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 ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

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:

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 is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he is the co-director of the Russia and Eurasia Program. Twitter: @dandrezner

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