The power of letting go

December 11, 2003


This is something that I have been kicking around, and writing it up is more interesting than writing up historiography.

Kevin Drum joins the latest round of commentary pointing out that the Bush administration talks a good line on Democracy but does little on the ground. Regardless of their rhetoric, they join the American foreign-policy tradition of focusing on realpolitik and short-term goals rather than a commitment to democracy, human rights, or free and open trade. You can make a good case that the U.S. government should consider realpolitik when choosing who to piss off, who to stroke, and where to use force; the risk of the high-blown rhetoric is that it might lose us credibility.

I am one of those who thinks that words matter, a lot; ideals matter, a lot; and our most important international capital is the reservoir of good will that we eventually earned as "the great warehouse of the democratic virus." So policy decisions like tearing down Radio Free Europe, under funding Radio Free Iran, and so on are probably the worst possible form of cheese paring in our foreign-policy budget. We get an incredible bang for the buck from open and minimally censored broadcasts. There is a long-term benefit that comes from living up to our rhetoric, even if it requires that we limit our rhetoric to things we can life up to.

Al Qaida is good at figuring out symbols. On 9/11 they picked symbols for their attacks, symbols that they thought would represent the American presence and national identity to an audience in the middle east and Islamic Asia. They targeted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon - the most visible buildings in our commercial capital and the military headquarters. To them, America's international presence was money and guns. (I am not sure where the fourth plane was targeted, I have heard the Capital, the White House, and something else. I would suspect the White House just for the symbolic value. Any of the targets would be packed with lawyers.)

If America's international presence is guns and money, well, it feels like a Warren Zevon song: "Send Lawyers Guns and Money, and get me out of this."

That is a terribly cynical view of the world.

More, if you were to ask a random assortment of Americans what values, or ideals, or symbols America ought to spread to the rest of the world, I doubt that they would say "lawyers, guns, and money." I hope that they would say "democracy," "freedom," "opportunity," and "hope."

So how did we get that disconnect and, more importantly, how can we win the global propaganda war against the Islamofascists?

My worry, my great big worry about the current administration is that they are so SET on short-term goals, so disorganized in their message, and so blinded by ideology, that they are going to bollix up the soft war while trying to win the hard war.

Force is necessary but not sufficient. Rhetoric is necessary but not sufficient. Actions, programs, targeting, and sensitivity are needed to wrap the whole thing up into a coherent set of policy goals.

Another way of thinking about this presence is in terms of buy-in. People are more likely to accept and approve of a plan if they feel that they have been involved in it and that they will get something out of it. The best way, over the long run, to produce those feelings is to bring them in and make sure that everybody takes something home from the bargaining table. This often means that the most powerful person at the table has to relinquish some control over the agenda and some control over the distribution of benefits. They have to make a deal that, in the short run, is sub-optimal. They do so, in the hopes that they will have created a long-term condition that is optimal. Paradoxically, some forms of power are strengthened by letting go. The trick, of course, is to do it well.

More on this broad body of thought later, from a different perspective.

Posted by Red Ted at December 11, 2003 08:21 AM | TrackBack