Foreign Policy as Magical Thinking

by Bruce S. Thornton

President Obama’s foreign policy team is built around one key idea: the neglect of diplomacy by President Bush’s “cowboy” unilateralism has damaged American prestige, alienated our allies, and worsened our problems abroad, particularly with the Islamic jihadists. Thus the new administration will restore diplomacy to its rightful place, and its ambassadors and special envoys and the President himself will diplomatically engage our enemies — even Iran, the Taliban, and Hamas — in discussions whose goal will be to find peaceful solutions to the issues that divide their interests from ours.

This narrative of “renewed vigor” and “a new beginning for American diplomacy,” as Time magazine calls it, has become the received liberal wisdom, and of course it is built on numerous distortions of the historical record, as well as relying on questionable assumptions about the behavior of states. The notion, for example, that Bush neglected diplomacy in the run-up to the war in Iraq forgets about the several months before the war began that the U.S. spent trying through diplomacy to get the U.N. Security Council to authorize the enforcement of the U.N.’s 16 previous resolutions defied by Saddam Hussein. Or how about the years of multilateral diplomacy that has failed to bring North Korea’s nuclear ambitions to heel?

Worse, however, is the magical thinking that lies behind the mantra of “diplomacy.” This faith in talk is predicated on assumptions about human nature and state behavior difficult to validate by the historical record. It reflects a Western Enlightenment idea that force is an outmoded relic of our primitive past, to be replaced by rational discussion in which give-and-take dickering, negotiation, respect for the other side’s position and demands, and a mutual, sincere desire to adjudicate grievance and avoid conflict can resolve disagreements. The key assumption is that in the end all people are rational and want peace and comfort more than any other good.

Thus the soon-to-be-released report from the Asia Society — the think-tank started by Richard C. Holbrooke, the newly appointed Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan — “recommending that the United States declare an end to President Bush’s ‘war on terror’ and negotiate with Taliban members willing to separate from al Qaeda,” as The New York Times reported. Given that the Taliban are religiously inspired jihadists, as are al Qaeda, and given that they have both Pakistan and the NATO forces on the run, one wonders what material inducement Mr. Holbrooke could offer that would tempt the Taliban to abandon the religiously sanctioned and validated jihad against the infidels, and disobey Allah’s injunction “to fight the infidels until they say there is no god but Allah.”

The problem with this faith in talk and negotiation is that it assumes all people are essentially Westerners, which means material and psychological causes are the primary springs of human and state behavior, and religion is simply an expression of these more important causes. Deprived of wealth and the opportunities to acquire it, nursing wounded national esteem or aspirations because other states have not shown the adequate respect, aggrieved states will then “act out” like wayward teenagers. The solution, then, lies in showing them respect, listening to their grievances, and offering material incentives that will remove the source of grievance.

What is curious about this point of view is that it is arrogantly ethnocentric. Whatever the jihadists say about their motives, no matter how much those motives are validated by references to the Koran, Hadith, and fourteen centuries of Islamic theology and jurisprudence, they’re really angry over some sort of deprivation or insult caused by our insensitive policies. Like children, they have no motives or interests of their own other than reactions to our bad behavior. So of course, if we acknowledge our mistakes, promise to address their grievances, and offer them some material or psychological carrots, all will be well.

Again, where is the evidence that this reading of our enemies is accurate? We’ve spent the last eight years telling Muslims how much we love their wonderful religion, inviting imams to pray in the White House, and begging their forgiveness for our alleged historical sins — and don’t forget we also have spent our blood and treasure liberating millions of Muslims from a maniacal autocrat. We’ve given billions in aid to Palestinians, Pakistanis, and Egyptians, bombed Serbian Christians to save Bosnian Muslims, and had our guards at Guantanamo wear gloves when they handle the Koran and put marks on the cell floors pointing the way to Mecca, all so murdering fanatics can worship in comfort. All that doesn’t seem to have made Muslims like us much.

If we take a wider historical view, we see that autocrats bent on aggression have always furthered their aims by manipulating this desire to use diplomatic talk to resolve disputes. Aggressors know that “diplomacy” often is way for the weak to substitute words and process for action. They know that promises and agreements are made to be broken, and can give them time and cover for their aggression. Moreover, every concession made in the pursuit of such agreements is taken as weakness born of fear, and encourages the aggressor to continue with his aggression. The brilliant Philip II of Macedon, who in the 4th century B.C. ended the political freedom of the ancient Greek city-states, was a master at making false promises and pleasing agreements he had no intention of honoring. He had taken the measure of the Greeks, whose political virtues had decayed since the 5th century, and he knew that Assembly speeches and the diplomatic process would give them the excuse not to take the action necessary to thwart his ambitions.

More recently, Germany throughout the Twenties and Thirties participated in disarmament conferences all the while the Germans were secretly laying the foundations for the rebuilding of their armed forces. Meanwhile, many Europeans, addled by naïve pacifism and the faith in international diplomacy, were content to substitute diplomatic talk for action. In 1935, after Germany’s violations of the Versailles Treaty had become obvious, the League of Nations Council voted to affirm the principle that treaties should not be broken by unilateral action, and referred the issue to the full League. In addition, nineteen countries formally protested Germany’s actions. But as Churchill wrote of this appeasement, “ But how vain was all their voting without the readiness of any single Power or any group of Powers to contemplate the use of FORCE, even in the last resort!”

And let’s not fail to mention the modern master of duplicitous diplomacy, Yasser Arafat, who signed numerous agreements, attended numerous summits, chatted with numerous “special envoys” — and who continued to pursue his twin aims of enriching himself and his cronies, and destroying Israel by “stages.” If we failed with Arafat, who at least made the pretense of desiring coexistence with Israel, how will we succeed with Hamas, whose every word and deed displays its fidelity to the cause of Israel’s destruction, a cause for which they are willing to sacrifice the lives and comfort of their own people? What can George Mitchell, Obama’s new “special envoy,” offer Hamas to wean them away from fulfilling Allah’s will?

Yet despite this history, the Obama team is anxious to talk with the jihadist mullahs running Iran, and some even talk of sitting down with Hamas. Again, what carrot can the U.S. give to the Iranians that could tempt them to abandon their nuclear ambitions? An apology for past U.S. sins? Clinton already did that, to no avail. What else can we promise that would be more attractive than the instant prestige and regional dominance in the Middle East that nuclear weapons would give Iran? What inducement is more attractive than acquiring the means to fulfill the apocalyptic goal of “wiping Israel off the map”? No doubt the Iranians will talk: they have studied the North Korean playbook, and have learned how negotiation, discussion, and even signed agreements will all buy time for the perfection of nuclear weaponry. Especially given that the West has made it clear that it will not use force, even as a threat, to concentrate Iranian minds, and is content to use talk as the mask for failure of nerve.

So far, we have heard nothing from the Obama team that suggests they will be any more successful than previous administrations in thwarting the designs of our enemies. Instead, look for more talk, more summits, even more agreements that, in the end, will leave us weaker and our enemies stronger.

©2009 Bruce S. Thornton

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