The Foreign Service Journal, July-August 2012

J U LY- A U G U S T 2 0 1 2 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L 43 policy by headquarters officials, who are a million miles from the front lines, the entire policy machine loses the long-term view and is knocked off kilter. In the securo-diplomats’ world, democracy and human rights are for wimps: it’s “smarter” to get results quickly, be testosterone-driven and tough. But the real, five-dimensional foreign policy environment seldom cooperates for long. And that is why the securo-diplomats lost traction so embarrass- ingly during the Arab Spring. Torturers with whom they had closely collaborated in running the global rendition machine were being replaced by nascent demo- crats they couldn’t stomach, just because some were Islamists. The securo-diplo- mats perversely saw the stirrings of dem- ocratic legitimacy not as a core value driving foreign policy and something to be celebrated, but as a threat to stability. The ripples of laughter from Beijing and Moscow must have been deafening. Our Thugs, Right or Wrong The securo-diplomats’ approach to foreign policy follows the delightful phrase attributed to FDR in describing Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza Garcia: “He may be a thug, but he’s our thug.” (FDR didn’t say “thug,” of course, but this is a family journal.) Unfortunately, the law of diminishing returns was work- ing against them in North Africa: the longer the thug clings to power, the more his people despise him (it’s always a man), unite against him (and you) and take more extreme measures to remove him from power. And as soon as Mr. Thug and his support group disappear, you are left with some angry ene- mies in the territory and have to play a frantic game of catch- up. In the worst-case scenario, you confront a failed state and spend years trying to re-establish any kind of normalcy. Just look at Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo 20 years after those states collapsed. The Arab Spring has proved again the old adage that au- tocracies’ lack of democratic legitimacy makes them inher- ently unstable. Democracies might look messy and fragile at times, and they do infuriating things (such as electing gov- ernments we don’t like). But they are less prone to outright collapse. Their messiness comes from the growing pains associated with creating accountable, popular governments that tackle social and political demons, unlike repressive autocracies such as Algeria that ensure such grievances fester. Respecting democracy and human rights may create short-term vulner- abilities, but it builds long-term strength. So the “moral” pol- icy becomes the sound, practical policy, too. Consider the most durable Middle Eastern regimes to have weathered the current turmoil: Jordan and Morocco. Two years ago, they would probably have been on any securo- diplomat’s list of vulnerable states. But the long-term foreign policy analyst would have seen them as “work-in-progress” democracies. Neither country is perfect —not by a long shot. But in the long term, both are also more likely to be bastions of democ- racy standing against terrorism than the brutal autocracies — e.g., Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia — that function as ex- tremism’s recruiting agents. Plus, the good news about dem- ocratic legitimacy is that it’s relatively easy to identify and measure. In Search of Overarching Principles So how do we determine whether our policy toward a particular issue or coun- try has lurched dangerously into short- termism? First off, we need to be wary of people who repeatedly talk about “the national interest,” a term usually em- ployed by those who want to sound clever about policy but rarely look below the surface or over the horizon. Because the term can mean any- thing to anyone, it is useless when trying to craft effective, long-term policy within a shifting, multipolar environment. Successful foreign policymaking needs overarching prin- ciples, a vision and a mission statement that sets out clearly its real purpose. This not only builds international credibility, but improves internal communication and spreads risk expo- sure by reducing inconsistency. That way, what you’re doing on Syria bears a passing resemblance to what you’re doing on Algeria. And it is not a naïve, soft option: it may ultimately mean making difficult decisions like finding an alternative to Bahrain for your Persian Gulf fleet. That requires bold lead- ership. A long-term view also means focusing on the totality of an engagement with the country or region in question — not just governments, ruling parties or elites. (As a corollary, human rights and governance must therefore be given equal — and top — billing within policymaking, not relegated to walk-on roles.) Ask yourself how much stronger would the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime be now if foreign governments had invested more time and at- tention in forging ties to the Syrian diaspora before the Arab Spring. Will policymakers wait until Algeria or Saudi Arabia teeters before they follow suit there? Visibility also matters. Diplomats should be seen publicly with the vulnerable and oppressed, as U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford bravely was in Syria and my former colleague Craig Murray was in Uzbekistan a decade ago. (See Murray’s article about that experience, “The Folly of a Short-TermAp- Securo-diplomats assess problems through a narrow, short-term national security lens.