Applying smart power versus don’t do stupid stuff
What a difference a year makes. Last September, the Obama administration and the media were cheering happenstance as victory. A quick review of last year’s events: the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government on civilians, tough talk by President Barack Obama, an administration push for a congressional vote for use of force, Secretary of State John Kerry’s off-the-cuff remark regarding Syria giving up chemical weapons, Russian President Vladimir Putin leveraging the remark into action, the Obama administration claiming a great solution.
The events led the administration to believe that letting a situation play out, thereby leading to a happenstance victory, is the same as a strategic course of action. This has been rolled out in the past year by the administration as “Don’t do stupid stuff.”
A June 1 article by Mike Allen for Politico titled, “’Don’t do stupid sh--’ (stuff),” tracks the distillation of Obama’s approach to foreign policy beginning with the April 28 Los Angeles Times article, “Obama argues against use of force to solve global conflicts,” by Christi Parsons, Kathleen Hennessey and Paul Richter. “The president’s aides have scrambled to put things in simpler terms. ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is the polite-company version of a phrase they use to describe the president’s foreign policy.”
This approach to not doing stupid stuff preceded Obama’s remark this past week, that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. While it might have been truthful, it was not comforting. The fact is we should have a strategy that understands the framework and focuses on using all possible tools to work toward an America-centric solution.
International politics is challenging, as there are always multiple players with multiple viewpoints, goals and options. Former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, under President Reagan, writing in her November 1979 essay “Dictatorships & Double Standards” in Commentary Magazine, laid out the evidence that the transitional period between an authoritarian government and its potential democratic replacement could result in chaos: “Authority in traditional autocracies is transmitted through personal relations: from the ruler to his close associates (relatives, household members, personal friends), and from them to people to whom the associates are related by personal ties resembling their own relation to the ruler. The fabric of authority unravels quickly when the pow- er and status of the man at the top are undermined or eliminated. ... Without him, the organized life of the society will collapse, like an arch from which the keystone has been removed. ... The speed with which armies collapse, bureaucracies abdicate, and social structures dissolve once the autocrat is removed frequently surprises American policymakers and journalists accustomed to public institutions based on universalistic norms rather than particularistic relations.”
Kirkpatrick’s point was that transitioning to democratic rule requires more than ousting an autocratic government; that the foundations of democracy are neither easily nor rapidly replicated, and, if they are not in place, any attempt to create democracies often proves short-lived. Why is this important in reviewing the options? The foundation of the Middle East differs from that of America in the 1700s. When we review foreign relations, we must step back and consider the multiple backgrounds, foundational structures and repercussions of our potential actions.
Christian Whiton, former diplomat, lays out in his book, “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War,” a critical error in that “two distinct but overlapping elements” were neither clearly identified nor articulated to the American public or even to the national security apparatus after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He identifies them as Islam and Islamism.
“The former is a religion of nearly a quarter of the world’s population; the latter is a political ideology whose central tenet is unifying government, and Islam and is advocated by a small subset of Muslims.” Without our awareness of the situation, it is not possible for us to create a workable plan.
This still has not been clearly and plainly articulated. Islamism is the base, the foundation for ISIS. To craft and execute a strategy for ISIS, we must understand what they are, and who we are as well.
Regarding who we are as a nation, we would be wise to remember and heed the words that Kirkpatrick spoke during her 1984 speech at the Republican National Convention, where she contended that Democrats “always blame America first.” In comparison, the American people understand “the dangers of endless self- criticism and self-denigration,” Kirkpatrick noted. “Clearly, a civilization that feels guilty for everything it is and does will lack the energy and conviction to defend itself.”
There is a wide chasm between “don’t do stupid stuff,” and applying smart power. The first requires us to remain reactive, and the second requires us to be proactive and shape the world in which we live.