The Biggest Foreign Policy Screw-Up of 2013

At the end of last week, The New Yorker's John Lee Anderson compiled a list of the top twelve "Geostrategic Gestures of 2013."  Now, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure how "geostrategic" is different from "strategic."  This could lead me into going off on a rant about commentators attaching "geo-" or "neo-" to every f**king word in the foreign affairs argot to make it sound more sophisticated... but I'm making a New Year's resolution to limit those kind of rants to offline conversations, so let's move on. 

No, what struck me about Anderson's very good list was that it missed what, in my humble opinion, was the Obama administration's biggest screw-up of 2013.  Given their foreign policy year, this is quite a statement, but my hunch is that this event led to more collateral damage in international relations* than anything else in 2013: 

The drama started Tuesday after Portuguese authorities wouldn't let Bolivian President Evo Morales' plane land in Lisbon for refueling while on his way back from a conference in Russia, Bolivian Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra told CNN en Español.

France, Spain and Italy also wouldn't let the plane enter their airspace, Bolivian officials said.

With no clear path home available, the flight's crew made an emergency landing in Austria.

"We are told that there were some unfounded suspicions that Mr. Snowden was on the plane," Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said.

Now, why was this such a big deal?  It was a two-fer.  First, in going after Snowden so aggressively, the administration put the lie to its claims that Snowden's revelations weren't that big of a deal.  Grounding another head of state's plane is, to use the vice presidential vernancular, a big f**king deal.  Clearly the United States wanted Snowden in custody, and wanted him bad. 

Second, and more significantly, the desperate and clumsy attempt to grab Snowden dramatically altered the perception by other governments about their preferences.  It's worth remembering that even six weeks after Snowden fled the United States, the rest of the world's governments were feeling, at best, ambivalent about him.  As I blogged in early July: 

The one thing that all of these actors have in common with the USA is that they are... states.  And if there's one thing that states of all regime types and ideologies have in common, it's that they don't like it when new types of entities try to f**k with their franchise. 

States will war with one another, spy on one another, foment revolution across borders, and what-not.  They are pretty reluctant, however to empower actors that can then use that power to try and erode the principal of the state as the ne plus ultra of governing authority.  This is why countries like Iran and Russia cooperated with the United States during crucial periods of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing war on terror.  When states see a threat to the Westphalian order that's been around for a few centuries, they will act in concert to repel it. 

So long as Snowden was embarrassing the United States and the United States alone, U.S. rivals saw no problem with egging him on.  As Snowden aligns himself more closely to Wikileaks, however, more and more countries will look askance at what he represents

When the U.S. forced Morales' plane to make an emergency landing, however, Washington signaled that it was equally willing to f**k with the sovereignty franchise. At that point, all bets were off for countries predisposed to not helping the United States. Russia kept Snowden, Latin America kept polishing its resentment against the U.S., the rest of the world kept paying attention to Snowden's revelations, and the United States lost significant hypocritical capabilities

There's no way to know for certain what the counterfactual history would have been.  My hunch, though, is that there was a better than 50/50 chance that Snowden would have wound up in U.S. custody. 

Ironically, in a year when the principal critique of the Obama administration's foreign policy has been its passivity and reluctance to take aggressive action, it was an overly aggressive act that will leave the most long-lasting scar.

Am I missing anything?  What do you think was the biggest foreign policy screw-up?   

Foreign Policy

Two-Headed Serpent Robinson Cano Flees 3,000 Miles to Cowardly Underwater Baseball Team

Give the North Korean government credit -- in this media-saturated age, they still have the capacity to capture the attention of observers from the rest of the world. 

In "almost Biblical prose," the official KCNA press release describing the execution of Kim Jong Un's uncle Jang Song Thaek needs to be read in all its florid glory to appreciate its true weirdness.  Just a sample: 

However, despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him.

From long ago, Jang had a dirty political ambition. He dared not raise his head when Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were alive. But, reading their faces, Jang had an axe to grind and involved himself in double-dealing. He began revealing his true colors, thinking that it was just the time for him to realize his wild ambition in the period of historic turn when the generation of the revolution was replaced.

