Gut-level foreign policy usually doesn't work

Over the past week there's been a lot of foreign policy outputs coming from the gut, particularly with respect to the greater Middle East. Newly minted Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has been cursing like a PG-rated sailor as of late, saying about the Iraqis, "dammit, make a decision" with respect to a new defense minister. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has declared that Bashar Assad has "lost legitimacy," which is A) true; and B) not all that helpful a guide for future policy toward Syria. U.S. ambassador to that country Robert Ford took to Facebook to express his ire at the Syrian government. And now we're halting $800 million in military aid to Pakistan, which sounds great but is not necessarily going to make things better.

Do these gestures of frustration accomplish anything? That's hard to say. In terms of concrete outcomes, the likely answer is no -- part of the reason for the venting of frustrations on these issues is that the United States has so little leverage in most of these situations. On the other hand, just the acknowledgment of frustration can be politically useful, a venting of pressure that might otherwise lead to hopelessly misguided or absurdly risky policy options.

For exhibit A, see Reuel Marc Gerecht's latest on Syria in The Weekly Standard, which opens with, "The administration's policy toward Syria is shaping up to be the greatest missed opportunity of Barack Obama's presidency." The essay goes to great length to bash realists detail the myriad policy benefits that would come with regime change in Damascus. This is all well and good (though a bit exaggerated), until we get to what the Obama administration should be doing to foment change:

There are many things that the Obama administration should be doing that it isn’t: using the presidential bully pulpit against the Assad regime, deploying the American ambassador in Damascus as a shield and voice for the opposition (if Ford gets expelled, he gets expelled), organizing the Western diplomatic community in Damascus to do whatever it can to aid the opposition, offering substantial technical support to the Turks to extend a Wi-Fi-ed broadband as far over the Syrian border as possible, and working with Paris to implement energy sanctions that might severely impair the Assad regime. But the most important thing it could do now is encourage Turkey to stand firm against Syria.

Ideally, we should want to see the Turks establish a buffer zone or safe haven on the Syrian side of the border (Ankara sometimes did this in Iraq to counter nefarious Kurdish activity).

Let's be clear: The Obama administration could be doing everything on that list, and it wouldn't make an iota of difference. The only policy that would matter is if the Turks actually wanted to establish a buffer zone -- except in a later paragraph even Gerecht acknowledges that, "neither Erdogan nor Davutoglu would want to do this."

So, to sum up, Gerecht is really enthusiastic about Syrian regime change, and wants the U.S. to beat its breast a little more and ask "pretty pretty please" for the Turks to do something they view as against their self-interest. This will accomplish … nothing.

If you start seeing gut-level foreign policy, it's usually a sign that every other rational option has failed. And although we hope otherwise, frustration alone rarely leads to policy breakthroughs.


Daniel W. Drezner

If world politics pundits covered the Women's World Cup....

The Official Blog Son and I were lucky enough to catch Team USA's thrilling come-from-behind victory over Brazil in the FIFA Women's World Cup. It was a great and controversial game, sure to be replayed on ESPN Classic for years to come. It also got me to thinking about how prominent thinkers and writers about world politics would use the game as a hook for their foreign affairs columns and op-eds this week. Here are their opening paragraphs:

Tom Friedman:

I was quaffing hearty German pilsners with FIFA President Sepp Blatter in a luxury box in Dresden's Glücksgas Stadium (try the bratwurst!!) when he said something that hit me like a thunderbolt: "I can't understand why there's so much demand for video replay in soccer. You know, there is no instant replay in the real world." And really, that's what the global economy is like -- a fast-speed, arcing bullet of a free kick with no time to press the pause button. You have to use every part of your being -- your legs, your head, though admittedly not your arms -- just to keep pace.

Anne-Marie Slaughter:

Watching the thrilling run of the Americans leading up to Abby Wambach's header, I was struck by the complex, free-flowing sequence of passes that got the ball from the American end to Megan Rapinoe's left foot. It was such a seamless, interlaced network of exchanges -- dare I call it a web of them? -- that moved the ball forward. As the passes moved from one player to another, I bet social networking technologies moved even faster, alerting Americans that a Big Moment was about to happen. In winning, the United States showed the power of webbed networks -- or is it networked webs? -- yet again.

Kishore Mahbubani:

All of the Western media will focus on the "theatrics" of the USA-Brazil game, but it doesn't matter. This was an intramural match between Western Hemisphere teams, which means it was irrelevant. Japan's stunning upset of host Germany in the quarterfinals is the real story of this World Cup, yet another signal of how the one remaining Asian team will leave the three "Western" teams still alive in the dust.

Charles Krauthammer:

This was an example of American exceptionalism and American will to power at its finest. Battling a set of rules and referees that were clearly anti-American in their effect, the noble U.S. side displayed dogged determination and grit, vanquishing their Brazilian counterparts. The only black mark on the U.S. side was the timidity of the U.S. coach Pia Sundhage in obeying FIFA's absurd and corrupt rules. Sundhage, from that socialist bastion of meek multilateralism that is Sweden, adhered to the letter of FIFA law in pulling Rachel Buehler after she was "red-carded." A true American coach would have instead followed the spirit of the law and sent an 11th player onto the pitch in place of the unjustly accused Buehler.

Glenn Greenwald:

Americans will thump their chests, display their brassy jingoism, and bray to the heavens about how the refereeing in this game was "unfair" or "ridiculous." They'll claim that the referee's red card of Buehler and mandated do-over of the penalty kick during regular time was "anti-American." They'll overlook the fact that the Australian ref could have midfielder Carli Lloyd off the field for a flagrant, deliberate handball but didn't. They'll overlook the granting of a re-kick for U.S. player Shannon Boxx during the penalty kick phase. They'll overlook the aesthetic beauty of Brazilian star Marta's soccer artistry. They'll overlook the arrogance of U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo -- a perfect American name if there ever was one -- as she had the audacity to question the ref (if the officials weren't so obviously in Corporate America's back pocket, Solo would have been red-carded). They'll overlook the fact that the extra half-hour of play insidiously stacked the deck for the Americans, rewarding their better conditioning against the poorer and put-upon Brazilians. They'll overlook the 158 other things that I will now lay out in excruciating detail. Only when WikiLeaks focuses its might on FIFA will the soccer world be more just.

Robert D. Kaplan:

The sweltering heat in Dresden clearly began to affect the crowd. They booed the Brazilian star Marta with all of her touches. You could sense a growing danger as the boos grew louder. The German fans, upset at seeing their own team get knocked out, had clearly decided to side with their tribal allies. It is likely that only Wambach's header prevented what would have been an unruly German/American riot, breaking down the tenuous social fabric. The riot would have started in the heart of Europe, but I have every confidence that, before long, the unrest would have spread to Halford MacKinder's heartland in the middle of Eurasia.

Gideon Rachman

This match crystallized both the promise and the peril of the rising BRIC powers as they assume more responsibilities in global governance. The game put FIFA's many problems -- bad decision-making, a lack of transparency about the bad decision-making -- on full display. Even after the match, FIFA never explained why Brazil was awarded a re-kick following Solo's block of Christina's penalty kick. Instead of constructively seeking reform, however, the Brazilian side tried to free-ride off of FIFA's flaws. Marta constantly whined to the refs about the lack of Brazilian free kicks. Defender Erkia flopped onto the pitch in a transparent effort to stall play. Unless and until the BRIC countries learn to play cooperatively with the fading West, global governance will look as effective as FIFA's efforts to block corruption. Which is to say, not effective at all.

Readers are warmly encouraged to offer their own suggestions in the comments.