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The Solipsism of Self-Isolation

Decades of marginalizing countries we don't see eye to eye with has gotten the United States nowhere. It's time to engage.


It is high time for U.S. action in Syria — no, not the military action for which Republican presidential candidates like Sen. Lindsey Graham yearn. An invasion of Syria would be disastrously counterproductive and would merely confirm to the world that the United States has learned nothing from its ill-fated military adventure in Iraq. Plus, it would fail.

Instead, it’s time for U.S. foreign policy to reverse what I call the “ostrich doctrine” burying our policy head in the sand and assuming the issues and problems will go away (or at least continue to conform to our prejudices) — and recognize how the international system has changed.

The ostrich doctrine assumes that the United States is the global leader and “stabilizer,” responsible for maintaining international order. It also assumes that every other country wants the United States to play that role. And — most relevant here — it assumes that if the United States disapproves of, or disagrees with, another country (or simply wishes to ignore an issue), it can “ostracize” and “isolate” that country. As if the ostracized country (or the related issue) would somehow slink away, staying off the world stage.

Politicians and policy officials love to say that Vladimir Putin has “isolated” Russia and that Western powers have “isolated” the Russians even further through sanctions, exclusion from the G-8 (now 7), and the like. Today, the Obama administration and politicians running for office debate and pontificate about whether to engage Putin and allow Russia to escape that “isolation.” Equally, for five years now, we have sought to “isolate” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

This is the ostrich doctrine at play. Since the beginning of the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy has supposedly isolated countries, big and small (see: the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea, Iran. You get the idea). We operate under the illusion that if U.S. policy casts a nation into isolation, it is, de facto, isolated. But international relations are not conducted in the schoolyard, where sending a kid to the corner effectively removes him or her from contact with everyone else.

Pretending we can isolate another country really only isolates us. Sticking our head in the sand, we willfully abandon our tools of engagement with what are, in some cases, fairly significant countries — Russia, China, and Iran, for example. (If I say “you are not there,” then you are not there. So I will tell myself that you are not there. Now, that fixes things, doesn’t it?) Hands over our eyes, fingers in our ears, babbling nonsense from our lips, we play let’s pretend.

The reality is that none of these countries is truly isolated by our decree. Castro clung to power in Cuba, rather than fading away, while Canadians, Europeans, Russians, and the peoples of Latin America merrily negotiated and conducted business with Cuba as if it were just another country. Meanwhile, from 90 miles away, we pretended that it was adrift in a sea of despair and nothingness. Vietnam, similarly, built a strong emerging economy and cultivated a regional role in Southeast Asia, even though we refused to deal with the country for years.

Nations that remain thorns in our side haven’t seemed to feel the pain of isolation. Over the years, China went on growing its economy and expanding its regional and global power. It built islands out of rocky shoals in the South China Sea, with nary a “yadda, yadda, yadda” from Washington. Isolated Iran, for its part, has continued playing a key regional role, supporting Shiite organizations across the Middle East. And Russia and Putin go right on playing a military and diplomatic role in Syria while we jump up and down, isolating them.

Here’s the deal: Other countries survive our ostracism — even those, like Iran and Cuba, whose economies suffer under sanctions. They stay integrated in the world and continue to play diplomatic, military, and economic roles. And we tie ourselves into knots trying to find a way out of our own “isolation,” while domestic politicians beat up on leaders who try to do so. (How long did it take for the United States to actually recognize China diplomatically? Vietnam? Cuba? And how much of that inaction came about because of the political price presidents would have paid for doing otherwise?)

This is where we stand today in Syria. Technically, we isolated Assad. But he stuck around. We told the Russians to stay away; they have behaved, oddly, as an independent power, willing to make their own decisions about how and where they engage. And we demurred, apparently, on a 2012 Russian offer to broker Assad’s departure.

Now it is Uncle Sam who faces the real test of international leadership. Ostriches have to pull their heads out of the sand at some point. We breathe and eat with the rest of the world. With our head in the sand, nobody listens to the grainy mumble that emerges from our buried mouth.

What would be the consequences of engaging Russia and Assad, rather than isolating them? Engagement in Syria does not mean “sending U.S. troops.”

Instead, what about engaging realistically by recognizing that we are not the global stabilizer but just another important player seeking to end the Syrian civil war and turn everyone’s attention to the Islamic State crisis? Would old-fashioned diplomacy help? This might require two concessions to reality. First, accepting that Assad still exists and, for better or worse, has forces to bring to bear that might help deal with the larger disaster that is the Islamic State. And second, that the route to Assad lies, in part, through Moscow.

So even though we apparently isolated Putin, he continues to be a presence — a growing one, even. We must engage with him (and Assad) to not only “de-conflict” military operations in that country (a process now under way) but, even more importantly, to end the civil war and focus on the Islamic State. Putin may not be to our taste, but Russia is a key player in Syria and must be engaged, as the New York Times has suggested.

Oddly enough, we have also been pursuing the ostrich doctrine with respect to the refugee crisis that has grown directly out of this civil war. We put $4 billion into refugee assistance but treat the problem as a European one. Here, too, emerging from the sand is a question of “soft power” leadership, not more hard power.

Money is not enough for Washington to show commitment and leadership on the refugee issue. The United States ought to be opening its arms to the Syrian refugees who are themselves — at least in part — the consequence of our ostrich-like diplomacy. Even the arrival of 100,000 Syrian refugees here would be a drop in the bucket of the U.S. population. Yes, it would cost money. But Congress, under both parties, has always been generous when it comes to humanitarian money.

In Congress, we’re starting to see movement toward such soft power leadership. Last May, Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin and Amy Klobuchar led a group of 14 lawmakers in calling for an expanded U.S. admissions target for Syrian refugees. A bipartisan group of former national security officials (this writer, included) issued an appeal on Sept. 17 to admit 100,000 such refugees.

But Secretary of State John Kerry’s Sept. 20 announcement that the United States’ global quota for refugees would rise to 100,000 by 2017 is both too little and too late. Too little, because that figure is cumulative: It accounts for refugees from all countries, meaning far fewer Syrians would likely be admitted. And too late, because the 4 million Syrian refugees of today cannot wait another 16 months to begin arriving.

And, yes, there is risk involved — though, I suspect, not a serious one. Because — shock, gasp! — some Syrians who do not mean the United States well might slip in. But when it comes to intrusion and delay, there is no refugee-screening system like ours. We’re really adept at ostrich behavior when it comes to screening refugees.

The risks of U.S. engagement, on both the diplomatic and humanitarian fronts, are vastly outweighed by the benefits. That’s what policy is all about: weighing the risks and benefits. Using diplomacy (not invasion) to help bring an end to this dreadful civil war would be an act of courage and leadership. Not because everybody involved is “good,” but because they exist and cannot be isolated. Opening our doors to Syrian refugees would provide the example the Europeans need to open their own — an act of leadership.

Photo credit: Jewel Samad/AFP

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941

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