Jang committed such an unpardonable thrice-cursed treason as overtly and covertly standing in the way of settling the issue of succession to the leadership with an axe to grind when a very important issue was under discussion to hold respected Kim Jong Un in high esteem as the only successor to Kim Jong Il in reflection of the unanimous desire and will of the entire party and army and all people.

As Isaac Stone Fish and Elias Groll note over a Passport, the Spanish and Chinese-language translations offer even more juicy details, including gambling at casinos. 

I have two reactions to this.  The first is that, in its own weird way, North Korea is being extremely transparent in its coverage of Jang.  I don't mean to say that I believe anything KCNA is reporting -- I don't.  Rather, it's that they've supplied a surprising amount of detail in this episode, going so far as to release photos of him being arrested and dragged away from a high-ranking party meeting. 

I do wonder, however, whether this kind of coverage will make it difficult for Kim Jong Un to maintain the kind of bizarre political legitimacy that his father and grandfather possessed.  The tendency in DPRK propaganda is to paint their Dear Leaders as infallible gods descended from Mt. Paektu.  This kind of story, however, demonstrates Kim Jong Un's fallibility.  Simply put, if Jang was able to do all that he was accused of doing, why in the hell did it take so long for Kim to find out?  As even the KCNA press release notes, "He held higher posts than before and received deeper trust from supreme leader Kim Jong Un, in particular. The political trust and benevolence shown by the peerlessly great men of Mt. Paektu were something he hardly deserved."  To be clear, I don't think this really threatens Kim's hold on power -- clearly, purging Jang cemented his grip while eliminating the most China-friendly member of the DPRK leadership.  Still, this is one of those logical paradoxes in propaganda that is gonna go unresolved.

Finally, I'd really like to see KCNA expand their coverage of Western sporting events.  No U.S. media outlet can quite capture the je ne sais quoi of demented Stalinism in the prose style that KCNA has perfected.  For example, imagine if KCNA was covering the New York Yankees tumultuous offseason

Two-Headed Serpent Robinson Cano Flees 3,000 Miles to Cowardly, Underwater Baseball Team

KCNA (New York):  Despite the most generous offerings of the Sons of Steinbrenner, the perfidious Robinson Cano has made his deal with the devil and signed a bourgeois contract with the Seattle Mariners of the accursed American League West division.  With a bloated $240 million deal, the subhuman Mariners guarantee that their tottering regime will collapse from excessive debt and inflation as the good citizens from Washington state flock in support to America's baseball team, the glorious New York Yankees.  Already there are reports of deep internal divisions within the ill-fated Mariners regime. 

"Brian Cashman, the Yankees general manager, dismissed the impact of Cano's treason, noting, "we had long suspected that the treacherous cur Cano would be seduced by the illicit sins of other, lesser teams.  We therefore engaged in intense planning consistent with the spirit of our Dear and Glorious Leader Steinbrenner to maintain our awe-inspiring legacy as the Greatest Sports Franchise in the World."  Indeed, during the week surrounding the thrice-deviant Cano's flight into exile, new heroes Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran donned the pinstripes, pledging their fealty to America's Team.  Already the Yankees' unparalleled training techniques are paying dividends for these players.  In the past week alone, Ellsbury outraced a gazelle with his new, enhanced speed abilities.

When news of these Yankee signings reached the rest of the American league, baseball officials from other teams tore their hair from their heads and caterwauled from waves of abject despair.  Boston Red Sox GM Ben Cherrington collapsed into a corner and soiled himself. 

Derek Jeter, the mighty captain of the Yankees, welcomed his new teammates into the fold with a grand party featuring 10,000 synchronized foot soldiers, 1,000 white doves and the entire membership of Maxim's Hot 100 list.  When asked to comment on Cano, he spit on the ground three times and said, "that cockroach will scurry into the dark and never be heard from again.  No, if you'll excuse me, I have to freshen Kate Upton's drink." 

Baseball experts consulted by KCNA predicted that the New York Yankees would go 154-8 this season, while the cowardly Cano would produce a triple slash line of .083/.112/.158.


Now that's some quality sports reporting.