Instructions: For bracketed text, insert information where needed, or circle what most accurately describes your opinion. (And be forewarned, there is a surprise kicker to this post that you should read only after completing the exercise.)
Clearly, [Country X] has a host of complex socio-economic problems, all unique to its particular history. According to [Obscure Specialist Y], they include:
So no single pre-fabricated approach can effectively address the challenges that [Country X] presents to U.S. national security interests. But in light of the [horrendous results / dramatic successes] of our response to the terrorism threat over the past eight years, I really don’t think a [development-focused approach / military-based intervention] is likely to improve matters much, especially in the short term.
That’s not to say a [opposite of previous bracket] will. In fact, it’s very possible that the U.S. [just might not be able to impact this situation / might have to commit to another multi-generational counterinsurgency war]. But advocates of a [development-focused approach / military-based intervention] are making a big mistake by assuming that [sending in USAID to build schools and sink wells / sending in the U.S. Army to build schools and sink wells] will somehow magically solve this problem.
Now for the kicker: As much as the above might sound like a cynical parody of the discussion over Yemen — okay, as much as the above is a cynical parody of the discussion over Yemen — I actually don’t have any problem with that kind of post. Because for 99.99 percent of foreign policy analysts, let alone Americans — or the world, for that matter — the above is about the only intelligent thing they can contribute to the discussion.
Which is to say that most analysts (myself included), when talking about Yemen and most other parts of the world, are really talking about themselves: their world view, their assessment of recent policy, and their confidence — or lack thereof — in the various instruments of American power. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise. They are fitting a limited and subjective knowledge set into a developed system of thought. But guess what? Even experts on Yemen are not omniscient. They’re simply fitting a much larger, but still subjective, knowledge set into a developed system of thought.
So to condemn the debate over Yemen — or Afghanistan and Iraq — as a case of the blind leading the blind is not to make a great discovery, but to reaffirm a stubborn fact about American foreign policy: While managing to maintain relative continuity, usually based on commercial interests, in our relations with the world’s great and middle powers, we tend to stumble from crisis to crisis when it comes to the more obscure members of the community of nations with whom we have fewer ties. And when a crisis involving one of the latter arises, we tend to react more out of blind passion than out of clear-sighted reason.
Fortunately, and contrary to a common stereotype about America, our deeply ingrained hostility to war has historically set the bar for overseas interventions pretty high. Passions have to be pretty significantly inflamed, usually to the level of a moral crusade against evil incarnate, before American public opinion is moved to act. Which means there must be a very determined war lobby among the foreign policy and national security community to overcome the public’s inertial resistance to shedding American blood overseas.
Right now, I don’t see Yemen generating that kind of determination, nor do I think it should. But then again, I don’t think any regular readers would be surprised by how I would fill out the Mad Libs form above.