limit the damage. But based on a couple of decades or so of government experience, I'm not holding my breath.