COLUMN

How to Squander Home-Field Advantage

Surely, the administration should realize that lecturing friends and browbeating allies doesn't do it many favors.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

This is what our coalition has come to. The Obama White House is anonymously criticizing the government of Turkey for failing to support our war effort: "This isn’t how a NATO ally acts while hell is unfolding a stone’s throw from their border." Leaving aside the factual inaccuracy of the statement, it is sure to embitter the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has for the past several years been pleading for U.S. support as it deals with an influx of Syrian refugees and military threats from Syrian government forces, manages the potential for radicalization of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens, and tries to keep governance of its own territory amid civil wars in both countries on its southern border. That Turkey is hesitant to provide the ground forces for invasion of its neighbor when we appear only halfheartedly committed to and are unwilling to consider Turkey’s recommendations should actually not surprise the White House. But it evidently did surprise the White House, since National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s claim that Turkey was willing to allow coalition military operations from its bases was refuted by Turkey’s president.

Secretary of State John Kerry has also been broadcasting the shortfalls of others. His message is consistent with the White House’s criticism of our friends and partners in the war against the Islamic State, but his subject was Ebola: Others need to "step up." A day later, the subject was climate change, and Kerry was again writing to "ring a global alarm bell" and was castigating other governments for not acknowledging the magnitude of the problem and doing their fair share. (One would have thought from our domestic debate that America led the world in "climate deniers.")

As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, issuing broad public condemnations is an ineffectual way to run a war coalition. It’s a mystifying communications strategy and an even more curious frame of reference for influencing governmental choice in other countries. Can they really believe that publishing blog posts on U.S. websites and op-eds in U.S. newspapers will pressure New Delhi and Berlin to act?

Barack Obama’s administration needs to take a page from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and play on the home court of governments it wants to influence. In late September, Modi turned out 19,000 people for a rally at Madison Square Garden to celebrate Indian-Americans and enlist them to support good relations between the governments of India and the United States. It is a shrewd strategy for buffering policy differences and showing Washington that there are domestic costs for any punitive actions against Delhi. It is also likely to prove much more effective than a general condemnation of U.S. policies or daily calls for greater effort on a wide range of policy choices.

Why can the Obama administration not mount similar campaigns? Being an immigrant country, the United States has natural advantages playing in the domestic politics of other countries. Good politicians have long understood how to raise the cost to governments by making our case to their publics: President Abraham Lincoln brilliantly reinforced British hesitance to recognize the Confederacy with his letters to the workingmen of Manchester, England. He spoke to them as equals, acknowledged the burdens on them that our civil war was imposing, commended their support as "an instance of sublime Christian heroism," and appealed to them to prevent "hostile influence on the part of Great Britain."

Barack Obama — the man who held a campaign rally of 100,000 people in Berlin — ought to understand that potential better than most. But, then again, the 2008 Berlin rally was using foreign adulation to manipulate our own domestic politics, rather than using our connections with foreign countries to the advantage of our national security.

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